Magazine article The Spectator

For Less Than This, I Once Had an Ink-Pot Thrown at My Head

Magazine article The Spectator

For Less Than This, I Once Had an Ink-Pot Thrown at My Head

Article excerpt

Which leads to the most dissatisfaction - working for television or not working for television? A few months ago, having just watched an hour-long programme on race which Darcus Howe and I had helped make for Channel 4, I would, without doubt, have answered, `The former'. For although the programme had taken an immense amount of work, it seemed to me without shape or purpose. Such arguments as I had tried to put forward had not survived the cutting, and I looked - was made to look? - a proper Charlie. After watching the programme I said to myself, and not only to myself, `Never again. Life is too short, particularly at my age, for such vainglorious capers.'

Then about three months later the telephone rang and it was an ebullient Darcus Howe on the line eager to tell me the good news. He had just heard that Channel 4 was so pleased with the ratings of the programme and the viewers' reaction to it, that they had decided to commission a whole new series of six hour-long programmes with the general title of Uncool Britannia. They wanted Darcus and me to travel round Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the various regions of England, on the eve of the millennium, testing the UK waters.

At first I was sceptical, even incredulous. The idea of Channel 4 wanting me to be the co-star in such a television blockbuster struck me as simply out of this world. Darcus must be drunk or dreaming. Not at all, he assured me. The senior commissioning editor had said that the project enjoyed the full backing of Channel 4's head, Michael Jackson. Needless to say, my vanity was tickled. Six hour-long programmes on prime time! If Channel 4 had thought so highly of the race programme perhaps it had not been so bad after all. Perhaps I was about to become the second septuagenarian television star, following in the footsteps of the great Malcolm Muggeridge who also began his meteoric career on the box at a great age. In any case, what a rejuvenating challenge, the professional equivalent of a handful of Viagra pills.

So, excited but not convinced, I told Darcus that I was agreeable in principle, but that before definitely deciding I would like to hear from Panoptic, the independent production company who had made the race film and had received the commission to do the new series. Next day, Michael Jones, the Panoptic boss, rang to confirm what Darcus had said. Yes, Channel 4 was indeed over the moon about the series. In fact, they had put the idea to him, not the other way round. Yes, of course he had been as amazed as I was. But there it was, the series was definitely in the bag.

Lunch and hours of discussion took place, out of which Michael Jones drew up a first-class outline. I, too, spent weeks mugging up in the London Library on Scottish devolution, English nationalism, etc. I even consulted a publisher about getting a book out of the series and, something I've never done before, persuaded a top television agent to take me on to her books. In addition, various directors were approached and cameramen lined up. As to money, that, too, was discussed, with a possible sum of 40,000 mentioned - the equivalent of what I used to be paid by Dominic Lawson for a whole year of writing columns for the Sunday Telegraph. So rosy did the financial prospect seem, believe it or not, that I bought a new Citroen with the, for me, unheard of extra luxury of leather seats. Nor was that all. Such was my confidence that I got the Guardian to mention my great television future at the end of a piece they were doing in a Saturday issue. …

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