Diana, Richard, Judy and me

August 31, 2017

It is – as anyone with a pulse must realise – exactly twenty years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and I have been reminded all this week of the tiny part I played in the strange events of the week immediately following the shocking news.

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As well as the inevitable tributes and memorials in print and on TV, there seems to be almost as many people commenting, usually with puzzlement, on the “oddly un-British” response to Princess Diana’s death. The public mourning, the “sea of flowers” outside Kensington Palace, the bullying demands that the Royal Family “show us they care”, the flowers thrown at the hearse and so on…

To some of us – and I include myself – it seemed odd at the time as well. I watched it all unfold from the offices and studios of the phenomenally popular ITV daytime show, This Morning, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan and it was definitely peculiar.

Diana died in the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997. I learnt the news from a taxi driver, at midday.

rnjThe next day I was due to start a new job as one of five programme producers on This Morning. I sensed that this was a day when I might be expected to turn up and lend a hand and I was right: by the time I got to the offices on London’s South Bank, it was all hands on deck: producers, researchers, directors, plus the new programme editor, Nick Bullen, were already there, preparing a brand-new programme for the following day.

The signs that this was different from a “normal” celebrity death were instantaneous. I breezed through the doors with a flip journalist’s joke about someone waiting for a day off before popping their clogs. I was met with an icy stare from my new colleagues.

Oooo-kay….

The show the next day – the first of the new series – went off fine. Judy cried a bit, Richard was sombre; it was pretty much all wall-to-wall Diana. The celebrity guests on the sofa abandoned plugging their new book, and talked about Diana instead. The bits that weren’t Diana-centric, such as pre-recorded recipe slots, or a gadget item, just felt wrong.

And so when it came to planning the next day’s show, Nick took the decision that we should ditch all the non-Diana stuff and go full on Princess Di. Out went the recipes, the quirky medical items, anything that might detract from the focus on Diana. The phone-in was people talking about how much she meant to them, the celebrity guests likewise. For one hundred and fifty minutes.

The ratings were excellent.  I mean –  stratospheric.  Whatever we had done, the viewers had loved it.

Surely, however, that was it?  Surely the viewers had had enough? It turns out they had not.

The next day, we tried to normalise the show, reintroducing familiar items. But, wedged as they were between more Diana phone-ins, and the weekly fashion slot (rejigged as a look at “Diana The Fashion Icon”) they looked and felt uncomfortable.

Again and again we used every available clip and still photo we could rustle up – clips that I cannot see now without being reminded of that week. Diana and “the boys” (always “the boys”) hurtling down a flume at Thorpe Park; Diana, in huge hounds-tooth check greeting the boys on the Royal Yacht, Diana arriving at the Palace of Versailles in a dress by Catherine Walker, Diana in the plastic head-protector for the landmines charity…

We trawled the sound library for sad music to accompany yet another slowed-down montage of pictures.

We even recruited celebrities with a vague connection to Diana – among them Wayne Sleep who had once danced with her and Sir Trevor MacDonald who had once interviewed her – to come to the studio and read sad poems from a large black book.   My idea, that one. Sorry.

By Thursday we were getting desperate, but still the mood of the nation suggested they wanted more of this stuff, and more was what we gave them.

Denise Robertson, the show’s agony aunt, hosted a phone-in for people traumatised by the Princess’s death. We found another angle on the fashion thing. Nicky Clarke reminisced about Diana’s hairstyles, and The Sun’s photographer, Arthur Edwards, told for the umpteetnth time the story of Diana’s “see through” dress.

I think we stopped short of a recipe slot on “Diana’s Favourite Food,” but I can guarantee someone will have suggested it in a production meeting.

Through it all, Richard and Judy held the show together, steering a course between serious and sentimental, seldom hitting the rocks of mawkishness. I learnt in that first week on the job that their skill in judging their viewers’ mood was what made them as popular as they were. And also why they were sometimes harsh with programme producers who did not match their exacting standards. Two and a half hours in front of the cameras can shorten the mildest of tempers.

There were tears aplenty after the Friday show, although not mine: even after a week of immersion in the death of Diana, I still did not know her. I made no more flip jokes that week, though.

And I knew that, whatever critics might have said about the media coverage immediately following Diana’s death, nothing we did was fuelling the national mood. On the contrary: we struggled to keep up with it.

 

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My poor old piano: what do I do?

July 4, 2017

My piano has been ruined and I don’t know what to do about it.

I can honestly say my piano has – by quite a long margin – given me more hours of pleasure than any else I own.

