Monday, March 29, 2010

A Good Week

All in all, it’s been a pretty good week. On Monday the controller of a TV network told me he liked one of our programme ideas so much he wanted to commission a series; then on Thursday the government announced that our consortium (led by Trinity Mirror, the owners of The Newcastle Chronicle & Journal, the Press Association and Bob Geldof’s company Ten Alps) had won the contest to make the government-funded pilot for a new regional news service. Either project could help reshape our regional media landscape.

I’m sure this double helping of good news brought out the sun, which has been shining over our house ever since. I’ve remembered to put all the clocks forward, and finally the first wild daffodils are flowering in our wood. What could be finer? Well, Newcastle United convincingly beating Nottingham Forest tonight would be a bonus. And Izzy saying her first word: that would really cap it all.

They say that good things happen in threes, and I really thought that Izzy had provided the icing on the cake yesterday when I could have sworn I heard her say “cat”. But no, it was just part of her ongoing burble, for she immediately called her building blocks “cat” as well. I think she’s doing this on purpose: keeping us in suspense and ignoring our endless attempts to make her rehearse Dada, Duck, Doggie and Do Say Anything, as if to demonstrate who’s really in control in our family. She’s probably quite fluent in human speak, but just waiting for the right moment to reveal it. Izzy also refuses to walk, except when we’re not looking. Turn your back and she’s climbing the stairs – not on her knees, but walking straight backed, like a grownup. Hold your hand out to help her and she’s back on her bum in an instant. Jo says she takes after me: the stubbornness, that is. And my extraordinary ability not to be able to hear her whenever she talks to me.

It’s certainly nice to be part of a winning team for once, and I’m delighted it includes the Newcastle Journal and Chronicle. The last time we tried to win anything together was back in 1998 when we formed a consortium to bid for an FM radio licence. We wanted a new kind of youth music station – to be called Ice FM – and our plan was to locate it on board the Tuxedo Princess, moored under the Tyne Bridge. Five thousand people signed a petition to support the bid, including Tony Blair. Our station manager was the radio industry guru Gordon McNamee, who created Kiss FM. We thought we couldn’t lose.

But in those days radio licences were awarded by a secret process without open criteria or transparency. Internal politics won the day and the licence inexplicably went to a London-based group, Galaxy FM. It was a bitter blow. If I were honest, my primary motive for winning then was that I’d have an excuse to return to my childhood home. Now I’m firmly back where I belong, I’m delighted that I might have a chance to be part of a team creating something really special for the region.

If it’s allowed to go ahead, that is. There’s many a slip, as they say, and with the Conservative Party maintaining that they want to scrap the whole regional news pilot idea, who knows what Summer might bring. Even Spring doesn’t seem quite sure of herself, with more wintry weather threatening to cloud us out next week.

At least we can look to Newcastle United to keep up the warm glow. Except that our team does have an uncanny knack of letting us down at the last moment. Now, just a few victories away from promotion and the gratitude of an entire city, even they can’t blow this one, can they?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Richer

It was certainly very blue, but the thing that struck me first was how small it was.

Andrew Lloyd Webber had invited us down to his Berkshire pile to view his new acquisition. It was 1995 and he’d just spent £18million on it. I couldn’t imagine any one item costing that sort of money, let alone being invited to see it close-up.

It was a painting called The Absinthe Drinker, or, to give it its proper title, Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto. Picasso painted it in 1903, during his Blue Period. Hence the colour. But I did think that for £18million he might have got something a little bigger.

We arrived in my second-hand Merc – I’d put it through the car wash on the way, as I didn’t want it to be shown up outside the house. Sydmonton Court is not the prettiest of country houses, but the setting is idyllic: it lies at the bottom of Watership Down where the famous rabbits have a grandstand view of the property, with its own church in the garden. Some years later, after he ceased to be just Mister, Andrew bought the entire Down and controversially relocated the public footpath that ran along the edge. Presumably he didn’t want ordinary people watching him eat breakfast.

