Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 22. Back to Basics |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 22. Back to Basics


It felt, far and away, like the biggest setback of my career, but I was the only one who noticed. It’s the only bearable thing about having a flop in show business. By definition, most people don’t see it. Even in the office, life went on. The weekly show kept getting more assured, and the End of the Year show was now a recognized part of the festive season. Everyone who didn’t go out for the evening — in effect, that meant anyone who wasn’t too young to understand it — tuned in to watch our annual fantasy. Though the bulk of the show was mainly news footage talked in and out with a script by me and Bostock, there were guests at the end. We played the beauty card ruthlessly. Fake awards were handed out, and there was always a glamour girl to read the names and open the envelopes. Jerry Hall, Elle McPherson, Louise Lombard: they all took a turn. There were production numbers. Tom Jones presented his pelvis while belting out ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in that raging baritone he could have used to sing the title role in Don Giovanni. It was a butch moment, but standing right there beside him was Kiri te Kanawa, all aflutter to be on screen with the rock star. Kylie Minogue bounced up and down in a delirious fit of song and dance. I didn’t have to do much acting to convey the impression that I loved them all. Each was my favourite. I liked Jerry for her gameness, her general determination to be not just a stunningly statuesque blonde in a couture frock. With her catwalk stardom coming to an end, she was determined to have a professional life apart from being Mrs Jagger, and appearing on our show was part of her break-out plan.

I was surprised when, during a supper in Soho with Mick Jagger and his admirable parents, he seemed scornful of Jerry’s extramural activities. When I asked him, foolishly, if he thought she had done well in my show — never ask a question if you might not like the answer — he said, ‘Didn’t watch it, Clive.’ For a while I thought less of him for that, but later on I heard that ructions were taking place. So all I had been hearing was noises off at the edge of a battle.

Unless you are actually closely acquainted with a star of Mick Jagger’s magnitude — and I wasn’t — a casual meeting will tell you nothing. Most likely it will tell you even less. The truth is that someone as famous as Mick Jagger is living his life well if he even continues in one piece. Even when considering how big the Stones still are now, it is hard to credit how very big they were then. History wasn’t allowed to happen unless they were there. In Prague after the Velvet Revolution, I chanced to be backstage when the Stones gave the first rock concert that the audience had heard in many years. Most of them had the words by heart and they sang along. ‘Icon GEDNO saddest FACTION ...’ It was the sound of their freedom, once stolen, now restored. Mick Jagger was the bearer of the torch. The audience didn’t know that their heroes, several of whom had no idea of which city they were in, were already in the limo and on the way to the airport before the last of the applause had died. The Stones had a whole world to look after. Jerry was married to a tribune of Planet Earth, so she did pretty well too. She was a bonus for the show, sweet and sassy, although of course not a show-business pro like Kylie.

In our house, Kylie was a great favourite, especially with my younger daughter, who had grown up with the Kylie hits pumped into her head through earphones. If it wasn’t Abba it was Kylie. Nobody who hasn’t met Kylie can quite realize how little she is. She could dance on your hand, but the astonishing thing is how good her dancing is. She rehearsed the routine for our show at the Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden and I went down there to help her block out the moves and rehearse her lines. She worked like a cattle dog. On the day, she had the whole thing pat and looked terrific in every shot. We taped the post-midnight production numbers in the afternoon so as to leave time for editing. With Kylie we didn’t need a single retake except when she had to stand beside Elle McPherson. Elle, you probably won’t need telling, is very tall. But already you have guessed the problem. It was hard to get them into the same shot.

My literary friends smiled tolerantly about my dance number with Kylie, but my nose-to-neck badinage with Elle was not forgiven. Nobody could expect his reputation as a poet and literary critic to survive intact when he appeared on screen in a clinch with a young woman who looked as if she had arrived by shell-shaped elevator in the penthouse of Vulcan. Things were, if possible, made even worse when Louise Lombard took her turn as the young lady who opened the envelopes. She was not only a lyric poem to look at, she was genuinely funny. Later on she built another television career in America because the British scene didn’t know how to use her. I simply loved having her around and I still think we should have brought her back on a regular basis, but it was thought better to ring the changes in what was meant to be a subsidiary role. (Actually the thing to do, when someone has a hit in a subsidiary role, is to keep them on and make the role bigger, which is exactly what happened ten years later with Martin Sheen in The West Wing: but the lesson is always being lost because the plans stretch too far ahead.) Within the framework we had set for ourselves, I always had a say in the casting; and I had powers of veto, so I have to take the blame for the only real mistake we made. It didn’t show, because it wasn’t a case of casting the wrong person, it was a case of not casting the right one. I had seen Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Darling Buds of May and I made the classic mistake of thinking that the performance I saw on screen was the only one she could do. So we didn’t book her. What an error.

