Sunday, September 27, 2009

Indian Summer

It could so easily have been a disaster. Thankfully Saturday night turned into an evening of delicious surprises.

I’m not referring to Kevin Nolan’s hattrick in Newcastle United’s 4-0 trouncing of Ipswich, or the removal of Richard Dunwoody from Strictly Come Dancing, pleasant as both incidents were in themselves. It was the fact that our party actually worked.

It certainly might have been a different story. Three months ago, on a particularly warm late spring day, Jo and I decided that as we were getting married in California, we should throw a little shindig for our closest friends and family back home in England. Dreaming of chilled pink champagne and strawberries in the garden, I unilaterally decided to write “4.30pm start” on the invitations.

As the months passed and we discovered that the Meteorological Office’s promised “barbecue summer” was just a fantasy, Jo berated my absurd optimism. What on earth were we to do with 70 people in a chilly windswept Northumbrian farmhouse in the pouring rain in late September? As usual, I stubbornly refused to accept she might be right.

Last week, as the BBC weatherman was still insisting it was sunny and warm, we were lighting the Aga and bringing in the winter logs. I buttoned up my jacket against the cold drizzle and defiantly trudged round the local wine shops. Apparently there isn’t much demand for pink bubbly right now. Eventually a nice man at Ponteland Wine Rack managed to track some down in Sheffield. Just in case, we’d booked heaters and a marquee. Then, to really warm people up, we ordered curry.

It wasn’t just that we wanted fine weather for our party, it was that we’d invited so many friends from London who were utterly convinced we’d moved to the North Pole. This was their first sight of our new home and for some it was their first taste of our region. As self-appointed North East ambassadors to our unfortunate city cousins, we wanted the whole county to make a good impression.

We needn’t have worried. On Saturday morning we woke up to blue skies and warm air. Somebody was smiling on us – and on Northumberland. The September roses were at their peak in the garden, the sheep were bleating in a major key, and the guests arrived with smiles, gifts, and a determination to party.

Theatre directors, television producers and showbiz agents mingled with farmers, doctors and landowners. It was the most eclectic mix. But the highlight of the night was the curry. Our dear friends at Rasa really pulled out the stops and threw us a full-scale Keralan wedding banquet, complete with music and dancing. Even Jonathan Shalit, agent to stars like Myleene Klass, Jamelia and Kate Silverton, and hitherto a terminal curry-hater, was won over.

Jonathan’s been a good friend since the day we stood side by side in the urinals of The Ivy and he offered me a television exclusive with his new signing, a 12 year old Welsh opera singer that he thought was going to be huge. I politely declined the opportunity and the fact that I’d turned down Charlotte Church is a story he retells with great relish at every party he comes to.

Jonathan had rung me on Monday to say that he simply couldn’t bear curry, so we prepared him a separate meal. But in the middle of the banquet, surrounded by the wonderful smells and sounds of Kerala, he couldn’t resist. The conversion was instant. Everyone in the room pronounced it the finest curry they had ever tasted, and were shocked to discover that it had been cooked by an Indian restaurant in Newcastle. The Londoners were even more shocked to find out that they could get precisely the same cuisine in several Rasa branches in London.

It was one of many surprises that night. David Cottrell, my old schoolfriend and one of the country’s top eye surgeons, discovered that the Indian dancer performing astoundingly exotic and sensual moves right in front of him actually worked in his ophthalmology department at the RVI.

As I write this on Sunday, the weather is back to its gloomy chill and the garden is a forest of empty bottles. Ah well, back to reality.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Product placement on UK television

Last week’s announcement by culture secretary Ben Bradshaw that Britain is to have product placement on its television screens came not a moment too soon.

It’s always been a major source of revenue for broadcasters in America and Europe finally caught up last year. Only Britain has remained stubbornly opposed, employing dinosaur arguments like “damage to editorial integrity”. From the New Year our most popular programmes will resemble the real world rather than having fake brands or products turned with their labels facing away from the cameras.

In fact, we’ve had product placement in the UK for years without realising it. Think of the last time you saw a travel documentary or a gameshow. When you see the tailfin of a plane, a check-in desk, or a luxury resort offered as a prize, do you seriously think the producers have paid the full price? When a celebrity drives a high performance car in a series, do you imagine he actually owns it? Most female television presenters have their outfits provided by a fashion house – either free, or at a discount. In future companies will pay commercial broadcasters hard cash to have their products featured rather than those of a rival.

