Monday, December 31, 2007

Torvill and Dean's buttocks

I’m glad to see people started watching television again this Christmas. Perhaps it’s because there’s a nationwide shortage of Nintendo Wiis.

In a rare moment of organisation I purchased a family Wii back in November. As a result, for the last five days the television hasn’t had a look in, so I haven’t been able to share the nation’s preoccupation with the new love scandal in Albert Square, or see Kylie turned into an echo in Doctor Who. While record numbers were tuning into BBC1, we had family tennis tournaments, boxing championships, and, the ultimate theatre of war called Guitar Hero. My children now have photographs of their seriously overweight dad clutching a plastic imitation guitar doing his best Clapton impersonation. It’s not a pretty sight.

Television is a great national festive pastime, like gluttony and queuing at the Boxing Day sales. I made a Christmas special exactly 21 years ago. It took me six months to make and cost three million dollars, which probably makes it the most expensive hour of television ever made. Called Fire and Ice, it starred the skaters Torvill & Dean, and it has gone into television legend, largely because London Weekend Television lost so much money on it.

It started out as a bold idea by John Birt, the director of programmes. Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean were our golden couple at the 1984 Winter Olympics, so John decided to give the nation a Christmas treat and commissioned an ice ballet for them. It was going to be sold around the world, and a deal was already in place for America – hence the enormous budget. I was asked to write and direct it, and Carl Davis composed the music.

It was a dream job: the entire thing had to be written, rehearsed and filmed abroad, for Chris and Jayne were on a world tour. So Carl and I traipsed round the world like ice groupies, writing and composing scenes as we went. Then with an international company of skaters we rehearsed for three months in a German ski resort.

Eventually we built the world’s largest ice rink in a huge gymnasium near Stuttgart. One hundred and thirty British technicians came across the Channel in a fleet of trucks. Half the show was shot on a massive “Fire” set, with thirty foot high flames, then we shot all the scenes in the “Ice” kingdom.

Everything went fine until the final day of shooting when John Birt arrived with the money men. During the break John came over and tapped me on the shoulder. His face was white.

“Tom, we have a problem”, he said. “Apparently you can’t show buttocks in America”.

Now the entire plot revolved around the “Fire” Prince falling in love with the “Ice” princess, and the Fire people wore very little. Christopher Dean in particular sported a rather fetching thong.

“Can’t you shoot them from the front?” John suggested. I explained that this was a somewhat impractical solution as ice skaters generally spend their time spinning round in little circles, and therefore Dean’s buttocks would be revealed to the camera approximately twenty times a second. “I suppose you can’t fix it in post-production?”, he asked in desperation.

That’s why despite receiving lots of international awards, to this day Fire and Ice has never been shown in America. And that’s also why London Weekend Television has given up commissioning expensive Christmas specials.

As I write this, sitting in my office beneath a framed photograph of me with Chris and Jayne on the infamous ice set, my eldest son has just come in clutching last night’s evidence of Dad playing Clapton.

OK, I give in. The two photographs say it all. 21 years of Christmases have taken their toll. My New Year’s resolution is staring me in the face. I’m losing 21 pounds by Easter. Promise.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas with Mr Grumpy

I would have composed a witty description of our Christmas lunch, but I see that Mr Keith Hann, who joined us for the celebrations, has already published one on his blog.

If he thinks my cooking is that good, he mustn't get out a lot. Which his blog seems to suggest is true.

However, the meal added about six pounds to both our waistlines. Hence the next couple of contributions. Not that I'm obsessed by my size, or anything.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jools Holland and the Real X-Factor: the day I discovered Joss Stone

I think the seats in Newcastle’s City Hall have got smaller since I was last there. I don’t remember my knees scrunching up against the row in front when I sat watching people with infinitely more talent than me taking their applause on the stage.

But then, apart from Thursday, when I went there to see Jools Holland, the last time I was in the City Hall was at my school speech day, and I was about half my current size.

I remember the feeling of envy when I saw the prizes handed out to my betters. I was given the wooden spoon called the Fifth Form Reading Prize. I can still remember all the words of the poem which clinched it for me: "Do You Remember an Inn, Miranda?”. At Christmas parties, when the festive spirits take over, I am inclined to launch into it -- until Joanna rushes over and throttles me.

