Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 7. The Weekly Stint |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 7. The Weekly Stint


The bulk of the weekly show would consist of interviews, and there would be only two ways of doing those, well or badly. But the top of the show offered multiple ways to go wrong. I had seen too many talk-show hosts struggling in vain with an unpunctuated opening solo spot. Theoretically it should have been interrupted by the spontaneous laughter of the studio audience but all too often it had to be interrupted by enforced hysteria that sounded even more embarrassing than silence, as if Stalin was doing a stand-up routine for the Politburo and the penalty of not splitting one’s sides was to get it in the neck. What I wanted was an illustrated solo spot. Such a device had been a feature of American television talk shows since the earliest days. In my time as a TV critic I had mugged up on what the Americans did. Mugging up was harder then than now, because there were no discs or tapes, but when I was in New York on other business I would spend every spare hour surfing the channels on the TV set in my hotel room, looking for re-runs.

Partly I had wanted to confirm my suspicion that the British front-men were getting nowhere, but I would have done it anyway out of sheer admiration. The famous Johnny Carson always had plenty of props he could react to. In a later day, even Dick Cavett, the best solo talker of the bunch, always had other stuff on screen so that he could snatch a few minutes being a voice without a face, and his face was a lot nicer than mine. Such ploys were already in a high state of development before British critics, who often had only a slight knowledge of American broadcasting history, credited David Letterman with inventing them. Invention almost always has a tradition behind it. As with poetry, all the revolutions are palace revolutions. Totally original innovators — Ernie Kovacs in the US, Spike Milligan and Kenny Everett in the UK — are very rare. I had no ambitions as a revolutionary. But there were new things I had seen done that I thought could be further developed.

Fake news was the first. The editing process was getting fast enough to yield usefully short clips. A few of them — only a few, the percentage was vanishingly small — could be given a misleading voice-over that might have a high yield. And perhaps a quick story could be told through a succession of misleadingly explained stills. Reciting the wrong words over the right still: today it is such a standard technique in television comedy that a long-running show such as Have I Got News For You will use it as a closing number, but the idea began with us, and like most new ideas it had to evolve from something more primitive. We called stills ‘cards’ and sometimes we used a dozen cards to tell a single story. During the first series of the weekly show the number of cards got down to three or four, and in the next series it got down to one. Looking back from now, it seems obvious that we should have started that way. Similarly, most of the bits of fake-news footage were far too long, so that I was writing a whole paragraph when a single sentence would have done. To put it briefly, the secret is to put it briefly. But you always think that’s what you’re doing, until experience teaches you that you aren’t being brief enough.

It took a while to get all these gimmicks up to speed. With the interviews there was less to learn. Richard already knew that there had to be a pre-interview, conducted by a researcher. Without that, I would not have been able to go on prepared. More importantly, the pre-interview ensured that the guest would go on prepared. Try to skip that preliminary stage and there was a distinct chance of the whole thing going haywire. Nobody, for example, can answer a question like ‘What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?’ if you ask it cold. The guest has to know that you’re after the story about the time he forgot his glasses before dinner at Sandringham and stubbed out a cigarette in the Queen Mother’s crème brûlée, or the story about how he broke wind during an audience with the Pope. Otherwise the answer will be waffle at best, dead air at worst. Admittedly there can be cases of a thoroughly prepared guest pulling a deliberate double cross, but it hardly ever happens. Unfortunately I think it happened to me quite early on, with results that came close to spooking me for keeps.

One of our earliest guests was the politician Michael Heseltine, by then well embarked on the voyage to glory that would eventually convince him he might successfully challenge Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Still handsome today, in those days he was gorgeous, with a head of hair borrowed from Veronica Lake and the sculpted face of a Viking diplomat. Our researcher came back from the pre-interview clutching her heaving bosom while she breathed in short gasps, like a nymph reviving from the embrace of Pan. Yes, Minister was in the first flush of its well-deserved renown and naturally she had asked him if he had seen it. He told her that he had watched every episode. He could quote the dialogue. He thought it was brilliant. So I had my first question all set to go, and half a dozen follow-up questions on the same subject. This was going to be a breeze.

