Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 21. Pushing It |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 21. Pushing It


So there was a second story to the travel programmes, and it was much more about me than the programmes were. The programmes were about the cities, which I was careful, in each case, to make the hero. But the story underneath was about how I wanted to push the forms we were working in towards their most concentrated possible outcome. To me this seemed a serious purpose, even if it didn’t seem so to my literary friends. They were less likely to disapprove of a new format we started for BBC 2, called The Talk Show. The idea was that I would sit with a panel of three pundits and steer the troika through a conversation on a serious topic. Such a layout was nothing startling, but it had rarely been a success on British television, where there is a chronic shortage of intellectuals who can conduct a conversation on screen. Nearly all of them can conduct a monologue, but a conversation is a different thing. The French, Germans and Italians can all do conversation shows, and for the Americans the form is a staple, even though it usually sounds like a version of Gladiators fought with words for weapons. But for the British it is a regularly recurring no-no. I have to give Alan Yentob credit for thinking that I might make a fist of it. Elaine was the producer in charge and in collaboration with me and Richard she did all the casting. Alas, Yentob the Enabler was also Yentob the Destroyer. Right from the jump the show got into deep trouble because he was always on the phone demanding that every panel should have at least one woman. Elaine, herself a woman in all visible aspects, and mentally a blazing feminist, went nuts trying to tell him that there just weren’t enough women to allow good casting. Fair casting yes, good casting no. There weren’t enough women then and there still aren’t now. The urge on the part of the controllers to satisfy the requirements of social engineering would be the ruination of serious talk shows from that day to this. In the view of those in charge, there always has to be the politically correct number of minority representatives proportionate to the size of each minority as a component of the total population. For all I know, the TV version of positive discrimination, alias affirmative action, has had beneficial effects in British society. Affirmative action certainly helped America towards a political climate in which it was conceivable that a black man could be elected President, and Britain is still a long way short of that. But I had a show to run, and just wanted the guests to be good at what they were doing. I wouldn’t have cared if the guests were gay dwarves with green skin as long as they could talk. Elaine felt the same. But Yentob had an agenda, and she had to listen to him on the phone, sometimes while she was in the control room and the show was actually running.

The pressure was relentless and it jammed us up. Most of the British men were hopeless on screen anyway, with that fatal combination of diffidence and dogmatism that makes you wonder how they ever emerge alive from breakfast with their wives. We had to fly some Americans in at vast expense, on the reasonable assumption that they would be more upfront. Some of them were, but Carl Bernstein scarcely bothered to pay attention and David Mamet thought it would be cute if he said nothing at all. If it had been live television instead of a tape, I would have asked him what he thought he was doing, accepting a transatlantic plane ticket from us and then stiffing us on air: did he think he was starring in one of his own scripts about con-men? But it wasn’t live television, so I couldn’t face him down, and anyway I admired him too much. I admire him even today — State and Main is one of my favourite movies about the movies — but I can’t forget my disappointment, and Elaine was out of her head with anger. Richard wrote Mamet a note that I bet he didn’t keep. Strange to say, our best upfront American was a woman, the ex-model sexologist Shere Hite. She was touring the UK with one of her books so she didn’t even cost us a ticket. She fought her corner well on screen and she was very glam. Off screen she was a wild soul whose company I enjoyed, because like many a male stick-in-the mud I secretly dream of the milk-skinned strawberry blonde in the black classic who dances on the table. And Shere, although some people thought she was nuts — my agent Pat Kavanagh was among them — was very smart, with infallible radar for any incoming male-chauvinist remarks. She told me a lot of stuff that I needed to hear.

