Sunday, April 27, 2008

Farewell Humph

[Humphrey Lyttelton, Britain's greatest jazz musician, died this weekend]

The Queen was having her lunch when Humph saved my bacon. It was on June 7th 1977, in the middle of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. In London a million people lined the pavements to see the gold state coach make its way to St Paul’s. In every village and town, streets were filled with tables and smiles. The whole country dressed in red white and blue for what was probably our last great national celebration. It’s funny how you can remember what you were doing during momentous events. I was in a television studio with Humphrey Lyttelton.

I was just 25, and I’d been given the task of directing the BBC’s Jubilee coverage: not the actual state occasion, but all the other bits that didn’t have the royal family in them. On the big day, our main role was to keep the nation amused while the Queen was lunching in the Guildhall.

According to the royal schedule, we had an hour and a half to fill – that’s an eternity for a live entertainment show. So we built a giant fairground of nostalgia, with stalls, sideshows and cafes lined with memorabilia and celebrity guests. It was called the Nationwide Jubilee Fair and in the middle was a bandstand, where we installed that great British institution, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. Having given Humph a brief to “keep it jolly”, we knew we could rely on a few pieces of traditional jazz to get the national foot tapping.

As we waited to start our party, we watched the Queen going on an unplanned walkabout outside St Paul’s. It was making her late for lunch. We knew we had to finish our bit at 2.30 because at precisely that moment an extra 500 million viewers from all over the Commonwealth would be joining to watch the Queen’s speech in the Guildhall. It would be one of the biggest live audiences in the history of television. So my producer and I set about cutting out chunks of script to shorten the show.

We went on air twelve minutes late. Apart from Humph there were lots of bands, celebrities and people talking with moist eyes about the past. Somehow we managed to reach our finale dead on time at 2.25. I was keeping an eye on the Guildhall so that I could organize a smooth handover, but for some reason all the cameras were pointing at the ground. “They’re cutting it fine,” I thought, as Frank Bough announced the final song.

“Standby Guildhall” I shouted above the din. No response. I called the control room at St Paul’s. An engineer told me they were still at lunch. “They can’t be”, I said. “We’re on our last item”. “Sorry mate, can’t help you”.

I frantically searched for the bits of script we’d cut out. They were all crumpled up on the floor. In front of me I could see the line “Cue Applause, Cue the Queen” which I’d written at the end of the script as a private joke. In desperation I grabbed a pencil and tore a little piece off the corner of the page. I scribbled three words on it, threw it at a runner, and waited.

At the end of the song, the applause was deafening. Humph was bowing as the note was handed to him. It read “Keep Going Humph.” He paused for a second, smiled, put his trumpet to his lips, and nodded at the band. Then, with that extraordinary intuition which all jazz musicians share, they started to play on together. And on, and on.

So it was that at half past two, 500 million people who’d tuned in for their Queen, instead, for reasons never explained, found themselves watching this wonderful, funny, giant of a man doing what he loved best: impromptu, unrehearsed, celebratory jamming. For twelve glorious minutes he entertained the world until the Queen finished her petits fours. I’m sure they loved every second of it.

Thank you, Humph, we’ll miss you.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

John Prescott's Dark Secret

[Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott confessed today that he used to be a bulimia nervosa sufferer.]

Well, we didn’t see that one coming. John Prescott a secret victim of bulimia? It sounds like a cheap gag from a standup comic. Oh, and Gordon Brown has laughing sickness. But in his memoirs Prezza reveals how he would happily down a whole tin of Carnation condensed milk, or eat his way through the entire menu of Mr Chu’s in Hull. He’d make himself vomit after his binges, a classic sign of the disease which sadly afflicts thousands of girls in their late teens. Mr Prescott blames it on stress. He went to see a consultant who asked him “about my childhood, early sexual experiences, that sort of stuff, which I don’t think had anything to do with it.” Mr Prescott claims “I was just under pressure and seeking relief in eating too much, then sicking it up – that’s all there was to it.”

