Monday, July 25, 2011

Growing Up

Izzy looked serious for a few moments, then gazed up at me beaming. “Daddy, I did it”, she squeaked. “You’re kidding,” I replied. “No, did it. I get off now.” And she did, and there it was: proof that my little girl was growing up.

“Yay – go Izzy”, I shouted, like an American at a baseball game, and our palms met in a triumphant “Hi-Five”.  “I wee-weed in the potty”, she reminded first me, then everyone she met for the next hour. As she was spending the morning at my office, that was a lot of people to impress.  A major milestone finally passed: nothing could signify more strongly the passing of her babyhood.

It’s exciting, yet seeing your child grow up is a bitter-sweet experience. As each tie of parental dependence severs, the more vulnerable she appears. How do little humans actually survive life without us? They’ll be reading next, then crossing the road, then having boyfriends. Before Jo and I know it, we’ll be discussing universities and, eventually, her moving out.

The truth is, humans are the only species in the animal kingdom where offspring are never truly allowed to quit the nest. I know that my Mum, 90, still worries desperately about me, 59, as much as I worry about Ben, 30 this week (another milestone), let alone tiny Izzy, 2, who’s head barely reaches my knees. The thought that anything might happen to any of my kids makes me physically wretch.

I remember the near misses: like Ben’s scooter accident in Barcelona. The call from his friend, whose voice failed to conceal the panic, the rush to the airport, the sight of his blood-covered face on the stretcher outside the operating theatre. Of course I’d warned of the dangers of bike-riding, and I’d always refused to buy him one. What else could a Dad have done? You know how headstrong youngsters are.

So I can’t begin to imagine the grief of Mitch and Janis Winehouse. They’ve watched helplessly as their beloved daughter self-destructed. In 2008 Mitch gave that sad, resigned television interview: “She won’t die of a drug overdose, that’s too quick. She would die from emphysema, if she didn’t check her behaviour, a slow, painful death, gasping for air.” How could they have saved their (in Stephen Fry’s words) “poor, unhappy creature”?

The fact is, no amount of parental vigilance can guarantee a child’s protection from cruel Fate. Over in Norway, 150 parents are in mourning, their children stolen from them by the madness of an evil fanatic.

It’s impossible to describe the excruciating, eternal agony of the loss of a child. I simply can't imagine the pain of one of my wife’s friends who, a few days ago, took her beautiful son, just nine months' old, to childcare. An hour later, she received a phone call that froze her blood: he’d stopped breathing.  An only child, his tiny light was snuffed out without warning or explanation. For his poor parents, it’s the start of an unbearable, inconsolable torment.  That’s why this weekend we’ve been hugging little Izzy even more than usual.

It’s a cliché to say that life is fragile, fraught with risk. But we’re treasuring every tiny moment as she grows up to face her own uncertain world.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lunch With The Devil's Daughter

All right, I have a confession: like Dave Cameron, I too have schmoozed with Murdoch.

I just thought I should put this on public record in case The Guardian exposes me. I don’t want this blog’s reputation to be tarnished by revelations of my former misdoings, so I’m coming clean. Murdoch had lunch at my house and I once had two glasses of rather nice Chablis chez Murdoch. Both events happened in 2002, when Rebekah Brooks was Editor of the News of the World, though I don’t think she knew about them – unless one of her hacks had violated my Palm Pilot.

There, I feel better now it’s out in the open. I hope you’ll forgive me and continue reading my blog. Please don’t call for me to be arrested, or avert your gaze if you spot me at the fish counter in Morrisons. It was a long time ago, after all. And the Murdoch in question wasn’t Rupert, but Lis: Elisabeth to the rest of you.

She’s the dark horse (well, blond, actually), who may be the key to the survival of the Murdoch regime. Named after her matriarchal grandmother, she earned the respect of independent television producers by resigning from her Dad’s empire to make her own way, launching Shine from a gloomy converted church in Notting Hill Gate.