Dare I say that it didn’t hurt if the females were lookers? Some of the TV critics resented that, but the truth was — is still — that with females, looks breed confidence. If you want to correct this injustice, go fix society, and tell me how you get on. (If you can work the trick, nobody will applaud louder than I: even more than Michael Frayn’s ‘tyranny of the fortunate’, the tyranny of the attractive strikes me as an unending tragedy, a really nasty brainwave on the part of the Man Upstairs.) At the time, we went for any woman who could talk the part, and if she looked the part as well it was certainly no reason to turn her down. This aspect was crucial when it came to the only episode of the series that I later thought of as an unqualified success. It starred two male heavyweights, George Steiner and Christopher Ricks, and a female heavyweight, Annie Cohen-Solal, the biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre. Annie Cohen-Solal was a known favourite of Mitterrand and when she arrived on a plane from Paris we soon found out why. ‘Heavyweight’ was a misleading word. ‘Angelweight’ would have been closer. Though razor sharp even in her second language, she looked as if she belonged beside Anna Wintour in the front row at a couture collection, making notes on the frocks. Faced with the spectacle of her soignée silk and cashmere delicacy and the unsettling speed of her dialectical brain, Ricks and Steiner immediately went into rutting-stag mode. The nominal subject was the politics of culture but they might as well have been competing for mating rights. Their exchange of epigrammatic arguments was like a clash of antlers. Nor was there anything doe-like about the prize they were fighting for, beyond the size of her eyes. When she caught them scamping their logic she pouted with disdain before emitting an aphorism that stopped them in their tracks. But the two professors barely paused before charging each other once again. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I did my best not to beam with happiness. This was the way it was supposed to be, but hardly ever was. And not even Yentob could say that this particular panel was without a woman. But there couldn’t be one and a half women. It just wasn’t possible, and eventually the word came down that the show was not fulfilling the management’s hopes. I myself could stand the squeeze, but I couldn’t bear seeing my production staff being run ragged for what I thought was a foolish reason.

Management interference was beginning to be a general story at the BBC in that period, now known to media history as the early phase of the Birt Era. Executives at the middle level were learning Birt-speak, as speakers of Cantonese in Hong Kong learn Mandarin today. My outfit had half a floor at White City all to itself and our swish designer desks were occupied with dedicated staff who arrived early each day and left late, but our top-echelon people, often including Richard himself, spent a precious half-day each week absent at meetings where they were told how to manage. Richard loathed every minute of it and gave me scathing reports about how apparatchiks half his age, who had never made a programme in their lives, would give him instructions, couched in barely comprehensible language, on subjects he had learned about the hard way many years before. At one of these management-training sessions he was asked to form a team that would tie a thread around an egg, lower it out of the window and then discuss the group dynamics of the decisions they had made. His suggestion to just throw the egg out of the window and then go and buy a new one was not well received. He came back hopping mad, which for a man with a bad foot was a painful condition to be in. Elaine was doing another of her angry dances about Yentob’s interference with the BBC 2 show. There was aggro at every level.

But a fizzer on BBC 2 didn’t matter so much when we had a hit on BBC1. The weekly show was reaching a high level of development, with ratings to match. Diana, in the company of her colonic-irrigationist, came to watch the show from the gallery one night. She howled at all the right moments, and after the show, in the Green Room, she was perfect, asking everyone about their jobs and wolfing down the answers, clearly fascinated by the whole business. Suddenly she wanted to be a television producer, a researcher, a set designer. The divorce was on its way by then, and it filled me with regret. What a Queen she would have made. Having done the rounds in impeccable style, she wanted me to join her and the irrigationist in an expedition to the nightclubs. I would have loved to watch her dance, but I had my duties to the troops. Her last word on the way out was that the show was like some amazing circus. ‘Really, really amazing.’

I’m bound to say that she had a point. For one thing, the set was a marvel. By then the wall of monitors had grown to the size of an entire cyclorama: a universe of images. It weighed tons, and one day the scene-shifters tried to push it into position too quickly and it toppled hugely forward, exploding on the floor and filling the studio with toxic gas that took two days to clear. But they built an identical wall in another studio and the show was taped on time.

The guest system was further refined so that the subsidiary guest worked for the show. If, say, Peter O’Toole was the star guest, the subsidiary guest might be Peter Cook, whose job would be to comment on all the video material that had appeared in the running order up to that point. Since Cook had got to the stage in his life when he would far rather talk about other things than talk about himself, the spot was enjoyable for him and he gave little trouble. His latter-day investigations into the effect of a diet of alcohol only sparingly punctuated by food were far advanced, and he did not always show up in suitable clothing. He might need a shave and haircut from the make-up girl while suitable clothes were collected from the wardrobe department. But when he was commenting on video material he was unbeatable. There was a video clip from German television about the making of mayonnaise. Cook used it as a springboard for a long verbal flight about German mayonnaise-making throughout history. I spent a lot of time doubled up and I wasn’t mugging. After a virtuoso performance like that, we could slot in a satellite interview with Sylvester Stallone’s mother and a few more fake news compilations before we fired the signal for Peter O’Toole to drift in and stretch out in his chair with his typical lazy grace. More cool than O’Toole they didn’t come. It was a sumptuous change of pace and made the show look as wealthy as Byzantium in its years of glory.

