Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 11. Dealing with Genius |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Blaze of Obscurity — 11. Dealing with Genius


Over the course of the next ten years I accumulated overwhelming evidence to suggest that this moment, when Alan Yentob, on being announced, actually appeared, must have been one of the few instances of his ever being on time in his life, so it was a mark of the honour being done to us by both him and Michael. At this stage of his dazzling career, Yentob spent a lot of time with Stanley Kubrick, and at any succeeding stage there was always some comparably important international star who could not exist without Alan’s companionship and advice. Undoubtedly these prominenti all derived spiritual benefit from their association with Britain’s leading arts impresario. But the downside was that anyone else was cast into the role of walk-on, or, rather, wait-outside. As a truly gifted producer of programmes, Alan had never looked at his watch while getting things done, and therefore he’d had some excuse for behaving as if nobody else owned a watch either. Up until the moment of his elevation to executive prominence, which proved to be the beginning of a new era in BBC history — his hagiographers were dead right about that — manically inspired programme-makers like him always had sober-sided executives in charge of them. Actually to promote the manically inspired programme-maker to the status of executive marked a new phase in cultural administration. From the moment that Alan’s reign as a decision-maker began, the producers who had to report to him found him difficult to reach. All they ever heard was rumours. He was off in the South Pacific, spear-fishing with Marlon Brando. He was on Sam Spiegel’s yacht somewhere near Sardinia, doing a deal with Zeffirelli for an all-dwarf production of La Forza del Destino. Or he was in his office, but he wasn’t opening the door. Waiting in the corridor, producers who had not previously had beards grew them. People died out there, and their bones bleached on the carpet. It was a tribute to Alan’s PR skills that if any of these stories reached the press they only served to reinforce his image as a genius. Let me hasten to say that the image was close to the truth. That was just the trouble. As an executive, he was more of an artist than the artists. There are intellectuals who dream of that arrangement as a desirable ideal, and that’s what’s wrong with them.

Such was the judgement that I formed over the course of time about the Beeb’s leading creative mind, but even then, at this meeting where he and Michael were purportedly offering us the moon, Alan had a way of conveying that he could have been talking to Orson Welles instead. Richard, who actually knew Orson Welles, bristled. Richard could be quite scary when he bristled because he ditched the diplomacy. It wasn’t that he had forgotten how to be diplomatic. It was more that he had deliberately chosen to be blunt. Between them, Michael and Alan were offering us the job of anchoring a brand-new nightly round-up to be called The Late Show, which would transmit live and review everything artistic going on in London that night. When Michael said that Outside Broadcast Units would be laid on so that the show could be there for the curtain calls at Covent Garden and interview the stars, Richard said that it was the kind of suggestion that could only be made by someone who had never actually produced a television programme. It was a measure of Michael’s confidence that he was able to field this perfectly accurate assessment without bristling in his turn. And Alan, I had to admit, wasn’t bad at taking the message that he wouldn’t be getting what he wanted. I had spent some time building up a position, under Richard’s protection, where I could make judicious plans and did not have to react to random events. I didn’t want to give all that up just to meet the challenge — that bad word again — of improvising repartee in order to help a chancy programme sound coherent. The road ahead would roll indefinitely, with never time for rest, thought or proper writing. Kick, bollock and scramble in perpetuity? No thanks. We wanted to do more of what we already knew how to do, pushing it forward only on the basis of established achievement. Michael was ready to settle for that. Alan seemed not bothered at all. He was a hard man to disappoint. His day was too full of riches. It transpired that he had to leave because he had ‘an appointment with Stanley’. In the car, Richard showed his age by guessing that Alan had meant Stanley Baxter. It was I who guessed that it had to be Stanley Kubrick. Baxter, after all, could be reached by telephone. To get anywhere near Kubrick, you had to be Alan Yentob.

So we had started off by not giving our new employers what they wanted. What we wanted was a developed version of our weekly studio show, spaced out, between seasons, with more Postcard specials, to be shot at the increased rate of two a year. Generously, Michael ensured that the BBC’s contracts department would minimize the obstacles when my agent Norman North came to them with his price for the package. Michael’s open-door policy paid off in our favour when we walked in to sign the papers, because within a week he walked through the same door in the opposite direction. None other than John Birt had arrived at the BBC and Michael had decided that there wasn’t enough oxygen for both of them, especially since he could understand scarcely a word of what John said. As twin chief executives, they would have been roped together on the north face of the Eiger while one of them mumbled something about facilitating ongoing contact with a variable interface and the other shouted, ‘Bugger this!’ So our protector was gone.

