Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Angle on the Dead Judge

A friend of mine has sent me an extract from Hugh Massingberd's autobiography "Daydream Believer" which augments and corroborates my earlier recollection about the day on the BBC's Nationwide when a lady dressed as a judge fainted in front of millions of viewers. He writes of a genealogist friend called Patrick Montague-Smith who

"appeared on the television magazine programme Nationwide to discuss forms of address. The production team had hit on the wheeze of lining up a collection of suitably robed and ermined 'extras' for Patrick and the presenter to hail. Unfortunately, just as the two of them approached a heavily bewigged lady judge, this worthy began to sway alarmingly and then fell down in a faint at Patrick's feet. The learned genealogist blinked and glanced at the presenter, who anxiously motioned him forward. Without a word, Patrick and the presenter then proceeded to step gingerly over the prostrate female form before continuing their discourse on the finer points of etiquette."

Which makes my error, as the director of the said disaster, even more execrable.

Dancing on Thin Ice

In my day the Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spinning wheel. Last week at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, the evil Carabosse wheeled on an eight foot high cactus to ensnare the princess. It was part of choreographer Ashley Page’s ongoing quest to popularize the classics, and confuse countless little girls in the process. In the interval I heard “Mummy, what were Red Riding Hood and Snow White doing in the forest? And why was the Prince rolling around on top of that blue man?”

Poor Sleeping Beauty has been interfered with countless times since Petipa first choreographed her in 1890. I confess I’ve been a culprit too. After my first venture into ice ballet with Torvill and Dean’s Fire and Ice, ITV asked me to film Sleeping Beauty with Robin Cousins. And before you ask, no, Robin was the Prince. The Princess was an American figure skater with a weight problem. Except that I didn’t know about it until after I cast her.

Now it’s one thing for a ballet company to advertise Sleeping Beauty and wait for a few punters to show up; it’s quite another to expect nine million viewers to sit through three hours of Tchaikovsky. So I got together with one of the UK’s foremost conductors, Bramwell Tovey, who at that time was Music Director at Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, and together we cut out the boring bits. As a result, we lost the entire first act, and started off with the best tune, which is normally in Act 2.

Bramwell and I performed this act of desecration one Saturday afternoon in my living room, with Tchaikovsky’s score spread over the carpet, a large pair of scissors, some sellotape and several bottles of red wine. We even used a few bits from Nutcracker to paper over the gaps. The result was like Sleeping Beauty on Acid, an all-action version with plenty of space for triple axles and other gymnastics. Then, armed with one of America’s top choreographers, Lar Lubovitch, we set off for Norwich to shoot it in an aircraft hangar large enough for a castle, a village, an enchanted forest – and a spinning wheel.

Now last week’s Princess Aurora (played by Japanese dancer Tomomi Sato) was so tiny, slight and young-looking, the Prince could have been arrested for child abduction. When our Princess arrived in Norwich she looked a couple of stone overweight and the costume lady threw a fit. According to her agent, our star had boyfriend problems which had led to a compulsion for Mars Bars, but we were assured she would shed the weight before filming. As the deadline loomed and the enormous set neared completion, the costume lady came to me in tears saying she was running out of elasticated fabric. Then, as if by magic, the waistline receded, to be replaced by another problem. Our star had become close with one of the skaters. He was called John Thomas, which just about says it all. Princess Aurora came onto the set so exhausted every morning that she could scarcely put her skates on.

Then the snows came. February storms engulfed Norfolk and with the temperature outside at minus six, we had a power cut and the ice melted. By the end of the shoot, Cousins and the team were skating through a swamp and the spinning wheel bobbed about like a boat. When skaters fell over, their costumes were covered in slushy mud. That’s the glamour of television for you.

So it was a delight to see the Scottish Ballet’s efforts this week. All in all, theirs was a splendid camp romp, but you’ve got to feel for any dancer trying to cope with the Theatre Royal’s tiny stage. The orchestra filled half the stalls and when the whole company came on, I’m not sure they didn’t outnumber the audience. I don’t know what the public subsidy per seat is for the Scottish Ballet. I just hope it’s Scottish taxpayers who are paying for our gratification.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Love Conquers All -- Even Divorce

As the McCartney/Mills divorce hearing drags into a second week, you can’t help but wish that the two of them would just step outside, grab a couple of green teas in Starbucks, and sort it out between them.

Of course that’s hardly likely. Once divorce reaches the courts, both partners are usually so blind to common sense that they stand and fight over the tiniest of details. I know, to my own shame and cost.

