Sunday, June 28, 2009

RIP King of Pop

OK, I admit it. I never met Michael Jackson. I don’t think I know anyone who’s ever met Michael Jackson. This appears to put me in a minority.

All weekend anybody who had ever been on the same planet as the infamous singer has been pontificating on “the Michael I knew”. From spoonbenders to bodyguards, nannies to speechwriters (“Well, I’m not actually his speechwriter”, said one interviewee on Radio Four, “but I did help him write one in 2001”): everyone has been wheeled out for a quote.

All the comments, articles and interviews from these “close friends” comprise a very confusing jigsaw. Try and put the pieces together, you’d suspect none of them knew him at all: was he genius or monster, abused or abuser, addict or prude, billionaire or bankrupt, loner or partygoer, creepy or friendly, genuine or plastic, homosexual or husband, black or white? It’s as if scores of different Michael Jacksons have emerged from the woodwork over the last three days: the public can now pick and mix their own version from the various options on offer.

I felt for the poor obituary producers on the 24-hour news channels, desperately trying to sum up the man in just 45 seconds. In fact, you had to feel sorry for all conventional journalists on Thursday night. If the death of Jackson spelt the end of the 1980s (as one correspondent described it yesterday), the nature of his passing was pure 2009. How very typical of the man to be so of the moment that the news came not from any conventional source, but posted on the web. For nearly two hours the celebrity gossip site TMZ doggedly insisted he was dead, while the combined weight of all the news organisations hedged its bets by having him in a coma, or just “in a very bad way”. Millions were twittering RIPs long before the television stations confirmed it, despite all their news helicopters humming over the hospital.

It’s done wonders for his career, of course. Shares in the Jackson brand have soared, and millions of dollars worth of his debts will be paid off over the next few weeks as we rush to buy his albums. The suddenness of his passing, the continuing suspicion surrounding the drugs and the doctors, has probably achieved more record sales than any number of concerts arranged for his ill-conceived comeback.

In many ways, his death was the least unexpected of any personality. Hounded to death by debts, drugs and the vampire-like cravings of his hangers-on, his destruction was bound to happen sooner or later. It was the only conceivable release from his sad, unavoidable decline. Even in the unlikely event that the London concerts would have taken place, they would almost certainly have exposed an old, sick, spent, fallen idol. Now, by dying in such appropriately mysterious circumstances, he joins the mythical legends of his own fantasies: Elvis, Marilyn, Princess Diana, James Dean. It’s exactly what he would have wanted: pure, distilled publicity.

In life, the world wasn’t sure how to read him: paedophile or pitiful, fragile or failure; now, in death, words like icon and legend are being thrown around. For me, I just loved the music. But it’s a tabloid newspaper’s dream, one that they’ve been rehearsing for years, as the world’s obsession with popular trash culture has grown. Forget Jade Goody, Katie and Peter’s marriage: this story is the real deal. It’s going to run and run – no need for Max Clifford this time.

It’s as if Jackson, through the grave, has finally taken control of his own publicity machine. As each interview and counterclaim adds to the enigma, Jackson is writing his own legend. It’s his final masterpiece and we’re all obsessed with it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Decision Time

My life turned full circle last week when I found myself sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor of my empty London house.

Before any friends or family fear the worst, let me reassure them that Jo and I have had no falling out. I’d gone to inspect the house after my tenant, a high-earning American banker, became the latest victim of the credit crunch. Over the three years of his tenancy my life has been transformed. New house, new wife, new child, and, thanks to Northumberland, a whole new world. Now the house is empty, there’s an opportunity to move back south again. Decision time.

The last time I’d rolled out the mattress it was in very different circumstances. Jo was still living in Los Angeles and I had arrived in London alone, with only my dog for company. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the house. Tess and I sat on the floor and looked at each other. We clearly had to make a decision about the future. So we did what anyone would do in a moment of crisis: we headed for the pub.

