Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cowell's Got Talent

Lunching on some deliciously authentic Italian pizza in Ago, Robert de Niro’s restaurant in West Hollywood, Simon Cowell was telling me his latest idea. “Tom”, he said, “there are so many talented people we can’t put on American Idol because they’re not young singers. I’d like to do a talent show, and find people who can do amazing things. Fat, weird, old: most of them will be rubbish, but we might find some really outstanding acts.”

That was in 2004. It’s nice to be in at the start of something big, even though I can claim not a jot of credit for what became Britain’s Got Talent. I told Simon his concept sounded a bit like The Gong Show, a 1970s American comedy series in which very bad acts tried to survive the gongs of three celebrity judges. After lunch I stupidly forgot about the idea, but Simon is relentlessly focused, particularly if he spots a gap in the market.

The gestation took quite a time. The following year he registered the name “Paul O’Grady’s Got Talent”, which was to be a new ITV vehicle for the comedian until he fell out with the network and the project was shelved. Eventually Simon sold America’s Got Talent to NBC, and it wasn’t until 2007 that it came back across the Atlantic. Thank goodness it did, for otherwise there’d have been nothing to talk about at dinner parties for the past two months.

You’ve got to hand it to Cowell: he certainly has his finger on the pulse of popular taste. It’s not always tasteful, but it sure is popular, and on Saturday night at least 15 million viewers saw the downfall of Susan Boyle. No longer dressed in drab curtain material, she stood scowling in a shiny silver backcloth stolen from a Glasgow nightclub and repeated her reedy rendition of the wretched “I Dreamed A Dream”. I told you she was just an average singer when I wrote about her first performance and on Saturday night the viewers confirmed it with their votes.

During the show I must have heard the phrase “tonight someone’s life will be changed forever” a dozen times. I do hope that’s the case for Ms Boyle. Once her inevitable album has been remaindered, I trust her life as a celebrity will be transformed back into a calmer, more appropriate existence. She should never have been uprooted from her Scottish village: she has neither voice, personality nor stability to face a career in showbiz.

Meanwhile I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of the two real stars of the show, the winning act Diversity’s gifted choreographer who rejoices in the name of Ashley Banjo, and the wonderful singer Shaheen Jafargholi, whom I predict will emerge as the true winner once puberty and a few years have matured him. It’s a shame the producers put Shaheen on so early in the proceedings. The number of viewers always increases dramatically through a final, so it’s not surprising he was pipped to the winner’s podium (the last three acts got the most votes).

But then, that’s just my opinion. I’m pleased the judges got it spectacularly wrong. Piers Morgan told Diversity that “I thought Flawless (the other street dance act) just edged you”, and Amanda Holden, dressed as Jessica Rabbit, condescendingly told them there might be “room for you” in the world of showbusiness. In fact I predict they’ll bring the house down at the Royal Variety Performance. Nevertheless, is it just me, but isn’t it time we saw some real professional talent back on British television? I’m getting a bit fed up with all these amateurs. It’s a bit like the programme’s sponsors, Domino’s Pizza: OK for a takeaway, but not nearly as delicious as the real thing.

Monday, May 25, 2009

BBC Old-News

Enough is enough. If I see one more headline about MPs using my money to clear moats or buy duck islands or dog food I think I’ll scream.

Sure, I’ve been as hooked on this comedy as anyone. I must have played Anthony Steen’s hilariously inappropriate “my very, very large house looks like Balmoral” interview a dozen times; it beats any stand-up routine. And I’m thrilled that supercilious twits like him have been forced out. But I really think we’ve exhausted this drama now. Everyone knows that the system is screwed; we all agree that there needs to be an election to clear these jokers out and start again; we also agree that the election mustn’t be too soon, otherwise we’ll have a hung parliament stacked with BNP fascists and Esther Rantzen. Or Susan Boyle might end up prime minister.

