Saturday, December 18, 2010

Travels with Izzy - Part Two: Christmas Is Cancelled

So that’s Izzy’s childhood fantasy blown. There’s no way she’ll ever dream of sleighbells and reindeer now – she’ll be hiding under the covers every Christmas Eve praying that Santa is just a bad dream.

It’s all the fault of an absurdly smart shopping mall we visited in Newport Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles. They have the tallest Christmas tree in America, a 100 foot giant with over 17,000 ornaments and lights. Beneath it lies Santa’s Village: in fact, it’s just a little Swiss mountain hut, but I guess to a two-year-old it could be a village and it was Izzy’s first chance to meet Santa.

There was no queue at all, quite astonishing for a large mall a week before Christmas. The recession has hit America hard: department stores were advertising sales, restaurants were half empty and bored assistants were chatting to boyfriends on cellphones. We walked up to the mountain hut and peeped inside. There, sitting silently in a huge cream wing chair, was Santa.

I know a 58-year-old isn’t supposed to believe in this stuff, but I’ve never seen a less fake Father Christmas. He had real white whiskers and his eyes twinkled as he stared at us. He didn’t speak or move. He was absolutely, overwhelmingly terrifying.

There were three other people in the room: a bedraggled mother was trying to coax her tearful daughter to have her picture taken by Santa’s official photographer, who had flown down specially from the North Pole with offers of a full Rudolph digital package for $47.95 or maybe just a Prancer ($17.95 for a couple of prints). The kid was having none of it. Older than Izzy by at least a year, the more her mother reasoned with her, bribing with cookies and promises of gifts to come, the less keen she became. Eventually Mom pointed at us: “Look, that little girl isn’t scared – watch her go sit on Santie’s lap”. We had to save the day.

I confidently prised Izzy from her comfy pushchair, sprinkled with chocolate brownie crumbs, and carried her towards the monster. It looked at us and raised one bushy eyebrow. “Good luck, mate,” I said to him jovially, then paused. Aren’t parents supposed to address Santa with more respect? Maybe I should have given a little bow? This was all too casual.

He didn’t react at all, grey eyes piercing through white eyebrows. No “Ho-Ho-Ho, and what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” The beard bore no sign of join or adhesive, and the round face attached to it looked a thousand years old. He looked like a man who’d been glued to his seat since Thanksgiving, despite repeated calls to his agent that he should be back on some nice Hollywood film set.

“Izzy, this is Santa”, I said more slowly, “ and you’re going to see quite a lot of him in your life.” Then I asked, “Should I put her on your lap?”

I stopped myself. Oh God, perhaps they aren’t allowed to do that anymore. I didn’t want to get Santa arrested for indecency. Santa’s right hand, resting on his giant thigh, twitched a weary finger towards his knee.

As I handed her over, Izzy’s eyes opened in surprise. Then she turned and looked at me as if I was completely mad.
The mouth opened, the eyes welled up, and five seconds later a scream blew the doors off Santa’s Village shattering several baubles on the giant Christmas tree. If looks could speak, it would have been “You’re Kidding Me – Get Me Off This Man Right Now!”

“Oh my goodness”, said the photographer through the din. “Told you so”, wailed the three-year-old to her Mom. “Maybe next year”, I apologized to Santa. “Maybe not”, I thought I heard him mutter through the beard.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Travels with Izzy - Part One

The flight attendant was trying to smile and chose her words very carefully: “She’s a very energetic child, isn’t she?”. British Airways staff are trained to be polite.

Izzy was giggling ecstatically as she ran up and down the aisles of the jumbo jet. We were 6 hours into the flight and only halfway to LA. We’d tried reasoning, remonstrating, restraining. Izzy, two years old next month, gave us an ultimatum: we could have either running or screaming. We opted for the running, even if it meant we had to dash behind her, grabbing the belt of her jeans when she threatened to leap on top of one of the slumbering geriatrics, gently snoring away their free champagne.

Sienna Miller was next door in First Class. As Izzy ran towards the curtain, I yanked her back to avoid a celebrity incident.

There are two types of air passengers: those who find an energetic two-year-old cute, and normal people. These were the ones who were looking out of the window, gazing down at the snows of Greenland and somehow wishing the annoying kid would end up with the reindeer 35,000 feet below.

Eventually Izzy discovered the stairs to the upper deck. On the 24th ascent the upper deck stewardess took pity on us. She took the child on a tour of the entire plane, so tiring her out that Izzy finally slept until the lights of Las Vegas signaled our descent.

I used to think I was experienced at international travel. As a high-flying executive, I was occasionally allowed to go first class. I once slept next to Prince Edward – we looked very sweet together, side by side in our blue British Airways pyjamas.

Although I crossed the Atlantic every two weeks, I could never disguise the thrill when they brought round the champagne: I’ve never been able to turn down a free meal. As a result I still say yes to everything: wine, chicken curry, raspberry mousse, the dainty sandwiches and the chocolate bars. Consequently I tend to fall sleep whenever I’m not eating or drinking. It infuriates Jo, who says she may as well be travelling alone.

Not so yesterday. There was scarcely time to butter a bread roll, let alone take a nap. Travelling with a child is the most exhausting experience. No wonder the seriously rich travel alone up front, dumping their offspring with nannies in the back.

I do want to say a personal thank you to two lovely people called Angela and James, who work for Swissport at Newcastle Airport. Without them, we wouldn’t be in 75 degree LA, but stuck in melting Northumberland. They avoided a potential disaster at check-in. I’d booked our tickets many months ago, long before we decided to legitimize Jo by changing her American passport into her married name. So Mrs Gutteridge arrived at the airport bearing Miss Pine’s ticket. Computer said no way, and meant it.

Normally it takes hours or days to organize a name change. The lovely Angela did it in a few fraught minutes and James organised for us to be transported straight to the gate just as it was closing. I can’t tell you how grateful the passengers on flight BA279 must have been that they succeeded in getting us there on time, thereby allowing Izzy to join them on their flight yesterday morning.

I also feel I should issue a dire warning to Sienna Miller, and any other celebrities who may have inadvertently booked themselves on the same plane as us back to London. Having amassed a load of soon-to-expire air miles, I’ve decided to blow the lot on first class tickets for our return. It’ll be a rare treat for us, but I suspect less pleasurable for anybody who’s forked out the full price of £7,000 per ticket. So, however famous you are, I advise you grit your teeth and downgrade to economy. That is, unless you enjoy listening to The Wheels On The Bus for eleven solid hours.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Snow Joke

That’s quite enough, thank you; it’s beyond a joke now.

I originally thought this cold snap (what a misnomer – if a snap is what you find in a cracker, this is small nuclear explosion) was Mother Nature’s little taunt at Patrick, our producer. As if to tempt fate, he’d written these opening lines for a film we were supposed to be shooting this week: “A little girl wanders into a dark, mysterious wood. It’s the end of autumn and the trees are still sprinkled with brown leaves. Running through a deep leafy carpet, she tries to catch them as they float gently to the ground.”

We thought we’d timed it perfectly: not too soon, so there’d be plenty of leaves, yet not too late or we’d risk the January snows. We found an ideal location, booked the crew, cranes, dollies and location catering and cast a 12-year-old girl from scores of hopeful candidates. What could possibly go wrong?

I passed our chosen wood yesterday morning on my way to the airport. Not a leaf to be seen: they’re all mulched away under the snowdrifts. Instead of the dry brown carpet, it now has a shiny white floor like a television studio. You could expect Harry Hill to emerge from behind the trees with a broad grin, a couple of dancing girls and a cheeky Happy Christmas.