Like the rest of us, she struggled for years to persuade broadcasters to throw her the odd commissioning crust. She found out the hard way just how tough it is to break through the walls of arrogance and risk-avoidance at places like the BBC and Channel 4. She did manage to sell some shows to Sky, thanks largely to a generous output deal (BSkyB owned 5% of her business, so it was obliged to give her some crumbs) – but she was determined to make it on her own, and later raised squillions to buy some major production companies to add to the business. I was absolutely delighted when earlier this year she persuaded her Dad to cough up around £300million to buy Shine, and his daughter, back into the News Corporation fold.

Right now, with politicians calling for the head of his son, he needs Elisabeth to help avoid the death of the dynasty. She’s tough, outspoken, connected, honest and fiercely independent. And she said she liked my cooking, which gets a big tick from me. I suspect she’ll come riding in like a white maiden and save the day for the old Aussie codger.

Despite the terrible mistakes of his newspaper underlings, I’ve always had a certain respect for her Dad. Anyone who takes on the establishment and wins, defying the crusty bigots on the way, gets my vote.

A couple of years ago I heard him speak at one of those turgid broadcasting conferences. We’d been dozing all day while young besuited things droned on about the future of media, and then in bounced this 80-year-old with more foresight than the rest of them put together. He’s a man of huge energy, who almost single-handedly transformed the world’s media landscape, bringing more creative diversity into the entertainment industry than any government-led initiatives over the last 50 years. He created a new network in America when people said it was impossible, and wiped out the official BSB satellite station with his upstart Sky, giving us multi-channel broadcasting as his legacy.

Without Sky, life with Izzy would be one long CBeebie, so we thank God for Rupert every day. Above all, he vigorously supported the loss-making Sky News, which has won more awards for its excellent, unbiased reporting than the vastly better-resourced BBC.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with him owning Sky and taking ITV into the bargain, but then, I’m not a politician. And my vote can’t count anymore as I’ve already supped with the devil. Well, lunched with his daughter anyway.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Photographer In The Hedge

He must have been hiding in the hedge. From the angle of the photograph, there was no doubt about it. I had only telephoned her an hour before, so how on earth did he know we’d be there? It’s a sunny afternoon, I’d said. Let’s have a glass of wine in the garden: it’s private, and we need to talk.

At the time I put it down to chance: maybe the photographer was prowling the streets of Chelsea and just spotted us – over a six-foot high garden fence. Of course I’ve no way of knowing for sure, but the revelations of the last few days have finally offered another explanation for that photograph many years ago.

It was during a most unhappy time of my life. I’d like to write it off as just a misspent youth, but I was old enough to know better. At the time I probably called it a mid-life crisis, a few months before my 40th birthday. Now I look back with shame.

Me and a television celebrity, caught in a hotel in Los Angeles. The media maelstrom that followed caused the disintegration of my first marriage and nearly destroyed my career. Was it in the public interest? Well the paper thought the public were interested, for they gave it plenty of coverage. But public interest? Hardly. I was just a producer, she a presenter. We had a summer location fling: it ought to have faded with the autumn leaves. But in the glare of the headlines, it felt like the end of the world.

I’ll never forget the feeling of impotence and vulnerability when the tabloids turned on the spotlight. Convinced I was being being followed 24 hours a day, I kept my curtains closed, scanned my rear view mirror for pursuing vehicles, and always used a mobile phone instead of the landline, for fear of phone tapping. Big mistake.

I guess all they wanted was a picture of us together. But we both felt we’d given our spouses and children enough pain without exposing them to that additional indignity. So we avoided the paparazzi and kept our heads down.

We’d escaped from Los Angeles by hiding in the back of a car and driving like the wind to the airport. A lovely British Airways official, who’d seen it all before, brought us in through the staff entrance. At Heathrow we sneaked into separate taxis with scarcely a goodbye.

A rabbit caught in the headlines, I checked into an anonymous apartment hotel. For almost two months I looked over my shoulder, scanning the horizon for lenses, avoiding eye-contact for fear of being recognized. It was an illogical, crazy existence. In reality, nobody cared but me. I should have gone home and faced the music, picked up the remnants of my life.