But generally the End of the Year show was getting to the point where we couldn’t improve it, so already I was getting restless, and starting to wonder when we might shut it down. In five years you can make an impression but still get out clean. In ten years, you’re stuck, and it takes another ten years to shake the memory. We weren’t going to do any better than when we brought on Pavarotti as our after-midnight main man. This time we had to fly him in from Italy on a private jet, and when he showed up at the studio he turned out to be even bigger than last time. The expression ‘on his last legs’ was not inappropriate, because the weight of his upper works had finally wrought irreversible damage to his knees. By that time, when he sang the role of Cavaradossi in Tosca, he had to sit down for the firing squad. This development was unfortunate because we had a big white set with a grand staircase we wanted him to walk down when he made his entrance. His management team didn’t even need to see the studio floor-plan before they announced that their star wouldn’t be walking down anything. He would be walking on from the side. We readjusted the scheme.

We were always ready to rejig the layout for the star, even when the requirements seemed irrational. Diana Ross, when she was our star guest, had a contract that said she wouldn’t even walk diagonally without a week’s notice. She was as difficult as could be but I didn’t blame her. She was coming out of a culture that had spent three hundred years being screwed by Whitey and she was sensible in wanting to take control. And also, she was who she was. I thought that the 1966 Ready Steady Go! Tamla Special, hosted by Dusty Springfield, was the greatest single TV music show ever screened, and now one of its brightest stars, Diana Ross, was living and breathing right there beside me: the fabulous face was singing her fabulous songs, or at any rate miming to playback. I was knocked out, along with the public.

Jason Donovan was equally difficult but with perhaps a touch less reason to believe that the results would be worth it from our angle. The year that he appeared, we had a cyclorama of a rather subtle tint somewhere between aubergine and egg-plant, if those aren’t the same thing. Jason Donovan turned up in his standard fetchingly casual attire, the trousers of which proved to be coloured somewhere between aubergine and egg-plant. By a million to one coincidence, they exactly matched the cyclorama. The result, to the camera, was that he spent a whole hour of our first rehearsal period minus his legs. Wearing his regulation stitch-on cheerful smile, the rest of him floated around the studio thirty inches above his shoes, which uncannily matched his progress as he swerved about mouthing the pious banalities of his chosen song. It looked like a horror movie, and Elaine, who was in charge that year, moved from the control room out into the studio to make direct contact with the apparition. With her powers of charm cranked up to the max, she asked him whether he would consider changing his pants. He wouldn’t change his pants. They were his lucky pants, containing the secret of his mojo. It was in these very pants, he explained, that he had first sung to an adoring public and realized that he had a duty to their love. Elaine smiled nicely, marched back to the control room, and did her dance of anger. The dance was of small radius — she merely placed her elfin weight alternately on each foot while tossing her head and muttering things like ‘Really, is it worth it?’ through gritted teeth — but to anyone familiar with it, this was the full-scale version. Then she went out there again and told the superstar that there was no option: the pants would have to be changed. Jason thought about it for a bit and declared that he would not change the pants. It was a question of integrity. It was a question of his art. So we changed the cyclorama. It took half an hour but there were other things we could do while it was happening, such as slitting our wrists.

