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.