O’Toole would have been a perfect guest for the BBC 2 show. He was a writer of high distinction — his autobiographies are up there with David Niven’s and Dirk Bogarde’s as models of the form — and he was widely cultivated in all the arts. In his dressing room he talked about the paintings of Jack B. Yeats in a way that I never forgot, and from then on I always looked out for Yeats pictures whenever I was in Dublin. (The Guinness family house in Phoenix Park is jammed with them. I probably would never have got to see them if Barry Humphries, always the most socially connected of the top performers, hadn’t been with me to get me through the door, but I certainly wouldn’t have understood the importance of what I was seeing if O’Toole hadn’t started me on the trail.) Still in the dressing room, O’Toole put me on the spot with his raised eyebrows of wonder when he found out that I hadn’t read the diaries of Schuschnigg. Why not, if I was so interested in pre-war European politics? ‘Dear boy, you really haven’t read them? Really?’ The sprawling drawl was like being beaten up with a silk handkerchief. I repaired the deficiency as soon as I could. O’Toole was also learned in poetry, with a repertoire of memorized verse that he could draw upon at any time. (Years later, he quoted one of my own poems to me and it was one of the great moments of my life.) But he wouldn’t have been interested in talking like that on a BBC 2 show for pundits. He had his stardom to protect, and he was right, because the world fame that had begun with Lawrence of Arabia had made everything else possible. My own opinion of Lawrence of Arabia was that it was no more spontaneous than Dr Zhivago on defrost. But without the global renown which O’Toole had acquired from striding dynamically around the desert, the tallest actor ever to play a short man, he would never have been at the focal point of My Favourite Year, which would be on my list of the ten best comedy movies ever made. In other words, he would never have made his interesting movies if he hadn’t been rendered colossal by an uninteresting movie. His film career wasn’t over yet and he had a lifetime’s investment to protect. He was on a BBC 1 weekly show because he was a movie star with a product to push.

The same was true in almost every case. Dirk Bogarde, although he had been established for years as an important author, still thought of himself as a movie star when he took a turn as my guest. He proved his status by insisting that there was only one direction from which he could enter, because he wanted the camera on one side of his face and not the other. Through my eyes the two sides of his face looked equally distinguished but not through his. I didn’t mind that he was a handful because I admired him greatly not just as someone who had come to writing late and made such a success of it, but as an actor who had been one of the few bright things about British movies from his first day. For me he wasn’t just Simon Sparrow in Doctor in the House, he was the man who had bravely laid his career on the line to make the first film about a closet homosexual forced into the open, Victim, and who had used his prestige, star power and high intelligence to help Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey make The Servant. Bogarde was my idea of an artist and I liked him all the more for the frailty by which he counted his social connections on a par with his creative achievements and was ready to talk the higher gossip with grand ladies. Only human beings have human weaknesses. He rated himself, but then they all did. They were right to. A star is a nodal point around which everything happens. Some of them are better than others at staying sane in those circumstances but their divine right to the limelight unites them all. Even Michael Caine, who loved doing his Michael Micklethwaite act even more than the many comedians who were pleased to copy it, made sure to mention his next movie as well as the current one.

The same was true for Tom Hanks, who could give you an exact imitation of a normal human being except that he was so perfectly fluent he might have been working from a script for Saturday Night Live, the long-running American show on which he made regular appearances as the most accomplished of all guest hosts. His facade of normality boosted the clout that would one day enable him to translate the box-office success of his starring vehicle Saving Private Ryan into a monumental television production, Band of Brothers, in which he did not even appear, but whose stature transformed the expectations of an entire industry.

Image meant power, even for Tom Cruise. That was the only reason he was available. He came on as a satellite guest from Paris and we were lifelong friends within seconds. Since he had no monitor at his end and couldn’t even see me, it spoke well for the telepathic powers conferred by his expertise in Scientology. For ten minutes his teeth lit up my wall. We were buddies. Pointing both fingers at me, he shouted, ‘I feel that you and I have really formed a rapport, Clyde.’

The self-merchandising of the star guest was a law of the business, and the trick of our format was to squeeze enough original stuff into the hour to disguise the fact that its climax was an infomercial. We had got to the point where we could do that almost every time, but the ending remained a problem. It was a good idea to clinch the deal by reviving a has-been band to give another airing to its quondam hit. If it was Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the number could raise a riot. The Kid, showing remarkably few signs of wear for an ex-headliner who had played some pretty obscure clubs in recent years, had recruited a couple of new Coconuts to accompany his unexpected revival and they were entirely gorgeous. They hailed from Sweden and they hardly knew who he was, but he had rehearsed them down to the tiniest shake of the sweet hip in the tinsel microskirt. When the show was over, neither of the Coconuts wanted to go home with the Kid in the limo we had rented for him. They wanted to go home with Jeremy Irons, on the back of his motorbike. A man of principle and fidelity, Jeremy accelerated away in a fast leaning turn into Wood Lane. He was only just ahead of the Coconuts. Running side by side, they squealed, ‘We love you! We love you!’ in Scandinavian accents as the distance increased between them and the object of their desire. That time the ending worked, but sometimes it fizzled. There was still room for improvement.

