Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 27. As Time Ran Out |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 27. As Time Ran Out


It was said that when people wept at Diana’s death they were weeping for their own mortality. If they did, why should they not have done? To treat your life as if it will last is an illusion. If chance doesn’t stop you early, decrepitude will get you later on. Even when I was young I could hear the clock tick. Now, with my sixtieth year coming up, I could hear it boom. I was pledged to work out my time at Watchmaker, but as the formats, one by one, got to where there was no more I could do that was new, I had begun to look beyond, and sometimes with longing. I made the first promise to my wife that some day soon I would get out of television. She looked sceptical, but I meant it. There were still, however, several things I had to do first. The company had to be built up beyond one asset, if only to keep faith with our backers. Jonathan Ross, whose gifts I admired, had just hit the wall with his own production company, which had made all the classic mistakes that start with getting the office furniture designed by a friend instead of just buying it off the peg. Jonathan had his suits designed too, apparently by a team of satirical tailors. He put a lot of emphasis on personal appearance, almost as if he had no talent. But it all cost a lot of money, and at that stage he had blown his budget. We tried to offer him a home with us. He liked the look of our office. When Wendy Gay went bopping by he must have thought that he had dreamed her up. Several times we took him out to dinner but the deal was never sealed. Eventually it became clear that he was enjoying our company at dinner far more than the idea of being beholden to anyone except himself. He must have been right, because later on he became a BBC star of such magnitude that they paid him more money every two months than I ever earned in my entire television career. I bear no grudge, but sometimes it does make me wish that I, too, had been born with a speech impediment. All I had was an Australian accent.

Collaring extra assets was proving less easy than it sounded. As a friend of Nigella Lawson, I had watched her getting nowhere with book shows and often wondered why she wasn’t being given the formats that would make her a star. But neither Richard nor Elaine thought that Nigella had a chance: too posh a voice, the network would never go for it. The poshness was exactly what I loved, and I thought the public would love it too, but I was outvoted. I have to admit I didn’t realize that one of the conditions for her finally reaching stellar status was that she would have to have a frying pan in her hand. Trying to promote Nigella without the frying pan was like recommending Gabriella Sabatini without the tennis racket. But as Nigella, with me in the passenger seat, scooted around Shepherd’s Bush at the wheel of her rattletrap Mercedes 190 sports car — it was a pit, like her handbag — I knew she would make it somehow. It just wouldn’t be with Watchmaker.

We had better luck with Jeremy Clarkson. Richard and Elaine thought of him first but I took one look at him on air and knew that he couldn’t miss. He was too big, too burly and he was full of bluster, but he could write it and say it. He was that rarest thing in England, the articulate bloke. I thought he was tremendous and I was very proud that he made his first couple of series under our logo. I liked him a lot. He eventually decided that he didn’t like me one bit, apparently because he thought that I had made some remark that insulted his family. I can’t imagine doing any such thing to anybody, but you can’t expect everybody to love you. He went on to become, in the next decade, almost the biggest television star on earth, partly because, like Nigella and her frying pan, he had got himself identified with a universal activity. Cars are an object of fascination in every country, and especially in any country that doesn’t have any. There are Clarkson fans in the upper regions of Nepal. Thus it was that the Watchmaker office became the launching pad for a globe-girdling career that left mine looking the size of a game of marbles: a clear case of television as a new kind of British Empire. I didn’t resent his success at all and I still watch his programmes with a professional admiration for how he can pack so much into a paragraph, although few of his opinions are congruent with my own, and for his central premise I have an ineradicable objection. I think that to encourage ordinary citizens to drive fast cars on ordinary roads is the exact equivalent of handing real guns to schoolboys, and that’s that. But it’s a free country, and young petrol-heads who watch him in Libya probably say the same.

Nor would I have had any comeback if somebody had accused me of doing more than my fair share to encourage the ambitions of the boy racers. When the rights to broadcast the F1 carnival were switched from BBC to ITV, the network wanted a big studio programme to mark the event, and my well-known amateur affiliation to the sport got me the job of host. I would rather that the cup had passed from me, because I knew there would be trouble: but it was too fat a contract for Watchmaker to turn down. At the command of Bernie Ecclestone, all the drivers were in the studio. All except one. Michael Schumacher underlined his status as top dog by refusing to turn up in person. He appeared only as a satellite image on the back wall. When I spun around in my swivel chair and interviewed this banana-faced apparition, I thought I could hear, behind me, the first soft explosions of a rich crop of raspberries blown by the other drivers. For the ruthless exploitation of supremacy, Schumacher left even Ayrton Senna nowhere. Right up until the moment when he was killed at Imola, Senna had behaved as if the road ahead belonged exclusively to him. Schumi felt the same, in a German accent. He was just quieter about it, and more polite. I often wonder if the camaraderie of all the other drivers was not based on their common annoyance of Schumi’s supercilious cool. Perhaps he played the same role as Zeppo Marx, who was disliked by the other Marx Brothers because he was good with money.