We flourished anyway, more or less. At this point I could start writing a whole volume of analysis about the sociology of the modern media, but the main reason why there is always room for a good book on that subject is that nobody sane would want to read it. The first and only thing to say about the BBC is that I managed to get some of my best work done while I was there. The same applies to ITV. So the executives couldn’t have been as bad as I thought. On either side of the porous divide between commercial and public-service broadcasting, the administrative layer was composed mainly of clever people. When they got in each other’s way on the bridge, the effects were felt by those of us down in the engine room, but the effects would have been far worse if the executives had been uniformly dumb. There’s a crucial difference between a man like Alan Yentob and the executives in the television system of the kind of country he looks as if he might otherwise have been president of. The crucial difference is about fifty points of IQ. If you’re making programmes for a man like that and he screws you around, he isn’t doing it because he’s stupid, he’s doing it because he’s at least as smart as you are, but in a way you don’t like. Hence the vital importance of a free market, so that you can go and work for someone else who will screw you around in a different way, but closer to your desires. Throughout my television career I crossed from one side to the other and back again solely out of the imperative to get things done. If my price went up all the time, it was only because I had been around longer. But I wouldn’t have been around at all if there had been only one system to choose from. As in every other aspect of liberal democracy, the freedom is what counts, and I have never ceased to be grateful for living out my life under no compulsions except those imposed from within my numb skull. Therefore, on the subject of the suits upstairs, I am short of invective, because I am insufficiently fuelled by recrimination. When I say that there were people I could have killed, I’m just saying it.

Though Richard took pride in running a cost-effective production unit, it could not manage the managers, so logistics almost always took too much time. But they only seemed endless: it took only a year to get our office running in the BBC’s shiny new HQ in White City. Until then we had to make do with a temporary office in the basement of a BBC annexe called Kensington House, on the wrong side of Shepherd’s Bush. (Actually both sides of Shepherd’s Bush were the wrong side in those days, but the area had been slowly colonized by young media types who could not yet afford to live in Notting Hill, and eventually, when one of these, Nigella Lawson, sprang to overnight fame, suddenly Shepherd’s Bush was St Tropez.) Kensington House was a dump full of stuff that the world had forgotten, but the basement was a dump full of stuff that Kensington House had forgotten. After a week of unpacking files, shifting furniture about and failing to get the equipment we had ordered, our arrival was consecrated by a systems failure in the toilet on the ground floor. We were directly underneath and tried not to take it as symbolic when we had to watch the effluent seep down the walls. Anyway, there was no time to brood. The weekly show needed a rethink because by now there were just enough communications satellites up there to offer the prospect of bringing guests in through space instead of by taxi.

Satellite interviews would suit the look of the show, which had come on a bit since its early days. There had always been a stack of TV monitors on the set, each of them showing a different image to give the sense of busy multiplicity and global scope. Directors and designers wanted to jazz up this techno effect by adding bits of girder, but my own instinct was that if the message was about technology, then the technology should convey the message. Design, I announced, was just design, and British television had always suffered greatly from the notion that design could yield spectacle, so that if you had Elaine Paige singing ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ it would be more spectacular, instead of less, if she sang it while standing at the intersection of two enormous white polystyrene pathways to nowhere while dry ice fumes were being pumped up her skirt. Designers didn’t like hearing any of this and they loathed me for even thinking it. When I at last learned to keep my mouth shut on the subject, they loathed me for the way my lip curled. They reacted in exactly the way directors did when I said I didn’t like any shot that drew attention to itself. Occasionally the bad blood simmered for a while, but eventually I would get my way, although I would have soon been overruled if the results had been less convincing. A show is a collaborative venture; in a collaborative venture nobody’s opinion should prevail except by the tacit consent of all; and that consent can be won only if the opinion’s proponent makes the show the hero. If his motive is self-glorification, morale will soon collapse.

Season by season, however, the show did a more persuasive job of setting the style for television about television. The set was all television: a kind of television heaven. As the software got more comprehensive, it was possible to charge the stack of monitors not just with a different image each, but with a different part of the same image, to get the effect of a churning cyclorama alive with information. In the middle of all this razzle-dazzle I sat in my blue suit: the human element. Other humans came on as guests, but I was the only human who was there all the time. Everything else was electronic, including the far-flung guest who magically appeared up there on the back wall. The effect was of technical know-how carried to its apogee, like a big rocket crackling upwards into orbit. The reality, however, could be dead dodgy, especially early on, when the window for getting a satellite interview was as short as twenty minutes. You had that much time to shoot enough clean stuff that could be edited into a five-minute spot. One to four was an almost unworkably small ratio. Even in the USA, where every big city had hundreds of spare technicians who could be hired ahead of time, it would still take five or ten of the precious minutes just to get the guest rigged for sound. Usually, on studio day, we had to tape a satellite interview in the afternoon, when the time was right for a guest on the east coast, where it was still morning. A guest on the west coast would have to be taped in our early evening, just before the audience came in for the show, which would be taped too, but shot as-for-live. There could be nothing as-for-live about the satellite interviews, which were bound to be full of stops and starts. The trick was to ensure that the stops didn’t cancel all the starts until there was nothing left to edit. But at least there was no studio audience to worry about.

