Saturday, 10 October 2009

Celebrittle and Jockabites

Broadcasting in my day in Wales was largely dynastic. The jobs of the fathers were visited on the sons and daughters. Creativity was not a job specification. When these sprigs from an old twig wanted a new programme they sent Wynford Vaughan Thomas round the country on a horse. That is not to say he did not turn in listenable programmes. Although one of the most brilliant conversationalists I have met, Wynford was also a good listener and he loved people.

Sadly, today's celebrities have not fully mastered thinking, and their purpose as they go whirling round the globe is to be loved by the people they meet. ng, and their purpose as they go whirling round the globe is to be loved by the people they meet.

I did my first published interview on VE Day in 1945. For the next half century scarcely a day passed when I didn’t do one for radio,TV, newspapers. My books are extended interviews with people or research into their lives.

It it took me forty years to become an interviewer. I fell asleep in the middle of an interview for a Radio 4 series. For the first and only time in my life the office was inundated with letters praising my interviewing technique. At last, they all said, an interviewer who isn’t for ever interrupting. I can take a hint.

Received radio wisdom is that answers should be kept short. Otherwise listeners get bored. Rubbish. Interview questions are spurs in the flank of monologues. The interviewer is the jockey - a sort of horseman of the puckered lip. If you can see him, even in your mind's eye, he has failed.

On Radio Wales Vincent Kane was a superlative interviewer. He left space for answers. So did a man called Gerry Monte; and Michael Parkinson and quirky Ray Gosling on the other networks..

. Now the interviewer is the star. His questions swirl like a matador's red cape as he taunts the bull in a suit of too bright lights. I do sometimes wish they could fall asleep and give the other chap a chance.

We don't get interviews. We get cross talk acts between John Humphrys and various elephantine politicians; even crosser talk acts between Paxman’s eyebrows and more politicians. But they never seem to elicit any information. Worst of all Martha Carney whose idea of questioning has unhappy echoes of the Nag.

Are the broadcast media right to concentrate almost exclusively on politics? I know it is cheap but I don't know anyone who listens enthralled. Perhaps I am also wrong in believing that interviewing should not be part of the entertainment industry, which it plainly is.

Wynford Vaughan Thomas was a scholar, an historian with an inquiring mind. That is not one of the requirements of celebrity. Rather the opposite. For them, self love and personal promotion are vital ingredients. Thus we are invited to watch the Arctic gasping with amazement at the antics of Billy Connolly; America may never get over its admiration for Stephen Fry and Griff Rhys Jones cannot see a mountain or the side of skyscraper without scaling them. Michael Palin shows us the world sharing his admiration for himself. Programming is a perpetual procession of personality.

It need not be so. Kate Humble, happily shed of Bill Oddity, has allowed us to share her fascination with the Frankincense Trail. Though I wish “Autumn Watch” was not conducted in such a state of adolescent excitement. Michael White all to rarely illuminates ancient history. Hardly a celebrity, but a peerless broadcaster. There are others. Libby Purves, Eddie Maer, Ed Storton, Melvyn Bragg are masters of the craft, Neil Oliver, the pantomimic Scotsman, overflowing with hair and eagerness, who endlessly circles The Coast is not without charm. The agreeably waspish Brian Sewell has a powerful presence which he released on the Grand Tour but held in check when extolling the beauty and the people he found on the way. That may be a clue. For me the peerless presenter is the architect Kevin McCloud. Where he alights he illuminates. His joy in architecture is manifest. Other presenters of music, history and painting programmes share this obsession with their subject and scorn to rival it. Even a monumentally unpleasant person like Starkey, so vain he has said publicly he would like to be thought of as the 21st century Dr Johnson, subordinates himself to his subject.

But surely the ultimate proof that a week is a long time in radio came with the news that Radcliffe and Maconie , not, as I had thought, a brand of piquant sauce but a comedic duo, are to do their next shows whilst walking Hadrian's Wall If you cannot hear the jokes, that will be the noise the spectre of Hadrian makes as he follows them demolishing his Wall. Oh, Hadrian, after you with the shovel.