I’m no great player.  I’m a thumper who settles for “good enough”, but I practice almost every day, sometimes several times a day.  I have a lasting fondness for ragtime: I can struggle through a fair few Scott Joplin classics (so long as you don’t mind a fair few missed chords and fumbled melodies).

Anyway, meet my piano.

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Nice, isn’t it?   It was my dad’s and now it’s mine.  It is the one I learned on from the age of six.  I love it.

So I was excited when I sent it for a full French polish and restoration – the first of its life I think.

And utterly dismayed when it was returned to me.  I opened the lid, and the gold-stencilled lettering on the inside of the lid had been completely removed.

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In the centre had been the name of the manufacturer: in large capitals, EAVESTAFF.  And bottom right, the (now defunct) dealer who had sold it: Alderson & Brentnall, Newcastle upon Tyne.

All gone, and with it a big chunk of the piano’s historic charm.

Furious and upset barely covers it.  The French polisher was evasive, and claimed I should have told him that I wanted to retain the original lettering.

As if anyone would want to remove it!

Eavestaff, incidentally, is not a brand like Steinway or Bechstein.  It is the Vauxhall Cavalier of the piano world.  It is my good fortune that mine, which was made between 1890-1900, is an excellent example: it can go literally years between being tuned.  (It is about five years since it was last tuned, and it has been moved several times: it still sounds only slightly off.)

I’m at a loss what to do.  Sue the restorers?  Is it worth it?  Seek out a professional stenciller to replace it?  Again, is it worth it – and do such people exist?

Or just live with the disappointment that, every time I sit down to play, I will be reminded that a thoughtless chump of a French polisher spoilt my most favourite thing in the world?

 

 

Yay! I won an award!

May 5, 2017

Oh God, is he boasting about that award? You’d think he’d won the Nobel Prize.

No, not the Nobel Prize, but the Awesome Book Award, voted for by children in 46 schools across England’s southeast, and I couldn’t be happier that Time Travelling With A Hamster won.

Apart from anything else, it was a fun evening.  Each of the five nominees (me, Horatio Clare, M.G Leonard, Katherine Woodfine and Martyn Ford) were given seven minutes to address the packed hall.  It meant that each of us did the best bit from our usual presentations, and it worked brilliantly.  And Lauren Child (below), who presented the award, was mordantly hilarious about the hard work that is writing.

It’s easy to be cynical about book awards.  They’re often dismissed as either blunt marketing tools, or meaningless baubles to buff the egos of insecure writers, but here’s the thing: I don’t care.

A marketing tool, blunt or otherwise, is a means of selling books and if they are my books, then hurrah!  And as a confessed insecure writer, I’m happy for my ego to be buffed occasionally.

I don’t think, however, that the Awesome Book Award is either.  It’s one of a handful of awards that are voted for by the children.  There’s no obvious commercial benefit to the award’s hosts (Cranleigh School in Surrey).

Its aim is simply to foster a love of reading in young people, to encourage them to read widely, critically and enthusiastically – and who could complain about that?

Certainly not me, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t won!

Leo Baxendale, and how I nearly became a cartoonist

April 27, 2017

When I do school visits, the Q&A often includes the question: “If you had not been a writer, what would you have been”

The answer, usually, is “a cartoonist”.  (More accurately, I suppose, a cartoonist is what I would have liked to have been, rather than what I would  have been.)  The inspiration for this is Leo Baxendale, the Beano comic artist who died this week, aged 86.

baxI possess a modest talent at drawing.  Had I pursued it, practised it, honed it, I daresay I could have made more of that talent than I ended up with, but I didn’t.

I got Baxendale’s joyously illustrated memoir, A Very Funny Business when I was about 16.  It’s a great book, crammed with stories about his time with the Scottish publisher, D C Thomson, and very generous assessments of his fellow-cartoonists.  At about the same time, I conceived and drew a series of short (3-4 panels) cartoon strips demonstrating simple magic tricks.  I sent samples to the editors of local newspapers around the country and quite a few accepted them for £2 or £3 each.  It was a small syndication business, and good pocket money in 1980.  I though – briefly – that I could make a living from it.

M drawing style was (and is), however, stiff and forced compared with the brilliantly daft freedom of Leo Baxendale’s pen.  It was he who came up with The Bash Street Kids as well as Little Plum, The Three Bears and loads of others.

bearsBaxendale had already moved on from The Beano by the time I was born, but I still knew his work from the old board-covered annuals at home.  He also drew for two comics that I enjoyed as a child: Whizzer & Chips, and Shiver & Shake.  Of course, I had no idea who he was but I remember two of his strips especially: Grimly Fiendish and Sweeney Toddler.  The latter, in particular, had a dark streak that was characteristic of Baxendale’s middle period.