Oh I know what it’s like to be second rate. Watching television on Saturday night, hearing the appalling cliché: “only one couple will be crowned champions (sic), the other will go home empty-handed”, my heart went out to Matt Di Angelo, bravely showing his rehearsed “well done, Alesha” expression. And the previous weekend I felt quite sorry for that strange Welsh singer Rhydian who now has to go back to Powys empty-handed. The painful sound of applause for someone else still ringing in his ears.

It’s extraordinary how worked up we get over television programmes like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. In fact, they’re not about winners at all. Who else but a group of D-List losers would have the time to go on Strictly Come Dancing? Alesha Dixon was in a group called Mis-Teeq which had a few minor hits several years ago. She recorded a solo album last year that hasn’t even been released. Rhydian is a second-grade baritone with unusual hair and a gift for reducing middle-aged women to tears with songs from Phantom of the Opera.

Really talented performers don’t need The X Factor to get their break. They get themselves into bands, perform in clubs and are discovered by an A&R talent scout from a record company. So I’m a little underwhelmed by these kinds of shows, even though in the past I have produced them myself.

Finding a gold nugget in the drift mine of wannabes is well nigh impossible. In four series of Star for a Night, presented by Jane MacDonald (her own celebrity a product of television rather than talent), we found only one true gem. In an audition room in Bristol I spotted a shy 13-year-old girl with a beautiful face and long blonde hair called Joss Stoker. I remember she had a tendency to sing sharp (I used a harmonizer to correct her final performance) but the voice made your jaw drop. It was the voice of an old blues singer. She’s now called Joss Stone.

But unlike the winners of The X Factor, pre-sold to the Cowell money-making machine, Joss’s stardom isn’t derived from one television vote. She made it through hard work and dedication.

Watching real talent on stage makes your heart surge and brings grown men to tears. Or overgrown men, like me. Which leads me back to last Thursday.

I wasn’t in that cramped City Hall seat for long. The years peeled back as the entire audience got on its feet for two magical hours. Afterwards Jools told me this was his favourite gig. Not just because of his happy times here with The Tube, but because of the wonderful atmosphere in that old, faded hall.

How Jools managed to perform at all on Thursday is beyond me. His father died last week. His Christmas plans have been cancelled because of the funeral. Yet he brought two thousand people the best possible present. Thank you, Jools, and to all of you, a very Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Russell Harty and Grace Jones: My Fault

So Fabio Capello appears to have survived his first weekend with the British press.

Apart from photos of him holding a wooden spoon (!) in his “favourite” Rome restaurant and dancing in a tutu, England’s new manager is still “Fab” in the tabloids. I’ll give it a fortnight.

The first time I came across the tabloid press was when, at the age of 19 at York University, I made a little student film called Corridor. It cost just £200, funded partly by the Arts Council, but mostly by a whip-round in the Students Union bar.

It was a typically self-indulgent piece of undergraduate nonsense: a lonely student walks down a corridor in a hall of residence and the camera reveals various cameos behind the doors. As he passes the bathroom, we see a buxom blonde trying to persuade a nervous nerd to join her in the bath. It was supposed to be funny: no naughty bits were shown, and the entire scene lasted about ten seconds.

The few days before the premiere (it was being shown in a double bill with Barbarella), I received a call from a freelance journalist who seemed to be interested in my creative achievement. I spouted on about alienation in student life.

I heard nothing more until the following Sunday, when I had a call from my mother in Tynemouth. Anxious relatives were telephoning her from all over the country. For emblazoned across an entire page of the Sunday Mirror was the headline “Students In Sex Film Shocker”.

All next week I received hate mail from Christian fundamentalists. At least the premiere was packed – albeit with a strange collection of men with raincoats. They were very disappointed.

I used this experience later in life when I was the producer of the Russell Harty chatshows. The series had been put in a slot on BBC2 normally reserved for arts programmes. Three weeks into the run, with the audience figures languishing at about a million, I booked Grace Jones.

It was my fault she hit him. I’d never produced a chatshow before, so I decided to ring the changes by arranging the guests on either side of Russell, rather than using the traditional formation of host on one side and guests lined up down the other. As a result, when he finished talking to Grace, who I think had arrived from another planet, Russell turned to the next guest and in doing so, faced away from her. “Don’t you turn your back on me!” she screamed, and bonked him on the head.

