Monday, June 30, 2008

The Whispering Diva

I’ve spent three of the last seven days going to the opera. Well, going and coming back to be precise, and to only one opera at that. Glyndebourne in Sussex is just about as far South as you can get before the language turns French. It’s deep in Cameron country and, unless you have a private helicopter, the journey from Newcastle takes you a day each way. So I was relieved that the performance was just about worth the trip – Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring was a jolly romp, almost as good as the three operas I saw the previous week in Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and for which you didn’t require a mortgage to pay the train fares. I can’t tell you how lucky we are to have Opera North.

For most people the point about Glyndebourne isn’t the music, it’s the picnic you have during the 90-minute interval. Thankfully, as my host had looked at the weather forecast, we dined in the restaurant, and so had a grandstand view of the rich and pompous sitting on the drenched lawns with pink champagne and Marks and Spencer cool boxes. Most drank from plastic flutes, and dragged soggy sandwiches from Tupperware, but the lack of crystal was more than made up for by the cut glass accents. A picnic in the rain is a great English tradition, and from the comfort of the restaurant you could see overweight affluent ladies in long old-fashioned frocks, shoes as wet as their bow-tied husbands, tartan rugs round their necks struggling to keep warm. They wouldn’t survive a day in Northumberland.

The first time I went to Glyndebourne I was behind the scenes, directing an opera for the BBC. It was a fiendishly complex little piece by Ravel called L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Bewitched Child), and involved animations projected onto the set designed by the Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak. After days trying to get the animations to synchronise with the scenery, we were just about ready when disaster struck. We turned up on the day of filming to discover that the lead had completely lost her voice. Doubtless thanks to too many picnics in the Sussex rain, Cynthia Buchan’s warm mezzo-soprano voice had been reduced to an almost inaudible whisper. A performance was clearly out of the question, but we had a million pounds worth of cameras, recording equipment, scenery, and Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic sitting waiting in the theatre.

Now the word diva has a double meaning. It’s used to describe an arrogant or temperamental woman because that’s what a distinguished opera singer is supposed to be. Not so Cynthia. She was desperately upset, obviously, but after sitting down with her, and frantic phone calls to our insurance company, we came up with a plan.

So it was that the black-tied picnickers arrived to find a little note in their programmes. The “Child” was to be played by Ms Buchan, but they weren’t actually going to hear her sing. I put a microphone inside her costume, and she whispered her way through the entire opera. Then, weeks later, when her voice had returned, we sat in a sound studio in London and added her real voice. Not a single television viewer noticed.

This rule that the “show must go on” is part of the magic of television. This week my company landed a big order with a major network. Sadly this show won’t go on in the North East because Newcastle no longer has a television studio large enough to accommodate it. It’s a tragedy: the talented technicians are still here, but there’s no studio for them to work in. That’s another thing to be added to the shopping list of the region’s facilities: along with a decent road link to the South and a Champions League-level football team. Maybe next year.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Train-wreck celebrities and me

This Wednesday the University of East Anglia stages a symposium on train-wreck female celebrities. Academics from all over the world will consider such learned papers as “Britney’s tears: the abject female celebrity in post-emotional society”; “From queen of the jungle to tabloid folk devil: Kerry Katona as white trash mother”; and “Lindsay Lohan and the culture of celebrity notoriety”.

Britain is fascinated by self-destructive female celebrities. But then we do seem to have more than our fair share of them. Naomi Campbell’s sentence of 200 hours of community service is probably less than she deserves. I just hope none of those hours are spent in my community. The woman is, quite clearly, a nightmare. But why is it that women seem to be more prone to spontaneous self-combustion than men?

For years I produced Russell Harty’s chat shows on the BBC. As a result I came across quite a few celebrities – eight a week to be precise. We met out of mutual need: I wanted the biggest names for my shows, and they wanted to plug their books and movies. We used each other without shame.

Over hundreds of episodes, two women stood out. One was Shirley MacLaine. She was the ultimate Hollywood star, surrounded by lackeys and publicists. She was also one of the most unpleasant women I have ever met. She was demanding, unreasonable, and reduced our young researchers to tears. When she stormed off in a rage into the London night because her driver had turned up at the front of the studio rather than the stage door, we were glad to see the back of her.