He welcomed us with champagne and ushered us towards the stairs. I’d enjoyed watching Andrew’s art collection grow over the years. He’d always been intoxicated by Pre-Raphaelites and had been collecting them since he was 15 years old; I remember him proudly showing off his first £1million acquisition – a massive Burne-Jones which took up an entire wall of his huge dining hall. Now the house was full of these large, brightly coloured, poetic indulgences – he’d built up the most important collection in the world and had pretty much cornered the market. But a Picasso? This was something else.

We walked behind the staircase and there it was, tucked away on a little wall in a corner. It was a man holding a pipe with a glass in front of him, staring at us with dark blue eyes and curled up lips, almost sneering. Or maybe he’d taken in too much absinthe. Either way, the drinker, and we, were mesmerized. It was most certainly a masterpiece.

I first knew Andrew when he had a fraction of his present fortune. Even then he was in a different league. He and Sarah Brightman invited the family, including our two very young children, to stay with them in the south of France. We were put up in a beautiful guest annex overlooking the pool; by contrast our spare room at home had packing cases in the corner.

One hot afternoon Andrew and I were lying in the pool with another guest, the Tory minister John Selwyn Gummer, who was stretched out on an inflatable alligator. After several glasses of rose wine, the subject turned to our libel laws, and how much money you’d need to sue a newspaper for to have cash in the bank for the rest of your life. Andrew carefully worked out the cost of running Sydmonton and his flat in Chelsea and the house whose pool we were lying in and announced that £10million would just about do it. We then worked out what we’d have to do to get ourselves libeled.

This week, Christies announced it was selling the Picasso to raise funds for Andrew’s charitable foundation. With a pre-sale estimate of £30-40 million, it could well fetch the highest price for any painting ever sold at auction in Europe. The profit alone will outstrip the £10 million he said he needed to enjoy the rest of his life. And it’s all going to charity. Now that’s true wealth for you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Leaving The Country

The immigration lawyer was uncompromising: “Your wife must leave the country by midnight”. It wasn’t the best start to a Monday morning. Things were about to get a lot worse.

The previous evening I was feeling rather chuffed because I’d saved £100 by booking some cheap flights in advance for our summer break. I printed out the boarding passes and popped them into our passports for safekeeping. Jo’s fell open at her visa page.

I remembered how complicated and costly it had been to get that little yellow stamp: we’d needed a mound of evidence to prove our cohabitation. Bank statements, photographs of our life together, correspondence and bills: the paperwork had filled a small suitcase. That must have been nearly two years ago.

I studied it. ‘Expires 8.3.10’: that’s tomorrow. Damn.

“Maybe we just could pop down to London to get it renewed?” I asked. “After all, we’re married now with a British baby: they’re hardly going to refuse us”. “If I do have to leave the country we could always fly to Paris for lunch,” Jo suggested hopefully.

“She’s certainly entitled to British residency,” explained the lawyer, “but she needs to take an English test first.” I wondered if it mattered that she still calls aubergines “eggplants”. “However it would take days to book the test, and she must be out of the country tonight. She’ll just have to get a new visa in America”.

There was a long pause while I took this in. We had to get to America. Tonight.

“Will I be back for my filming day on Wednesday?” Apparently I had to be kidding. This process could take weeks. It was already 11am. LA was out of the question: we might just make the last Heathrow flight to New York.

We flew round the house. Jo packed a bag for Izzy – as we had no idea when we’d be back, she had to come with us. Meanwhile I tried to find evidence that Jo wasn’t an illegal immigrant. Apparently these days you can’t just turn up at the Embassy with a baby and a marriage certificate: we needed a full dossier on our life together. We threw our wedding album and the contents of an entire filing cabinet into a suitcase and raced for the airport. We made the plane with a minute to spare.