It was only a gentle tap, but two minutes later, the BBC press office rang. At the end of the show, the street outside the theatre was full of flashbulbs. The next day we were on every front page. The following week we had three million viewers.

So I decided then and there to forge an alliance with the devil.

Hercules the Bear had gone missing off a Scottish island. When he was found, I brought him to London to wrestle with Russell. Then we had the newsreader Jan Leeming singing (if you could call it that). Each time we tipped off the papers and staged the “event” a few hours ahead of the live show so we could hit the deadlines, and the front pages.

The tabloids and I were, literally, joined at the hype. After a few weeks the ratings hit six million.

A few weeks ago in my Journal column I casually mentioned that I had had a meeting with Peaches Geldof. The following weekend one national paper had blown up the story into two full pages about how we were bringing The Tube back to Newcastle. How they made that connection, I’ve no idea. It would be nice, but it’s not true: we just had a meeting. But it’s good to know they read The Journal.

So “ello” Fab. Welcome to our crazy world. Just be wary of ageing blonde TV presenters and fake sheikhs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Death of Jeremy Clarkson (almost)

Lord Goldsmith's proposal last week that the words of our national anthem should be changed to make it more “inclusive” has led to a spate of suggestions for national anthem replacements on the Downing Street e-petition website.

Although there is predictable support for Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem there are some radical proposals, including a spirited campaign for the theme from The Archers. At least we’ll all remember the words: “Rum te tum te tum te dum”.

The e-petition site is supposed to be a way of connecting our government with its electorate. I see that a few thousand people have signed an e-petition calling for the upgrading of the A1 north of Morpeth and a few more want the widening of the Western by-pass.

However you question the site’s value to the democratic process when you see that the sixth most popular proposal is “Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister”. Why 26,000 people would waste their time voting for a man who single-handedly killed the jeans industry is beyond me.

Ten years ago, I very nearly killed Jeremy Clarkson. I’d created a television series called Robot Wars and Jeremy was the first presenter.

I knew the robots were dangerous. They had real axes, saws and other weapons of mass destruction and they were given names like “Panic Attack”, ”Razer” (sic!), and “Chaos”. Because members of the public had built them from second hand wheelchair motors and radio-controlled toy cars, they were notoriously unreliable. So, in order to stop stray robots running into the audience, we put up some Perspex screens round the stage.

I asked Jeremy to host the first series because his support for motorized metal mayhem was pretty close to the Robot Wars ethos. So he stood high above the carnage on a rostrum, making facetious comments about the little boxes below, which had taken grown men months to build, and less than two minutes to destroy.

The first day of shooting went fairly well, despite the fact that a lot of the robots had technical problems and we had to pull them onto the stage with fishing wire.

The second morning, just as we were getting into our stride, disaster struck. A robot being driven by a tearful eight year old was being carefully carved into tiny pieces by one of the house robots. Suddenly a circular metal blade (from a robot appropriately called “Dead Metal”) flew into the air at more than 200 miles an hour and embedded itself deep in a solid concrete wall just behind where Jeremy was standing.

When we studied the recording in slow motion, we found that the blade, rotating at a more than 6000 rpm, had missed the Clarkson scalp by less than two inches. With only a slight adjustment to the trajectory, the person now being proposed as our country’s leader would have been decapitated.

Of course within minutes the entire show had been shut down and it took a week for us to find enough bulletproof Perspex to seal off the auditorium from danger. The rest is history, except that Jeremy wisely decided his life was more valuable than our second series, and went back to abusing Skodas.

Clarkson’s profile has grown over the years, but somehow I can’t see his fan club getting far with their campaign. In fact, I doubt that Downing Street takes any notice of its e-petition site at all, certainly not enough to listen to a few thousand people trying to get the North East a decent motorway to link it with the rest of the world.

But here’s a solution. Instead of wasting valuable time on the government’s site, people who want us to have a road infrastructure for the 21st century might do a lot worse than to send a petition to Jeremy Clarkson himself. After all, with six million adoring Top Gear fans, he’s probably got more clout than the real prime minister.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The End of the Railway Line

Today I'm taking my final dose of GNER. There are just six days until National Express takes over the East Coast franchise.

I've grown accustomed to the faces of GNER, that is, to the cheery smiles of Eunice, Lianne, Daniel and all the other crew who have looked after me this past year. I'm sincerely grateful for their tolerance, good humour and impeccable service.