Then there was Diana Dors. Her life was chaotic, her career in a tailspin, yet the audience adored her, and so did we. She would have won “I’m a Celebrity” hands down. One day she rang me at home: “Tom darling, it’s Diana. You’ve got to come and see my new addition”. I duly went round to her house in Sunningdale, and there she revealed an indoor swimming pool with chandeliers, Grecian pillars and black marble panthers guarding the shallow end; it was the most outrageous lido I’d ever seen. Three weeks later we brought eight million viewers live into her home with Adam Ant, Duncan Goodhew and, absurdly, the entire British Olympic synchronised swimming team, who bobbed round in tiny circles in the deep end. Now I can’t imagine Naomi Campbell letting us do that.

Diana laid her heart on the outside of her not inconsiderable bosoms, and the public loved her honesty. But she was also grounded. She knew where she was from, and never forgot her real name, Diana Fluck, which the studios made her change in case she ever had it up in lights and one of the bulbs went. She was so unlike the humourless celebrities of today’s OK-obsessed world. She’d have charmed the BA captain into finding her lost bag.

But why is it women who get all the bad press nowadays? Surely there are just as many train-wrecked celebrity men? Look at Pete Doherty and Owen Wilson. It’s true that tabloid newspapers and magazines write far more about women. But this isn’t sexism, for the readers of OK are mostly female. The fact is, women only enjoy reading about men through the eyes of another woman: through marriage, a baby, or, best of all, a nice juicy breakup. So Coleen is the star of this week’s OK, not Wayne.

Of course, male stars can be just as unpleasant as female ones. The worst guest we ever had on Harty was Oliver Reed. He arrived at the studio drunk then, five minutes before transmission, declared he wouldn’t go on. When I pleaded with him he said, “Get down on your knees and beg me”. I meekly complied – in front of the entire audience. Now he was a real gent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Happy Father's Day

I’ve been given the most amazing Father’s Day present. It looks like an unshelled peanut with a tiny beating heart. Our embryo has miraculously turned into an eight-week-old foetus. Through the wonder of ultrasound, we’ve just seen it for the first time, swimming inside a radar screen. Ozzy, or maybe Izzy (we won’t know the sex for a while), is already a living, beating, swimming peanut.

As I write this, Joanna is sitting on the sofa, surrounded by strange snacks and pregnancy magazines – for breakfast this morning she had black beans on a baked potato topped with sour cream and jalapenos. Meanwhile I’m planning our move to a larger house.

Having a baby means that in January my role as a parent will start all over again, days before my 57th birthday. Coincidentally, exactly 57 years ago, my Dad must have been sharing what I’m feeling right now. For I, too, was born to a father old enough to be my grandad.

The prospect of a new child at my age is both exciting and worrying. Exciting because I’ve completely forgotten what it was like to hold my own newborn, or change a nappy, or see the first toddling step. I’m looking forward to doing all the things I neglected last time. When my firstborn, now 26, entered my life, I was so preoccupied with career, so blinded by absurd ambition, I scarcely noticed the signposts whizzing past on his motorway to adulthood. These are mistakes I am determined not to make this time. I want to savour every delicious moment.

But I’m worried too. I know that people will assume I’m the granddad. I don’t mind personally, but I recall (now with painful shame) my fear of humiliation as a fourteen year old, praying that Dad wouldn’t come to parents’ day because his grey-haired, overweight 70-year-old presence might engender ridicule amongst my classmates. Oh, if only he were alive today, I would proudly show him off. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, refereed at St James’ Park in the ‘20s, was charming and gentle and doted on me and I wouldn’t even let him come to Assembly. Alas, my shallow, callow ignorance deprived him of many paternal pleasures.

I’ll understand if Ozzy/Izzy feels similarly about me, but I’m determined to be the coolest 70-year-old ever to go to parents’ day. Actually, that would probably be even more embarrassing for the poor child – there’s nothing worse than a parent who imagines he’s cool. But aside from this, I also fear for Ozzy/Izzy’s world.