The Beano doesn’t really exist any more.  They bring out a Christmas annual, I think, and there’s a website, natch.  But it doesn’t compare to the comic’s heyday in the 50s and 60s when Baxendale and a small army of other comic artists would be producing multiple pages of incredibly detailed cartoon strips every week.

There is one publication, still, where very funny drawings combine with very funny scripts, and that’s Viz.  Entirely unsuitable for children, of course, but Viz is a knowing pastiche of golden-era comics like The Beano and The Dandy and occasionally the drawings are as good as Leo Baxendale’s.

Me and the world’s greatest magician (and Keith Chegwin)

March 11, 2017

Uri Geller is at it again, and proving once more that our appetite for his particular brand of film-flam remains remains unsated.

Check this out: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/uri-geller-cia-wanted-turn-weapon/

IMG_1956Yes, this is Uri is on the front page of the UK’s Daily Telegraph today with a story picked up by most of the other newspapers.

He is claiming (yet again!) that, back in his heyday of the 1970s, he was tested by security agencies like the CIA and MI5.  Today’s “revelation” is that his appearance on a British TV show in 1973 was a “front” to get him into the country in order that MI5 could test him.  Or some such nonsense. (Uri’s mental powers are no so great that he remembers that the host of the show was Jonathan Dimbleby and not – as reported – his brother David but hey, it was 44 years ago.)

He also claims that when the British Prime Minster, Theresa May, visited him three years ago he placed his hand on a bent spoon that had once belonged to Winston Churchill (no, really), and predicted that she would occupy No. 10 (this is long before Mrs May was anything other than an outside chance for the position of PM).

It’s all related breathlessly and unquestioningly by a credulous reporter who has flown to his home in Tel Aviv – nice job – and not bothered (apparently) to verify his claim with Mrs May herself.

I don’t know where to start, especially since – as an amateur magician – I find myself admiring Uri for his ability to turn a couple of tricks (done very very well indeed) into a lifetime’s career.

Spoon bending existed before Uri came on the scene.  It was, apparently, something of a speciality of one or two Israeli magicians in the 60s and early 70s, but Uri did it far better than anyone.

“Drawing dupes” (when the “mentalist” replicates with greater or lesser accuracy a drawing done in secret by a spectator) likewise are a staple of many performers’ acts.  There are literally countless methods and I’m sure Uri knows them all and maybe has one or two of his own.

That, more or less, is his schtick.  And people STILL lap it up.  In terms of the number of people fooled, Uri Geller is, without a doubt, the greatest magician the world has ever known.

Yet for all I sneer at the craven journalism in the Telegraph, I too played a tiny part in the creation of Uri Geller’s myth.

KeithChegwinIt was about 1996, and I was producing a show for ITV with the peculiar name of Perfectly Pets,  in which  all-round TV cheeky chappie Keith “Cheggers” Chegwin (left) and his dog visited celebrities and their pets.  (Highbrow it wasn’t, but it paid the bills.)

A luck would have it, Uri Geller owned a Jack Russell called Joker (why I remember this, I have no idea) and so Cheggers, a camera crew and I trooped off to his grand home in Sonning on Thames to interview him and his dog.

Before we rang on his doorbell, we knocked off a “piece to camera.” Keith said something along the lines of, “I’m here to meet world-famous psychic, Uri Geller and his dog.  I’ve already done a drawing [holds up folded bit of paper] and I’m going to see if he can divine what I have drawn.”

Uri was charming and welcoming.  He really is a nice guy.  His house was lovely and a bit bling. His dog was sweet and – according to Uri – very psychic.  Uri bent a spoon for the cameraman, but declined to do it on camera (having been caught on camera before) and when it came to the “drawing dupe”, Keith said “I did a drawing earlier: I wonder if you can guess what it is?”

Uri demurred, but charmingly.  “I think it will be better if you re-do it.  The energy will be fresher,” he explained.  He gave Keith a bit of paper and a pen and turned his back and did the whole routine and – amazingly – duplicated Keith’s drawing.

No, I don’t know how he did it.  I’m as sure as I can be, though, that it wasn’t through psychic means.

But here’s the thing that shows, in part, how Uri’s myth survives.  When we got back to edit the film, Keith’s piece to camera still said he had drawn the picture in advance, in the car on the way there as I recall.