But we knew all this a week ago. So why is the BBC still following the Telegraph’s agenda, rather than creating its own? I’ve not seen a proper piece of investigative journalism about the expenses story. Like, what exactly is the House of Commons Fees Office? Who are these people who encouraged our hapless representatives to claim for curtains and champagne flutes? Let’s name the real culprits. Or let’s have a proper debate about how parliamentary democracy should be restructured once all this nonsense is over.

Am I the only one concerned about the BBC’s editorial priorities? We’ve grown used to their laziness with local news: how often does ‘Look North’ lead with stories broken by that morning’s The Journal? But we expect better skills from the huge team at TV Centre. Yesterday morning, for example, BBC bulletins led on a News of the World “exclusive” about a bribed chauffeur who showed reporters around the royal garage. I agree it’s a story worth covering, but don’t aren’t there more pressing things going on in the world to lead your bulletin?

Like in Pakistan, for instance. Right now, nearly 2 million human beings are desperately trying to find shelter in 45°C heat. They’ve have been displaced by the Pakistani army’s belated battle with the Taliban in Swat province, a humanitarian catastrophe of momentous proportions that’s been unfolding over the last three weeks – precisely the period where we’ve been preoccupied with revelations about MPs’ expenses. Yet there’s been scant coverage either in BBC News bulletins or on the Today programme.

The cosmopolitanism of BBC News was what used to make it so special. Now I fear it’s veering towards the American model. Tune into any American television news bulletin and I guarantee you will be given only local stories (or, occasionally, one about an American who’s been killed overseas). The country with the greatest influence outside its own borders has the most parochial journalism. I suspect it’s one of the reasons why some Americans sound so utterly self-obsessed when they’re abroad: the world outside their 50 states is, quite simply, foreign.

Why do I believe the situation in Pakistan is marginally more important than lax security at Buckingham Palace? Precisely 18 months ago in this blog I listed the ten biggest hypothetical threats facing the West. Top of the list was: "In Pakistan President Musharraf is replaced by a weak civilian government unable to contain the Taliban. That regime is quickly overthrown by religious extremists who immediately turn round the nuclear missiles currently pointing at Delhi and Mumbai and aim them straight at Tel Aviv."

That apocalyptic scenario is getting closer by the day. There’s no evidence that the Pakistani army is actually winning their war, and Taliban fighters are now within 100 miles of the nuclear red button in Islamabad. Yet our most influential news organisation leads on a tabloid newspaper stunt.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How Not to Look After a Baby

What could be simpler than looking after a baby? Mothers have it so easy: they take six months off work and all they have to do is stick a bottle into an open mouth every few hours, change the occasional nappy, and devour all the fashion magazines as baby sleeps. So why does Jo keep saying she’s exhausted and never has time for herself? I think I now know the answer.

It was her Mother's Day present. Now I know that we in Britain have ours in March, but Jo is American, and perversely the U.S. honored (sic!) its mothers last week. So I took Jo and Izzy for a short break to my favourite hotel, which has just been proclaimed Britain’s Best Spa by Tatler magazine.

Babington House in Somerset is not only the most comfortable hotel I know, it’s also the most child friendly. We booked a family room, which in most hotels spells a bunk bed in the corner. Our suite had a large bedroom with a giant four poster, a sunken bath big enough for a football team, a luxurious sitting room with an enormous flatscreen TV and a separate room for baby with full changing facilities. As soon as we arrived, Jo headed to the spa for some pampering. Meanwhile I looked forward to a cold beer from the fridge, a good laugh at the latest MPs’ expense claims on the BBC News, and some quality time with my daughter. That was the plan, anyway.

As the door closed, Izzy looked at me and beamed. I stuck out my tongue and she giggled. This will be a piece of cake, I thought; time for a quick drink before the six o’clock bottle. As I opened the minibar, the smile inverted to a pout. A wail reverberated round the room. "Sshh...", I went. "Hang on a minute Izzy". Sadly there’s no reasoning with a four-month-old. Her face turned purple and a piercing scream shook the hotel’s foundations. "OK, you win".