In 1952 I was born into a society that had survived appalling war and deprivation. My parents’ generation was determined we should grow up with idealism and optimism. If human progress is measured by whether society has improved its quality of life, drawn its population closer to each other and to God, brought up its children balanced evenly on the pillars of family, health, marriage, career, community and spirituality, then my parents’ generation, and mine, have failed abysmally. In the ‘50s, people left their homes and cars unlocked; they smiled and helped each other; young people considered their elders their betters and only used knives to butter their bread; life was simpler, and the fabric of society more richly coloured than the bland consumerism of today. Sure, there have been improvements – we’re a little less discriminatory towards gender, class and race; we’ve learnt how to live longer; but as a whole 1952 was a nicer world to be born into than now.

It’s one of the reasons we have chosen to bring up our child in rural Northumberland. I wouldn’t say it’s like living in the ‘50s, but I do sense an appreciation of traditional values and lifestyle that’s lacking elsewhere in the UK. And that, for my new child, will be a priceless start to life.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Lessons Brown should learn from Hillary Clinton's failure

[Last night Hillary Clinton finally conceded defeat and endorsed Barack Obama's campaign for the US presidency]

There’s something of Gordon Brown in Hillary Clinton. Hard-faced, stubborn, aloof, poor speaking skills, rampant personal ambition hidden for years within the shadow of a more attractive, charismatic partner.

If Clinton had won the Democratic Party nomination, Gordon Brown might now be taking some comfort from the fact that, even with an electorate desperate for change, experience and a safe pair of hands can still win through. But instead Clinton, thanks to a combination of arrogance and ineptitude, now finds herself facing a political wilderness. Brown should learn from her mistakes.

This was a battle between the new generation, carrying no baggage from the past, and the old school, with the previous headmaster still on board. A few months ago the polls suggested Clinton could win by a landslide. There were many reasons for her failure, aside from the general incompetence of her campaign advisers.

Bill was a major factor, a loose cannon roaring around the primaries taking cheap shots at his wife’s opponent. He suggested Obama lied over Iraq, and outrageously played the race card, hinting he could only win because of his colour.

Even when Bill was brought under control (largely by being muzzled altogether) Hillary was brought down by her own mistakes and inadequacies. America won’t easily forgive the lie of the sniper bullets she didn’t face in Bosnia. On stage, she appeared wooden and her smile looked false. Worst of all, she made a series of mean personal attacks against America’s first credible black candidate. She thought she was being strong and uncompromising. But Americans don’t like their women to look tough and mean, so she ended up looking plain nasty against a family man with a naturally friendly demeanour.

Even in defeat, she appears not to have completely given up hope. She’s only “suspended” her campaign, giving Obama her endorsement, but not yet her 18 million voters. Perhaps she wants to trade them for the vice-presidency, or maybe she’s waiting for some terrible Obama slip-up between now and the election. It’s true that Obama needs to win over the women and the lower middle class white voters who voted for Clinton and who could easily cross over to McCain. But Hillary overestimates her own power and influence, and has done so from the start.

To many Americans, Barack Obama represents a break from the past. He’s offering a new style of government unencumbered by old dogma. Tony Blair did this eleven years ago. David Cameron is trying to hitch his wagon to the same star. But there the similarity ends.

Obama actually has policies. If Cameron has any, he’s not sharing them with us. Obama looks trustworthy and believable. By contrast, Cameron looks smarmy – his face looks as though it were made out of dough. Cameron is old Tory, true and blue. Just take a look at his “webcameron”, which on Friday launched a new initiative, “Cameron Direct”. It brings the party leader straight to your door, or, rather, to a village hall near you, stuffed full of Tory supporters asking pre-prepared questions leading to pat, rehearsed answers. Despite his “Direct” approach, Cameron looks just as out of touch with real people as Brown – you can almost smell the expensive aftershave through your computer screen. And just as Obama will have huge problems persuading working class white Americans to put away their prejudices at the ballot box, so it’ll take a lot for working class Brits to put Mr Smarmy into Number Ten. Even if the alternative is indecisive, stubborn old Mr Gloomy.