We’ve postponed, of course. Patrick has rewritten: “A teenage girl wanders into a wood, carpeted with daffodils.” Sadly it doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

If this weather has affected one film project, I can’t begin to imagine how disastrous it’s been to other industries in the region. On Saturday night I braved the black ice to visit my favourite Newcastle restaurant, Rasa. It was nearly empty: absolutely unheard of for a place that serves by far the best Indian food outside London. Save for a couple of frozen buskers and some semi-naked hens, the Quayside was virtually deserted. If the northeast had a mayor, he’d have declared a state of emergency.

Yet, despite the problems, I’m amazed by how calmly we’ve taken it. Despite the most unpleasant weather in memory, everything has kind of worked. There’ve been no food shortages or panic buying, all our main roads have been kept remarkably clear, trains and planes have got us in and out, and neighbourliness has smiled its way through the crisis. Rasa even managed to get its spectacular kingfish flown in from Kerala.

Sure, we’ve had no post – our icy farm track would have swallowed up the postman’s little red van – but when I eventually made it to the sorting office, our postman had it all organized. He came out with a broad smile and a large box containing the mail for our hamlet, which I then distributed like Santa to the grateful community. This weather brings out the best in northerners, and the worst in our southern compatriots.

Judging by the national headlines, you’d have thought the world had ended when a smidgeon of snow finally fell on the south earlier in the week. The Transport Secretary ordered an enquiry into travel disruption: apparently London was late to work. Yesterday I flew south to see for myself. The sun was warm, the snow completely gone. Almost everyone was wearing designer Ugg boots as they lumbered down de-iced designer streets. People spoke of Kent and Northumberland as distant heathen lands.

I drove comfortably into Berkshire and Wiltshire: there were crashed cars on the M4 every few miles, yet there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to ice a Frappuccino. The woods were amazing, sprinkled with brown leaves and golden carpets of… Hang on a minute: perhaps we should relocate our movie down there?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


On Thursday afternoon I received a cheery phone call from the Mercedes dealership in town. The winter tyres I’d ordered weeks ago, in a quite untypical moment of advance planning, have finally arrived. Unfortunately I now can’t drive my car through the snow to have them fitted, as it doesn’t have winter tyres.

I’m resigned to leaving the wretched vehicle incarcerated in its white overcoat, like last year, until the first thaws of spring.

Enduring Northumbrian winters is like having children. The first is exciting, surprising and unbelievably beautiful. The second is just as attractive but, thanks to the experience you’ve gained from the first, rather more manageable. The third is, to be frank, just a bore and far too exhausting to enjoy: you just want it to do its thing and get to the next season as soon as possible.

This particular infant is about a month premature yet, far from being a meagre little weakling, is a big, bouncing avalanche. I can't remember the last time we had snow this early, certainly not to such an extreme degree. 8 inches landed on our drive on Wednesday night. It began falling shortly after I'd asked Jo to remind me to order some road salt from the builders' merchant. I guess they will have run out by now.

At first Izzy couldn't believe her wonderful new surroundings. She rushed round the garden kicking up white clouds and screaming "no!. no!" – she’s not very good at consonants yet. Now she's not so sure - after another ten inches dumped themselves on us last night, the snow is up to her waist.

The dogs are still excited, though I spend hours prising iceballs out of their ears. I've also been trying unsuccessfully to hack a path out for the oil lorry – we’re in danger of running out of fuel.

Meanwhile my Facebook wall is full of entries from excited friends in London swapping snowflake sightings. Their kids can’t wait to clean off their rusty toboggans and build snowmen: I just want to be able to drive to Waitrose without having to be dug out of a ditch by a tractor.

Within minutes of the first flakes’ arrival I demonstrated the typical demeanour of any Brit facing the first snows of winter: panic. Having to be in London for two important meetings, I watched the weather forecast with sinking heart and decided to fly down the night before. I knew I’d be OK, because I’d driven by the airport a couple of times and the snow wasn’t that deep.

Newcastle Airport responded by doing what airports do: closing down unexpectedly and telling its passengers nothing. So, having been summoned to the departure gate at the appointed hour, with a British Airways plane conveniently parked at the end of the jetty, we all sat down and waited to board. After an age somebody spotted that the plane in front of us was already full of passengers – it was the previous flight that had been waiting two hours for the runway to open. Our plane had apparently been circling patiently over our heads, but eventually gave up and landed in Teesside – neither plane flew anywhere that night.

Quite why the runway was shut on Wednesday afternoon remains a mystery – the weathermen had given us days of warning. I guess they must have been the wrong sort of snowflakes. It wasn’t a very good few days for Newcastle Airport as the following night a plane nearly skidded off the end of the runway. Maybe like me they’d forgotten to order their road salt. I took the train.

I felt sorry for the BBC Breakfast reporter the following morning. Sent out to report on the chaos up north, he parked his satellite truck by a busy roundabout and waited for cars to start spinning out of control. Every time they cut to him, instead of the carnage his journalistic instincts demanded, you could sense his disappointment when he could only film an orderly line of cars confidently steering through the slush. I guess they must all have had their winter tyres on.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Old Rockers and the Rockaholix

Muddy Stardust doesn’t look like a traditional music teacher. With his wild hair and enormous sunglasses, he towers over his tiny charges, who listen rapt as he regales them with stories of wild times and roadies.

These are the Rockaholix, the youngest rock band in Los Angeles. Max is only 9, and can barely see over the top of his full size drum kit; the others, two girls and a boy, are just 11. They all want to be rock and roll stars and their parents have hired Muddy, who has played with bands like Burning Tree and Lost Angels, to help mold them into real musicians.

The tiny rockers have already played in famous L.A. music venues like House of Blues and The Roxy, have been interviewed on national radio and are now being courted by television companies. That’s why I’m in Hollywood, shooting a taster tape for a reality series with the band. The Rockaholix are auditioning for a new lead singer, and I’m filming a succession of nervous wannabes, who’ve been dragged along by ambitious, camera-clutching parents.

“She’s borderline tone-deaf,” says lead guitarist Edan, describing one 8-year-old candidate. Tiny Max screams with laughter and holds up a picture he’s drawn of someone barfing into a toilet. Simon Cowell couldn’t be more cutting. They rush over to their instruments and launch into an improvised song called “You Stink”: after listening to more than 60 candidates the kids are getting stir crazy.

Then Muddy brings in a friend, Slim Jim Phantom, drummer of the legendary Stray Cats. He’s a real celebrity: the Stray Cats started the rockabilly revival in the 1980s. Slim survived 8 years of marriage to Britt Ekland, with whom he has a son who’s also a drummer, and he owns the Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard.

Slim Jim watches little Max, who's exactly half his height, hammering out “Don’t Stop Believing”: he can’t work out how the left-handed child is managing to play so well on a right-handed drum kit. “It takes professional drummers years to learn how to be ambidextrous like that,” he marvels. Slim is left-handed too.

At the age of nearly 50, he looks just as trim and youthful as when we first met some 25 years ago. That was a night neither of us will forget: it was on a television show I directed called Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session, which is revered by rock aficionados to this day.

Carl Perkins, the godfather of rockabilly, had attracted a lineup that included George Harrison, Ringo Starr (playing with George for the first time since the Beatles’ split), Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, Roseanne Cash and Slim Jim with his fellow Stray Cat Lee Rocker. It ended with an extended jam session in which Slim and Ringo played tambourines on each other’s heads – the DVD of the show still gets 5 stars on Amazon. That was the first programme I made with my newly formed company Mentorn: it was 1985, and I'd been hired by an American producer called Stephanie Bennett. Now here I am with another new production company, filming baby rockers at the very start of their careers.