The process of decanting a carton of Cow & Gate baby milk seems simple enough. Nestling on my elbow, Izzy chewed impatiently on a dummy as she watched me attempt to perform it one-handed. When the dummy fell on the floor as I tried to read the instructions for the bottle warmer, the screams rang out with such desperation I feared staff would suspect a murder.

Eight ounces later, an uneasy calm resumed. I switched on the TV and began the burping process. Suddenly she exploded. A cascade of warm milk flowed down my cashmere jumper onto my new loafers. As we rushed, too late, for the bib, another dollop landed on the sofa.

Then, just as some TV pundit was discussing the rank smell of corruption emanating from the House of Commons, Izzy’s body arched and the air turned foul. "Oh no, not now; please wait till Mummy gets back", I pleaded. Izzy giggled as a volcano erupted inside her. The entire room stank of rotting baby. As we rushed to the changing table, her smiling end projected a white trail of curdled milk onto the plush grey carpet.

No cotton pad invented could cope with what lay beneath her designer outfit. The Pampers had leaked. Casting her clothes into two piles on the floor – one for the barely salvageable, the other for those beyond redemption – I did my best with an entire packet of wet wipes, then headed for the bathroom. There was a big showerhead in the middle of the ceiling and a Victorian hipbath in the corner; I couldn't work out how to turn either into a baby bath so we made do with the sink. Then I realised I’d forgotten the baby shampoo. I squeezed some hotel shower gel into the water and hoped her skin wouldn’t wrinkle up. The foam went everywhere; Izzy excitedly splashed it round the room.

On the television they were showing the aftermath of some Iraqi car bomb. The scene resembled our hotel suite. I was still clearing up an hour later as Jo walked through the door. “How was it?” she asked. I slumped onto the sofa to hide the damp patch. “Fine – no problems.”

So I’m converted. Jo can have as many luxury breaks as she likes. Working’s easier than babies any day.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Passing the Parcel

I doubt Les Dennis expected to be performing inside a refrigerator.

The Liverpudlian entertainer and actor very generously agreed to come up to Newcastle to help us with a pilot we were making for a new game show. I don’t think the man who presented Family Fortunes on ITV for 15 years anticipated he would get all the trappings of star status: champagne in the dressing room, autograph hunters and paparazzi at the door. But at the very least I guess he expected a studio. Sadly, as regular visitors to this blog will know, Newcastle doesn’t have a television studio anymore. So we built our own out of hardboard and bits of cloth.

Fred Hoult kindly lent us one of his spare buildings in Hoults Yard. It was the old railway station where materials used to be brought in for the Maling Pottery. Paddy, Jess and I put up bits of green curtain and bought some hardboard and green paint from Jewsons. The result: an instant “green screen” studio (even if Paddy walked round in green socks for the entire day). Unfortunately it was a barn of a place and there was no heating or dressing room; it was unbearably cold. And some people think television is a glamorous industry.

The whole exercise was a study in north east ingenuity and goodwill. The show, called Pass the Parcel, was a collaboration between ourselves and three other north east media companies: advertising agency Different, post-production facility Dene Films and animation house Qurios. Local cameraman Chris Sutcliffe generously donated his talents to light and film it. The final product was an extraordinary transformation, which shows what can be done when local businesses get together and pool their talents. It had music, laughter, applause, an enormous colourful set, really funny cartoon “parcels”, and a fantastic network presenter.

It was great to see Les Dennis in action again. Although he’s spent the last few years as a straight actor, it took him just three minutes to switch back into gameshow mode. He’s still one of the best in the business. As everything was on green screen (that is, added in post-production) he had to imagine the scenery, the cartoons, even the contestants. We also put in a big enthusiastic studio audience behind him with which he seemed to have an uncanny rapport. Sadly we had no means of warming them, or him, up, so Les’s performance was all the more impressive as he stood for hours frozen to the concrete floor.

Last week I took the end result to show the BBC in London. The controller of entertainment said it was one of the cleverest showreels he’d seen: deserved praise for a great collaborative effort. Whether he commissions a series or not remains to be seen. And even if he does, we’d need a proper studio to shoot it in, otherwise, sadly, we’ll all be working outside the region again.