I guess you have to keep a sense of humour if you spend all day in a swaying metal tube trying not to spill coffee over bored businessmen, families with screaming children, drunks and assorted misfits like me.

I've loved hearing the crew stories: about bowls of steaming hot soup accidentally tipped into pompous laps; the dangers of silver-serving miniature sweetcorn to ladies with cleavages; the occasional shriek from the disabled toilet after someone forgets to press the "Lock" button. I like the story about the train driver who, bored by the endless straight track, is trying to perfect the theme from Laurel and Hardy on the train horns. I particularly love travelling back on the 8pm because there's a real party atmosphere in the restaurant car by the time it reaches York where all the dull people get off.

If anyone deserves a grant from One North East, it is these Newcastle-based train crews. They really are the true ambassadors of the North, for they are the first experience which most visitors have of the region. In fact, thinking about it, One North East could do a lot worse with its millions than to plough a few bob into the on-board train experience. Because the image we present to the people who come to visit us is key to the commercial success of the region as a whole.

Now despite what you might hear, people in the South no lnger think we're all about cloth caps and pigeons. When I announced to my friends in London that I was relocating back up here they all said the same thing: "Great place to party".

If I were a businessman with young children I'd be wary of moving my family to a city whose principal claim to fame is being Party Capital of Europe. A city that from teatime on Friday transforms itself into Club 18-30. Where you have to run a gauntlet of drunken yobbery just walking from the station to the car park. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a party pooper. I'd rather live in a vibrant city than in boring Orpington or Watford.

If we really want to attract investment to the region, we need to present another face. The North East needs a PR makeover. Evidently, thanks to the Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign, bed and breakfasts have enjoyed a bumper year. The North East is the place to come for the weekend. Now there's a bigger task: to persuade people to stay for life.

To get the level of investment that our local economy needs, we need to demonstrate to opinion formers that the North East can be lived in. and for that to happen, image is everything. Starting with the train service.

Not that the region has to change: far from it. We have wonderful scenery, great local food, an enterprise culture, comparatively cheap housing, some very fine schools, development grants, the Sage - there's a lot to boast about. No, we just need to work out how to tell people about it.

Meanwhile, a warning to National Express. When you take over our railway next week and start repainting all the carriages, please don't mess up the spirit of our special ambassadors, the train crews. Daniel tells me they are getting new ties and shiny name badges, but for the time being they have to cut to cut the GNER labels off their shirts and trousers. Let's not cut out the fun as well.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Day I (Almost) Killed a Judge

Following the extraordinary claim last week that a 23 year old was solely to blame for the Inland Revenue Lost Property Disaster, I tried to remember the biggest mistake I ever made at that age. I think it was the day someboy fell down dead on one of my television programmes.

I was working at the BBC and I'd just been made the Director of Nationwide, the television series that used to go around the country finding skateboarding ducks and other oddities of life. Twenty-three was absurdly young to be doing that job, as the show was live, incredibly complex and, as a result, fraught with the ever-present possibility of catastrophe.

We were doing an item about female judges, and how you should address them in court. Don't ask me why, it was the kind of thing which Nationwide did on a soft news day. You frequently see similarly desperate items on The One Show.

Five actors were in the studio dressed up as dignitaries, and Bob Wellings, the presenter, was walking down the line talking about how they should be addressed. Until he got to Lady Judge number three. Suddenly I became aware (as did the viewers) that the beautifully framed two-shot was becoming a single. Her ladyship was gently gliding out of the frame onto the floor.

Bob looked down. The actress had, apparently, dropped down dead.

Now this wasn't something that any of my four-week stint at BBC Director Training had prepared me for. I'd learned all about focus pulling and camera scripting and how to say "Cut to Camera Seven" in a loud imperious voice. But what to do when you lose a contributor? That certainly wasn't in the manual.

My first thought was: maybe nobody noticed? The second was: the show must go on. There wasn't time for a third thought, for the impetuosity of youth made me whisper into Bob's earpiece: "Carry on, Bob, let's have the next judge."

I zoomed the camera in to avoid any dead people messing up the shot, and Bob sighed, looked down sadly at the recumbent woman and, with a wonderfully polite "Pardon Me, Madam", carefully stepped over the body and got on with the job.