Along with the thrill and the glamour, money mattered to the drivers, and you couldn’t blame them. The better they did, the more cash they had to lay out for protection against an intrusive world. A world champion needed a castle with high walls. Damon Hill’s castle was still in Ireland when we did a special about him. We filmed him at home with his family and he impressed me straight away with his sensitivity and sanity. Somehow he would make it all balance up: the artificially illuminated public life, and the domestic peace that made it bearable. That he was brave went without question, but not even a man as brave as he was could afford a gamble that might weaken his base. When he left Williams he could have gone to McLaren but he would have been paid only to win. Another team, with a slower car, would pay him a guaranteed wedge, win or lose. He had a choice to make.

He was still making it when we went with him to watch him race in Hungary. After the race he had to make a quick trip to Bulgaria for the sponsor. I was his passenger when he drove to the airport, with only half an hour to get there. It was a challenge and time was running out. While I sat there holding on to my seatbelt like a lifeline as he followed the leaning police escort motorcyclists into the turns, he started giving me the low-down on the politics. How he could drive that fast and still speak rationally was a mystery to me. We were doing a hundred miles an hour nearly all the time but I suppose for him it was half speed. On the private jet he told me more. It all sounded a bit like the politics of television: do this now so you can do that later, guard your base, build up a bank so you can quit while you’re ahead. The main difference was the velocity. I liked Damon very much, perhaps partly because he could focus on what he was doing without falling prey to a circumscription of his interests. (He asked me whether Carlos Saura’s film Carmen was as good as he had heard, and I was glad to be able to tell him that it most certainly was.) In his world of machinery, he himself had not become a machine. The finished movie drew an audience far exceeding the total number of petrol-heads. I was pleased about that because I felt that we had captured at least something of a human personality. I never saw him angry even once, not even with his own team when they cost him a win by muffing a pit-stop. Later on, though, when he moved his castle to England, one of the tabloids published an aerial map of the layout that might as well have had arrows on it telling the thieves and kidnappers where they could get in. He got angry then.

As the millennium year approached, heralded by dire warnings of mass computer malfunction and imminent heat-death, the old British Empire was lowering the flag in its last few outposts. Our Postcard from Hong Kong felt like part of the ceremony. The day of the handover was not far off and Chris Patten, the last governor, had a lot to deal with, including the irritating task of shooing the blowflies of the tabloid press away from his beautiful daughters; but he found time to deal with us. An hour in his company was enough to tell you that Britain was in trouble if it couldn’t find a way of making a man like that Prime Minister. After a tennis match in which I had to do little pretending in order to lose miserably, we settled down on the veranda to film one of the best interviews I ever did. Eloquence, historical sweep, charm, wit: he had it all. He also had a family of clever women with a collective talent for keeping him down to earth, a condition with which I was familiar. Together, the Pattens had turned the official residence into the best kind of country house, much more a literary salon than a hunting lodge. In the evening, justifiably celebrated names came in for drinks after dinner and spread themselves around in the cushioned couches as if this was a second home. Jung Chang was one of them. I thought that her Wild Swans was one of the great political books of modern times and told her so. She didn’t mind hearing it, but she was possibly less impressed with my opinion that China, with any luck, would change Hong Kong less than Hong Kong would change China. Patten, however, flatteringly thought that I might be right. He wanted to know why Hong Kong mattered to me so much and I told him the reason: that my father was buried there. I went out to Sai Wan Bay to visit my father’s grave, as I always did when I was in Hong Kong. He had given his life in the fight against the totalitarians and soon they would be here again. But nothing shook my confidence that this time it would be different. The Chinese leaders on the mainland had an unchanging system but they were now living in a changed world, where PR mattered even to them. In that way, and in my time, the development of global communications had altered the flow of history. In the main part of the movie I did all the standard things to bring out the city’s always teeming, shouting, hyperactively productive character. I argued with the mad woman driver of a sampan, I got lost in the underground labyrinth of a suburb-sized nightclub in Kowloon, I visited the gold-plated house of the nutty plutocrat and his doting wife. The doting wife gave us a ten-minute piece to camera on how to prepare shark’s fin soup (‘First you boil the fin for two days ...’) which was probably the single most boring stretch of film in the world until Baz Luhrmann directed the closing scenes of Australia. In a restaurant on the Peak, the exquisite actress Maggie Cheung showed me how to spit out chicken bones in a polite manner. (Don’t believe her air of gloom in In the Mood for Love: the real-life Maggie is a spiritual descendant of Carole Lombard.) But I didn’t bother to face the camera to ask the mandatory question about meeting the challenge as time ran out in the city of contrasts. I didn’t ask: will all this come to an end? Somehow I knew it wouldn’t. The mainlanders, if they wanted to, could do to Hong Kong what they did to Tibet. But they wouldn’t want to. Instead of changing it, they would see the advantage in letting it alone. I said that last line on the deck of a junk as the sun went down towards the sea. It was setting on my screen career. Not yet, but soon, I would have said all I had to say as a presenter of television documentaries. It was just too expensive a form in which to be pressed for time. I ached to express my opinions as chapters instead of paragraphs.