Except we were there to do a piece about Uri’s dog, not an exposé of fake psychics.  To have included the bit where Uri declined to bend a spoon, or imposed his own conditions on the “drawing dupe” would have got in the way of a gentle tea-time pet programme.

So it stayed in, and viewers will have had the impression that Keith Chegwin drew something in advance, kept it in his pocket, and top mind-reader Uri Geller mystically divined what he had drawn.

Decades on, he’s still at it.  No that’s magic.

World Book Day and the nicest school I have ever visited

March 5, 2017

 

I have now done two World Book Days as an author, and I always think back to the ones when my own two children (now 14)  would dress up for school as a favourite book character.

We did, among others,

  • Angelina Ballerina (a fairly easy costume, that one, largely achieved with face-paint and a tutu),
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden (pyjamas and a large grandfather clock made of cardboard),
  • a Mallory Towers schoolgirl (easy if you can borrow a grey pinafore dress),
  • Karlsson from Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson On The Roof (involving a box with a moving propellor strapped to the back and a willingness to explain to everyone who Karlsson was and why the books are brilliant)
  • Scamper the dog from The Secret Seven (an existing teddy-bear costume with a collar saying “Scamper”)
  • John Thornton, the gold prospector in Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild (checked shirt, stick-on beard, bag of “gold”)

 Above left: Tom’s Midnight Garden – a book.  Above right: “The Vicar Dibley” – not a book               

I was – and remain – privately scornful of those who dress up as film or cartoon characters.  I’m not keen on Superman costumes, either. Do comics count?  I don’t think so.  And I retain an especial sniff of disapproval for the teacher who turned up dressed as Dawn French from the Vicar Of Dibley.  This is not, and has never been, a book.  It’s a television sitcom, and surely the WHOLE POINT of World Book Day is celebrating and promoting BOOKS over other forms of storytelling.  The clue is in the title.  Sheesh.

Anyway, there I was last week, surrounded by ten year-olds in their costumes and I was the guest author for the day!

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s very poorest – and most ethnically diverse – areas, where children of a white, English heritage must be a pretty small minority.  It includes much of the old “traditional” east end of Pearly Kings and jellied eels and the Kray Twins, right next to the shiny towers of money in Canary Wharf.

Hanging onto the edge of the Isle of Dogs is Cubbit Town, its primary school set among low-rise social housing and boarded-up pubs.  It turned out to be probably the nicest school I have ever visited.

Two prefects had been assigned to greet me.  They called me “sir” and shook my hand, and showed me around the school and delivered me to the first classroom, where the year 6 children (10-11 years old) were lively, funny, engaged, polite and a complete joy.

And so it went on for the remaining sessions.  They listened, they contributed, they asked interesting questions.

Many of them, I found out later, had not had the best start in life.  Broken families, homelessness, addiction, learning disabilities, language differences and more – some of these kids were quite significantly disadvantaged.  And yet here they were: happily engaging with the whole idea of learning, guided by hard-working and caring school staff.

I was moved, and struck by the profound wish that, when these children move out of this school next year and onto secondary education, they do not lose the lively spark that made my World Book Day such a joy.

 

Lost ‘Two Ronnies’ sketch

January 25, 2017

Well, by “lost” I mean “not on Youtube” which, I realise, is a different thing altogether, but I’d love to see it again.

It’s one of their wonderful songs: they are street sweepers and that’s about all I can remember, other than it was hilarious.  Every now and then I check to see if someone has posted it, and it never comes up.

Instead, check this out.  It struck me that in this performance, it’s Ronnie Corbett that gets nearly all of the tricky wordplay to do.  Those of us of a certain vintage and origin will recall that Ronnie Barker was renowned for his facility with tongue-tripping scripts; here it’s Ronnie C who does it, and brilliantly, and in tune!

(The writing in this is superb, too.  Everything scanning and rhyming just as it should, with double entendres galore.)

 

You’ve GOT to see this (honest!)

January 24, 2017

A ragtime version of Fur Elise?  Bring it on!

 

It got me thinking: is Fur Elise the best-known “classical” piano piece?  Or is it just a staple of British piano lessons?

Anyway, this is great, and gets better.  Just when you think, “Oh yeah, I get it, very clever…” he turns it up a notch.  It’s fab!

I like to think that if Beethoven heard it (pre-deafness, obvs) he would be at first astounded and then delighted.  Imagine hearing a popular current song redone in 200 years’ time, in a musical form that we cannot yet even conceive.  Beethoven died nearly seventy years before ragtime began its first, revolutionary, tinklings.