So I was free to worry about everything else. The satellite-interview system was a potential ace in the hole, because it was a pipeline to America, where all the best guests were, as they still are. But for just that reason, the system had to work, and it was so expensive that even a single crack-up could screw the budget. Making it harder was the fact that some of the American guests weren’t just up-front, they were out to lunch. It occurred to me that I had never known real tension before the day I interviewed Tammy Faye Bakker by satellite. Tammy Faye was the wife of Jim Bakker, the gate-mouthed television evangelist (‘Praise the Lord!’) who had grown famous for the amount of money he could get out of his enormous congregation, but he had spoiled it all by spending some of it on a woman of easy virtue. The credibility of his ministry was irreversibly undermined. His wife, who had started off as a simple choir-girl spell-bound by the soaring spirituality of her pastor, was reluctant to accept that the dream was over. There was nothing easy about Tammy Faye’s virtue, but she had forgiven Jim at the top of her voice, and was eager to do so again just for me and all the wonderful people of Great Britain. Unfortunately she was inaudible, because the clip-on microphone slid off the discreetly scooped neckline of her spangled top and fell between her ample breasts, where it reattached itself to the underwiring of her bra. The microphone needed a designated female member of the Teamsters Union to dig it out. When it was finally retrieved, covered in talcum, it turned out that she couldn’t hear anything, because there was something wrong with her earpiece. The sound engineer at our end said that she must have talcum in her ears. Through my own earpiece came instructions from the gallery that I should suggest to the production staff at the other end that they should suggest to Tammy Faye that she might like to scrape her eardrum with a wodge of Kleenex or a Q-tip. You have to imagine that I was looking at Tammy Faye’s face multiplied to the size of a squash court, and that she was a pretty daunting sight even from a distance. The conglomerate of false eyelashes and mascara both below and above each eye gave the combined effect of two extreme astronomical events occurring in close proximity, and the weight of the lipstick dragging her mouth downwards gave the impression of too many people clinging to one side of a rubber raft.

You will notice that I make no mention of the physical characteristics underlying her panoply of cosmetic effect. I would like to be able to say that I never broke that rule. Certainly I haven’t broken it in recent years, but I have to confess that in my early days I sometimes did, although mostly inadvertently. I only once did it deliberately. A famous British novelist, after a visit to Australia, wrote a feature article for one of the British colour supplements in which she gave the impression that the Australian media had been not quite up to the task of assessing her sophistication. In particular, she described one of her Australian female interviewers as looking anorexic. The interviewer was a friend of mine and did have an eating disorder, so next time I was in Australia I took revenge by making a few disparaging remarks about the personal appearance of the novelist. I made the remarks to a journalist in full knowledge that what I said would soon get back to London: that, indeed, was my plan. My idea was to remind the novelist that it was a small world. The plan succeeded only too well. My remarks were quoted, accurately, in the British press the next day, and I realized very quickly that I was the one who had been taught a lesson, because in cold print they sounded mean and witless. Revenge was laid bare as a very bad reason for writing anything, so I tried not to do it again.

Nor was the lure of accurate evocation sufficient excuse for a cruel remark. I should never have compared Montserrat Caballé to the battleship Missouri. The soprano didn’t have to look like that — she could have eaten less — but she still had feelings. The same applied to the young American tennis player Andrea Jaeger. When I said she had a smile like a car crash, I was referring to the braces on her teeth. I thought the observation permissible because one day the braces would be removed, so I wasn’t really referring to anything permanent. She might have felt, however, that they were there forever, and had invited the lightning. My general defence in such cases was that no journalist was ever quite as pitiless about my own physical appearance as I was myself. But it gradually became apparent to me that the defence would not quite do. If I didn’t mind very much about cutting an awkward figure, other people might mind if I said they did, so I tried to rein in the personal remarks, except for those cases where there had been a flagrant display of wilful self-mutilation by someone who was proud of the result. I wasn’t calling Barbara Cartland ugly when I said that the makeup so lavishly applied to the area of her eyes made them look like the corpses of two small crows that had flown into a chalk cliff. She chose to look like that. Nor was I calling Arnold Schwarzenegger innately deformed when I said that when stripped for action he looked like a brown condom full of walnuts. He chose to look like that. Both those remarks, however, have remained lastingly notorious as examples of how I am without mercy when pouring carbolic scorn on people’s personal appearance. In fact I have always spent most of my time being careful to do no such thing, but a dog with a bad name finds it hard to outrun. Enough of that. Where was I? Oh yes. With Tammy Faye. She was up there on the wall, she was looking as off the wall as hell, and time was running out.