I used McCartney’s divorce firm, Payne Hicks Beach, in all three of my own settlements. They’re great solicitors (they represented Prince Charles), but boy do those bills hurt. Whoever said that in divorce no one wins but the lawyers certainly hit the nail on the proverbial head. Having accumulated a mountain of incendiary letters with claim and counter claim, my first wife and I one day woke up to the absurdity of decimating the family’s assets in this way. So we literally went for a coffee, found a sheet of paper, and agreed the whole thing in twenty minutes. As a result, she and I remain the best of friends and neither of us felt shortchanged.

By contrast my most recent experience involved four sets of lawyers in two continents and lasted two bitter years, twice the length of the marriage. Because I was living in California I fought for and won the right to have the hearing in Los Angeles, in the very same Superior Court where poor Britney Spears has been having her custody battles.

Unlike Britain, divorce in California isn’t about blame or apportionment; it’s based on the simple principle that marriage is an equal partnership. Everything earned by either party during the marriage is deemed “community property” and therefore jointly owned by both sides. On the other hand, any assets that predated the marriage are the property of the person who owned them before the knot was tied. This applies to everything from the CD collection to the toaster.

Now that’s clean, clear and very fair. It doesn’t matter that one party earns a million dollars a month and the other stays at home and buys shoes, the consequence of getting married is that what’s ours is ours and what was yours stays yours. This is based on quite an idealistic view of the institution of marriage. If two hearts become one, you can hardly complain if the proceeds of that relationship are split down the middle.

By contrast, our British system is antiquated, arbitrary and unfair, and has become a gold digger’s charter, creating a strong disincentive for a man with any saved cash or property to get married at all.

Even under the Californian system, the division of chattels was stressful. I had to go to court to win custody of my own dog. One national tabloid reported the story with the headline “Woof Justice For Tess”.

Tess was a delightful but not terribly bright cocker spaniel. In the heat of divorce she became a symbol of our utter irrationality. After months of haggling, my ex-wife and I were still about $100,000 apart. So, in order to get the matter settled and to avoid the astronomical costs of a court hearing, I offered her a choice: an extra $100,000 or the dog. It seemed to me a no-brainer, and I expected to walk away with the most expensive pooch in the world. Instead, the wife chose the dog, and I kept the hundred grand. Later I happily spent four hundred pounds of it on Truffle, another lovely spaniel who’s infinitely brighter and symbol of an altogether more successful relationship.

Indeed, walking with Joanna through Paris on our fourth Valentine’s Day, I now wonder what the fuss was all about. Love certainly conquers all, and I sincerely hope that by this time next year Paul and Heather will have found theirs and put memories of this degrading nightmare behind them.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Crowd Control

Watching Clinton and Obama slugging it out over the weekend it’s pretty clear that it matters not what they say, but how they say it. Their policies are pretty much identical, but Obama’s ability to whip up a crowd is awe-inspiring. Provided it’s the right crowd. Obama has the edge with affluent intellectuals, but is failing to convince the white working-class. Meanwhile they’re both adjusting their rhetoric to avoid alienating entrenched minority groups. These days politics is all about compromise.

I first discovered the power of the pressure group when I was invited to the annual general meeting of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. They wanted me accept the rather dubious accolade of “Programme of the Year” for Challenge Anneka. I’d decided to go along after receiving a personal note from Mary Whitehouse saying she considered it “good wholesome entertainment”.

The ceremony was held in one of those dusty London gentlemen’s clubs, full of toad in the hole and prejudice. As I had no idea what to expect, I wrote no acceptance speech, but thought I could wing it with a few thanks to my mother and the crew. However, when I arrived, Mrs Whitehouse shook me warmly by the hand and said she’d be grateful if I could keep my remarks to fifteen minutes because the Home Secretary would be speaking after me and he had to get back to a cabinet meeting.

So, grabbing a sheet of club notepaper and a stiff gin and tonic, I set about penning a few notes. The membership arrived with hats, Harris Tweed and sherry. I was glad I wore my suit. I appeared to be about half the age of the youngest there, apart from two scruffy 20-year-olds whom I assumed were media students.

After the preliminaries I was ushered to the stage where a large phallic silver object awaited me. As I surveyed the assembly, I was amazed that this little group of women’s institute and bowls club stereotypes had managed to become such a thorn in the side of the BBC. I began by thanking them, then said how pleased I was that the BBC had placed the show on Saturday nights because it could be enjoyed by the whole family.

At that moment, I heard a low rumble. The bowls club was clearing its collective throat. Then I heard a shrill “Hear, Hear” from the back.