Cameron is young, but he is no Obama. So Brown should start heeding the lessons of the Clinton failure. Take nothing for granted; listen to the people; get some social and speaking skills; tell the truth. And learn how to smile.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Jim's Inn, Dad, and piccalilli

Last week's experience of working for a day in a professional gastropub kitchen brought back many childhood memories.

My father used to manage a restaurant in Newcastle called Jim’s Inn. It was a Steak Diane/Lobster Thermidor type of eaterie. You know the sort of place: black-tied waiters with faces marbled by alcohol, cocktail barmaid with heaving cleavage, tables lit by tiny candles, black walls and red leather, an air of forbidden opulence. For a 15-year-old, it was utterly addictive.

Dad had worked in the food industry all his life – he was a food technologist, working for companies like Heinz. He was on the team that developed Heinz Sandwich Spread and I still have his recipe for piccalilli at home, which might be really useful if ever I need to make 40 gallons of the stuff. Later he was a consultant for Tyne Brand in North Shields (strapline: “No lumps of fat or gristle guaranteed”) and for a company called Jaunty Foods that sold minced chicken resembling dog food.

Dad had the most sensitive palate, particularly for fine wine. So to be asked to manage a restaurant at the age of 70 must for him have been heaven. For me it meant that if I wanted to see him before bedtime I had to go into the dark recesses of the cocktail bar, and our Christmas lunch was always off the set menu. In its day, Jim’s Inn was the place to be. All the stars at the Theatre Royal piled in after the shows.

Mind you, there wasn’t much competition. I experienced the other end of the scale first-hand. Like the Park Hotel in Tynemouth where I worked as a waiter in the holidays. There was a terrifying chef who treated his staff even worse than the unfortunate pieces of meat he offered his customers. There was a Portuguese waiter who resembled Manuel from Fawlty Towers and one day, while serving a formal lunch to twenty of the region’s bank managers, he presented a huge tray of overcooked lamb chops to the guest of honour, and in the process poured two pints of scalding hot gravy onto his trouser crotch. The banker leapt into the air, sending the entire table, laden with liebfraumilch, skywards. The waiter burst into tears and ran out, never to be seen again.

I also remember working at the Everest restaurant in Tynemouth. I was asked to help out because on Christmas Day they’d optimistically sold two sittings for lunch. When I turned up, I was the only one with any waiting experience (and that was derived from my six weeks at the Park Hotel). Unfortunately the Everest's chef had quit the night before, so they hired a replacement from an agency. He turned up drunk at 10am and the turkeys were still in the freezer. The first hundred customers arrived at noon, and at 3pm they were still waiting for starters as the second lot were banging on the door. There was blood on the carpet that day. The owner, a charming but inept Indian gentleman, was in tears. North East food has come on a lot since those days.

Dad died in 1972, but those last flambĂ©-filled years gifted me my fascination for catering. From time to time I scan the leases for sale, wondering if I should take the plunge, but I know that it would lead to ruin. I like food too much to serve anything but the best or to cut corners. It’s in the blood – my mother was a food industry expert as well. It’s one of the reasons I love being back in the North East: our ingredients and local supply chain are second to none. We could still do with some good restaurants, though.

25 years after his death, I was filming in Newcastle and made a pilgrimage to North Street to see what had become of Jim’s Inn. Amazingly, surrounded by new development, the little Victorian black and white building was still there, boarded up but otherwise untouched. There above the front door was the small plastic sign: “Herbert Thomas Gutteridge, Licensed to sell Beers, Wines & Spirits”. That night I borrowed a screwdriver from my hotel’s concierge and surreptitiously unscrewed it from the doorframe. I mounted it on a smart wooden plaque and my mother has it to this day.

That was ten years ago. The building still stands empty. Every time I pass it I smile and think of Dad, and how proud he’d be of my cooking in a real restaurant, even if for just one night. Forget television, the awards and the rest: food was what really mattered to him. Mind you, despite his amazing palate, he was really just a meat and two veg man. All my complicated sauces would have been pushed to the side of the plate. But he would have loved the Galloway beef.