A few hours later Jo and I, holding a very confused Izzy, stared at the view. To the left was the Chrysler building, to the right the Empire State, below us the flashing lights of Broadway. We were on the 34th floor of a hotel in Times Square. It was 5am English time. The flights had cost £2,000; the visa, hotel and lawyers’ fees would probably double that. That's if the British Embassy let us have the visa at all.

At daybreak we filled in the online application form. It said we needed “biometrics”: fingerprints. However the earliest appointment to get this done was a week next Thursday, the day I was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the North East Business Awards in Newcastle. In desperation we hailed a yellow cab and drove to Brooklyn. The biometrics office was in the middle of an orthodox Jewish quarter, the same area where Jo’s grandparents had arrived in 1912, fleeing Russia with only the few possessions they could cram into a suitcase. We knew how they must have felt.

After much pleading, the officials relented and took Jo’s fingerprints without an appointment. Back in Manhattan, a man called Ravi helped us file our application. His tiny office was full of foreigners desperately trying to get into Britain. A few hours later, we collected our visa. That night Virgin found us a flight to Heathrow and, to our amazement, Jo's fingerprints matched the ones she'd left behind in Brooklyn.

BA charged us £200 just to change our domestic flights back to Newcastle. However it was worth it: we arrived home just in time for the theatrical event of the year, the Whalton village play "Macbeth The Musical".

It wasn’t quite Broadway, but it sure felt great to be home.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Big Question Mark

This morning my American wife asked me why Gordon Brown has the power to hold the general election anytime between now and the 3rd of June.

I’m afraid I couldn’t give her an adequate answer. In America, presidential terms are fixed to end every fourth November. As a result neither political party has an advantage over the other by choosing an election day to suit their own fortunes. Jo says our system is crazy and unfair. I have to confess she’s probably right.

The question arose because I said over breakfast that if I were Gordon Brown I’d call a snap election right now and have the voting in April, just as the daffodils will be at their best. Why wait till May, when things are hardly going to get better?

With the policyless Tories in disarray, I doubt there will be a more auspicious moment than now. Perhaps, with the Ides of March just one week away, Brown should hire a soothsayer to foresee the outcome. Have an augurer cut open a stray pollster and check the vital organs for signs of the public mood: frankly, with the polls the way they are, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen after three weeks of campaigning.

You can be sure of one thing: in BBC Television Centre they are already building the scenery for the election night programme. In fact, they will have been designing, planning and rehearsing it for much of the last five years. I know this because it was once my job. In 1979, just after Margaret Thatcher came to power, I was told I would be the director of the next election, whenever it happened.

It’s one of the plum jobs in television. The programme starts after News at Ten and goes on until the new prime minister is installed in Downing Street late in the afternoon the following day. It’s a grueling 20-hour marathon that takes five years to plan and rehearse.

How do you rehearse an election? With a lot of money, that’s how. You could run BBC 6 Music for a couple of years on the budget they gave us to make that one show on election night.

It didn’t just take place in a single studio: we were given almost every resource in Television Centre. One huge studio was used just for a rest area for all the staff. I designed my set by drawing a large question mark on the back of a menu card in the BBC canteen. They built a giant version of it fifteen feet in the air, so that we’d have room for hundreds of backroom staff underneath. It took two weeks to put up and another week to take down.

We’d constructed a new computer with which, for nearly two years, we’d rehearsed every conceivable outcome, from a Conservative landslide to a hung parliament. The computer was clunky and slow at first, and so unreliable that we had a hundred volunteers with bits of paper to run a backup service in case it crashed.

On election night my question mark set looked suitably quizzical, with David Dimbleby on one side and Robin Day and his guests on the other; my control room looked like a super-sized Starship Enterprise, with images from 250 cameras in 55 locations. Returning officers combed their hair in readiness for their little moment of fame.

As it turned out, it was no contest. With the SDP/Liberal alliance fracturing Michael Foot’s Labour party, our computer graphics showed a blue victory for Thatcher from the very first result.

This time I’m looking forward to watching a multi-coloured cliffhanger: the timing may not be fair, but at least the television programme will be exciting.