But I worked harder than ever on the paragraphs. Postcard from New York ended with the most tightly written paragraphs I ever wrote for television, and they did much more than illustrate the pictures, just as the pictures did much more than illustrate them. The final scene wasn’t planned. It emerged during the packed two-week shooting schedule, and came as the kind of light-touch surprise that always made the heavy lifting seem worthwhile. We had a good cast of characters: the cute lady cop with the gun, the stick-thin socialite, the aromatherapist who wrapped me in seaweed while talking balls about crystals, the crazy gerontocrat party girl whose apartment walls were covered with two-shots of her embracing every celebrity she had ever trapped.

Most bizarrely of all, Ivana Trump gave us an audience in her gold-plated apartment in Trump Tower. For one terrible moment, when we walked in, I thought I had been returned to Hong Kong through some kind of space warp. But then things got worse. Already in position on a velvet couch, Ivana, suited and coiffed as an air hostess with dreams of greatness, was looking at her watch. Incorrectly supposing that there was nothing off-putting about her air of superior knowledge, she came forth readily enough with a supply of polished banalities — the only true privilege of wealth, apparently, was to express one’s taste — but seemed insulted at the very idea that we should take more of her precious afternoon by shooting coverage. We wanted some shots of her walking into the room so that I could narrate a short introduction, but she demurred. I told her that Katharine Hepburn hadn’t minded walking six times around her own garden but it cut no ice. So in the finished picture Ivana appeared suddenly in the sitting position, with a one-line introduction in which I was able to suggest that she had magical powers of teleportation. I would also have liked to suggest that she was a nitwit, but there was no time. And anyway, she gave the film some of the star lustre which it was otherwise a bit short of. It had some names more worthy of note, but they were less recognizable than Ivana, whose face, at the time, was familiar to flax-gatherers in Zimbabwe.

The writer Richard Price, whose low-life novels and screenplays were especially distinguished for their compulsively quotable dialogue, gave us an interview in a Bleecker Street cafe, correctly advising us that Downtown was the area that mattered now. But Downtown did not, in those days, have a hotel remotely like the Royalton on 44th Street. Festering down there near the Village, the Chelsea Hotel had its memories of badly behaved poets and musicians dead from drugs, but there was nothing to film except the proprietor’s bad shave. The Royalton was something else: a nodal point of contemporary glamour to which all of New York’s trendies came in the evening to have a drink, just so they could say that they had been there. We were staying there at my suggestion, which I made as soon as I heard that it had been renovated throughout according to the designs of none other than our old friend Philippe Starck, he whose concept of the reinterpreted three-legged chair had left such a lasting memory of Paris imprinted on my brain. At the Royalton he had been given a big budget to go mad with, and he had excelled himself. He had reinterpreted the concept of the elevator so that you couldn’t find the buttons, and when you were inside it you couldn’t see. The lighting levels, throughout the hotel, were set according to his specifications, so that the place could be navigated with any degree of assurance only by a bat. On my first evening there, I groped my way out of my room, located the elevator by touch, got into it and had travelled several floors downward in the direction of the reinterpreted lobby — it looked like a bar, whereas the bar looked like a funeral parlour — before I realized that I was not alone. There was a dark, mysterious figure in there with me. It whispered, ‘Hello, Clive.’ I was scared to death. They know where I live! When the door finally opened on the slightly less dark lobby, I recognized Pete Townshend. He said, ‘If you ever get used to this place, it means you’ve gone crazy.’