We were within seconds of having to call off the deal, but suddenly, as in all the best melodramas, the machinery repaired itself, and Tammy Faye was ready to do her thing. She did it surprisingly well. She expressed herself almost exclusively in quasi-biblical bromides but it didn’t matter. Television gives a general impression. Nobody ever remembers what you said, but everybody remembers how you came over, and Tammy Faye was, well, kind of nice, even dainty. Hence the surprise, because if her personality had fitted her face it would have been like hearing from a candy store reaching critical mass. Instead she sounded like a good woman coping with bewilderment. The main thrust of her argument was that the embarrassments visited on her adorable Jim were unfair but they must all be part of God’s plan. There could be no doubt that she genuinely loved the sanctimonious little creep. I refrained from asking her the question that would be on the lips of everyone in the audience: how could she have ever looked at that whimpering, wheedling face of his and imagined that he had a religious calling? The reason not to ask the question was that she was giving the answer with every word she said. Love is blind, even when its eyes aren’t full of melting makeup. As the satellite image at last winked out, I didn’t precisely have to choke back a sob, but I was sincerely moved. Plainly the satellite interview would be a powerful instrument. It was clumsy — there was a full second of delay that made it hard to keep question and answer from awkwardly overlapping — but it gave you a close-up. In Tammy Faye’s case, it was a close-up of a wedding cake that had been hit by a hurricane, but the soul shining through was good, and a useful reminder that there is a crucial difference between fundamentalism and extremism. Tammy Faye’s beliefs were as fundamentalist as they come, but she wouldn’t have killed you for not sharing them, except perhaps when she sang.

It took a couple of seasons to streamline the satellite-interview system and it was always touch and go. We almost lost a spot with Billy Connolly in Los Angeles because Billy had turned up in a silk shirt and we found out the hard way that clip-on microphones react badly to silk. He launched into his first answer and within half a minute the lurching and skirling image up there on the screen sounded as if it was being attacked by locusts. The crew at his end wrapped the microphone with insulation tape and he launched into his first answer again. This time the locusts had been joined by angry wasps. It took half a dozen false starts before somebody figured out that the thing to change wasn’t the microphone, but the shirt. Billy swapped shirts with one of the American production staff and launched into his first answer yet again, just in time for his earpiece to start receiving police reports. So he started responding to those. In came the slate, chalked ‘Take 16’. Being Billy, he got better all the time. He couldn’t control his merriment at the accumulated cock-ups but he is one of those lucky few who are funnier still when fighting their own laughter. Time was running out, however, and I found the tension tough on my cool, although I was steadily getting better at maintaining continuity through the glitches.

Time ran all the way out with Willie Nelson. A beard in a hat, with plenty of hair hanging down from the back of the hat to make him look even more like Wyatt Earp’s scapegrace brother, he was somewhere near the rim of the Grand Canyon, and our idea for the set-up was centred on his identity as a taciturn man of the West. He would ride toward the camera on a white horse, lithely dismount, and be interviewed. Willie Nelson is not just an accomplished singer-songwriter, he is a gifted natural actor — watch him stealing scenes in Wag the Dog — but the horse couldn’t act for a bale of hay. Willie rode towards the camera and the horse screeched to a halt too late, so that the lithely dismounting rider filled the lens with his belt-buckle. Willie rode towards the camera and the horse screeched to a halt too early, so that the lithely dismounting rider had to trek forward into position from the middle distance. Willie rode towards the camera and the horse didn’t screech to a halt at all. It just kept going past the camera and disappeared, leaving the lens with nothing to look at. Had the horse, with Willie on board, gone over the edge of the canyon? Where was our star? But wait a minute: there he was again, riding towards the camera. The horse screeched to a halt in exactly the right spot. Willie lithely dismounted and his earpiece didn’t work, so instead of answering my first question he merely smiled, a man of the West not just taciturn but mysteriously bereft of the power of speech. Time wasn’t just running out, it ran out. We had to book an extra window, at painful cost, so as to get an interview that would marry up to the arrival shot. A regular actor would have had to be paid twice, which would have blown the budget right out. But Willie was a gentleman. He was also, I later discovered, broke to the wide, so he wasn’t just a gentleman, he was a saint. As for the horse, I hope it is rotting in hell. We had some good footage of Willie giving it a serious talking-to, but there was no time to put together a sequence of everything going wrong. It would have been a lot more eloquent than the interview, which consisted largely of Willie saying ‘Yep’ and ‘Nope’, like Gary Cooper. Once again, however, the words mattered less than the mere presence. Faces from space! It looked fabulous.