Muddy introduces another friend: Tracii Guns, who founded Guns N’ Roses with Axl Rose, and now has the band L.A. Guns. With a skinful of tattoos and far more than a lifetime’s experience on the road, Tracii gently and patiently gives The Rockaholix an hour-long masterclass that any professional musician would envy. With his quiet temperament and amazing depth of knowledge, the band visibly improves as he teaches them.

Afterwards, over a chinese takeaway, the wild goateed glam guitarist tells me he has finally been tamed by fatherhood. Like me, he has a two-year old child who’s now the epicentre of his life. “That’s why I keep touring,” he said, “I need the money.” I can relate to that.

As a result, Tracii is shredding his way to Europe and comes to Newcastle at the beginning of December, performing with his L.A. Guns in the tiniest of bars.

I promised Tracii I’d be there. But first I have to find some ripped jeans and a biker jacket. Offers anyone?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Don't Poke The Queen

Tomorrow morning I was rather hoping to give The Queen a little poke, but apparently she won’t let me. She won’t even let me be her friend. I’m not sure Her Majesty gets the point of Facebook, but at 8am she launches her very own page.

Just a few years behind the times (Facebook has been around since 2004, and now has 500 million regular users – one fourteenth of the population of the entire planet), I guess the “British Monarchy” page will be full of interesting press releases about what the royal family is doing and where it’s going next. It could soon match The Times’ Court Circular for excitement. It will allow you to leave a message on its royal “Wall”, but not grafitti, though I doubt the royal face will actually peruse it.

In fact there are already some Queen pages on Facebook. One has 5,700,000 followers, but it is for the rock band. Another, called simply The Queen, has just 14,000 supporters and is an unofficial fan club for our monarch. It lists the Queen’s interests as “hunting, fishing and being god blessed”.

I love some of the comments. David helpfully informs Her Majesty that “we’ve got loads of queens in Manchester” and Kenny offers discount rates for royalty “if ever you need a taxi around the Wye Valley”. I particularly like the lady who enquires if she has “a spare room as my son is moving to London with his work”, or Steve Wall’s rather desperate supplication: “Any chance you could get my wife beheaded?”

One young girl describes the Queen as “mint”; another asks if she plays Farmville, the virtual game played by one tenth of all Facebook users, where you run your own farm, feeding livestock and growing crops. I suspect Her Majesty has enough real farms of her own, though if Farmville installs a pheasant shoot, perhaps she could be persuaded to bag a few virtual brace.

When Mark Zuckerberg set it up from his Harvard bedroom, Facebook was a sort of private networking club for rich college students and it quickly spread to other exclusive universities. The idea was that you could add “friends” to enhance your social status: it was effectively a posh dating club.

Since then its function has scarcely changed. I can’t actually fill in most of my “profile” because the questions don’t really fit me. It asks if I’m “interested in Men or Women”. Being happily married, I have naturally ticked neither box, although being quite interested in almost everyone I meet is a consequence of being a journalist.

It then demands to know “what I’m looking for: Friendship, Dating, A Relationship, or Networking”. Unfortunately that list doesn’t include The Meaning Of Life, How to Pay Off My Mortgage, My Spectacles and Car Keys or any of the other things I’m usually seeking. As a result I tend to use Facebook to find out what my children have been doing and whom they’ve befriended: that makes pretty terrifying reading.

On Facebook you’re either a friend, or not: there are no degrees of fraternity. So my social network includes heads of television networks, old school friends and 12-year-old nephews. As a result, I never know quite what tone to take. This weekend I’d like to tell all my real friends about a particularly nice beef fillet I cooked for a friend’s birthday party; or Izzy’s ability to say “toes”, “pizza” and “bellybutton”. I don’t think either comment would interest the majority of those on my list, so instead I tried, Obama-like, to persuade them all to vote for my son’s entry in a short film festival.

But I’ve got a plan. I’m going to start the world’s first antisocial networking site for the over fifties. I’m calling it “FaceliftBook”. I wonder if I can persuade Her Majesty to join?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat

Pity the poor children’s entertainer coping with thirty little darlings at last Friday’s village Halloween party. Dressed in evil black, he was showing off his magic skills, pulling snakes and cats out of hats. One small child had other ideas.

Izzy, who had absolutely no intention of sitting politely in a circle, toddled to centre stage and began throwing streams of gobbledygook questions at the man. He was trying to saw a child in half – he must have thought he’d chosen the wrong one. There was no stopping my daughter.

“Make her sit down”, shouted all the 3 year olds, while parents tutted disapproval. Izzy, who’d come as a cat princess with ghost ears, turned, giggled at her audience, then went over to the magician’s bag and pulled out all his tricks, spilling their secrets onto the village hall floor. It brought the house down. Through tears of laughter, Jo apologised to the assembled parents. “What can you do, she’s half-American, and she wants to get into the Hallowe’en spirit”. She pronounced it Holloween.

I don’t remember celebrating Hallowe’en as a child: I certainly never trick-or-treated. Was it a deprived childhood or am I right in thinking that we only became aware of it when we saw E.T.? I know it’s supposed to be an ancient custom, dating back to when our Celtic ancestors wore masks to ward off the dark spirits of approaching winter, but it only became a retail jamboree a few years ago. I couldn’t believe how seriously the Americans took the festival till I saw the huge bags of sweets we had to buy to placate the hordes of children in our Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Our Americanisation shows no bounds. We didn’t have school proms when I was young, and yet now all our teenagers are going to them, clad in hugely expensive outfits. I went to a prom when I was 17, but it was at the Royal Albert Hall and they played Mahler. I bet Izzy won’t be content with a cat costume when she goes to her first in just 16 years time.

Sadly one English tradition never crossed the Atlantic the other way. This morning Jo asked me, in all seriousness, to explain “your George Burns night.” I looked at her mystified. I wasn’t aware the comedian had been given his own festival. Mind you, lines like “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city” are probably worth remembering.

“You mean Robert Burns, the haggis man. That’s not till January.”

“No, it’s this Friday, your Burns night thing.”

Finally I twigged: Guy Fawkes. Jo couldn’t understand why we’d blow the cost of a decent handbag on some brightly coloured cardboard which we then incinerate. Only a Brit can appreciate the fun of standing in a damp garden trying to light a roman candle, or waiting for a catherine wheel to fall off its stick or a rocket to whimper into the air with a single pathetic star. All to celebrate the defeat of a catholic gunpowder plot to bring down the protestant king.

Apparently Guy Fawkes Night is in decline. It’s partly due to our elfin safety laws, but mostly because we haven’t worked out how to commercialise it properly. We still think of bonfire night as a homespun community activity. Even though the fireworks we watch from behind our safety barriers are getting more spectacular, there are no commercial products for our children to buy, now we’ve stopped them buying fireworks.

That’s why for the last fortnight our retailers have been forcing Hallowe’en masks, ghoulish costumes and latex skeletons into our shopping baskets, and we’ve readily succumbed.

This Friday Izzy, probably still wearing her ghost ears, will go “weee!” at her first firework display. Sadly, it could well be one of her last.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Journey to Oblivion

The car park of the Splash Landings Hotel at Alton Towers is a miserable place at 5am, especially if you’re in pyjamas and bare feet. A fire alarm is a great leveller. I was once evacuated from a conference hotel with the entire senior management of the BBC. You can tell a man’s character by his pyjamas: Greg Dyke’s were very colourful, I recall.

