Monday, October 5, 2009

The High Life

I'm writing this in a dingy French basement. Outside, the sun is baking the cafes on the promenade; with the temperature in the eighties, the Mediterranean is gently lapping the shore, the glamorous beach restaurants are polishing their champagne glasses before lunch. I'm sitting here surrounded by 10,000 delegates sweating in suits, all desperately trying to close their first big deal of the week. It’s that time of year when the world’s television producers and distributors make their way to Cannes to try to sell programmes and formats to each other.

It’s the antithesis of the Cannes Film Festival, where bright young wannabes mingle with the genuinely famous; where helicopters fly celebrities into the Hotel du Cap, tickets for premieres are fought over and everyone feels important just being in town. Here there isn’t a starlet to be seen. This is all about business. However big you are in our industry, it’s impossible not to feel just a little intimidated by the scale of the event.

MIPCom (as it is called) takes place within the bowels of a building rather grandly called the Palais des Festivals: in practice, it's just a glorified car park. It’s depressing to realise that the programmes you make, carefully crafted in edit suites back home, are being hawked in suitcases round the international marketplace as mere product, sold by the hour and only as valuable as the ratings they can generate. It’s a sobering experience; though sobriety isn’t much in evidence as the overpriced champagne flows through the packed bars lining the Croisette. As the alcohol takes effect, the most tentative discussions are talked up into lucrative deals. I’ve long since stopped believing a single word anyone says. So much bullshit in one short week.

I’ve been a regular here since the late 1980s. In the early days I used to think I was terribly grand because I would charter a yacht for the week: a 137-foot steamer called Fair Lady with a British crew of six and a skipper we called Captain Pat. I commandeered the "master stateroom" with a four-poster bed and huge cast-iron roll-top bath. The whole ship was paneled with dark wood and I used to throw grand parties and dinners on board to impress the buyers. One year Robert Wagner and his wife Jill St John joined us as we sailed up and down the coast. That’s when I smoked my first really big cigar, then promptly turned bright green and threw up over the side. I have to admit I enjoyed my brief flirtation with the highlife. Occasionally I would extend the hire beyond the week of the festival and take the boat down the coast.

The first time I did this, I got my first taste of what it must be like to be super-rich. I was sitting on the back of the boat (sorry, stern) having breakfast with my friends with the boat heading out beyond the harbour. Suddenly we became aware that we were going round in circles. I went upstairs (again, I apologise for my complete lack of nautical vocabulary -- some may say I went topside: I went upstairs) and found Captain Pat waiting for me on the bridge. "Why are we going round in circles, Pat?" I asked. "Waiting for instructions, sir. Where would you like to go?"

Then I realised that with an ocean-going yacht at my disposal I could go literally anywhere I wanted. He laid out the map - or "chart" as he called it -- and I pointed to St Tropez. "Good idea", said Pat. "The Nioulargue is taking place tomorrow". The Nioulargue is a race for classic yachts, beautiful vintage sailing boats, some 60 or 70 years old. Off we went, with the chef cheerily killing lobsters down below and the champagne clinking in the ice buckets. From time to time we pulled over close to the shore and Pat lowered a speedboat over the side so that those stable enough could go water-skiing. I had drunk far too much champagne to be a candidate.

It was nightfall by the time we arrived in St Tropez. Pat decided that rather than go into the harbour, we would moor a little way off, close to a beautiful yacht lit up like a battleship. We all got dressed up and took the speed boat (it was far too big to be called a tender) into town. Big mistake: my friend Debbie had got dressed up to the nines. We weren't aware that on the night before the Nioularge the locals had a jolly custom of arming themselves with hosepipes and drenching the people from the smart boats as they came ashore.

The following morning I groggily looked out of the window (you couldn't really call it a porthole) and saw the most amazing sight. Pat had moored us right on the start line for the race and we were being circled by about twenty amazing antique yachts. They saluted us as they came past: for we were also one of the grande dames of the ocean. Despite our hangovers we managed to wave our croissants at them as they came up to the start, then chased the race in the speedboat. I confess that the experience was so utterly intoxicating I very nearly succumbed when the owner of the boat called me a few weeks later and offered to sell Fair Lady to me for a mere couple of million pounds. Those definitely were the days.

As a young Turk of a producer with a couple of hit series under my belt I really thought I’d made it. In fact, of course, I was nobody, for unless you own your own broadcasting company like Rupert Murdoch, no one, however grand, can ever really be truly powerful in the television industry. It’s the most transient, temporary world. One moment you’re president of a network, the next you’re just a salesman, carrying your little briefcase with your promo tapes and your brochures. Whether you’re Jonathan Ross or David Letterman, Michael Grade or Mark Thompson, nobody is indispensable in our world of hiring and firing.

So here I am this morning, the travelling salesman from Newcastle clutching some of the formats we’ve been working on for the last six months: created in Byker, now on sale in Cannes. Last year we did rather well: a broadcaster bought one of our shows and gave us half a million pounds to make a single pilot. I've just had my first meeting: with a buyer from a cable network in the UK, who absolutely loved our new dating show project. It means nothing till the cheque's in the bank, of course. By the time I get back next weekend I’ll either be euphoric or resigned to more hard slog back at the drawing board. Who thought that life in television was glamorous?

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