On studio night Heseltine arrived in a succession of fast cars and swept into the building through corridors of throbbing female hearts. The make-up girls had drawn straws to get the job and the winner found that she had nothing to do except tone down his radiance with a light dusting of talcum powder. After I had finished my opening spiel, Heseltine loped into position while the studio audience drew its collective breath in vain, his charisma having instantly burned all the oxygen out of the air. The press, imprecise as always, had taken to calling him Tarzan, but surely this was Siegfried emerging from a quick dip in the Rhine, or Achilles on furlough from the battlefields of Troy. After a few routine compliments I levered my first softball into the launching tube and let him have it.

‘I know you’re fond of Yes, Minister ...’

‘Never watch it.’

‘Oh, come on, surely, as a politician, you ...’

‘Never seen it. Too busy.’

I could see myself on the monitor, looking exactly like someone caught in a fusillade of flying shit. Somehow I got through the next twenty minutes but I was a whole week getting my brains back. Luckily there was soon plenty of evidence to prove that preparation was useful, and often crucial. I risk skipping forward in the chronology here, because when you interview hundreds of people over the course of years the order of memories gets shuffled in your mind, and I never kept a file of the tapes. Someone, somewhere, will have a list of all the names and times, but I rather hope that I’m never told. I remember the stand-outs because they taught me lessons. Basically they divided into three categories: self-starters, normal human beings and walking disasters.

A self-starter is someone who could have done the whole interview on his own. Neither Ruby Wax nor Mel Brooks has ever really needed to be asked a question, and if they were on screen together they would probably explode, like matter meeting antimatter. While he lived, and arguably for a considerable time after, Peter Ustinov was the supreme example, closely followed by the young version of Billy Connolly, the one whose goatee had not yet been dyed purple. (Nowadays Stephen Fry would be high on the list, but we are talking about a previous epoch, when the new kids were on their way up but had not yet taken over.) I met Ustinov quite early on and he was even more bounteous with his gifts than I had expected, like a Father Christmas who arrives with a sack full of toys and immediately sets about manufacturing new ones in case you don’t like the ones he’s given you already. As he settled back into his chair with his cherubic face rising like the sun over the global curve of his paunch, I only had to press the ignition switch and he was off and away with a stream of memories, impressions, illustrated short stories and sound effects. Russian ballet dancers met German generals. Hollywood producers hob-nobbed with the clientele of a hamburger joint in Nepal. Jet airliners took off. Marlene Dietrich recited Milton. This guy was a universe.

All these miracles were conjured into being while scarcely anything moved except various components of his face. He knew everything about what his features looked like on camera and could control each one of them individually. So you saw the whole history of his film career being reprised: the petulant sneer of Nero, the wearily arched eyebrow of the Devil’s Island convict in We’re No Angels, the infinitely thoughtful pout of Hercule Poirot. Even his nose could act, as when his separately flared nostrils evoked the favourite racehorse of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. The only drawback with someone who can ask all his own questions is that you don’t get much of a chance to ask him anything hard. Ustinov was a frequent guest in the Soviet Union and there were some of us who thought that his cosiness with the Kremlin was a pretty dubious form of détente at a time when dissidents were still getting shrink-wrapped in blankets, but he only had to launch into his imitation of the late Comrade Brezhnev and you saw that it would have been in bad taste to slow him down. He was the most variously gifted man I ever met in my life, but he would have been the first to admit that versatility can be a kind of limitation. Indeed he would admit it unprompted. Prompting of any kind was something he had never needed.