Beside that kind of artistically determined display of uncompromising values, Pavarotti’s demands were slight, and fully in accord with the unalterable physical facts. He was a pussy-cat in rehearsal, and it wasn’t his fault that we ran out of time. Production numbers need a complicated camera plot and if just one camera blows a valve then the whole thing slows to a crawl. The clock dictated that we would get only one go at taping the complete ending, which was meant to be climaxed by me and the world’s most famous tenor framed in a close two-shot as we led the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. You might think that a close two-shot with Pavarotti would need to be in Cinerama but actually it looked quite good. There was a potential problem, however, with the words. ‘Clivay, what is the words of this song?’ He already knew the melody but not the lyrics. I told him it would be no sweat. The words, I explained, were written in huge letters on a giant song sheet which would be lowered from the gallery at the right moment, and he just had to sing what he saw. With the clock ticking like a bomb, we launched into the production number, which went like a dream until the backing track surged into the melody, the song sheet came winching down, and Luciano was faced with the first stanza. He managed the first three lines all right, but when he saw the final three words of the fourth line ‘For the sake of auld lang syne’ the whole town was suddenly underwater. He sang it as he saw it, which in this case, when you think about it, is the last thing anyone should do. The word ‘ah-ooled’ came out more or less all right, but the rest of it was an out-take from La Bohème. However weird it sounded, though, our duet looked superb, and I treasure it as one of my showbiz golden moments. A duet with the most famous singer of all time: tell me if it isn’t among your dreams too. The confetti rained down, balloons were released, the great man opened his arms to embrace me as a Kodiak bear in black tie might approach its lunch, and I was in heaven. When we played the tape in real time after midnight, with more confetti and more balloons to augment what was already on the tape, the studio audience erupted, no doubt wondering where the beloved man was. He was already back in Italy, where the tax-gatherers and a phalanx of vengeful women were sharpening their knives for the moment when the magnificent beast would finally fall.

Heaven. I suppose it wasn’t a metaphor. I loved doing that kind of television and I think it showed. But at the BBC it was getting increasingly difficult to do, because the paperwork and the pie charts were turning themselves into the main event. Birtism had its rationale. Even Richard admitted that. ‘Something’, he said, ‘had to be done to sort this place out.’ And Birt was prescient about the Web, for which he laid the foundations of a BBC presence that dominates the field today. But at the operational level the bureaucracy had become Kafkaesque. Nevertheless we were determined to persist. With the skilled advice of Norman North, we approached the management with our ideas for the next stage of our rolling contract. With the proviso that the End of the Year show should now be retired, our ideas consisted mainly of providing more of what we knew how to accomplish in the formats we had devised, with less administrative hassle in carrying out the work. Really we were saying that they could leave it to us and they would get a guaranteed return, with savings all round even though my own price had gone up. The efficiency we could offer would offset my fees, which, I should hasten to say, were minuscule compared with what happens today, although I would undoubtedly be doing a lot better than a taxi-driver. By a miracle, Alan Yentob was located, and persuaded by Will Wyatt, my oldest friend among the executives — he had risen to be the highest-placed operational officer in BBC television before you got to the level where programmes were never mentioned except in a language that only a Martian intelligence officer could decode — to attend a breakfast where negotiation could occur. The negotiation went well and even Yentob pronounced himself satisfied with the prospects. He had to leave early for a meeting with Gustav Mahler or somebody but he wished us well, and I am sure he was sincere. (One of the many good things about him is that he is too rude to lie.) What happened next, however, was nothing. The paperwork was all prepared, but nobody in the continuously reorganized management seemed to have the power to sign it. Not even Will Wyatt, who was keen for the deal, could prevail upon the bean-counters to get their fingers out. For months, the nothing that had happened before was succeeded by the nothing that happened next. In desperation we tried to contact Yentob, hoping that he might translate his spoken approval into a written executive order. Nobody could find him. As always, rumours of his location abounded. He was on an ice floe in the Red Sea, in conversation with the Dalai Lama. He was in the Aleutians with Lord Lucan. Finally the day came when we could take no more. We had about fifty staff members milling about, talking about their mortgages. Just at that moment, by the kind of wild coincidence that looks like a plan only in retrospect, Richard and I were lunching in Mayfair with Jonathan Powell, who had powers of decision at ITV. Under the combined influence of Valpolicella and existential angst, we spilled our story and Jonathan made a suggestion. Suppose we made the same proposal to him, how would it be framed? We said that we could not only offer the same set of formats, we would undertake to organize their manufacture, through our own production company which we would set up for the purpose. So all he would have to do would be to pay the bill. Jonathan said that he had a cut-off point coming up because of the timing of the financial year, but if he could see all that in writing on his desk by the following Monday, he would sign it. Norman North spent the weekend rewriting the papers, they were delivered by courier, and the deal was done.