There was still room for innovation, in fact. One format would suggest another. When you have the urge and the means to make things up, it is hard to stop before you hit the buffers. Orson Welles once called a movie studio a big train set for adults, and television could similarly feel like a plaything as long as your standard stuff was paying its way and left some budget to spare. One of the advantages of managerialism’s psychotic emphasis on accountancy was that there could be no arguments if you were cost-effective: the figures were all there in the computer spreadsheets. If you kept your expenditure down while the viewing figures went up, there was an argument for funding a new venture. My introductions to the highbrow talk shows and the star interviews on the weekly show, and my voice-overs for the Postcards, had given me a taste for narrating to serious pictures that I thought I could exploit further: perhaps for a whole series, if the subject was big enough. I hadn’t forgotten Alistair Cooke and Leonard Bernstein. I didn’t sound as professorial as Jacob Bronowski or as aristocratic as Sir Kenneth Clark, but perhaps it would be an advantage to have a voice that could not be placed in a narrow context while I addressed a subject whose context was limitless. The minute somebody mentioned it in passing, one subject suddenly struck me as fitting the bill: it was full of historic significance, dripped with ready-made visual material, and it cried out for an informed, judicious and aphoristic commentary to hold its infinitely ramifying implications together. It was fame. Fame in the twentieth century.

I even knew something about it from the inside. For about fifteen years now my mug-shot had been all over the place and I knew for a fact that to be so recognizable had made me two different kinds of wanted man, simultaneously up there and on the run. Richard went for the idea instantly and assigned Beatrice Ballard to produce it. She was ideal for more than one reason. She, too, knew about fame from the inside. Her father, J. G. Ballard, was a famous writer and she had grown up with an icon in the house. And within her fetching form burned the soul of a staff officer, which would be a vital attribute, because to organize the research would be a taxing logistical effort. Just to secure the film footage would be a military task. Jean Twoshoes, in charge of the film-research ferrets, was about to be pushed out of an aircraft deep behind enemy lines.

Nobody flinched. Everyone went at it like a fanatic, and I still bless them all. Two assistant producers spent months working on a set of themes. Bea had all kinds of ideas about experts to consult. The Professor of Media Communications at the University of This, the Professor of Communications Media at the University of That. Endless lists were compiled and countless documents were drafted. Compilers and drafters all took it well when I insisted that the enormous beast would find its plot-line in modern history, and should have a strict chronological narration put together in voice-over, with no current face appearing except one, and even my face should show up only briefly at the top and tail of each episode. Every other face in the enormous plot-line, hundreds and hundreds of them, should be a famous face from the twentieth century, doing its famous thing while I told the story. It was simple. It was just very hard to write, and I put the complete script, running to eight hour-long episodes, through eight separate and distinct drafts before we had something we could read over the assembled footage, which took a long time to select, collect and edit. Without electronic editing, which by now had well and truly arrived, the thing would have been impossible: the reason there was no precedent for it. Fame in the Twentieth Century was thus entirely dependent on the state of the technology, a pre-echo of the emergence, later on, of the World Wide Web. The Web was already getting started but had not yet revealed its full potential. To say that ‘it’s all in the timing’ is essentially meaningless. The timing is all in the engineering. When the machinery is there, you can do it, and I’m proud to say that we did it.

I have to blow my own trumpet for Fame in the Twentieth Century because there is nobody else left to do so. It was the television project dearest to my heart, it took more than a year out of my life, and it disappeared as if it had never existed. Nor, for copyright reasons, will it ever come back, even in the smallest part. For that very reason, I will keep short my account of its fate. Some of my part in it might have been done better. My talking-head pieces at the top and tail of each episode were shot in studio in a single day, with me sitting in front of the great, glowing word FAME in ruby neon, an idea I had got from Elvis Presley’s last big special. A director, whose name I have been careful to forget — I need hardly say that his name was there in a hundred per cent title at the end of every episode, as if he had conceived the whole thing — shot the short pieces with elaborate camera movements, although the effort might have been better put into the lighting. I thought there was something wrong with it but feebly let the director do the directing. I would have done better to take Richard aside to tell him that we should think again, because I was the one with his head on the screen and the head looked more than usually like an egg. The lighting had the effect of blending the little hair I had remaining on each side of my head into the dark background, thus producing a cranium that seemed to come to a point. Some back-lighting would have helped, but there wasn’t any. So the tops and tails, though they sounded, in my ears, sufficiently fluent and authoritative, looked like those moments in Star Trek when the weird head of the alien starship commander occupies the video screen on the bridge of the Enterprise. ‘Surrender your ship, Captain Kirk. We, the Egg People, have you in our power.’

