Thursday, April 29, 2010


Nick Clegg and my one-year-old daughter Izzy have something in common. Last week they both took their first grownup steps. The two events had equally devastating consequences. Jo and I have had to raise everything in the sitting room above child height: and, having found that their opponent is a baby no more, Labour and the Tories are belatedly rushing around trying to raise their game.

I missed Clegg’s first performance because the volcano had caused me to get stuck in France. Thanks to a surprisingly luxurious ferry (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but a huge cabin with a kingsize bed, private bathroom and breakfast-in-bed hands Brittany Ferries my vote for Most Stylish Cross-Channel Ferry), I arrived back in time to miss the wedding of my old friend, Christopher Graham.

Chris has one of the most powerful jobs in Britain: he’s our Information Commissioner. Appointed by the Crown, his job is to promote openness by public bodies and protect the privacy of our data. He’s the chap who decides what we should know about our elected representatives and what the government should know about us. In short, he’s our country’s Head of Fairness and Openness, the bloke you go to if you want to find out what our MPs and public corporations are doing or spending.

We met in the early 1970s when we were both BBC news trainees. Chris had been interested in politics all his life: he was a Liverpool city councillor at the age of 21 and he tried in vain to become an MP in the 1980s. It was Chris who first drew my attention to the plight of the Liberals.

He and I had volunteered to work on the results programme on the February 1974 election. Chris was very excited because the Libs, or Soggies as we unkindly called them, were on the verge of a breakthrough. If they achieved over 21% of the popular vote, they’d end up with maybe fifty MPs, compared to the six they currently had. At long last there would be a third force in British politics.

In fact, the Libs succeeded in doubling their vote to 6 million, more than half the support of either big party, but won only 14 seats. Statistically that meant (as Chris would recite endlessly to anyone who would listen) it took just 39,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, but 433,000 votes to elect a Liberal. That’s simply not fair, said Chris. And it still isn’t.

Even if Clegg gets 30% of the vote, he’ll only get around 100 seats – compared to the 200 he deserves. And that’s plain wrong: our cockeyed version of democracy means that if one party is supported by around 39%, that party can pretty well ignore the views of the 61% who voted against them.

After the 1974 election, Ted Heath desperately tried to keep power by seeking a coalition with the Liberals. But Jeremy Thorpe’s condition – electoral reform – was a dealbreaker. This time, the winner will be the party that offers voting reform first. Irrespective of which party gets the most votes on May 6th, unless Clegg falls flat on his face in this Thursday’s debate we’re likely to have coalition politics in Britain forever. That means Lib Dems in government for the foreseeable future.

And that, of course, is perfectly fair. If the Lib Dem vote sticks at around 30%, the British public isn’t going to tolerate Labour, with fewer votes, getting substantially more seats and possibly even forming a government.

Nick Clegg’s newfound popularity has exposed the obsolescence of the British voting system, which will have a serious crisis of legitimacy unless the established parties offer complete reform. The baby is walking – there’s no going back now.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Under A Cloud

They’re piloting a new game show this week. It’s called ‘The Cloud’ and the idea is that you send half a million people to a foreign country of their own choosing and then deny them any possible chance of getting home. They have to use their initiative to beg, borrow or steal a passage back home to their loved ones. I’ve no idea if will make good television, but they’re certainly talking about nothing else here in the South of France.

Yes, I’m still here. There were around 10,000 television executives stuck down in Cannes on Thursday morning. I’ve no idea how many have made it back so far. I’ve made it as far as Toulouse (yes, I know Toulouse is actually further away than Cannes, but I thought going west would give me a better chance of escaping The Cloud, which is supposed to be the object of this gameshow).

I’m holed up (a rather apt phrase, I’m afraid) in an airport hotel. One of those boxy places you would only ever stay in when your flight gets cancelled. They do very good steak and chips in the bar. Unfortunately that’s all they do, and I’ve been here three nights already. I think I’ve begun to moo in my sleep.