Les arrived with giant Edwardian sideburns and a moustache, the products of J.B. Priestley’s comedy When We Are Married, which he’s currently touring round the country. Getting married is just one of the things Les and I have in common, as we discovered when we swapped notes over an excellent lunch at the Hotel du Vin. We’re the same age, have both been through the tabloid mangle, and now each of us has a wonderful real, grounded partner and a new baby daughter. We’re both tying the knot later this year. I last met Les ten years ago, when the tabloids were having their fill of Amanda Holden’s infidelity. Then he looked a haunted man, and I felt desperately sorry for him. Now he’s confident and happy, and, like me, relishing the new life that true love and a baby guarantees. Thanks Les, and fingers crossed we’ll be working together again soon.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tying the Knot

The tickets for our wedding arrived this morning. Not for the event itself – it’s a strictly invitation-only affair – but for the flights taking my entire family, including my 88 year old Mother and baby Izzy, to Los Angeles for the ceremony in August.

To be honest, Joanna and I weren’t planning to risk the stability of our relationship by tying the knot. Having lived together in loved-up harmony for the past five or so years, neither of us wanted to break the equilibrium by exchanging vows. We are already very good at ‘love’ and ‘honour’ and I’ve long resigned myself to ‘obey’; but our friends convinced us that, apart from the arrival of Izzy, there was the “till death do us part” issue: namely, inheritance tax. Apparently wives are exempt from this final grasp of the taxman, whereas live-in partners bear the full burden.

So the invitations are at the printers and the caterer booked. This is the first of my four weddings that I won’t be paying for, thanks to the very kind generosity of my wonderful future in-laws, who are throwing it at their house in Laguna Beach. We’re both looking forward to what will be a joyous informal celebration with friends and family.

It’ll be a sharp contrast to my previous three ceremonies. Last week I found a photograph of my first wife and me at our Tibetan wedding on top of a mountain in the Himalayas with white silk scarves round our necks sitting tanked up with rice beer next to a picture of the Dalai Lama. Exactly one year later we legalized the event in Wandsworth Registry Office. The registrar sounded exactly like Alan Whicker, with a slow nasal drawl, pausing portentously between each syllable: “Do you soh-lem-ly sweeaar?” he whined, reducing us and our half dozen witnesses to helpless giggles.

Then there was the state occasion. Greg Dyke wrote about it in his autobiography. It started out as a quiet country wedding. 350 guests and a quarter of a million pounds later, the firework display nearly set fire to the village. We even had a bishop. The congregation was full of soap stars and celebrity chefs. One well-known actress sat down in her pew next to her agent. “How many photographs did they take of you?” he whispered. “Two or three”, she said. “Get back outside and go round again,” he hissed. And she did. Marco Pierre White cooked the wedding breakfast as a present.

My final wedding will be at sunset overlooking the sea in Jo’s parents’ back garden, with only family and friends, including my divorce lawyer. In fact he and his wife are joining us on our honeymoon. Not because he’s anticipating starting work straight after the wedding (which he pretty much did last time), but because my last divorce was drawn out over so many years, he and I have become very good friends. Maybe his wedding gift will be a pre-nuptial agreement.

Knowing that Jo wouldn’t receive her protection against tax until after the ceremony, last week I decided to protect her position by redrafting my Will. My lawyer gave me a nasty shock. Apparently in the almost certain event I die before her, the new Mrs Gutteridge won’t be entitled to the inheritance tax waiver. Despite forsaking the Californian sunshine forever for the interminable Northumbrian winters and bearing a British child, the taxman insists her legal domicile will always be America. That means that when I go, Izzy’s family home might have to be sold to pay the tax. For the first time in my life I have found a reason to vote Tory: that is, unless Mr Cameron reneges on his promise to increase the IHT allowance.

Mind you, we’re still getting married anyway – we’ve already got the plane tickets.