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.

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