“Using the power of television for public good…” I went on, and the crumbly audience began to sit forward in their seats expectantly. The hastily scribbled notes now discarded, I got into my stride, and rambled on about the rebirth of family entertainment. The rumble had now become a roar. At the end of every sentence there was round of applause. I was playing the crowd like a Pentecostal preacher. Or a politician.

When it was Michael Howard’s turn, the congregation was already warmed up. But no sooner had he reached the end of his first paragraph, as if on cue the two “students” stood up and began to heckle. Instantly things turned nasty. Within a nano-second, the entire audience starting hissing, burly bouncers had seized the “intruders”, and a photographer was recording the event in time for the newspaper deadlines. In fifteen seconds it was over, and to this day I can’t decide if the whole thing wasn’t a sinister set-up.

Of course, this is what most of politics is all about these days: harnessing prejudice. Which explains the total panic amongst right wing republicans when they realized that John McCain might not be using quite the right words in his speeches. At least now, whoever wins the nomination, the democrats are going to be offering America something new, and there’s a real revival in public interest as a result. Which is more than can be said for our politics over here.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lunch with The Tap Dancing Millionaire

It’s just a month since my New Year’s resolution, and things aren’t going at all well. Keith Hann, my adversary in the battle of the diets, has gloatingly emailed me that he’s down to 14 stone 9 pounds. This puts me five pounds behind, and that’s not counting a wonderful dinner at Seaham Hall on Saturday night. As it was my suggestion that we undertake this ludicrous challenge, it’s particularly galling, particularly as Hann’s email arrived in the middle of a rather hearty lunch with my old friend Richard Stilgoe.

Stilgoe, he of the witty songs, has done incredibly well since I was his producer on Nationwide. He and I collaborated on all those musical sketches, like the barber shop quartet, where he played all four characters simultaneously and one Stilgoe shaved another’s beard off. We also made a little DIY series called Oddjob, with helpful hints for the hopelessly inept. I still have a couple of copies of the book of the series with my name on the cover, which Joanna thinks is a huge joke because she knows just how unhandy I really am, whereas Richard built his own house. Later we made a couple of comedy series together, including A Kick Up The Eighties, the programme that discovered Tracey Ullman and Rik Mayall.

Despite having a name that is an anagram of Giscard O’Hitler, Richard is one of the world’s really nice chaps, and he finally struck gold when Andrew Lloyd Webber hired him to write lyrics for Cats. He went on to pen the whole of Starlight Express, and nearly half of Phantom of the Opera. Yet, despite the massive royalty cheques which flow in to this day, and which could have seen him with more Ferraris and bling than the whole of Darras Hall, he has chosen to keep his feet on the ground and gives most of his wealth to various worthy charities. Well, I say his feet are on the ground: they haven’t been since January 1st, and this is where I got really depressed.

Apparently Richard’s new year’s resolution was to take up tap dancing. In contrast to my own utter lack of resolve, Richard has really gone for it, and now he’s paddling and rolling and shim-sham-shimmying like a true pro.

The thought of Richard, who’s 65 this year, queuing up for tap classes with all the lissom young dancers at the Pineapple Dance Studios really makes me smile. I can’t imagine him in a leotard (I’ve only ever seen him in a sports jacket and tie). He told me that even though he’s three times the age of most people there he’s very comfortable in his tap shoes, and only slightly disconcerted by the overtures of some of the men.

I’ve been to Pineapple Dance Studios many times, holding auditions for the various dance shows I produced in the 80’s, like The Hot Shoe Show with Wayne Sleep and Bonnie Langford. Surrounded by the slender and bendy, at first I used to hold my tummy in: then I decided looking like Orson Welles made me more glamorous, so I let it all hang out. Dance auditions are the cruelest sport. The bright young things arrive full of hope, having spent an hour or more travelling in from the suburbs. As a producer, it takes you on average 12 seconds to make a decision. “Thank you so much, next please”. Twenty at a time.

Meanwhile, I’ve managed to uncover Hann’s secret diet. Forget the fitness regime and slimming aids, he’s using the new “No-D” diet. He’s given up dinner. No wonder he’s winning the contest, the poor chap must be starving. No chance I’m going to follow his lead, living with Joanna, who is an excellent cook. Besides, I’m dutifully doing what The Journal commands, and Eating Local. In fact, I’m eating for the whole of Tynedale. So if I lose the diet challenge on Easter Day, I can now blame the Journal's Editor. Anyway, I’m fighting back. Inspired by Stilgoe’s hoofing, I’ve hit the Matfen Hall gym big time. No photos please, and I’m certainly not releasing a slimming video.