At Alton Towers we all shivered in the darkness, vainly scouring the hotel for signs of smoke that might justify our discomfort. There were hungover parents wearily herding children, peroxide Cheshire blondes cruelly exposed without their makeup, bulbous couples who’d evidently only come for the eat-all-you-can buffet, and me, doing paternal duty with my soon-to-be-13-year-old and his two friends. This was Sam’s birthday treat: two days of rollercoaster heaven.

Jo escaped the trip by claiming Izzy was too young. I know the real reason: that ghastly night we spent in Disneyland a few years back.

In fact, Alton Towers is much more parent-friendly. Sure, they play the theme from Captain Pugwash in the lift, which made me smile the first few times, then drove me to the stairs, but the bar, which looks like the tropical set from ZingZillas, serves a decent marghuerita, and the food is varied and edible.

But this wasn’t my treat: the real test was my son’s reaction. So, for anyone stuck for a plan this half-term, here is Sam’s unexpurgated, no-holds (but firmly strapped in, particularly when you’re going upside down) verdict. From what I can gather, he had a pretty good time.

The spooky girl in the advert looked like something from The Exorcist as she whispered “Thirteen!” - that’s what made me want my birthday weekend at Alton Towers.

The park is miles from the train station, and the signposts, pointing us in the opposite direction to our satnav, added an extra 20 minutes to the journey time (we tested it on the way back). Yet, aside from the patronizing Pirate Pete voice on the park’s monorail, Alton Towers is a 13-year-old’s dream.

Towering, spinning, looping structures erupt in the middle of a picturesque landscape of trees and a gothic 19th century house. So even for Dad it was mildly exciting as he got to talk to Alton Tower’s gardeners about orchids. He said it nearly justified the cost of the hotel rooms.

First, my two friends and I raced to Oblivion. Our hearts were pounding as we were hauled up the chain lift. At the top, there was a terrifying pause as we overlooked our fate, then we plunged 180 feet underground at 70 mph. Seven goes later we decided to try the other rides.

Air, a steel flying coaster, was more comfortable than thrilling, although the “flying” experience was one-of-a-kind. Nemesis, which practically had more G-force than a space shuttle launch, wasn’t particularly special; Rita Queen of Speed is a launch rollercoaster and although not as fast as Stealth, has a sharp, eye-popping bend at the beginning and unique soaring turns.

Eventually we reached the most disappointing attraction in the whole park - the new ride ‘Thirteen’. We needn’t have bothered. It was horribly slow and depressing. Sure, the horizontal drop was a first, yet it only felt about two feet. It was as though they had spent so much money on the little drop, that they forgot the rest of the ride, which consisted of a few turns and bunny hops.

We felt let down, but it didn’t spoil our day and we fell asleep as soon as we hit the pillow in our “starfish” room, only to be woken at 5 because someone set off the fire alarm. The next day our faces were a picture. Dad looked like he had a massive hangover. We still had a brilliant time and I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Old Boys' Dinner

The old boys, some in their eighties, nearly choked on their chocolate cake. 17-year-old school prefects, invited by their headmaster to last week’s annual reunion of old and ancient pupils, gasped in disbelief. Meanwhile the rest of us stroked our black ties and stared down at our wineglasses in embarrassment. Could this man get any worse?

The former pupil turned entrepreneur, who had built an empire out of repairing the nation’s drains and plumbing, was crowning an after-dinner speech of relentless arrogance with a story of such breathtaking vulgarity, I couldn’t begin to hint at its substance, other than it involved an act of intimacy and a girl in a wheelchair. It was so horrendously inappropriate that one group of distinguished north east professionals, all hardened men of the world, stormed out in disgust. It was all quite scandalous and unprecedented, but at least it gave us plenty to gossip about over coffee. There’s an art to giving after dinner speeches and clearly a knowledge of emergency plumbing, even if it buys you your own helicopter, isn’t a much of a qualification.

School reunions generate mixed emotions. I went to my first a full 30 years after I’d left the institution and still found it daunting to push open the big oak doors of the main entrance – a gateway that had always been strictly reserved for teachers and governors. Inside, the massive pillared school hall, with its towering organ pipes and creaking pews where we’d crushed together during morning assembly, the smell of the wooden floors and the tall lockers around the walls, had stimulated feelings of both nostalgia and fear. The lockers from where the plumbing entrepreneur boasted he’d started his career by converting one into a sweet shop and sold overpriced Mars bars to fellow pupils bored with school meals, stood beneath an engraved roll of honour that ran the length of the hall. This was a list of boys who had achieved the only goal the school deemed worthy of honouring: a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. They were the elite prizewinners in a nearsighted educational system that believed that only Oxbridge mattered, and anywhere else was merely second-class.

Neither the entrepreneur nor I were on that list - we both went to York. But nowadays the function and status of universities have changed beyond recognition, and so too must the focus of our secondary schools. At last week’s dinner, there was a senior prefect at my table who told me he was hoping to go to Oxford to read English Literature. Very commendable: and after that? He wanted a job in television.

I felt bad about putting him straight, but felt obliged to tell him that, despite the prospect of joining the elite band of heroes around the school hall (if indeed they are still carving names in the wood), and possibly learning the art of after-dinner speaking, if he really wanted a career in media, he should instead head off to Bournemouth, which has a first rate media school. Even an Oxford degree would be poor competition against the smart showreels of graduates who will have already have acquired the skills of editing, shooting and scriptwriting that our demanding industry requires. We like people who arrive ready equipped to offer cheap, trained labour. The days of extended training courses on the job are long gone.

In our day a university degree was merely the next rung above A Levels before we were thrown out into the real world to choose a career. Sure, there's a lot to be said for the contacts and bonhomie to be derived from a few years at our finest academic institutions, but nowadays there's a more important consideration: employment. And now, thanks to student loans, the choice of university course is something all our children must consider much earlier, particularly as they, not us, are being asked to pay for it. As the customer, not pupil, they’ll demand value for money in the form of a guaranteed job, not a piece of paper with a grade or a fond memory of the student bar. This week’s cuts in subsidy signal a turning point not just for universities but for our entire education system. The old school will never be the same again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happiness is a New Pair of Ears

Most of rural Northumberland isn’t on the map. While the rest of the UK is marked green or dark blue, where I live is just a white void. Perhaps nobody round here has an iPhone, or maybe we’re just too happy to care, but so far my part of the world has yet to appear on Mappiness, the latest online phenomenon.

It’s a project being run by two jolly academics from the London School of Economics with (judging by the profiles on their website) rather irritatingly smiley faces. They look like happy-clappy christian converts, the kind that you want to argue with just to wipe a frown across their annoyingly self-righteous foreheads. Their mission is to find out how happy we all are.

They’re measuring the nation’s mood swings on something they call a hedonimeter. They expected 3,000 people to sign up, but there must be so many iPhone addicts bored with life, 20,000 downloaded the “app” in the first three weeks.
Once you’re happily apped up, your phone beeps two or three times a day and asks you how you’re feeling, what you’re doing and whom you’re with. You’re then invited to upload a photo of where you are.

So far, it seems people in Dorset and Arbroath are the happiest, City bankers are miserable, and people in Northumberland don’t exist. It pops your information into its database, and draws you a flowchart of just how miserable you have been since you joined.