As for the main body of the show, I still don’t think I made a mistake about the general approach — it was certainly the most careful stretch of extended writing that I ever did for television — but I might have made a crucial mistake politically. Bea, though she served my conception of the format with her full commitment, never abandoned her conviction that we should have talked to experts on screen. It might have gone over better upstairs, which was where our inexorable problem lay. The management just never got behind the show, even though it had cost them a lot of money. The price for copyright footage kept on going up all the time as the agencies who controlled it got a better idea of the goldmine they were sitting on, but somehow we contrived to buy the rights on the basis that all the material could be screened four times. The American PBS network, who put in a million dollars, screened the whole thing the full four times to their sparse audience. The Australians, who put in another million, screened it twice. But the BBC, who paid the bulk of its enormous cost, screened it exactly once, during the week, and without even a repeat at the weekends. On its weeknight it was given suicide scheduling against ITV’s Inspector Morse, the biggest ratings hit of the day — my own family never missed an episode — but we still peaked at seven million viewers and averaged about five million for the whole run. Such figures would be a sensation today. Nevertheless the series was regarded as a failure.

I’m afraid it was pre-judged as a failure, simply because of its format. Alan Yentob was a dedicated enemy of the presenter-led documentary. Ever since the deserved success of a programme he had produced about the Ford Cortina, it had become BBC orthodoxy that a documentary on any subject should have no central face, but simply narrate itself, with a voice-over recited by an actor, preferably from a script written by the producer. There was something to be said for this approach, but the cost of making it a dogma was that the outgoing generation of over-qualified writer-presenters was the last to practise the form, and a new generation was not recruited. No more would Robert Kee, who really knew something about Ireland, head up a series that would tell you about Ireland. Some producer who knew not much more about Ireland than what he read in the Guardian would tell you about Ireland. There would be no new John Betjeman until Jonathan Meades came along half a lifetime later. Eventually it was discovered that for some subjects a narrator in vision was indispensable, especially if the subject was not as inherently telegenic as a Ford Cortina. Indeed Alan Yentob himself, in a later incarnation as head of BBC Arts, rediscovered the necessity at the turn of the millennium, and in the absence of other candidates was forced to appoint himself in the role of anchor man for the arts series Image. In his post as Head of Arts, Alan Yentob had searched high and low and found that only Alan Yentob could handle the task. Having hired himself at a suitable salary, he did some excellent programmes — the one about the Soane Museum was especially fine — but I often wondered, while watching him in action, if he ever thought back to the days when his decisions had made life difficult for those of us who were doing the same thing.

Still, there is no point complaining. The series on fame got made, and quite a lot of people saw it. (As Richard never failed to remind me when I showed too much concern with the ratings, a million people was a city, five million people was a country, and there was no other form of writing I could practise that would ever come near reaching that many people so directly, with their attention on nothing else.) There was even a book of the series, written by me with all the care I could summon. It got one very laudatory review, from Neil Kinnock of all people, but it didn’t sell very well in the UK, although eventually it was put into paperback as my one and only Penguin. In America it hardly sold at all, which made me sorry for my publisher, Harry Evans at Random House. Harry Evans and Tina Brown, the most radiant celebrity couple in New York, threw a launch party for the book at their house in Sutton Place. All of fashionable New York was there to hear a modest speech from me. Modesty is always a mistake in America. I should have said that it was the greatest book in the world and that anybody who didn’t read it would get warts. But the book wouldn’t have taken off no matter how I promoted it, because it was essentially a book of opinions about modern history, and my qualifications for having such opinions were not clear. In America, opinions are accepted only from licensed opinion-makers. Looking back, I can now see that the fame book was one of the precursors for a heftier work that I would write in the next decade, Cultural Amnesia; and that the central thesis of the series, about the connection between celebrity and politics, was simply ahead of its time. But to say that you are ahead of your time is just a consoling way of saying you have failed. The worst aspect of Fame in the Twentieth Century’s gradual but terminal dive towards death, however, was that there was never any question of its resurrection. If I didn’t own the rights to the footage, then the thing was gone. More than a year and a half of work had vanished. I resolved never to be in such a situation again if I could help it.