My goodness, the phone calls of complaint blocked the BBC switchboard for hours. Fortunately, the lady in question wasn't dead, but had just fainted under the studio lights, and the BBC put out an apology later in the evening. But I tell you, that sick feeling I had in my stomach knowing I'd cocked up in full view of seven million people remains with me to this day.

So my thoughts go out to the poor young fellow holed up in some Tyneside hotel hiding from the paparazzi, having been made scapegoat for the most extraordinaty piece of bureaucratic mismanagement for decades. I mean, honestly, either the chap had the power to download and send out the intimate personal details of half the population, or he hadn't. If he had this authority, then he can't have been a "junior official", and the Prime Minister was lying. If he didn't, and he just acted on his own initiative, then the system which allowed him to do so is not just flawed, it's utterly inept, and the thought that similar 23 year olds might be able to jeopardize the security of an entire population issued with ID cards is just ludicrous.

When I first saw the news story about all this, I had the strangest sensation. I can only liken it to the one I had three Saturdays ago in St James's Park, when Portsmouth took three goals in the first quarter of an hour. All 50,000 of us Newcastle United supporters were, simply, stunned. it was the same feeling millions of us felt last Wednesday during the England football game. I can only describe it as a sense of unreality caused by watching something incredibly important to us but entirely out of our control being messed up by pure incompetence. And Mr Brown has the effrontery to blame this one on a 23 year old? Come on, pull the other one.

[Note: I've updated the dead judge story in my February 24th 2008 blog]

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Drama in Pakistan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to India in 1979. I was driving in a camper van across Saudi Arabia with a girlfriend pretending to be my sister, risking flogging or decapitation in an effort to get to India. Yesterday I read the story of a Saudi woman sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being in a vehicle driven by an unrelated man.

Our story continued in the relative haven of Dubai. We had to get to Pakistan on the other side of the Gulf, so we bribed a Chinese sea captain to winch the van with a rickety crane onto the deck of his ancient wooden dhow. With heavy heart Jilly and I watched all our worldly goods disappear over the horizon. We flew to Karachi, half expecting never to see the van again.

Karachi harbour was bedlam. As far as the eye could see, there was a sea of little boats jostling to reach the shore, and no sign of ours. After six tense days, just as we'd given up hope, we finally saw it -- the van's blue and white roof at the end of the queue at least a mile away. We ran to a man in uniform to ask how soon we would be able to unload it.

"Around seven weeks", he said.

We nearly died. It contained all our possessions, and we had no means of support in a country thousands of miles from home. The officer shrugged his shoulders. In desperation I wrote the number of our youth hostel on the back of my BBC identity card. He glanced at it, and then did a double take.

"BBC? You know Mark Tully?"

"Well, not personally, but..."

Now if you've ever wondered how Moses managed to part the Red Sea, there, in Karachi harbour, I witnessed it with my own eyes. Hundreds of dhows were unceremoniously pushed aside as a large armed patrol boat carved a passage through and led our very scared Chinese captain to shore.

As we were reunited with the van and resumed our journey, it occured to me what an extraordinary legacy we'd left in Pakistan. Even though the British had been gone for 35 years, we still had the influence to overturn the rule book. But we also left behind an unbalanced structure which enables the military to ride roughshod over democratic principles to this day.

Cut to 2006. I very nearly sold a series to a big American network. They loved the idea, but somehow it was too near the knuckle. It was called "If You Were President", and the idea was simple. You took a disaster scenario, a potential doomsday situation, and you asked viewers what they would do if they were President of the United States.

In order to find topics for the series, I enlisted the help of a man who assesses worldwide risks for major corporations. I wanted a list of the ten biggest threats facing the West. and guess what was number one, way ahead of Californian earthquakes, Global Warming and the collapse of the sub-prime lending market?

"In Pakistan President Musharraf is replaced by a weak civilian government unable to contain the Taliban. That regime is quickly overthrown by religious extremists who immediately turn round the nuclear missiles currently pointing at Delhi and Mumbai and aim them straight at Tel Aviv."

How would the President of the United States react? Sadly the series was never made.

So, as the crisis in Pakistan continues to deepen I'm aware we're not just watching the saga of yet another dictator resisting democracy in a remote land. I don't know if Britain still has influence in Pakistan. But if we do, I hope for once our politicians, hitherto not too adept at dealing with Asian dictatorships, use, that power wisely. This is one bit of foreign policy we can't afford to get wrong.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How to Start a Business

According to a recent report, the North East of England needs another 30,000 businesses.