One day I bumped into Jeremy Paxman. “How are things?” he asked. “Terrible”, I replied, “what with all the tabloids and everything”. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. The man who knew everything about the news, who every night read out the newspaper headlines on Newsnight, had completely missed the end of my world.

That made me feel much better: my story was just old news. I moved into a flat, then one day rang her and we arranged to meet. Except the photographer came too. Hacked? Who knows. Invaded? Most certainly.

It wasn’t the News of the World that published the picture, by the way. I’ll wager there’ll be more redtops under the magnifying glass once the public gets its inquiry. I just hope that, in time, the tabloids begin to work out a new balance between their freedom to publish what really is in the public interest and the basic right of every individual to simply live in privacy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Potty Training with Russell Harty

"So what was your first impression of Russell Harty?"

It wasn’t a trick question, and I should have seen it coming – on Thursday, ITV brought me all the way to London for an interview about the late chatshow host. But it still caught me unprepared.

Amazing Grace Bashes Harty Shock
I’d carefully rehearsed in my head all my usual anecdotes about Diana Dors, Oliver Reed, Dirk Bogarde and the myriad other celebrities Russell had interviewed during the years I was his producer. I had a store of tales of encounters with Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd and other long-deceased comedians, or prickly meetings with Hollywood super-egos like Shirley McLaine. I’d rehearsed in my head what I would say about Russell’s national notoriety following the Grace Jones incident, about the rent boy story in the News Of The World, and his subsequent illness and death.

I wanted to talk about his humanity and humour, his vulnerability and honesty. But recalling an image of when we first met? I couldn’t even picture where it was. At the BBC? In a Notting Hill restaurant? In Russell’s basement flat with its bachelor-yellow walls and walnut grand piano? Memory plays such tricks with your brain, it’s hard to be precise about events of thirty years ago. That’s when the BBC summoned me back from a year’s sabbatical in India to become Russell’s producer.

At that time my first son Ben was barely an embryo: Russell later became his godfather. By the end of the third series of chatshows, he was talking in sentences and just about potty trained – Ben that is: Russell never used a sentence when a whole paragraph would do. Potty-training Ben was easier than producing the mercurial Mr Harty: though, sadly, I can’t recall any of that process either, to my wife’s frustration.

Izzy relaxes after a long session of potty-training
Right now, Izzy is talking fluently, saying American words like cookie, sneaker and diaper in a posh English accent. Especially the last, for now the time has come for her to cross the divide and cast away the Pampers. Yet I find I have absolutely no recollection of how to achieve this vitally important stage of parenthood.

I can clearly picture Ben’s white disposable nappies – no cartoon characters or triple layers in those days – but the fog of forgetfulness won’t let me recall how we banished them. As a result, I’m distracted from my writing by the sight of Izzy running across the lawn, shorts round her ankles and Jo in hot pursuit carrying a plastic pink Peppa Pig potty, urging her to sit down. She catches her, too late of course. The dogs witnessing this display appear to be laughing as much as I am: I just hope the image stays in my brain for long enough for me to be able to share it with Izzy’s first boyfriend.

Back in the ITV interview, I suppose I could have invented some neat anecdote. That’s what they do on talk shows. Nicely honed stories, told to the researcher beforehand, noted down on the question cards. “You’ve had some strange acquatic experiences haven’t you?” comes the host’s unsubtle prompt, and out pops a pat answer about scuba-diving with David Jason.

Russell hated all that. He liked to interview people, not names. Celebrity didn’t make people interesting, personality sometimes did. Which is one reason his interviewing technique was often criticised: he liked people, not reputations or press releases. At times that could sound curt, even rude, but his bluntness derived from interest, not sycophancy.

Russell Harty 1934-1988
(with faithful M&S pullover)
So instead, I descended into the blank of my memory, and pulled out Russell’s dark blue Marks & Spencer pullover and his blue-grey sensible shoes. He wore them every day, in the office, in restaurants, at home. Not at all the garb of a star. So I said he appeared to be, well, "unstarry". It sounded most inadequate, but it was absolutely true.