With Billy Connolly you got the same torrentially original effect except that he couldn’t stay in his chair. Years later, when I interviewed him again in a satellite link-up from London to Los Angeles, it was the same deal: the material was different but he did the identical imitation of St Vitus winning a break-dancing competition. He was supposed to be standing upright in a tight head and shoulders shot but he kept disappearing sideways and suddenly returning as a mad British officer, or sinking through the bottom of the screen before surfacing in the role of Esther Williams being goosed by a dolphin. In the studio for the first of his several interviews with me, he used his chair as the merest reference point while he darted about. A camera on its pedestal was still a heavy item in those years and the men who operated them needed muscle. The bloke behind Billy’s camera had to do a lot of abrupt hauling and he put his back out, which must have hurt worse because he was already convulsed with laughter like everybody else. The important thing to note here is that Billy wasn’t doing a set routine. It was all coming off the top of his head, accompanied by a wild stare which suggested that if he hadn’t been doing this for a living he would have been beating people up at random. One of his best performances in the movies was as a psychopath hiring himself out as a debt-collector: he was so frighteningly believable that the film was almost immediately forgotten. It was called The Debt Collector and those of us who saw it are still having bad dreams. There are famous actors who can’t act anything like as well as that, a fact which tells you a lot about acting. To a great extent it’s for people who can’t do much else, and Billy could do everything. The self-starter, simply by his nature, can give you an idea of the reservoirs of the human mind, because everything he remembers is at the service of his powers of fantasy. In more than twenty years I met a bare half-dozen of them. It was a revelation every time. All I had to do was whip the top occasionally and I soon learned to confine my intervention to a single flick. There was only one of them who made me wish for a supply of tranquillizer darts instead, and that was Freddie Starr, of whom more later. He popped up near the end of my television career and belongs in the last chapter, or perhaps in a separate book, made available in a plain wrapper to the kind of customer who watches television with his Rottweiler.

Ordinary human beings could be no less brilliant — some of them were even more so — but they would stop to think. Joanna Lumley was such a good actress that she could imitate a self-starter, but as her host I had to think of what to ask next, which wasn’t always easy as I sat there in the extra light of her beauty. She was full of interesting opinions and perfectly fluent in expressing them, but she wouldn’t just run on. She had been too well brought up for that, and didn’t want to speak out of turn. Charlotte Rampling suffered from the same well-bred politeness but was shy as well, so I had to dig, making a constructive response every time instead of just grunting with approval. Peter Cook, who could give you a whole show for an answer, still needed a question. Tom Stoppard was another human being, despite the contrary evidence provided by a creative mind from outer space. I had known him for years and was well aware that I would never meet anyone quite so clever. But he was one of those rare clients who made me wonder whether a pre-interview was any use. He had given the ferret a set of shapely answers but when I reproduced the same questions in the studio he steered clear of giving the same answers again. He looked for different words, which took time, so the hair-trigger effect he gave in real life was slowed down to mere articulacy. He changed the stories because he was too original a speaker to use the same words twice. There was a lesson there. Preparation can be inhibiting.

But its absence could be crippling. The enchanting young actress Emily Lloyd was still a long way short of getting used to all the attention. She became available at the last minute and there was no time to prep her. Richard, always the king of the bookers, booked her anyway, but I could tell he was worried, and the worries proved well-founded. She lost the plot after the first question and took mental refuge in the nursery, doing the on-screen equivalent of hiding behind the doll’s house. From her eyes, I could tell what was going on in her mind. ‘I’m supposed to be saying wonderful things but I’m being boring.’ From my eyes she could tell what was going on in my mind. ‘This girl is drowning and it’s my fault.’ It was agony for both of us, because if I ever had one virtue as a host it was a determination to make the guest look good. What I should have done was take my cigarette lighter out of my pocket, set fire to my finger, and ask her to comment. But I was no longer a smoker. So, as one tends to do in a crisis, I reverted to a bad habit, and started giving the answer along with the question. ‘And now that you’re established as a star of the big screen I suppose the offers are coming in and you have to choose between them and that must be difficult because some of them are challenging roles but they wouldn’t be a commercial success while others wouldn’t really extend your range but they could be useful in consolidating your career as star of the big screen who . . .’ Nightmare.

