I gather that it was at your suggestion that I was approached by Martin Everard of “Presentation” about the possibility of doing a pilot programme of a weekly digest of BBC-TV output; as I had turned down the idea, I thought it was only polite to write and say briefly why I had decided to kick fame in the teeth.
In a sentence, it sounded a good idea, but not for me. I might be wrong, but I felt it needed a more sober and statesmanlike presence than I would want to offer, a bit too closely identified with the BBC. If I’m known for anything at all, it’s for being mildly off-beat and I’d like to stick to that.
I think, for example, that if I ever got involved in a chat show (I’m going to float a couple of ideas here, which you can keep carefully filed in your wastepaper basket), it would be nice to try something different. In my twelve years at Punch (dear God, was it really twelve?) I rubbed shoulders with a lot of humorists, cartoonists and comedians, and realised then that the one thing they weren’t very good at talking about or even cared to talk about was humour. And yet whenever funny men appear on chat shows, they are summoned to talk about humour. (Not true, actually, of Clive James, who has a better idea of how to handle funny people.) They should be asked to talk about anything but humour; then they might be funny.
Some of them will always be deadly serious – John Cleese always is. I’d be tempted, if ever there were a show featuring only funny people, to call it The Sad, Sad Show.
Even more predictably, guests on chat shows are always asked to talk about the thing they are famous for, which is the one thing they are sick of. Oh, they’ve always worked out a good set of stock responses, but there’s more to life than routine. The odd thing is that many celebrities have a pet interest, which they’re seldom asked to talk about, and on which they might be better value. I remember that Warren Mitchell is a keen jazz clarinettist, as indeed is Woody Allen. Spike Milligan likely blows a lusty if slightly out of tune trumpet. Terry Jones is nuts about medieval studies.
Kenneth Lo, the Chinese cookery expert, is nuts about tennis – he played for the China Davis Cup team in 1936 and still wins the Aged Veterans Cup at Wimbledon. I think there is a good seed-bed here for a show called something like Second Strings.
And, though only as a one-off, it would be fun to do a programme which took snippets of chat shows, political discussions, and actually analysed the way people reacted under questioning. How politicians evaded the issue. What they did when they didn’t know the answer. How celebrities steered the talk back to home ground. How they always told the same stories whenever they appeared. How a long sentence could be boiled down to a meaning of five words.
Well, there are a few ideas. Actually, since I started this letter I have been rung up by someone called Laurence Rees of Documentaries who is thinking of getting me to present a series based on how foreign TV sees Britain, which sounds much more my kind of line. So you can easily disregard this whole letter. But having written it, I’m damned if I’ll not send it. Thanks for thinking of me in the first place.