That's an awful lot of business cards, I should start up a graphic design company. Apparently we need to "develop a more entrepreneurial culture".

The name "entrepreneur" sounds like a member of some exclusive sect. I became one because I had a phone call from Andrew Lloyd Webber. He asked me to direct a television version of his musical Song & Dance, and he wanted me to cast his then girlfriend, and subsequent wife, Sarah Brightman.

At that time I was at the BBC earning £2,000 a month. I was thinking about going freelance, but never had the courage. Obviously I jumped at the chance of working with the great man, but I had no idea what to charge him for the month's work it was going to take. So I rang an agent, the late Richard Armitage, whose father Noel Gay wrote The Lambeth Walk and Run Rabbit Run. He was the wisest man and most loyal friend.

"What would make you happy?" he said.

As anything more than two grand would have been a bonus, I said "Do you think he would stretch to three?"

An hour later Richard rang back. "I said you'd accept £45,000".

After I regained consciousness he said, "Let that be a lesson to you. Andrew only employs the best, and I told him you are the best director in the world. So that seemed about right to both of us."

Of course, it was nonsense. I was way down the directors' pecking order, but it's undoubtedly the most important lesson I ever learned, and which I recently passed onto my son who has become a director himself.

So I had £45,000 burning a hole in my bank account, and at that time Richard was reviving his father's hit West End show, Me and My Girl. He was looking for backers, so I offered to invest my entire earnings in the show. Richard refused the money with two other pieces of great advice: "Never invest in a friend's business, and never put all your money into something you can't control". Shame, really, because the show ran and ran. Instead I quit the BBC and put the cash into setting up a TV production company. Within two years it was the largest in the UK.

During the next fifteen years, there were incredible highs and utterly miserable lows. The most important quality an entrepreneur can have is the ability to cope with failure. Television production is like Norfolk: turkeys come with the territory.

Mark Thompson, now director general of the BBC, once said that his most disastrous commission was Happy Families, a terrible Saturday night spectacle that involved Grannies being hoisted into the air in giant cages. One of my many turkeys, which viewers voted off with their remotes. Occasionally out of the gloom would emerge a couple of shows which would become part of popular culture and make it all worthwhile, like Challenge Anneka and Robot Wars.

Now I've launched another production company in Newcastle, which has cost me ten times as much as the last one. Reducing the North East business start-up requirement to 29,999.

Talk about risk money: I know I can lose the lot, but that's what entrepreneurs do. The venture capitalists (who actually take almost no risks at all) call it "skin in the game". It's the adrenalin of potential failure which keeps you awake at night and drives you to success. It requires courage and a good sense of humour. And I know those are qualities that people in the North East of England have in abundance.

Which makes it all the more galling that just as One North East is calling for more entrepreneurial risk, our government is trying to stifle it by increasing Capital Gains Tax by 80%.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Woman's Place is on the Back Seat

On Wednesday Joanna was driving us along the Military Road, the Autumn sunshine making shadows across the fields towards Hadrian's Wall. We were listening to the news about King Abdullah's visit to London when I remembered a journey I'd made nearly thirty years ago on another dead straight road beside an icon of political power, the oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia.

A beautiful girl had seduced me into giving up my job, house and car. We bought an old Volkswagen combi van, added a cooker and a bed, and set out to drive to India.

In 1979, with my moustache and long hair I looked a bit like Robert Plant, and she'd floored me with her flowery hippy dresses and determination to meet the Dalai Lama.

Disaster struck as we camped in the car park of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. The BBC announced the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. We studied the map. Iran was now blocked as there was only one way through: South, through Syria and Jordan, and then along a straight line through the desert marked Saudi Arabia.

A couple of weeks later, we drove into the compound of the Saudi Embassy in Amman. There were about fifty other camper vans, all painted in bright hippy colours, and standing outside were about a hundred weeping Australians. It wasn't the rugby season: they'd been denied visas and now had to face the long drive back to the UK. Resigned to failure, Jilly made a cup of tea in the van and I took our passports up to the visa window.

The man behind the glass frowned, stared at both passports, then slowly softened.

"Geel-an. Your sister?" he asked.