In the editing room the wizards saved her life, cutting the interview down to a few minutes in which almost nothing happened except a pretty girl looking bewildered while a desperate man babbled on. Even when she smiled, she looked as if she were trying to conciliate a burglar. I could have shot myself, because she got some of the blame that should have gone to me in its entirety. It couldn’t have been as bad as I remember it, but it was bad enough to instil in my bruised mind a deep resolve to be ready, always, for the guest to freeze. When the guest is in command, he can yes—no you and he will still look good. In the old days of Late Night Line-Up there was a notorious live interview when the irascible playwright John Osborne answered all of Sheridan Morley’s questions within two minutes, saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and nothing else. When Sherry had run through the list of questions written on his sheet of paper he had to start thinking of new ones. ‘Read any good books lately?’ was the first. (Osborne’s answer was ‘No’.) Sherry, by now no longer with us, was normally a pretty relaxed customer. Later on, in the twilight of his career, he operated as a drama critic and was famous for falling asleep in the first act a few seconds after the lights went down. But I’ll bet the memory of that evening was among his death-bed flashbacks. Osborne, on the other hand, undoubtedly never gave it another thought. Bastards have no remorse.

When the guest is not in command, the host has to get in and help or he will have blood on his hands. Determined to avoid that, I gradually extended my range of techniques for helping the guest to be no less interesting than he would have been in normal circumstances. The prepped anecdote helps because if the guest forgets it, or any essential part of it, you can supply it for him. The moment you do that, of course, the audience knows that you already know. So you have to admit it, and make a joke of it. If that sounds artificial, remember that the whole deal is artificial anyway, and trust the audience to enjoy your discomfort. As long as the audience isn’t enjoying the guest’s discomfort instead, you’re in the clear. The first essential for the interviewer is to realize that the conditions in a television studio have about the same relation to everyday life as mechanized warfare. For ordinary human beings it’s as freaky as hell and you have to guide them through it, even at the risk of your own skin.

And then there are the walking disasters, most of whom must remain nameless. On radio, the walking disaster is usually the pundit — sometimes of professorial rank — who starts making hand signals to illustrate a point. On television the contrary applies: he is the celebrity who is all words, and can’t cut a story short to save his life or yours. Some of the older and more laurelled British actors could be very dangerous that way. There was one patriarch of his profession who, in the standard patois of upper Thespia, insisted on referring to Laurence Olivier as ‘Larry’ and John Mills as ‘Johnny’, so that you and the audience had to figure out who he meant. But there was worse in store. When it came at long last to the climax of one of his protracted anecdotes, he would start saying ‘Johnny’ instead of ‘Larry’ and vice versa, so that you couldn’t figure out anything. As he droned on, the screen filled up with warm, pink fluff, but you could say he had a kind of charm. There was a Welsh white-collar trade-union leader called Clive Jenkins who couldn’t have been credited with any charm at all.

Clive Jenkins is dead now, a fact which moves me to only the minimum of grief, because the memory of his sneering whine and self-satisfied grin is still with me. I promise that I tried, but the jig was already up before I had finished asking my first question, because he was fishing out of the inner top pocket of his suit a document folded thickly as a cosh. After straightening it out he began to read aloud a list of prepared objections to something I had once said about him in print when I was television columnist. Since he would have needed several hours to get right through it, this was an example of his lack of realism, but let’s not leave out the piercingly unpleasant nature of his voice, which might have been designed to provoke the English to subdue Wales all over again and put its every last male citizen to the sword. There are varieties of the Welsh accent that can bind you with a spell — Lloyd George was the great example, and I always love listening to Terry Griffith’s snooker commentaries — but the version spoken by Clive Jenkins wasn’t one of them, largely because it so successfully expressed his personality. In all my adult life, the human character trait that I have been least able to understand is a misplaced sense of superiority, and for some reason it always shows up in the voice first. ‘You see’ is a tip-off phrase, meaning ‘You don’t see but I’m here to help you.’ But there is an intonation that means the same thing, and some people are never free of it. The mere existence of Clive Jenkins was enough to prove that the voice, when it comes to broadcasting on television, is even more important than the face. The face of Clive Jenkins made you want to hit him. But his voice made you want to shoot him. He was on the air for ten minutes and we lost a quarter of a million viewers.