Even though it’s excluded from the new provision, product placement isn’t exactly unknown on the BBC. My old series Challenge Anneka had more commercial branding in it than will be permitted next year. We had a researcher whose primary job before transmission was to check that every company that helped us had a “name check”. In each episode up to fifty utterly superfluous shots of lorries and workers in company tee shirts were added just to keep the suppliers happy and everyone was listed in the credits. Of course, it was justified because it was for charity – but the BBC never actually confessed to the arrangement.

Likewise Children In Need: can you imagine all those companies being quite so generous if the BBC didn’t allow their smartly dressed chief executives to sit in the studio with six-foot long cheques? Product placement on the BBC is every commercial organisation’s ultimate goal. It’s advertising you can’t buy, which makes it priceless – and even more valuable now you’ll be able to legally buy space within ITV programmes.

This change in legislation is not just because ITV is in dire straits, but also because the nature of media advertising is changing. People don’t watch the adverts anymore; they switch between channels during the breaks. So advertisers need their commercials inside the programmes themselves, so they can surreptitiously sell to viewers without them realizing it. You’ll probably notice it first in Coronation Street. The most publicized beer in the country is Newton & Ridley – the fictitious brewery used by the programme because it can’t feature real brands. Can you imagine the bidding war already taking place for control of the bitter in The Rovers Return?

Sadly the new rules won’t extend to the BBC or to children’s programming, so the wonderful anachronism of the “washing-up bottle” will remain on Blue Peter. Everyone knows it’s Fairy Liquid, but the words are blanked out, so generations of children have grown up to recognise the brand by the colour of the lid and the shape of the bottle.

In the United States, product placement is taken to extremes. Simon Cowell and his American Idol chums sit in front of bright red Coca Cola cups, which the producer has to keep turning so the logo faces the camera. The performers are interviewed in a bright red room which looks like the inside of a Coca Cola vending machine, and all the contestants have to take part in a Ford commercial which is shown during the programme.

I can’t imagine what The X-Factor will look like next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mr & Mrs

Jo tugged at my arm excitedly. “Look!” she whispered.

I’d spotted the woman as we emerged from the hotel reception. A dark-haired, sullen, pouty, predatory type dressed in dark brown and standing with her back to the grey-haired man loading luggage into the boot of a small saloon car. I hadn’t given the couple a second glance.

“It’s Mel Gibson”, she hissed. I looked back. He was much shorter than I’d expected, but the face was unmistakable. There was Braveheart, slamming down the boot lid as his new Russian girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva slinked into the passenger seat.

I can understand why celebrities like the Post Ranch Inn, a modest title for one of the most exclusive hideaways in California. Set high on the clifftops of Big Sur, sixty miles of scary hairpin bends away from any sort of town, the hotel is a collection of secluded chalets carved into the hillside. From the outside they look like little hobbit homes with grass roofs; inside, walls of glass display an expanse of Pacific Ocean a thousand feet below. Without television, internet, mobile phones or children, it’s more rustic than luxurious. New age music plays from the stereo – pan pipes and piano evoking opulence and exotic spa treatments. Perfect for a honeymoon, it’s evidently also a celebrity love nest.

“I know, let’s ask him if he wants to do a reality series,” Jo said suddenly as we walked up the hill towards our infinity pool jacuzzi. “He needs rehabilitating after his anti-semitic outburst in Malibu – tell him I’m a Jewish television producer.” I think she was only half joking.

Both Jo’s parents are Jewish, and our wedding had been held in the garden of their home. This was nothing like my previous experiences: the Tibetan Buddhist ceremony set in the Himalayas, or the Church of England affair, complete with bishop. Our ceremony was performed by Cantor Yonah Kliger of the Emanuel Temple in Beverly Hills, synagogue to the stars. A delightful man, who has been Jo’s close friend for nearly twenty years, Yonah also has the most beautiful singing voice, which is why people like Steven Spielberg book him for their children’s bar-mitvahs.

I liked the way the cantor does all the singing – no communal grunting through unfamiliar hymns, the hundred or so guests simply enjoying the sea view and the romance as Jo and I plighted our troth under the chuppah – symbol of our home – with my two sons as best man and “ringbearer”.
It was a moving, intimate wedding and, as it will undoubtedly be my last, I was determined to enjoy every moment. I loved the unfamiliar rituals: Jo circling me seven times, the stamping on the glass, baby Izzy waving at the crowd with a tiny yamacha perched on her head, and the laughter and tears as Jo and I read out the vows we’d written ourselves.