In the last 24 hours, I found just five people from Tyneside on the map, all of whom had proclaimed themselves very happy indeed by uploading blurry photographs of half empty beerglasses in garishly lit bars. So I guess Saturday night was a success, then. There was also a single photo of a public loo in Gosforth with the caption “extremely happy” – I guess this euphoria was caused by relief at finding one open at 3am after a night in the Bigg Market (not that people in the Bigg Market normally bother with such niceties).

Mappiness was set up to monitor how people’s feelings are affected by their environment. Are people less happy when they’re surrounded by pollution, loud noise and bad body odour? Not the sort of question you might think you’d need a research grant to answer, but I suppose universities have to justify the impending hike in tuition fees.

Already this vital scientific investigation has discovered that, shock horror, people are happier at the weekends (apparently Sunday lunchtime is quite a happy moment, presumably just after the hair of the dog that lifts you out of your hangover and before the miserable realisation that it’ll be Monday tomorrow), whereas Tuesday is the pits (because there’s so much of the working week still to go, I would hazard – but then I’m not an academic, so we must await publication of the official findings in a couple of years’ time).

I reckon my own personal happiness has nothing to do with my environment and everything to do with the mood of people who may or may not want to buy my television programme ideas. Right now there’s a bloke in Los Angeles called Simon who’s trying to decide whether or not to give me a series. I’d love to have a hedonimeter on him, so that I could judge exactly when to make my final pitch. Catch him in a bad mood, or on a Tuesday, and we’re sunk. Get him just after lunch on Sunday and I reckon we’re in.

In the meantime, my wife does have an iPhone, which I’ve just borrowed to take photographs of Izzy giggling hysterically while wearing some absurd comedy ears she found in a drawer.

Now I don’t need an academic with a hedonimeter to tell me that these are pictures of true happiness.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

And The Winner Is...

The result was too close to call: an entire nation held its breath. By now just two were in contention, and it could have gone either way. As the winner was announced, the audience erupted and the finalists embraced, one triumphant, the other smiling in carefully rehearsed generosity.

The victor gave a noble speech, complimenting the opponent, who, despite the fixed grin, could not conceal a look of disappointment across the eyes. Then there was a pause. “Oh my God, I don’t know what to say right now. I’m feeling a bit sick about this.”

Not half as sick as the production company making Australia’s Next Top Model must have felt this week: they had announced the wrong winner. Not only had they brought global ridicule upon the network and created an instant Youtube hit, but they had also embarrassed their presenter by feeding her the wrong information, and she just happened to be daughter-in-law of the most powerful man in media, Rupert Murdoch. And it wasn’t an Australian embarrassment either, because the production company was our very own Granada, part of ITV. “This is what happens when you have live TV, folks, this is insane,” said Sarah Murdoch, as she ploughed on through the audience’s jeers.

You can say that again. I’ve produced all sorts of live awards programmes, from talent shows like Star For A Night to theatre awards and the Booker Prize. There’s always that moment of impotence as your presenter reads out the winner’s name. What if they misread it, or the autocue pulls up wrong page or, worst of all, you’ve put the wrong name in the envelope? Quite often only the producer knows the result and I used to check and recheck the gold envelopes myself just to be sure.

I was on the original Camelot team that won the National Lottery contract and my biggest fear was that the “voice of the balls” might mistake a 6 for an upside down 9 during the live show: we drew up a detailed contingency plan for getting out of that one. When I was responsible for the BBC’s General Election coverage, I made everyone rehearse the nightmare scenario that a returning officer might read out the wrong result.

On the other side of the cameras, nominees at results ceremonies have a different problem. You hardly ever see an honest reaction, from either winner or loser. The former profess amazement that they could have been chosen over their more worthy rivals, whereas losers can never show how dead they feel in their stomachs. At the BAFTAs, where I’ve had to smile sweetly in defeat so many times, a handheld camera swings under your chin five minutes before the result, with a closeup of your tear glands. So when your defeat is announced, there’s a protocol that you can only put on a “jolly well done, I don’t really hate you at all” expression. Why can’t we be honest?

Like country music singer Faith Hill, who threw her arms in the air and raged “What?!” when American Idol winner Carrie Underwood beat her. Or like, most famous of all, American rapper Kanye West, who stormed the stage after losing at the MTV Europe Music Video Awards and interrupted the winner’s speech, ranting that his video should have won because “it cost a million dollars, had Pam Anderson in it and had me jumping across canyons”.

How great it would have been to have a camera inside David Miliband’s brain when he found out he’d been beaten by his younger brother. I guess we’ll never find out what he really felt at that moment, even in his autobiography.

The two Australians, Kelsey, Next Top Model for just one minute, and the real winner Amanda, were vacuously magnanimous in both defeat and victory. But I’m sure we all know what they were really thinking.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life's A Bitch

Disaster. Jo’s just rung me to say that Poppy is getting worse. Our new Jack Russell, saved from Battersea Dogs Home, may have the cutest ears in the world and a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-dogbowl expression, but the chemistry just isn’t working with poor Mabel.

This all-female experiment is failing.
The three dogs are happy to sleep together in the same bed at night, and pad after each other round the house. Every morning we take the three of them out and they madly dash round our 14 acre hayfield, searching out rabbits and fox poo (which Poppy is always the first to roll in – her white coat now smells of Timotei as she's already exhausted our supply of doggy shampoo).

However, after a couple of days of reasonably cheerful team bonding, we noticed that Mabel and Poppy were starting to argue about who was allowed to run the fastest, and Truffle, as self-appointed leader of the pack, would come snarling in to separate them.
Poppy is sweet and funny and quite loveable, and she’s wonderful with Izzy, but she clearly wants to be the dominant dog and Mabel was determined to fight her ground.

Yesterday morning, while I was in London, Jo rang in a panic to say that on the walk Poppy had seized one of Mabel’s ears and started shaking it, in much the way Jack Russells like to kill rats. Mabel was shaken but unhurt, and life resumed. But this morning Poppy went for Mabel again, teeth bared and growling. Mabel had enough, shrieked and ran home alone.
So now Jo and I are admitting defeat.

It’s a bitch too far: Poppy needs a new home.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Challenge Delhi

Challenge Anneka, that’s what Delhi needs right now. A lycra-clad superwoman rushing around the city in a buggy with just a mobile phone and a television network for help. She’d have the job done as soon as you could say “product placement”.

“Gosh – we need 1,500 plumbers, 1,000 electricians and 7,000 mattresses to replace the ones the wild dogs walked over, and our athletes are arriving by teatime” she’d gush to her trusty soundman, and in a trice an army of volunteers would appear. Seeking no greater recompense than a smile from their heroine and a plug for their employers’ companies, the workers would set to and, just before the opening ceremony, the last paintbrush would be put down, the lights switched on and everyone would cheer.

I have a terrible feeling it isn’t going to end that way. As I write this, the Indian army has been summoned and it looks as though some poor athletes are just going to have to grin and slum it.

When I wrote the first Radio Times blurb for Challenge Anneka (“Making the impossible possible through the power of television”), I already knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Our first challenge was a disaster, largely because I naively thought you could restore the White Horse of Weymouth in an afternoon. You could if you had the Indian army and a thousand tons of Portland stone waiting in a layby. We only managed to muster a few boy scouts and 7 volunteers from the local Rotary Club, and just about completed the horse’s head by the end of the show.