For a moment I looked blankly. Then, just as I opened my mouth to correct it dawned on me. My middle name is Gillan. The name on my girlfriend's passport was Jillian. To an Arab unfamiliar with Roman script, the words must have looked similar. The others had been turned back because the women were neither married nor related. So I nodded and the officer cheerfully stamped us through.

At that moment I grasped what the rights organisations mean when they talk of gender discrimination. In the Saudi kingdom, a woman is defined only by her relationship to a man: sister, wife, mother, daughter. With no identity of her own, she has no right to passport, vote or driving licence. Women can't drive in Saudi Arabia. They sit in the back like dogs.

As we joined the baking desert highway that led dead straight for more than two thousand miles, Jilly climbed into the back seat and stayed there for three days. At petrol stations, she closed the curtains and covered herself in a veil. When we passed through a town, Saudi men crowded round the vehicle to peer at her, like flies.

Every fifty miles or so we passed a little village, carved out of the brown desert dust. Beside each one was a neat pile of wrecked cars. Not old bangers, but brand new Mercedes and BMWs, driven at breakneck speed, dented and abandoned. Driven by men in a country that doesn't permit a woman to drive as much as a golf cart.

Beside us ran the huge pipeline carrying the welath that supports both our own civilisation and the Saudi regime. It's a country formed by an unholy merger between the feudal and the fundamentalist. A country without freedom of expression, religion or association, without political parties and where justice is articulated by brutal capital and corporal punishment. This is the regime which gave birth to Al-Qaeda, and to which our Queen and Government have once more pledged eternal friendship.

Back beside that other symbol of Western civilisation, the Roman Wall, I reflected on our democracy's fundamental freedom: to believe what we like and say what we believe. I guess that's why you can read this today.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Baked Potatoes and Peterborough

I'm somewhere near Doncaster, on my weekly train to London, finishing my scrambled eggs. Breakfasts on the train haven't been the same since they took Robson's Craster kippers off the menu.

Soon I'll be looking sympathetically on the poor people boarding at Peterborough and wondering what on earth made them live in such a dull flatland of a region. Because the geography of a region is directly reflected in the creativity and sense of humour of its inhabitants, I'll be basking in the superior glow of someone who knows just how lucky he is to be returning to Northumberland tonight.

Last week's London trip brought a meeting with Peaches Geldof to talk about a new TV programme idea, then an afternoon at ITV, trying to persuade them to buy a new gameshow. It took us six weeks to plan the pitch, and precisely half an hour for them to turn it down. So Jo and I took solace in the ultimate home of comfort food, The Ivy.

I have a friend who flies up from his home in Provence twice a year just to join me at The Ivy for their French roast chicken. I was there during the famous Ivy lock-in, when the police refused to let us leave because the IRA had planted a bomb in the next street. The owners opened champagne and all the celebrities danced on the tables singing hits from the shows. I've only once had an unhappy evening there, which was with my ex-wife on our first and last wedding anniversary. Julie Andrews, sitting at the next table, complained to the manager because we were rowing so loudly.

Last week's experience was much more pleasant, though the only star sighting was Andrew Lloyd Webber holding court with his Connie/Maria girl.
Later, I thought I caught sight of the back of Monty Don's head. A year ago I wouldn't have blinked, because to me gardening was as dull as a London football derby. When I was young, my parents had an allotment. There, in sub-zero temperatures, they would prise frozen sprouts from their stalks on Christmas Eve. Why they couldn't go to Walter Willson's like everyone else was beyond me. But now, having relocated from Southern California (which grows only dry, fire-ready scrubland) and Hampstead (where an allotment is called a patio), I have my very own vegetable garden and I've discovered the meaning of fresh. We now have enough potatoes to last us through till Christmas Day.

But only just. Jo, who as a Californian is enduring her first Northumbrian autumn, offered to help me with the harvest.
"Just brush off some of this soil before we bag them", I said, doing my Monty Don impression. Twenty minutes later, I walked into the kitchen to find the sink completely full of drowning King Edwards.
To say that there was a strain in Anglo-American relations would be an understatement. I know little enough about gardening, but on Gardeners World I had distinctly heard Monty say "lift and dry potatoes and store in paper sacks in a cool, dry, dark place".

"They're supposed to be dry", I hollered, and stormed out to the spinach to cool off.

Half an hour passed, and I went back inside. There on the kitchen table was a huge mound of potatoes and Jo meticulously drying each one -- with her hair dryer.