Although I have no reason to doubt the diagnosis, I’m not sure I entirely buy the source of his affliction. One of the principal causes of bulimia is low self-esteem. Can it be true that the ebullient Mr Prescott had actually discovered what to the rest of the world was blindingly obvious: he was a terrible minister? He’d punched a farmer, had dubious dealings over the super casinos, played away from home with his secretary and his housing and transport policies had failed. You could accuse Prescott of a lot of things, but being good at his job was not one of them. Faced with the realization of such inadequacies, any man would have turned to the bottle – or in his case, the tin.

I wonder if bulimia will soon join the list of celebrity must-have diseases, like depression. Depression is one of those catchy words, like rehab or charity, which is part of a new media shorthand designed to raise public sympathy. It’s a key weapon in the arsenal of the publicity machine: we all like a good victim, so coming out and admitting depression can excuse the most appalling behaviour. The list of celebrity sufferers is growing: George Michael, Kylie Minogue, Melvyn Bragg, Bill Oddie, Ruby Wax, Russell Grant, even Jordan has jumped on the bandwagon. There’s a danger that the sheer number of breast beaters may dilute what is actually a very serious illness. However one consequence of this self-exposure is that at last the public is beginning to accept the importance of “therapy”.

In Britain, especially here in the North, there’s still a stigma attached to the word. People still equate “therapy” with “loony bin”: it’s not something that’s talked about in polite circles. I had dinner last week with a friend who’s just split from his wife. His distress was obvious. It’s affecting his work and he’s drinking too much. When I suggested he should see a therapist, he looked at me with his proud Yorkshire face and said “Don’t be daft, I’ve not gone mad.”

When my first marriage ended I went to see someone called Trevor. He was very nice, but wore grey plastic shoes (funny how you remember such details in times of crisis). At the end of the first session, he charged me £75 and told me to come back twice a week for the next year. I never went again.

When my second marriage was failing, I was living in L.A., where going to a therapist is like going to the gym. I don’t know if I was actually depressed, but I was certainly pretty glum. So, overcoming my northern phobia, I trotted off to see a man with a moustache and Gucci shoes. He asked me the same questions that Mr Prescott’s consultant asked him, and fortunately I didn’t write them off as “stuff”. A year and a hundred sessions later I’d found the failings in me (which were substantial), and began the process of sorting my life out. My shrink even found me a divorce lawyer from among his clients. Mind you, I could have bought a lot of cans of Carnation for the price.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mark Speight

[Television Presenter Mark Speight's body was found this morning on Paddington Station]

Mark Speight was a real television talent. I first came across him in the mid-nineties when I was looking for a host for our new children’s series Scratchy and Co. Although we’d won the Saturday morning children’s slot against fierce opposition from other production companies, we knew it was something of a poisoned chalice. At that time ITV was being hammered in the ratings by the BBC’s juggernaut Live and Kicking. The opposition had huge resources, a big live studio full of children and celebrities and an apparently unlimited budget. We had just enough money to pay for some cartoons, one presenter and a child.

We had this idea of creating a show around an impossibly jolly, manic host called Scratchy and gave the child, whom we called Reg, a deep, grown-up voice. The idea was that Reg, played by a seven-year-old boy called Elliot, would represent sanity in Scratchy’s mad world of mayhem. They both wore enormous suits and crazy rubber wigs. Scratchy’s suit was blue with white clouds whilst Reg was dressed in sober black. They “lived” together in a lop-sided house. Later we added a penguin called Sedgely and a football called Fathead. Don’t ask me why. You can do almost anything you want in Children’s TV.

Mark was a perfect choice for Scratchy. He had a wonderfully dangerous quality about him, and he could switch his mind into child mode as soon as the red light came on. The children’s audience warmed to him from the first episode. By the second season, we were matching the BBC, and the show lasted for three gloriously insane years. We even won an RTS award, though it was scarcely high culture. Mark went on to even greater success with his later programmes encouraging kids to explore their imagination through art. On the screen Mark never grew up. Which makes the circumstances of his own personal tragedy and death all the more upsetting.