We took no chances with the rest of the series. Three highly efficient television producers called Julia, Janine and Beverley planned it all like a military campaign. Could we build a footbridge over a Cornish river in just a weekend? Of course not. It took three months to persuade British Steel to give us the materials, and a contractor to turn it into struts, and a transport firm to loan us a lorry to carry it. The whole thing was planned down to the last rivet and Anneka’s first call merely triggered a tightly controlled chain reaction. 20 years later our bridge still hasn’t fallen down, unlike the one in Delhi.

The person I feel most sorry for is Lalit Bhanot, hapless secretary general of the Commonwealth Games organising committee. Not only has he brought the wrath of a proud nation on his shoulders by his committee’s inability to organise a poppadom in a curry house, he compounded it by saying Western standards of hygiene are different to India’s.

I spent a whole year living in India and found it perfectly comfortable, even in 1980. That’s possibly because I slept in a campervan, which my girlfriend and I had driven over from England. Occasionally craving a shower, we would drive into a remote village and imperiously demand of a crowd of excited children, “Where’s the Inspection Bungalow?” We’d then be led to the only stone building in town, built for the travelling magistrate in the days of the Raj. An ancient retainer would emerge from behind its dusty doors and, assuming that the British had finally returned, make up the four-poster bed, cook us a meal and boil water for the rusty showers – all for around 50 pence.

In Delhi itself we stayed at the very grand Imperial Hotel, but only in the car park, where the manager allowed us to camp and use the showers. It was very comfortable and I recommend it to any athlete stuck for a roof over his head. Although if the building work isn’t finished in time, I doubt even Anneka would be able to rustle up a spare camper van to help out with Delhi’s accommodation crisis over the next few days.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Family Grows Again

As soon as I heard the question, I knew I was in trouble.

“Babe, please can I ask a huge favour?”

Normally my wife doesn’t ask, she tells. But now she was ringing me at the office for a huge favour? I clearly wasn’t going to like this.

“Well, there’s this Jack Russell…”

“No”, I cut her off. “No more dogs”.

“But our friend is moving to London on Friday so Poppy’s being sent to Battersea Dogs Home, and…”

I firmly put my foot down. “She? Poppy? Absolutely, definitively no way.” We already had two female dogs, one female cat and a one-year-old daughter. That was already more women than any house could handle.

“But she has great big ears like Muka”.

This was below the belt. Muka was the dog that died. I’d taken her to the vet and held her as they injected the blue poison. Her big bat ears were outstretched as she collapsed in my arms. I’d cried so much I had to stop the car on the way home. Jo knows my weakness for dogs with cute ears. I felt my foot, only just put so firmly on the floor, begin to raise itself. Perhaps we might discuss it tonight.

Then I heard a familiar pause. Men can always detect the sound of a guilty woman’s brain. There’s a distinct gap between thought and word while they’re putting together a sentence explaining how the shoes were half price in the sale and the last ones in the shop, or how it was only a little dent in the bumper, or how it had been quite impossible not to invite her mother to stay for six weeks. Then the pause was broken by an unfamiliar bark.

“Oh no, you’ve done it already – she’s there, isn’t she?”

“Kind of.”

I am the only man in a house of needy females. Apart from Jo, who’s actually rather lower maintenance than her Los Angeles background might suggest (thank God there are no decent designer clothes shops in Newcastle), there’s Truffle and Mabel, the most neurotic spaniels in Northumberland, Poncho, the cat who terrorises both, and Izzy.

“Daddeeeee” she screamed as I opened the front door, and watched her runnning the length of the kitchen into my arms, all wild hair and giggles.

“Daw”, she laughed excitedly, pointing at the new arrival. Yes, there was the daw, lying on a clean blanket in front of the Aga, tail wagging in greeting. I tried to ignore her, but Izzy wanted to tell me all about her.

Izzy’s language is incredibly advanced. She speaks in long flowing sentences of great intensity. If you look away, she pulls your face towards her and forces you to look into her bright blue eyes while she gabbles. I really should capture her language on film and send it to a codebreaker, for the only words I understood were “daw” and “Mama”. Yes, Mama had got a new daw, and Daddy wasn’t very happy about it.

If I was uncertain about Poppy, Truffle and Mabel were devastated. Poppy was clearly used to being top dog. Truffle soon put her straight, but poor, sweet Mabel, was very confused, slinking unhappily round the room.

Then Poppy saw the cat, and went wild. It was just the get-out we needed. Jo and the cat had been inseparable for thirteen years. “You’re right, Poppy must go”, she said. I made us a coffee, opened a packet of biscuits, and began to plan her eviction.

A few minutes later we heard a wimper and turned round. All three dogs were sitting together, staring at the plate of biscuits. Poppy, head on one side, with a large ear sticking out and the other flopped over, slowly raised her paw in supplication.

Jo and I sighed in unison. Welcome to your new home, Poppy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Who Is Michael Smith?

Having been silently fuming all week about a BBC4 documentary about Newcastle at the weekend called Michael Smith's Deep North, I was delighted to read Keith Hann's withering comments, published in The Journal on Tuesday and reiterated with even more venom in his blog, where he wrote:

Then I switched channels to BBC4 and also felt compelled to cram in some abuse for “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.”

First thought: if this bloke is a novelist, how come an eager reader of the literary supplements like myself has never heard of him? Second thought: if he is Geordie, how come he sounds nothing like one? It could be argued that I don’t sound much like one myself, it is true, but this bloke did have some sort of accent, just distinctly not a Newcastle one. He first outed himself as coming from “a small town about 30 miles away” and later apparently confessed that it was Hartlepool. (I had lost interest by that point and was only half-watching the programme, as I indulged in a vigorous debate on Facebook about where this wanker came from and how on earth he had got the gig). I am profoundly sorry that space did not permit me to get the popular description “monkey hanger” into the paper.

(Note for overseas readers: Hartlepool is a port in County Durham famous for capturing and interrogating a monkey that had escaped from the wreck of a French ship during the Napoleonic wars, and hanging it as a spy. Even more bizarrely, the mascot of the local football team, who paraded around in a monkey suit under the name of H’Angus, stood for election as mayor AS A JOKE in 2002, under the slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren” and was not only elected then, but has been re-elected on two subsequent occasions. I know London also has a joke mayor in the shape of Boris Johnson, but surely this must be uniquely absurd in all the annals of representative democracy? And, yes, I do know about the English Democrats in Doncaster.)

Third and final (for now) thought about Michael Smith: if the BBC wanted to make a programme about Newcastle, why couldn’t they have got a genuine Geordie to do it? One with some original ideas, who would not stumble over his lines? I am open to offers. And, failing that, there are undoubtedly several thousand other people on Tyneside who could also have done what Sir John Major would almost certainly describe as a not inconsiderably better job.

Well written, Mr Hann. I gather Michael Smith is some sort of pundit, the sort of chap periodically wheeled out by arts programmes and BBC4 when they need someone with northern roots and a regional accent. I'm sending the BBC a map of our region, so they can see that Hartlepool has no more connection to Newcastle, culturally or geographically, than Southend has to Chelsea. Apparently Michael Smith went to Tynemouth on his holidays: I spent every day of my childhood there.

At least the BBC will have added a few thousand extra shots of the Tyne Bridge to its library (perhaps they could use them again in their coverage of the Great North Run on Sunday), but there wasn't a single image of the real Newcastle. Perhaps that was because the film was made by a London production company?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dressing For Dinner

On Friday I received an evening to a formal dinner with the stipulation: “Black Tie or Lounge Suit”.