 

“Blue Peter” and me

December 5, 2016

From the age of about six to twelve, one thing marked the passing days as surely as swimming with Dad on Saturday, church on Sunday, scouts on Friday, and that was – every Monday and Thursday on BBC-1 at 5.00pm – Blue Peter.

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Even the Blue Peter year had its own internal calendar: the lighting of the candles on the advent crown (made of old coat hangers and tinsel, natch), the warnings about pets on Guy Fawkes Night, and especially the Blue Peter “Special Expeditions”.

Every summer, Val, John and Pete (for I was lucky enough to be a child during the glory days of these iconic BP presenters) would go somewhere so exotic that we had barely heard of it.  The resulting films would be shown in the autumn.

Ceylon was one (right): It was not yet “Sri Lanka”.  Another was Bangkok, yet to acquire itsceylon current racy/sleazy reputation.

(As a kid, I imagined the whole production team having a two-month jolly holiday.  In truth they probably went for a single exhausting week.)

Anyway, it was their trip to Bangkok which earned me a coveted Blue Peter badge.  I had spotted in the Guinness Book Of World Records that the official place-name for Bangkok was incredibly long, indeed the longest in the world.

Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit

Instead of copying and pasting from Wikipedia (like I have just done) I wrote it all out by hand in a letter to Blue Peter.

My reward, a few weeks later, was to be watching the show, when Valerie Singleton announced,

“We have received a letter from a viewer called Ross Welford…”

The rest of her sentence I didn’t quite catch because I was yelling to everyone in the house to come and watch.

It got better.  Peter Purves then walked to the far side of the studio and began unrolling a long strip of vinyl  across the studio with the place-name printed on it, while he and John Noakes tried to pronounce it.

The next day I was famous at school. And for several weeks later.  In fact, only last year, someone mentioned it to me: “Do you remember when you were on Blue Peter?”  As if I could forget!

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Forty-odd years later, and last week, my name was read out on Blue Peter again, and again it was for writing something.  A book this time.

Time Travelling With A Hamster  is on the shortlist for the Blue Peter Book Award, so I found myself once more on the sofa waiting for Blue Peter to start.

It’s a bit different.  The theme music is just about recognisable as the old tune, and the presenters are exhaustingly energetic, but some things don’t change: the first item was about the London to Brighton vintage car rally, which BP must have done at least three or four times when was a kid.  Best of all, they still have the advent crown!

If I win, I get to go on the show.  Apparently  – and very unusually – every single episode since 1964 has been archived, so they might be able to dig up that item on Bangkok’s place name from some time in 1974.  I might even get a Blue Peter badge.

(Is it greedy to have two, do you think?)

 

Accent mystery solved!

November 21, 2016

In my last post,  I queried the accent given to the late Duke of Windsor by the actor Alex Jennings in the Netflix series “The Crown.’

A reader, Mr RT of New York, emailed an explanation for the apparent failure of the actor to reproduce faithfully the “received pronunciation” of the time, and to pronounce words such as “ask” and “after” with a short, northern”a”.

It is not, it turns out, a northern “a”, but an American one, and the actor was being scrupulously accurate.

Edward VIII, as we all know, gave up the crown in order to marry a divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American.

It was noted at the time that he had adopted some aspects of American English.

Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, an MP during the abdication crisis of 1936, wrote in his famous diaries (Chips, The Diaries Of Sir Henry Channon, 1967):

…”Edward the beautiful boy-king, with his gaity and honesty, his American accent and nervous twitching, his flair and glamour, was part of history.”

Listen to him in the interview in the clip above.  It is a long, long way from being an “American accent” to my ear, although seventy years ago it may have sounded so.

There are, however, a number of distinctive pronunciations.

He says “subdued” with an American accent (“sub-dood” rather than “sub-dyood”);  “decades” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable rather than the first; “commands” definitely has the short “a”.

Yet “after” is still “ah-fter”,  and “nephew” is the (now more-or-less unheard) “nevv-ew”.

(I don’t know what to make of his pronunciation of “windows” when he says “throw open the wind-uhs” of a stuffy court.  Or his distinct pronunciation of “retrospect” as “ree-trospect”.)

So that’s that mystery pretty much solved.  If you are still interested, listen to how Wallis Simpson speaks in this video clip.

For quite long passages, her American accent is barely audible.  She has the long, RP “a” for a start – the “a” that her husband seemed to be abandoning.  She was quite high society, was Wallis.  Accordingly, her speech was closer to British English than most of her compatriots.

I imagine that, by their deaths (his in 1972, hers in 1986) their accents may have met somewhere in the middle.