Luckily I’ve kept my hire car. They’re like gold dust. Who knows where I may have to drive to in order to get home. One chap was quoted 600 Euros for hiring one to take him to Barcelona, which is only down the road. Barcelona and Madrid are spoken of with hushed reverence over breakfast. Like Switzerland must have sounded during the war.

There’s a motley collection of refugees in the hotel. An American couple is trying to fly home to North Carolina; a farmer is trying to get back to his fields in Norfolk; several primary school teachers begin a new term tomorrow; all the children are hoping they’ll never get back.

One businessman flew down for a lunch meeting. That was on Thursday. He’s supposed to be in Houston tomorrow. No amount of gold cards are going to get him there.

Several people work for the company that builds the Airbus. They have hundreds of brand new models, just a few hundred yards from this hotel. As we have a couple of pilots, several air hostesses, and an airplane maintenance engineer staying here with us, I suggested in the bar last night, only half in jest, that we might slip through the security fence and help ourselves to the new A380 which is sitting in the big aircraft hangar opposite. Then we could see what it’s like cruising at 5000 feet all the way across the Channel.

But now there’s news. Two English women, travelling with their young sons, have just come into the breakfast lounge announcing that Brittany Ferries have some space on tonight’s crossing from Cherbourg. A murmur of excitement immediately goes round the room; the Australian bursts into tears again. I’ve gone to my laptop (putting this article on hold) and checked Brittany’s French website as the British site is too overloaded. Sure enough, they can take me, and give me a “luxury” cabin, if I can make it to the coast by 11pm. I check the map. It’s ten hours non-stop: just about enough time.

I’ve never been on an overnight ferry before. Watch out Portsmouth: by the time you’re reading this I should be with you. Who knows, by tomorrow I may even be out of this wretched game show.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lonely in Cannes

Izzy’s high chair is empty; her little cot hasn’t been slept in. I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking a cloud-blanketed Mediterranean. The forecast was sunny, but this dull weather has pretty much caught my mood.

It started as a good plan. Every April and October for the last 20 years I’ve come down to the Cannes television festival, where people buy and sell programme ideas. That’s 40 weeks of my children’s growing up missed because of late night schmoozing. This time, I thought, as Izzy is so young, why not make it a family do? I had visions of tiny toes touching waves for the first time, of sandcastles and waiters in the restaurants succumbing to her big eyes and love of pasta. So we booked a few extra days before the festival began and rented an apartment with a sea view. We didn’t reckon on the bug.

It hit Jo’s tummy on Tuesday and promptly collided with a fearful respiratory infection. Poor Jo has been confined to bed all week: Saturday’s flight was out of the question. She hasn’t eaten a thing for days, something that her stomach doesn’t seem to have noticed: it still decides it wants to vomit every few hours. Nice one.

As a husband, I’ve learnt a few things not to say this week. Like “Well at least your tummy’s flatter” or “I’m making a nice piece of tuna, would you like some?”, or “I did so want to see Izzy in the sea”. I don’t think they went down very well as each time the large paperback hit my head in roughly the same spot.

I wish I could have stayed to offer more help and support (though I’m not sure how welcome it would have been) but the market beckons. One good sale could keep our company going for a year: it’s an event we can’t afford to miss.

I so wish Easyjet flew to Nice every day so I could have delayed my flight till the festival starts. I’m stuck here like a sad out of season tourist.

The trip down was greatly enhanced by a rather mature purser, or Senior Cabin Crew, as his badge called him, with a strong West Country burr. A stand-in from Bristol depot or office or whatever airlines have, he confided to me that he couldn’t understand a single word his Newcastle-based colleagues were saying.

He was very jolly, and clearly Easyjet had introduced some sort of incentivisation scheme for the onboard catering. “Good choice, sir, you’ll definitely enjoy that”, he said rather too loudly as I ordered a ham and cheese melt. “Oh, the Starbucks coffee too, that’s a great decision. It’s an excellent blend.” I wondered if he was an exile from British Airways first class. Then he made a tannoy announcement extolling the virtues of the “absolutely delicious” egg sandwiches, which he highly recommended as they were made from the airline’s own Easylay eggs. There was a hen party on board: I think they already had Easylay written on their foreheads, if you know what I mean.