What an appalling choice. Wear the former, and I could be the only penguin in the room; people might hail me and ask for bottles of mineral water. Yet if I opt for the latter I’ll be sure to be the only one who hasn’t been to Moss Bros. Women have it so much easier these days. They want to look different; men just need to look the same.

That’s why in the old days men wore uniform from school to the grave. Short trousers till 12, caps till the Sixth Form, black tie for dinner: life was regimented and stable. This deregulation is utterly stressful for males like me who are incapable of dressing themselves – or so my wife claims.

At least going out to a nice restaurant just meant putting on a jacket and tie. No longer, apparently. According to a report I read yesterday, none of Britain’s top 100 restaurants now require men to wear jackets and ties. Our region only has two restaurants in that heady echelon (as defined by the 2009 National Restaurant Awards): Secco and CafĂ© 21. Thankfully both seem perfectly happy to feed me despite my jeans and loafers.

Years ago I was taken for dinner to the Savoy Hotel and, sitting in the bar, was accosted by the head waiter who firmly but politely hissed in my ear, “Will Sir be dining with us tonight?”

As I was clutching his menu, I should have thought the answer was fairly obvious, but I bit my tongue and replied “I rather hope so”. “Does Sir have a tie?”

No, Sir certainly did not: he had a designer shirt and a bespoke suit, but no tie. Sir was not to worry: the cloakroom attendant could sort him out. So, like a naughty five year old, I was sent to the toilet.

Surrounded by bottles of aftershave, ivory-backed clothes brushes and clean white towels, the man produced a battered wooden box from under the counter. Inside was a collection of the scruffiest ties I had ever seen. There were gravy-stained mementos of old boys’ associations, rugby clubs, and the sort of pink and blue things that signify the uniform of solicitors, accountants and estate agents: all quite horrendous. I don’t know how the Savoy had accumulated these monstrosities over the years, but I could see why their owners no longer missed them.

Trying to appear nonchalant, I selected the least grim affair, a stripy gold and grey object, too broad to be modern, but passable with my blue shirt. “A popular choice,” said the old man, as he pocketed my pound coin tip. “Do you get many people without ties, then?” I asked. “A few – mostly actors”, he said dismissively. “We had an artist in here last week. Hockney, his name was. He chose that same tie you’re wearing”. I swaggered into dinner.

Until last year I belonged to one of London’s oldest clubs, The Athenaeum. I finally resigned when the membership voted, for the umpteenth time, against modernising its dress code. The club only admitted women a couple of years ago, and then only after fierce debate within its crusty membership. I only used it once a year when I needed to impress my bank manager. It was also the only day I ever wore a tie. Now I take the manager to Grouchos and intimidate him with tie-less celebrities.

The fact is, places that make you dress up normally manage to combine boring food with dull clientele. The best restaurant in the world, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, has no dress code: the owner says to wear whatever makes you comfortable.

But that’s the problem: why do I still only feel comfortable wearing the same as everyone else?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Biggest Arse in British Politics - R.I.P.

Cyril Smith’s enormous backside completely filled the television screen. The Liberal MP was bending down to put a diminutive stuffed chicken into the oven behind him and the cameraman had zoomed in just a little too close for comfort.

“There should be a law against that,” said comedian Willie Rushton, who was attempting to put together a toad-in-the-hole. The audience in the majestic ballroom of London’s Savoy Hotel was helpless with laughter. That one shot – in effect a blank screen – was held for about ten seconds and became a defining moment in my television career. At the age of thirty I was moving from news and current affairs into the dizzy world of entertainment.

Those were the days when the people who ran the television channels trusted their producers. I remember the call from Brian Wenham, the Controller of BBC2: “Tom, we need to do some literature. You did English at university, didn’t you? I don’t really care what you produce, just make a bit of a splash”.

So I put together ten separate programmes about books, all of which were broadcast in a single week. One was about crime writing, which we set on board the Orient Express. We hired the train for the day and drove it to Bognor Regis and back, filming a murder on the way. That show was presented, I recall, by James Burke and Shaw (“Keep ‘em peeled”) Taylor from Police 5. It was terrible: a true crime against quality television.

Ned Sherrin presented something aptly entitled I, Me, Myself, which was supposed to be about autobiographies, but ended up as a lot of anecdotes about Sherrin’s friends in musical theatre. There was a live Booker Prize ceremony, hosted by Russell Harty, and also a number of fairly decent documentaries. But the highlight of the week, and by far the most popular, was Cookshow, presented by Esther Rantzen.

It was the world’s first celebrity cooking show. Willie and Cyril, together with Gerald Harper, Jane Asher and the singer Suzi Quatro, had to prepare recipes from five cookery writers, including Delia Smith and Prue Leith. Of the five, Cyril Smith and Jane Asher were the only really capable cooks. Jane was already baking cakes for her young family, and Cyril used to cook for his mother, with whom he lived in Rochdale. At 29 stones or more, and 6 foot 2 inches tall, he was the size of a small terraced house. He towered over the tiny Quatro, whom I deliberately put beside him in the cook-off.

Smith loved publicity, and throughout the 80’s you could always rely on him to show up as a token figure of fun. He would have been the perfect Celebrity Big Brother house guest. British politics hasn’t been nearly as colourful since he retired, and his death earlier this week was a loss.

His famous statement that Parliament was the longest-running farce in the West End now seems way ahead of its time. I can’t imagine what he thought of the current Lib-Tory coalition – he was utterly against the Lib-Lab pact in 1977, and railed against the SDP-Liberal alliance when it was first formed. He was one of those men who always said what he thought (well, to be honest, he often said things before he’d thought about them). He never changed his politics, though he changed his political party several times during his career, and once tried to form a new one.

Beneath his jolly fat man exterior was a politician of steel and, although I detested some of his views, particularly on abortion and capital punishment, I had to admire his resolve. And his roast chicken.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


[Prime Minister David Cameron released the first pictures of his new baby daughter this weekend]

Despite the fact that it’s his fourth time round the block, I guarantee that David Cameron will be finding Florence Rose Endellion quite a handful. No hands-on father with a day job could possibly find it otherwise.

I’m assuming he is hands-on, of course, and that Florence isn’t being looked after by a phalanx of nannies. After all, the importance of parenting was one of the Tories’ main election platforms. Didn’t they even have some proposal for child-sharing, with both parents enjoying periods of paternity and maternity leave so that each could experience the thrill of rearing? I doubt that idea will find itself on the statute books in the near future, else we’d be seeing rather too much Clegg on the television for Mr Cameron’s liking.

However there are reports that our prime minister is taking his parental responsibilities very seriously, even preparing himself for the ordeal by enlisting the help of a specialist father-to-be trainer. What a wonderfully modern notion: I wonder how you get a teaching job like that – do you have to have lots of children to qualify, or can you learn it at evening classes? If such a fathering guru had been available in Morpeth, there’s no doubt Jo would have sent me on an intensive course. Although she is always very loyal to me in public, I’m sure my wife could never have predicted how utterly useless a man with five children might be when faced with just one baby daughter.

There’s a website in the United States called, established because, they claim, “Dads don’t always think like Moms”. They’re not kidding. While supermums live in a world of neat sock drawers, baby wipes and set bedtimes, underdads like me don’t worry about little things like cleanliness or safety, precise times or putting on the right clothes.

We love throwing chocolate-covered babies high in the air and hearing them giggle; we dress them in yesterday’s pyjamas and demand a medal when we’ve changed a nappy, which we’re happy to do so long as it’s only one and doesn’t contain the wrong sort of effluent. Sometimes we forget bathtime altogether and treat our babies like teenagers, letting them watch TV till late, eat pizza, and open dangerous kitchen cupboards at will. My notion of discipline is to say no until Izzy cries and then immediately say yes: it works every time. Dads like me wouldn’t know how to sort out a sock drawer if we knew where it was – which we certainly don’t.