Jo looked so breathtakingly beautiful I think in the heat of the moment I even vowed to obey her – but as I’ve been doing that for the past six years I guess it won’t make too much of a difference back home.

After all that excitement, the honeymoon hotel was a moment of tranquility on the way to the Napa Valley for some wine tasting and fine dining with my divorce lawyer Gary and his wife. Although the legal fees in my last protacted settlement can’t have come close to Mel Gibson’s £640 million divorce from the mother of his seven children, Gary and I became very good friends during our three-year battle.

At The French Laundry, said by some to be America’s finest restaurant, somewhere around the eighth course I toasted Gary and formally discharged him from service.

“I no longer need a divorce lawyer — you’re fired.” “L’chaim!”, he said, raising his glass: “To Life!”.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Drama In Dana Point

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks.

Weddings are supposed to be stressful affairs, but Jo and I have been fortunate. Instead of the customary panic with caterers and table plans, we’ve quietly enjoyed our Northumbrian summer while the real pressure lay with our generous hosts, my future (now present) in-laws. They’re a delightful, warm couple living in an opulent gated community overlooking the sea in Southern California.

Nothing much happens in Dana Point. The local paper, the Orange County Register, must have the most bored crime reporter in America. “Thousands attend food and fun fest”, declared its front page the day we arrived, referring not to our forthcoming wedding, but to the Orange International Street Fair. On the inside pages, a short paragraph about an unidentified homeless man found dead in nearby marshes (“Police do not believe the death to be suspicious”) was eclipsed by reports of charity fund-raising events. The community is a million miles away from the fires belching black smoke into the atmosphere on the other side of Los Angeles. Here the air is cooler, the sky always blue.

The Pines scarcely blinked when the Gutteridges descended on them: baby Izzy, my boisterous children, and their 88-year-old grandmother. We’re not exactly the quietest of families, but they welcomed us with open arms.

However I think the stress of the occasion finally got to my father-in-law the first night we all got together. He’d commandeered a local Italian restaurant and, inspired by several glasses of Merlot, stood up and made a moving speech welcoming the union of our two large families. Like a scene from The Godfather, his tears flowed with the red wine as he sat down to appreciative applause.

Unfortunately the occasion must have been a little too much for him. His eyes closed and we all watched transfixed as, in agonisingly slow motion, his head lowered itself onto my mother’s chest. She scarcely blinked, but, with calm English aplomb, gently turned to the side, thereby allowing the head to continue its journey downwards into a plate of warm spaghetti. It was a momentous sight.

Jo, of course, was mortified, and immediately ordered me to carry her father to the car and drive him home. It was there that the drama really started. Declaring himself perfectly fit, he stood up, whereupon his legs crumpled, he fell forward and demolished a valuable antique coffee table, then lay moaning on the floor.

Not sure whether her father was injured or dying, Jo dialed 911 and within minutes the sleeping neighbourhood was woken to the sound of fire engines and ambulances. I counted 11 paramedics in the room as they thoroughly checked their patient, then pronounced a good night’s sleep as the best cure for what they politely diagnosed as an allergic reaction to the wine.

The following morning Billy was utterly remorseful. He needn't have been. Generous and open to a fault, we love Billy and I'm proud to have him as a father-in-law, even with his head in the spaghetti. He and his lovely wife Lisa gave us the wedding of our dreams, for which we're truly grateful. More of which later. Whether Dana Point has recovered from either event yet is another matter.

All the excitement must have rubbed off on the rest of the town, for the following morning my son and I were calmly collecting our suits from the dry cleaners when we heard gunshots, the screeching of tyres, and more than a dozen police cars surrounded the motel across the street. Within a few minutes we were in the middle of a scene from CSI. A police helicopter circled overhead, a fat detective with a loud Hawaiian shirt barked orders at officers with fearsome-looking rifles. The Orange County Register reported next day that a man, upset over a breakup with his girlfriend, had opened fire at nothing in particular from his motel room. Now that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often in Morpeth.

After that, the wedding itself was comparatively calm: a warm, loving family occasion with the sun setting on the sea behind us, and a honeymoon shared with my divorce lawyer and Mel Gibson - really (see the next post).