Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 30. Trumpets at Sunset |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 30. Trumpets at Sunset


The same was true for many of our early hopes. One of them had been to get control of the product, but here we were, after years of work, and the control was back in the hands of the controllers. We had made our fortunes, but the programmes we made didn’t belong to us. For the next generation of independent producers, it would be a sine qua non to retain their rights in the sell-on, but we had arrived too early in the game. I was too tired for the next fight. Even more daunting, Richard seemed tired too. That was a real worry, because all the time I had known him his nervous energy had been as inexhaustible as his judgement was sound. If I may be permitted for a moment to compare the lesser with the greater, we had always worked together like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent was the nutty creative one and Bergé was the practical brain. Theirs had been a productive relationship right up until the time when Saint Laurent, bombed out of his skull on multiple medication, finally wigged out for keeps. But if the practical brain shows the same kind of impulsiveness even for a week, the thing is over. It had seemed like a good idea to revive the End of the Year show format for the end of the millennium. I had my doubts, because I was still meeting people who told me they always watched the End of the Year show even though we had last done it five years before. If we did it again even once, I would be back in the same frame, perhaps for another decade. But the occasion sounded too good to miss, and the thing was scheduled. Six months ahead, the deal was sealed, the studio was booked for the show, and then Richard said he wanted to replace Bostock.

Richard said that we had got stuck in a groove and I needed a fresh mind to bounce off. I didn’t believe that for a moment but I had at last run full-tilt into a problem that had been inherent in our command set-up from the beginning. We had no mechanism for disagreeing with each other at a fundamental level. We had always done everything by mutual agreement: there had never been a time when we hadn’t been able to settle on a plan even if it was preceded by a quarrel. But this time I thought his proposal was so wrong that I couldn’t see his point at all. And there was the flaw. My only effective course of action would have been to walk out, and I couldn’t walk out on my own company. So I caved in, to my lasting shame. Bostock was pissed off, and I don’t blame him. I blame myself. I should have pulled the plug, no matter what the cost. A true egomaniac would have done so. But my own ego, though more than sufficiently robust, is tempered, I like to think, by an underlying sense of the reasonable. The trouble with a sense of the reasonable, however, is that it has, built into it, a dangerous readiness to believe that the opposing voice might have something to it. Perhaps the fresh mind would energize me.

The fresh mind turned out to be two fresh minds, answering to the names of Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie. When they arrived in my cubicle they were very nice about not noticing that I lived like a prisoner. They were already well known as a tightly scripted radio double act, and I found out why in the first five minutes. Each of them had verbal talent spraying out of his ears. But I’m bound to say that they seemed very young. Barely adding up to my own age, they could tell I was missing Bostock but they did all they could to help. They were smart and full of up-to-date ideas. My problem, however, was that I myself was no more up to date than Queen Victoria, and was thus very soon tipped head-first into a permanent state of being puzzled. I couldn’t stump them with the Bayeux Tapestry, but when they talked about the Beastie Boys I was clueless. For all their impressive range of reference, however, they knew a lot more about movies and music than they did about history, which, in a show concerning a whole millennium, had to be the main subject. Carolyn Longton was one of our best producers — she had put together the Mexico City shoot, which was a tough one — but she won’t mind my saying that history wasn’t her thing. She said it herself. ‘We didn’t do history at school.’ The British school system, by that stage, was giving As at A-level to young people who had to consult a database before they found out that World War I came before World War II. In just such events, of course, lay the show’s insoluble problem, and I might not have been able to crack it even if Bostock had been at my elbow. When the story got to the twentieth century, there was just too much stuff that I couldn’t be funny about. When people made jokes about Hitler and Stalin, I seldom laughed, so why, if I made jokes about Hitler and Stalin, would anybody else laugh? They would hear the sense of strain, and humour is always a shared relaxation. While the gargantuan preparations for the End of the Millennium show were still in the works, I flew briefly back to Los Angeles with Richard for our last star interview special. Barbra Streisand was still the number-one female showbiz name on earth at the time, and therefore impossible to approach. We had been after her for fifteen years at least. She became momentarily available only because she had a stiff album to push. Recorded in company with her marginally gifted husband, the album was dead at birth, but the opportunity to interview her had attracted production teams from every major broadcasting outlet in the world. Theoretically she would give them half an hour each, but in practice each interview took at least an hour because she insisted on rearranging the lighting, choosing the lenses, checking on the pollen count, etc. That was her right, but it meant we had to wait. The crew ahead of us ran out of budget and had to fly home to Munich, so we got bumped up by a couple of hours, but we were still running a day late when we finally got through the door to do our set-up. Five hours after our scheduled starting time, she finally arrived on set and launched herself into the task of changing the layout in every detail. I was busting for a pee, but now that she was at last physically present it would have been foolish of me to leave, so I held it in.