There was a terrible old boozer down the road called the Wells Tavern, which I remembered for its warm beer and curled up sandwiches of dubious provenance. But at least it was local. As we turned the corner I blinked. It had become a gastropub. The sister of London’s leading food critic Fay Maschler had bought the place and transformed it. Mercifully, despite its comfy sofas and smart d├ęcor, it was also dog friendly. Tess wagged her way onto one of the sofas and I ordered fillet steak, a glass of good red wine and a bowl of water. Things were looking up.

I borrowed the manager’s pen and, on the back of the menu, began a list of all the things I’d wanted to do in my life but which thirty years of ambition had postponed. Spend more time with my children, write a novel, revisit my old haunts on Tyneside, see Cuba, lose weight – the list took two large glasses to complete. Right at the top was something I’d been promising myself for more than twenty years: a cookery course in Italy. Sadly my ex-wives had never been into cooking, but I really wanted to make my own pasta and learn the secrets of those powerful authentic sauces.

I left the pub determined to research some Italian cookery schools. Outside, Tess headed for the nearest tree. As I waited for her, I spotted a small handwritten notice pinned to the wall outside the pub. “Arte Culinaria”, it read: Italian Cookery School near Venice. The serendipity was the trigger I needed and it changed my life.

When I rang the number, the owner Antonella sounded more surprised than I was. Yes, there were vacancies. In fact I could come whenever I liked: the notice had only gone up that morning. How many people are you? I paused. “I’ll call you back.”

There was only one person I knew that enjoyed cooking as much as I did. It took two days to persuade Jo to fly from California to join me in Venice and we’ve been together ever since.

Back at the Wells Tavern last Friday, I read in the local paper about the latest spate of muggings in the neighbourhood. Fashion designer Nicole Farhi, who lives close by, had been nearly strangled by two men high on drugs; 18 other women had been attacked in just 2 months. There were stories of murders and gridlocked roads, poor air quality and an acute shortage of places in local schools. I thought of where we now live – clear roads, clean skies and pretty much crime-free. Decision time? We wouldn’t move back south for all the gastropubs in the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Challenging Anneka

Despite the hype, it seems that all that twitters is not gold. Last week researchers from Harvard Business School reported that most people who sign up to the social networking site Twitter tweet once and never again.

For those unfamiliar with the jargon, Twitter is a way of communicating with other people by sending little messages (called “tweets”) via mobile phone or internet. Theoretically it enables you to tell your friends what you’re doing at any moment, seek advice and generally stay in touch. However it turns out that 90% of all tweets are made by just 10% of the users. Which suggests that most tweets are either exchanges between twitter geeks (presumably called tweeks) or are one-way messages sent out by publicity seekers like Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross: missives to the masses.

It’s a shame, as someone suggested to me the other day that I should use Twitter to reinvent the old Challenge Anneka format. Just tweet the need, and thousands of volunteers would turn up with hammers and nails and do the job for you. If only life were so simple.

It’s exactly 20 years ago since I first produced that iconic series. “Making the impossible possible using the power of television”, I wrote in the publicity blurb for Radio Times. You may remember the concept: a charity or community gives a challenge to a blonde lady in a tight jumpsuit. Armed with just a mobile phone, a truck and a buggy, she has to complete the challenge with no money but loads of public goodwill (or so the blurb went on).

Our first task was set by the Mayor of Weymouth. The town’s most famous landmark was carved into the limestone hillside: a 300-foot tall white horse with King George III sitting on its back. However two centuries of Dorset rain had reduced it to a dull shade of grey. Our challenge was to restore it by sunset. Easy, we thought: just send out a call and hundreds of good citizens will show up with shovels.

We went first to BBC Radio Weymouth, and Anneka made an impassioned appeal. Researchers manned the phone lines, waiting for the deluge. The deluge came alright: torrential rain greeted us as we left the radio station with just seven names on the back of a BBC envelope, including the phone number of the local scout troupe. We hoped that a few more listeners were secretly putting on their wellies and overalls.