It took a few weeks to get them back again, but on the whole the studio show was a ratings success, and some of its features were quickly copied, especially the fake news. The trick of identifying full-face photographs of Yasser Arafat as being glamour portraits of Yasmin Arafat, the Palestinian beauty queen, was instantly popular. I would still pull the same stunt today, although I probably wouldn’t be allowed to, because political sensitivity has not only distorted taste, it has become a substitute for it. But I regarded Arafat not just as a terrorist, which he admitted, but as an enemy of his own nominal cause, which I myself believed in. In common with every liberal in Israel, many of them in that country’s armed forces, I thought that the Palestinians should have their own state, and that Yasser Arafat was not a good choice of leader to help them get it. Saying that he had an unpleasant face seemed a valid shorthand for saying that he played an equally unpleasant political role. So the trick was more or less true. My views about the legitimate use of fake news centred on that principle. The fake news had to reflect the reality of the real news. Nowadays, the material presented as real news is often in itself fake news. The consensus of perception dictates the supposed facts. President George W. Bush, of whose acumen no opinion could be lower than mine, never did serve his troops a plastic Thanksgiving turkey in Iraq. The New York Times, professedly a journal of record, ran that story on page one. When they found out the story was false they ran their correction on an inside page. The correction probably wouldn’t have worked even if they had printed it as a screaming headline. The image of Bush and the plastic turkey proved unstoppable.

Neither did President Bush ever say ‘Mission accomplished’ aboard an aircraft carrier after the quick defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. The captain of the aircraft carrier hung up a banner with those words on it, and Bush was photographed in front of it while saying something to the contrary, namely that there was a hard road ahead. Similarly with the general perception that Bush said Nelson Mandela was dead when Mandela was still alive. Bush never said it. He was saying that any Nelson Mandela figure in Iraq was already dead because Saddam Hussein had killed him: a reasonable statement. Yet even after it was established that Bush had meant the reasonable thing and not the erroneous one, Jon Stewart, one of the sharpest US television front-men, kept the joke in because it was too good to leave out. This erosion of the concept of objective truth grows more disturbing all the time, but I don’t think that our first tentative experiments in deliberate distortion back in the 1980s were the cause. Fake news was for entertainment, real news was for information, and the first thing wouldn’t even have been effective unless the viewing public had a firm grasp of the second. Our viewers got the point and we were duly rewarded with their attention. They switched the show on again to get more. Buoyed up by this response, I got better at unifying the show’s written material with a consistent style, but it was a hard task to fulfil all on my own. I might have faltered under the load had I not been so convinced that my whole multiform enterprise depended on it.

The studio show’s overheads were covered in-house, so it was a cost-effective prospect for the channel as long as enough people watched it. That being so, the studio show paid for the special documentaries like the Postcard programmes, which would have been impossibly non-profitable had they been the only thing I did. The relationship between these two main kinds of production was to hold true wherever we went in the next two decades, from ITV and Channel 4 onward to BBC2 and BBC1, and finally into independent production, by which we made programmes principally for ITV, where we had started off. We would never have had the opportunity to navigate the full circle — or, to put it more crudely, to play both ends against the middle — if the studio shows had not been there to fund the adventure. It wasn’t a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It was a case of keeping Peter healthy so that he could pay for Paul, his more refined but less employable elder brother.