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.