He was right. The room furniture was especially memorable evidence of Starck’s genius for the irrelevant. There were pointlessly low armchairs, needlessly high tables. There was a circular bath about a foot deep suitable for bathing a chihuahua. From the walls, shining horn-like objects in brushed aluminium protruded, for no apparent purpose except to be bumped into in the half-light by occupants searching in vain for the reinterpreted air-conditioning control unit, which turned on the television that looked like a mini-bar. (The mini-bar looked like a toilet.) Anywhere in mid-town, you could tell which people were staying at the Royalton by their plaster casts and eyepatches. Knowing that I could do a good voice-over about my room, I suggested to Beatrice Ballard that we should set up the camera and get some shots. Our cameraman, who she subsequently married, had one of the new Steadicams among his kit, and they both suggested that we should get a slow, virtuoso 360-degree panning shot of the room, to illustrate my viewpoint as I stood in the middle of it, gazing in wonder. Knowing that it would be even harder to cut into such a shot than to narrate over it, I asked for some individual static shots as well. Later on, back in the editing room, the usual rule applied: the static shots were the ones we used, and a few fragments of the Steadicam shot were all that survived. So in twenty years I had learned that much. Watch out for the technical improvements. Do they bring new limitations?

But the best thing I had learned was to grab the chance when the gods present it to you. One day early in the shoot, we were filming one of those long walking shots on a crowded sidewalk. The camera was halfway up a building somewhere, filming me on a long lens while I negotiated a couple of blocks in the lunchtime crush. When walking through a crowd, the secret of staying visible in the centre of the screen is to keep your eyes on the camera position, even if it is a mile away. If you can see the camera, it can see you. The process becomes automatic over the years, and you need fewer and fewer retakes, but it is always very boring, and I was asleep on my feet until I saw a roller-blader racing towards me among the buses and taxis. The traffic lights changed and he had to pause in his flight for a while, so he danced, swerving about in tight figures of eight, sometimes going forwards, sometimes backwards, with no moment of hesitation. With a shock of spiked blond hair and an outfit consisting mainly of shorts and a T-shirt, he was the all-American version of a solo act from Cirque du Soleil. He was a Cab Dancer. He danced with cabs the way Kevin Costner danced with wolves. Remembering what I had missed that night in Chicago, I shouted, ‘Get him!’ but the lights had changed and he was already gone.

Nothing, though, could get away from Bea. It took her a week to track him down but she found him. By then I had the sequence planned in detail. We would film him in Times Square late at night, and so get two scenes at once: him and the magic lights. You would think that there would be enough light in Times Square to shoot without any more, but it never worked out like that. The film camera, far more specific than the video camera that would soon take over the trade, needed buckets of light aimed at the chosen spot, which in this case was the few square yards at the traffic lights where the Cab Dancer would come to a halt and do his routine before taking off again. With the cops in attendance to check the abundance of paper that you have to have in New York before you can film a sparrow on a windowsill, it took our gaffers an hour to rig the lights. The Cab Dancer practised his routine in the right position while flaps on the lights were adjusted and focal lengths were checked on the camera. It took another hour. Then the Cab Dancer was despatched upstream to his starting point so that he could come back down with the traffic and stop when the lights turned red. They stayed green and he kept going. Back he went again and this time they changed too early. Why was I suddenly thinking of Willie Nelson? It took another hour before things went right. He came to a halt at the same time as the traffic, did his number and took off again. Then we had to film the dance routine several times on various lenses. The whole deal took from just before midnight until just after three in the morning. Back at Watchmaker, I sat at the Avid machine right beside the editor for two days while we put that scene together. (In olden times, before the electronics came to save us, we would have been in there for a month.) I shaped and trimmed my paragraph over and over until everything fitted. What I wrote had nothing to do with roller-blading but everything to do with American energy, the urge and freedom to excel, the spirit of the city. It was the last scene in the main body of the movie. On the tail of it we tacked the panoramic night-time footage that would form the end-title sequence as Rhapsody in Blue took over from my voice and ended the picture. The results looked like a miracle of spontaneity.

After the show was transmitted, the television critics were unusually kind, but only on the understanding that the subject matter had done all the work and we had just been lucky enough to have a camera with us that we could point at it. I met one of them socially and she said, ‘I loved the way you spotted that skater going past and just grabbed him.’ It’s an ideal of art: make it look as if it just happened. But it was a bit harder than it looked and it took me twenty years to get ready. I knew that I would never do anything better on screen than those few minutes. Two kinds of writing had joined at a single apogee. The written words were as good as I could do, and the unwritten words, the pictures, were as good as I could arrange.