After so many children, I shouldn’t really plead ignorance as an excuse, except that, try as I may, I can’t seem to remember a single thing about childrearing. Although she politely asks for my advice on everything, Jo has learned to ignore the learned voice of experience, largely because it’s invariably wrong. The mysteries of controlling, feeding, and generally keeping alive a one-year-old remain secret, despite having observed the entire process at close quarters on four previous occasions.

Meanwhile the Californian rock chick I met seven years ago has, without any training or prior knowledge, transformed into the world’s perfect Mum.

I’m not saying this because it’s our first wedding anniversary today (yes, against the odds and to the bewilderment of some of my oldest acquaintances, Jo has agreed to stay married to me) but because I’m astounded that I could have been so unbelievably lucky as to have fallen in love with two perfect girls, my wife and my daughter.

As for Mr Cameron, once he returns to work after his paternity leave, he could do a lot worse than spending some of the money saved from NHS Direct on supplying free daddy-trainers for every new father. That would certainly win him the mums’ vote at the next election.

{All photos copyright Pam Hordon}

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Picture Perfect

Well, actually it’s far from perfect, but rather better than I looked two months and 20 pounds ago. Here’s the proof:

It was a close run finish. Dr Dukan always conceded that followers of his diet regime might need a little wholewheat to get the system moving from time to time. He’s not kidding.

I rather panicked at the last moment because I weighed myself last night and was still well over a pound short of the target. I suspected this was because of the constipation caused by my relentless diet of morning cardboard (see recipe in an earlier posting) and dry lunchtime chicken. However much fresh garden salad I consumed, nothing shifted the bloating.
So I opened my first loaf of bread since June and it did its stuff within half an hour. Sorry to be so basic, but they say blogs should be truthful – and some of you have shared this journey with me for the whole 64 days. I've also had several emails from people who've been inspired to join the regime. Good luck to you all.

As the photographer arrived I weighed in at 195.4 lbs. This is the lightest I’ve been since I was going out with Anneka Rice in the mid-90s. Even then Ms Rice complained about my weight (in fairness, during the relationship I had expanded from 185 pounds, which was, and is, my “true weight” for my height and build). I remember her saying one morning, rather cruelly, but I confess accurately, that I was looking pregnant: this, just as I got out of the bath. That could well have been the beginning of the end.

I began a diet that day, but failed as miserably as I have in subsequent attempts, including the one where Michael Grade and I competed with the Controller of BBC1 and sent each other cakes and messages to try and put each other off. I’ve described that journey, and my failed 2008 attempt to emulate it, in another post.

Alright, a more cynical reader, or indeed an ex-girlfriend, might point out that I look as pregnant now as I did then, but I do feel that my YuKan diet has been a resounding success. I genuinely feel better, lighter, healthier and everything else I promised myself. More importantly, I’m proud of my family snaps, the first of which is published here and more of which will appear later this week on this blog.
They were a nightmare to shoot.

The talented photographer, Pam Hordon, was an angel. Unlike Izzy, who had no desire to be part of the polite and formal family group shot that Jo and I had envisaged. She insisted on sprinting round the garden instead of sitting quietly on my lap. Thus the “sitting” became a running.

The shoot reminded me of a film I made about the Walton Sextuplets, which included a photo session with Lord (Patrick) Lichfield attempting to take a family portrait in a formal garden on their second birthday (here's one of the more successful pictures which has been scanned onto a fanzine site). The shoot was a glorious nightmare, with Lichfield waving a little bird at them, which they all studiously ignored. Just as he was set to take the picture, one of the six would run off into the distance. Miraculously, Patrick managed to get all six looking at the camera at the same time, and the Waltons were far better behaved than Izzy. It was fortunate that Pam was more than a match for her.

The pictures show a leaner, more sprightly man than before: still just as old, of course, but perhaps more ready to enjoy the next round of fatherhood with my beautiful young wife and my gorgeous, if rather exhausting, daughter.

I shall be attempting to remain at this weight for some time, despite Dr Dukan’s exhortations for me to carry on down to my “true weight”. Jo doesn't want me to carry on: she thinks I'm just fine as I am. Or maybe she just wants her life back.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sheep-Jumping At The Olympics?

My wife Jo is not someone you’d normally describe as a country girl. She claims to have seen neither sheep nor cow during her childhood in Beverly Hills. I can well believe this, judging by the screams of wonderment when she first spotted a herd of cattle shortly after her arrival in the UK. “They’re absolutely huge”, she told her mother.

The fact that Jo has survived four years of living on an isolated farm in Northumberland is testimony to the strength of our relationship. She’s still pretty wary of approaching the animals directly, particularly cows, whom she (rightly) suspects of being moody, unpredictable and downright dangerous. “The only good cow is medium-rare”, she says, and, having had the neighbour’s herd force themselves through a gate into our ripe hayfield last week, I agree.

Jo has endured bats, mice, bulls and all manner of rural indignities during her time in the UK, but I don’t think she’s ever quite forgiven me for the sheep-jumping incident. It was five years ago, during our first summer in London. We were driving through rural Cambridgeshire to lunch with my half-brother when we passed a paddock laid out with pony jumps; in the corner of the field a few sheep were lazily grazing. “Look!” I said excitedly, “Sheep jumpers.”

Jo made me slow down as her brain took in this information. “You’re not telling me they have to jump over those hurdles?” “Yes, it’s a big sport in this part of the world – the land’s flat and dull and so are the people. It’s how they liven up their weekends, training their sheep to jump. They even have championships: animals come from miles around to compete.”

She was suspicious at first. But once I’d outlined the rules of the sport, explaining how they use sheepdogs to nip the lambs’ heels in training till they get the idea, she was hooked. I warmed to the subject: “You know how you wear woollen sweaters in winter? Over here we call them jumpers: they’re named after the sport.” It was a long journey.

One sly wink and my half-brother joined in the fun. “Oh, it’s such a shame you’re not here next week: we’ve got the European Sheep Jumping Championships in Kimbolton just down the road. Thousands of them are coming from all over the continent, including the Greek champions.” “I hear the Jerseys are pretty strong this year”, added my nephew… and so on, for an entire lunch. By the end of the meal, we couldn’t contain ourselves and confessed through fits of giggles.

My wife’s gullibility is one of her most endearing features, but I had to swear never to tell that story in public. However this week I couldn’t resist. Because yesterday morning we were just pulling out of our driveway when we spotted our neighbour carrying a piece of foam and some string.

“What’s that for, Dick?” I asked. “Sheep racing”, he said gloomily. “I’m measuring up for the saddles.”

Apparently a friend of his had come up with a bright idea for the Whalton Village Show on the 18th September and Dick, being one of Britain’s most distinguished sheep vets, has been designated race organiser.

“I’ve no idea how to make them run”, he moaned. “How about sheep dogs running behind to nip their heels?” I suggested, just managing to dodge the side of Jo’s fist as it whistled towards my cheek. “Presumably they’ll have names like Sheargar and Red Ram? Will it be a Sheeplechase?” Dick nodded: “Sheep are pretty good at jumping.”

In Waitrose’s car park in Ponteland there’s a poster advertising the event. I reckon it’s going to be the sporting highlight of the year. I wonder if I should invite my half-brother? No, he’d never believe me.