The news got out pronto throughout the industry, because an independent production company with just one on-screen asset was still quite rare. In fact David Frost’s Paradine Productions was almost the only instance, and even he ran other horses if he could. Some of the independent outfits were already important. Cinema Verity, the organization put together by the prodigiously gifted Verity Lambert, had been a pioneer, but now there were Tiger Aspect, Hat-Trick, Talkback and others. Most of the others were grouped around John Lloyd, a creative demiurge whose every idea turned into an industry. All of these enterprises, however, had a whole range of on-screen personnel. Ours had just me. We didn’t even have a name for the company. The moment that set the symbolic seal to our unusual move was a phone call I received in Cambridge. It was Alan Yentob. He was calling from the deck of Charles Saatchi’s yacht in the Mediterranean. He sounded genuinely disappointed when he said, ‘Clive, this is one of the worst moments of my professional career. How did we lose you?’ But the bit that floored me was when he said, ‘Why didn’t you phone me?’ Never one for the right reply at the right time, for once I had the gumption to state the awkward truth. ‘Alan, we couldn’t find you.’

So the switch was made. I should say at this point, to stave off accusations of fickleness, that I am a believer in sticking with an institution even through its days of uncertainty. But a media organization is not like a royal family or a marriage. Wittgenstein said a game consists of the rules by which it is played. A media organization consists of the qualities it can bring about and protect. Its formal charter is a mere document if the things produced don’t live up to it. The BBC had a great tradition but it was going through a time when it was hard for someone like me to do his best work under its aegis. (The word ‘aegis’ repays study: it means a shield, not a set of shackles.) The opposition offered better opportunities for creative work, so I switched sides. Morecambe and Wise notoriously made a huge mistake when they transferred from the BBC to ITV, but they did it for the money, and fatally neglected the likelihood that their new employer would not have the production expertise to protect their work. But I wasn’t after the money, I was after the oxygen, and anyway our production skills belonged to us, not to the corporation. There is no need to accuse oneself of treason in such circumstances. One hasn’t deserted the King in his time of trouble. It is the duty of a cavalier, if the institution he serves should falter, to take his stand in the last ditch and die in a muddy shirt. But if a broadcasting company has become uninhabitable, then to transfer one’s efforts to a rival is logical, and if one does well in the new home it can only serve to remind the old one that it needs to get its act back together.

Over the course of twenty years I went from one side to the other as it suited my work, not my whim. The organizations, whatever they thought of themselves, were no better than what they could do. Though I believe that the BBC’s right to a licence fee, far from being a political imposition, is a political freedom that should be defended with all our hearts, not even the BBC deserves unquestioning loyalty from its creative personnel if it contrives to frustrate their efforts. I was loyal to both sides of television because I thought that they added up to the one valuable thing. In the whole period, whenever I was asked to make a speech to the Royal Television Society, I stressed the essential unity of the binary system, and I did the same when I wrote articles about the state of British television, a topic perennially fascinating to the press. Taking the task seriously, I kept the manuscripts of my ex cathedra pronouncements and eventually collected them into a volume called The Dreaming Swimmer, undoubtedly the thinnest of my essay collections, but with a solid subject, in my view. (The reason that I no longer write such pieces is that I am out of touch with British television, because rather than suffer through the brain-curdling fatuities of Celebrity Big Brother I much prefer to sit up all night watching boxed sets of American television such as The West Wing, The Sopranos, Entourage, 30 Rock and The Wire. Only a moron wouldn’t.) The subject was the parallel structure of an industry, whose components drew part of their energy from the freedom to move between them.

I followed the same principle in the print media, and never lost a night’s sleep when I jumped ship. When Faber and Faber were, in my opinion, slow to see the possibilities of what I could do best, I went to Jonathan Cape, who did see the possibilities, and twenty years later, when Cape showed signs of wanting me only for what suited them, I went to Picador, who were ready to see the possibilities in what might suit me. I was loyal to all of them. But first and foremost I was loyal to an ideal. It was the same with the Observer, which, after I left it, several times tried to ask me back. But if I thought the paper was being badly led, I never answered the call, and when I was asked to help with an Observer museum they had in mind, I told them that museums were for obsolete institutions. Really the media organizations aren’t institutions at all, in the strict sense. They are facilities, and when they start laying claim to a perennial mystique it is usually a sign that they are in decay. So move to another, or start your own.