On top of Osmington Hill, we couldn’t see the horse through the driving sleet. Standing on the king’s head, you could just about make out his horse’s ears in the mist below. We decided to head for Portland to cadge some fresh limestone from the quarry; Anneka’s buggy roared out of the back of her truck, and promptly got stuck in the mud.

Two hours later the production team, 11 boy scouts and a few helpers from the local Lions Club were trying to shovel 200 tons of Portland Stone down the side of the hill. As if to taunt us, minutes before our deadline the skies cleared and a glorious sunset revealed a shiny white king sitting on a dirty brown horse – as if the animal, like us, was swimming in mud.

Our abject failure made the series a huge hit, of course: viewers assumed that every challenge was similarly vulnerable. But for every subsequent episode over the next six years we took no chances. Weeks before each “challenge” we lined up materials and workforces, helpfully donated by companies in exchange for a shot of their logo on a sweat-laden T-shirt during the show.

So, even if Twitter transforms itself into the social communications site it aims to be, I still doubt it could ever make the impossible possible. Unless, maybe, we Challenge Stephen Fry.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Finger of Fate

My heart goes out to those who loved the victims of flight AF 447. The passing of someone close is always painful; but sudden and unexplained death hits you with a blow so severe, the scars can last for years. Nothing demonstrates the fragility and transience of life more than the unexpected severance of the link between two close human beings. It’s so unfair: why now, and why us?

I was 20 when I received a note from the university porter asking me to call home. It was 9pm, just a few days before Christmas. My mother was calm on the phone. “I have some bad news. Your father…”, then the voice breaking into anguished fragments: “Bertie’s dead: Oh Tom, please come home.”

It was already snowing as I crank-started my 1955 Ford Popular. Only two of its three gears worked: it popped out of third when it went over a bump, giving the car a top speed of 28 miles per hour. There was no heater and just a single vacuum powered windscreen wiper that had wheezed its final wipe months before. The two little eyeball headlights mounted over the front wheels glowed in proportion to the speed of the car, and so made no impression on the freezing fog that enveloped us as we struggled over the moors. With one frozen hand stuck through the window to wipe ice from the windscreen, the other holding the gearstick in place, I gripped the steering wheel between my knees. It took five hours to make the 90 miles to Tynemouth.

I arrived at 3am. It was home, but somehow unfamiliar: my mother white with fatigue and tears, the door to the family bedroom firmly closed. I can still recall the next few days as images from a half-remembered film: my half-brother, 17 years my senior, arriving from London absolutely distraught; Mum bravely cooking Christmas lunch for us all as if nothing had happened – we ate, but tasted nothing; the black suits at the funeral, with me shaking hands and thanking but unable to cry, even when the earth began to cover the brass label on the coffin lid. The shock of sudden separation was such that I couldn’t mourn my father’s passing until 12 years later when I returned to North Shields cemetery and without a guide walked through the sea of thousands of similar headstones directly to his name. And there I finally dissolved with heaving sobs.

In contrast to Dad’s departure, Mum has been confidently predicting her own imminent demise for the last 20 years. Her first scheduled death was on February 16th 1995. We rang her the following morning to ask her how it went. She brushed it off as a miscalculation by a gypsy. Since then I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to go over to her house to be cheerfully shown where her will is kept, just in case. One year my children and I, together with my son’s embarrassed new girlfriend, were taken to Hampstead Heath, where Mum first courted my father, to help her choose the specific oak sapling under which her ashes were to be scattered. My youngest daughter looked up at her with a confused face. "Granny, how will your big body get under that little tree?"

12 years later Mum, at 88, is looking fitter and happier than ever. A gifted portrait painter, with a brain sharper than Jeremy Paxman’s, she undoubtedly will outlive all her subjects, and probably me too.

Mum, the great survivor, has often witnessed the arbitrary finger of Fate. Many of her friends perished in the London Blitz and elsewhere during the War. Watching the D-Day commemoration, I thought of the thousands selected to lose their lives, and of those who survived to tell their heroic tale. Gratitude for life is a hard thing to express. But living every day as if it’s your last is probably one way to say thank you.