When we got talking, things went smoothly enough. I genuinely admired the way she had turned Hollywood around for women, making the studios dance to her tune instead of the other way about. On being told repeatedly that her success in revolutionizing the film industry was almost as impressive as her creative genius, she gave several signs that she was taking my pitiless interrogation quite well. Three-quarters of the way into our allotted time frame, however, I had to put my hand up and ask permission for a toilet break. Nothing like that had happened to her in years. She was stunned. Our camera kept rolling, so somewhere in the archives there must be a few feet of film of Barbra Streisand looking as if she had seen the Devil rise out of the earth and expose his flaming member while announcing his intention of overthrowing the government of the United States by force. I went off to pee and made one of my early discoveries that my waterworks were no longer what they were. I had always found it hard to urinate when I was under pressure but this was ridiculous. It was like tapping a rubber plant. I expected her to be gone by the time I got back to the set but she was still there. What Tom Cruise would have called our rapport, however, had disappeared. She responded with only mild enthusiasm to my final few questions about how she coped with her excess of inspiration. Then she rose to leave and it was all over.

The whole thing was over. In the end, nobody beats the grind. Richard said it first. ‘I could never go through that again.’ I felt the same. At the airport, he didn’t even buy a watch. At first I took it as a sign of his annoyance, but there was something listless about him, and on the plane home, for the first time in our lives together, I saw him fall asleep.

Back we went to the millennium show, waiting for us in the office like some many-headed, tendril-bedecked monster from a John Carpenter horror movie, or a frog in a pond. As the chief author of the script I did my best to convince myself that it was hilarious, but I would go home to my family and spread no more cheer than a bomb-disposal expert granted two days’ leave for nervous exhaustion. Finally the main show was taped over a period of two days, with a further day reserved for editing before it was transmitted. Richard, for the first time in his career as an executive producer, didn’t turn up for the edit. He had gone sick. I had been worried about his health for some time. His hands had always trembled but I thought it was nervous energy. Lately, though, I had been hearing his knife and fork rattle when he ate. And now, on the vital day, he wasn’t there. The kids had to do the edit themselves and they made their first mistake only two minutes into the show. They neglected to weld a laugh over a cut. When the laugh stopped abruptly, it suggested that every laugh in the show would be artificial. I had extracted every one of the hundreds of laughs in the show from a live studio audience, but the audience at home would assume it was a laugh track. Glumly, as another thousand years came to an end, I watched the show go out. It wasn’t all that bad, but if it couldn’t be better than any of its predecessors, why had we done it? My only consolation was that a few million fewer people than usual would be watching with me.

As the time approached when I would at last be free of my weekly schedule in the Watchmaker office, I got sick of wondering when the executives would screen the Havana postcard and I rang up the most senior factotum who would take my call. He sounded about twelve years old. Resisting the urge to ask, ‘Is your father in?’ I asked why the show, which they had paid for, had not been on the air. He cleared his throat and said that there was a problem. ‘What problem?’ The answer told me all I would ever need to know. ‘We’ve done some market research and not enough people know about the Cuban revolution. We thought we might wait for a big news story and then peg the screening to that.’ And what big news story would that be? ‘We thought that we might wait for Castro to die.’ I told him that I would see if I could arrange to die in the same week, so that they would have two pegs. But I got the impression that he thought there would still be only one.

I was still shaking my head when Wendy Gay told me that Richard wouldn’t be coming in at all for a while. She looked stricken, obviously knowing something that I didn’t. Elaine Bedell, always a blunt speaker, told me straight out. ‘Richard’s sick. Really sick. He might not be coming back.’ I made the call and he said there was nothing to worry about. But he also said that it was time for me to go home. I packed a few books in a box, said my goodbyes and left. In the cupboards of my office there was a row of blue suits and on the shelves and on my desk were the drafts of all the scripts I had ever written. I planned to come back and get all that stuff one day but I never did.