When I arrived I decided to get the taste of Easysandwich out of my mouth, so I wandered down to a seafront restaurant and ordered bouillabaisse piled high with fish, mussels and prawns. I never remember whether you’re allowed to eat crustacea with or without an r in the month, but hey, I have the stomach of an ox. By the time I finished I never wanted to see another fish again.

The seafood had other ideas. Two hours later, I began to see them all again. I’ve been up all night and I know exactly how Jo feels. She says she’s given me something to remember her by. She also promises she won’t mention tuna, but is very much looking forward to seeing my flatter stomach when I get home.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Naked Truth

Lynda Bellingham told me Michael wasn’t the slightest concerned about seeing his Mum naked on stage, but having to touch Gemma Atkinson’s buns sent him into a right tizz. “You should have seen his eyes light up at the dress rehearsal”, she laughed.

We were chatting over a pre-theatre supper before The Calendar Girls, the play of the film of the true story of the WI ladies who posed in various stages of undress for a fund-raising calendar and subsequently became an international sensation.

Lynda, who starred in the original West End adaptation, is in Newcastle for a two-week sellout run and Michael, one of two sons from her second marriage, plays the nervous young photographer.

What I didn’t tell Lynda over supper was that generally I detest stage adaptations. They can’t hope to match the pace or sharpness of the original, and the film, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, is a favourite of mine. But I wanted to show willing, particularly as Lynda was treating me and my Mum, who had been a close friend of her own Mum and Dad.

In fact we absolutely loved it. If you're in the North East, do bribe someone for a ticket before it closes this Saturday. It’s moving and real and very funny, with pace and pathos and terrific performances from a great cast. Sure, I couldn’t quite see Ms Atkinson fitting the traditional WI image, but that was probably the point: this was a cast of rebels who broke the mold and Tim Firth’s tightly woven script guarantees an uplifting evening in which Lynda Bellingham is a real comedy star.

Over supper Lynda, Mum and I chatted about old times and family matters. Well, in fact we mostly talked about illegitimacy, adoption, drinking and divorce – four of the topics that comprise a large part of Lynda’s life story. She’s just gone public about it in an honest, and, apart from the statutory mention of Christopher Biggins, relatively unshowbizzy autobiography.

I doubt the lovely Lynda has any warts – try as I might I couldn’t spot any from my seat in the Theatre Royal – but if she had, they’d certainly be in this book. Her adoption at four months, the drinking and toxic marriages, the quest for her birth mother: the book lays bare her rollercoaster life. Now, sipping mineral water with the new Michael in her life, her third and final husband, she looks radiant, happy and fulfilled. She’s at the top of her game, professionally and personally, and loving her new career as a best-selling author. She’s even writing a novel. I told her she should call it ‘Illegitimacy’, as it’s a theme that has preoccupied much of her adult life.

As the father of an adopted daughter, who’s now 21, I’m interested in how Lynda’s life has been influenced by the knowledge of her adopted status. I’ve always believed in openness and honesty with my children, as had Lynda’s adoptive parents, but, despite our reassurances of “we chose you, you’re special”, I wondered if her awareness of this mysterious other mother had created a neediness in her, a craving for acceptance engendered by an understandable fear of rejection?

I suspect the answer is yes, both in Lynda’s case and my own daughter’s; but the alternative, a childhood of deception, of hiding the skeleton in the cupboard till it emerges accidentally in adulthood, would have been far more traumatic. “When I eventually met Marjorie (her real mother, a committed Baptist) in my forties, she asked me to call her Mother,” Lynda told me. “I simply couldn’t - Ruth and Don Bellingham will always be Mum and Dad”. A delightful, generous warm couple, they gave Lynda the best childhood anyone could hope for. And finally, as Lynda says in her book, nurture ultimately wins over nature.