As a former director/producer of what were once pompously dubbed ‘high end’ documentaries and drama-docs, I struggle these days to recommend a TV career to young people. An inveterate Alf Garnett of the media world, I now sincerely believe that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Quality stuff, I mean. And even when they do, the pay is so poor and the contracts so short that without a rich daddy or mummy behind you, you condemn yourself to a life of penury and insecurity. But hey, it wasn’t all bad, and, for those intent on ignoring my advice, I will say that meeting famous people was a big part of the fun, as I did making BBC2’s Reading the Eighties, a greatest hits of 1980s bestsellers. What I discovered then is, with age, perhaps unsurprising: that those who wrote funny, popular books without any literary pretensions were invariably better company those who thought they were the next Joyce, Proust or Virginian Woolf.
Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame was perhaps the most amiable, although she couldn’t stand Beryl Reid who played Adrian’s grandmother in the TV adaptation. ‘She was a mad pain in the neck,’ said Sue, ‘who, unable to get the Leicester accent, did an awful Brummie caricature instead and then tried to force the rest of the cast to imitate her.’ I confessed to her my intense fear of aging and losing my looks, and she, who was close to death, replied, laughing: ‘Because of my diabetes, I’m completely blind and can’t see you at all, but I’ll tell you how lovely you look if that helps.’
Stephen Hawking wasn’t noticeably more agile than Sue, but still manfully plugging ‘A Brief History of Time’ which had sold in huge numbers – although, it has been scandalously suggested, a smaller percentage than usual for bestsellers ever reached the end. I was allowed only one unprepared question and as we were featuring ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, asked him about Douglas Adams. For twenty minutes the camera ran while he dutifully programmed his gizmo, and I crossed and uncrossed my legs. But it was well worth the wait as finally everybody’s favourite household dalek began speaking: ‘I once met Douglas Adams in Los Angeles for lunch where he told me about working on scripts for Doctor Who.’ The silence that followed told me the anecdote was complete, so I jumped up, shouting out: ‘Marvellous, Professor Hawking, but that’s simply marvellous!’ Still, it made it to the final cut.
Jeffrey Archer was up for an interview, but Her Majesty’s Spoilsport Prisons, then hosting him after a petty-minded perjury conviction, refused me entry. So I had to make do with his fragrant spouse, Mary – who I interviewed in their luxury Milbank Tower penthouse flat replete with Monets, Warhols and some wonderfully immodest mock-Pharaonic furniture seemingly copied from the Tutankhamun collection. She and Jilly Cooper – who I interviewed in her lovely Rutshire farmhouse – were both charming, even if the pair unified over their cordial loathing of Edwina Currie. It was without surprise that shortly after broadcast, when John Major’s affair with Currie became known, that I heard Mary’s dulcet tones on the radio: ‘I am less surprised by Edwina’s indiscretion,’ the voice fragrantly intoned, ‘than by John’s lack of …. taste.’ Jilly, who was as hospitable as she was funny, clever and adept at soundbites, confessed her Currie beef (or beef Currie?) to me, all delivered in a rapid fire, staccato whisper punctuated by girlish giggles : ‘You remember when my husband Leo’s affair was in the news? Well, I was in the House of Commons lift when Edwina, standing on the opposite side amongst some MPs I knew, spotted me and shouted: Oh Jilly, I’ve been reading all about Leo’s affair in the newspapers this morning – must be so awful for you.’ Jilly paused and then finished with: ‘You see, Tim, there’s something really wrong with that woman.’
The dearly missed Clive James gave me perhaps the wittiest answer of the programme when speaking of Jilly Cooper’s hilarious Riders: ‘If Jilly hadn’t existed, someone else would surely have invented her brand – which is, in effect, the tall, handsome horseman advancing towards the blushing heroine with an extended polo mallet.’
Tom Wolfe, in his all-white tasteful plantation owner’s get up, subjected me to some of the longest, most boring and uninterruptable answers of my noble career, all designed to revive interest in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, which he kept modestly comparing to Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’. My day spent chaperoning Jerry Hall aside, I’ve never felt as invisible.
Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, was surprisingly genial, even if his answers weren’t a lot shorter than Wolfe’s, and, listening, I realised why I had so often struggled with his meisterwerks: he gave you an answer and then repeated it three or four times using different and longer words. He did confess a great love of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which, after all, is rarely praised for its concision. A sad note though: he turned up with two armed guards, saying to me: ‘I know, ridiculous after all this time, isn’t it? I tell them I don’t need them anymore, but the government insists. Still, at least I’m free in New York.’
Robinson’s debut novel Hatham Hall is out now from Northside House.