I don’t begrudge our television presenters one penny of their salaries: their career life expectancy is surprisingly short, and I can’t imagine the stress of being forever in the public eye. The moment you’re hired, you are always looking over your shoulder at the next young thing coming up on the inside track. And, thanks to the insatiable tabloids, your private life ceases to be your own. Television presenters remain public property for the rest of their lives. Once you’ve been marked out as “onscreen talent”, it’s almost impossible to be taken seriously again in the world of production or journalism. Look at how few news reporters who try their hand at newsreading make the return journey to serious journalism. The moment they’ve kicked their legs about for Children In Need they get put in the box marked “Talent”.

The day we hired Mark, we also took on a presenter for a second ITV’s children’s offering called Massive. She was a very young and green Essex girl called Denise van Outen. Later she was poached by The Big Breakfast and she probably begins her CV there. But it’s one thing to make your mark on television for a few years and quite another to make a lifetime’s career out of it. I’m delighted that Denise has carved herself a proper vocation on the stage, though to me she remains one of Britain’s most relaxed and natural television hosts.

That’s why whenever some young thing asks me for advice on how to get on the telly (and my intray is full of them) my first suggestion is, “Don’t”. As a producer I know the casting of the presenter is the most important choice I have to make, for that person’s image defines my show. But once fashions change, and the series reaches its inevitable end, I’m already off looking for the next big thing, leaving the “star” to file away the newspaper cuttings and ring his agent.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Age Shall Not Wither Them

Muka finally went blind last night. At 3am we heard the howling and found her butting the side of the open kitchen door. I put on all the lights, but still she couldn’t see her way out. She howled her fear until I stroked her brow and put my face next to hers. She laid her head on my neck and licked my ear, then, her big cow eyes unblinking, I gently led her step by step to the safety of her own bed.

Muka is a survivor. Joanna found her 13 years ago in a Los Angeles dog pound. She’d been rescued from the notorious South Central neighbourhood. Muka’s twin sister had already been put down, and it was her turn for execution that very afternoon. For months Jo nurtured her as the fur, destroyed by mange, slowly grew back on the enormous bat-like ears. Muka – quarter Staffordshire, quarter Lab, the rest anyone’s guess – has been at the centre of my life since Jo and I met. As her pack grew, she welcomed newcomers: Poncho the cat, and Truffle, our one-year old cocker. She is flatulent and seventeen and we all adore her.

Muka’s degeneration has been sudden. Last summer she was racing with Truffle across the fields behind the house. Now she trips over flowerpots as she shuffles her arthritic body round the garden.

We all have to accept the inevitability of old age, but it’s the speed of decay that I can’t get used to. My mother is 87. She’s independent, has her own house and car (she even recently got a speeding ticket), goes on international holidays and still teaches painting. Strong as an ox, she spent last weekend helping me plant my potatoes. Her mind is full of a lifetime’s experience and judgment.

Mum and I talked about the inevitable last week, sitting with a large gin and tonic, and Muka, big ears listening for the drop of crisps, at our feet. We weren’t being gloomy, just practical (she’s been showing me her funeral plot and where she keeps her Will every year since 1989). Her five brothers and sisters lasted into their nineties. She lost a brother last year, and her sister’s funeral was on Friday. Most of her friends have already gone. Mortality stares at us, and yet, to me, Mum hasn’t changed since she was sixty: opinionated, annoying, and utterly resilient. It’s her independence that impresses me most. An independence you see in so many of our elderly. And which, in a way, is their greatest threat.

For my generation tends to let our parents get on with things on their own. The disintegration of ‘family’, which began in the fifties, has now virtually stripped the word of any social meaning and left separate generations walled up in self-contained units, only opening their doors at Christmas and Easter.

Sure, society makes the odd gesture, probably to assuage communal guilt. Everyone over sixty got a free local bus pass this week (but no national train pass); there’s a winter fuel allowance, which against the rocketing cost of fuel is worth a fraction of what it used to be. Yet my mother, with a tiny state pension her only reward for a lifetime of national insurance and tax, instead of relaxing and enjoying her independence worries about every penny spent as if she were still in the days of rationing. How obscene that we, living under a supposedly Socialist government, charge our old people Council Tax. Especially as, thanks to the fragmentation of society that we have engineered, most of these old people now live alone.

It’s time Britain undertook a proper review of how we treat the aged. For when my own light begins to fade, I want to live my last days in a society which looks after its elderly at least as well as its dogs.