Not even death brings relief. I read that several years after his demise, Fred Dibnah, a chap who, had I stood next to him a pub, I would have moved to another bar, is once again going to tour the engineering marvels of England. Including, one assumes, reincarnation.

DIY quizzes and news bulletins fill our days. I would have thought that if satellite news bulletins and the barely live Five proved anything, they prove there isn’t enough news about - or news they can afford to get - to nourish a rolling news coverage. The reason the first popular papers included features is there wasn’t enough news to fill a paper big enough for people to buy. BBC announcers would sometimes come on, announce the nine o'clock news and say, “There is no news today. Goodnight.“

Isn’t news just another fix, anyway? We are used to getting it at stated times like the six o'clock Martini. We think we can't do without it. For the past twelve years we have been ruled by the New Jockobites. There have been log jams on what Dr Johnson memorably called the High Road that leads to England made by a Tartan Horde of BBC presenters. Some take the High Road, some take the Low Road, but they all get to the microphone before us Saxons. As if that were not bad enough, they are all suffering from the delusion that party politics are interesting. Not Politics. Gossip.

Even more depressing, we are now copying the Oompah Whimpering show where you manufacture news by bringing together stage villains or antagonists and inviting them to fight whilst the audience boos and cheers. And Oh, for a Muse of Fire that would ascend the heavens and burn up the Archers, a haven for the most unpleasant community ever assembled in the history of mankind.


In the Guardian Alexander Chancellor mocks Cameron for hiding the fact that he is a toff and used to shoot pheasants. Any shooter will tell you that a pheasant which sells for £2 in the game dealer's costs owners £24 in food, care and housing. If I can eat pheasant - and do every winter weekend -for £2 I can only sing “thank heaven for little boys" who are fool enough to subsidise my Sunday lunch with £22. Perhaps they would also consider shooting bread and butter pudding?
Cameron hides his hunting past because, if he didn't, rich upper class writers like Chancellor - who modestly hides the fact he is a toff, the son of a baronet and Lady Sylvia Paget, and who was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall - would criticise him for hunting. By implication, he is criticised for not hunting. Makes him sound like a pheasant, potted whatever he does. I have no brief for Cameron, Tony Blair in a top hat, but so long as he isn't Scotch I do not care who is the next prime minister.
Blair was among our war-mongering politicians who attended a service to Commemorate the Iraqi invasion and the 127 servicemen whose deaths they brought about. The Archbishop of Canterbury made his distaste plain as did the father of a dead soldier .
A service of apology would have been in better taste. Not only to the families of the dead soldiers. What about the thousands of American troops and the 100,000 Iraqis who died and would have been alive today had Hussein been left in power until his own people rempved him?
On R4 a news editor defended his decision to play in a news magazine the tape of the last minutes of three helicopter pilots who died as their chopper crashed. There have been few protests. Very few in comparison to the hundreds who complained about the broadcasting gigolo who joshed his partner for looking like a “Paki”. Even more joined in when Bruce Forsyth said that thirty years ago it would not have been noticed and anyway the Diggers called us “Limeys” and “Poms” when we were fighting side by side. In France in the Middle Ages the English were called “Rosbiffs” and rather liked it. What of “Scouser” and “Tike” and “Jock” and “Taffy” “Fenny” and “Gog” and “Hontu”, “Paddy””Kipper Basher”
A man with the mind of boy who is a victim of Asperges disease is fighting extradition to the US where he faces sixty years in gaol for what was essentially an ill-advised schoolboy prank, searching for UFOs. His last hope was our brand new Supreme Court. He has been told his case was not important enough.
But as so often, it was the Yanks (whoops, sorry, the Americans), including African Americans and Native Americans, who scooped the pool. They discover space travel and the first practical use they make of the Moon? They bomb it into the cosmic equivalent of the Stone Age. On the day their President won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps not as bizarre as it appears. Nobel was an arms manufacturer who has been responsible for the death of millions.