Sunday 21 March 2010

My Attempt to Overthrow the Government

I had an odd little experience a few weeks ago, which ended up with me appearing on national television, fighting my corner against the forces of darkness. Or at least a whole bunch of silly newspapers. I asked the appropriate colleagues of my feisty book agent Julian Friedmann if I should try and write a piece about it for one of the less silly newspapers. The general consensus was that it was already yesterday's news. But an old schoolfriend, Ken Goodwin, urged me to give it a go anyway and I ended up doing a piece for the Guardian. That brief account was a much abbreviated version of what appears here. (You can also read the Guardian piece on their website.) It all began on a Wednesday with an email and a phone message from my screenwriting agent, the fragrant Janet Fillingham. Janet told me that a Sunday Times journalist had been in touch with her. He was doing a piece on Sylvester McCoy for that weekend's edition, the hook being Sylvester's new comedy for the BBC. Was I available for a quick chat, to provide some background colour? Always be nice to your agent, is my motto. Janet hadn't been able to find out anything about Sylvester's new comedy, from a quick search on the internet, but at the time that seemed neither here nor there. The following day I emailed the journalist with my home phone number.I was on the way out the door later when the phone rang. I came back to answer it. In the days that ensued, I was going to have plenty of time to reflect on what might have happened if I hadn't picked up the phone. It was the guy from the Sunday Times. I spoke unguardedly and at length, about Sylvester and other things, and hung up with the smug feeling of having done a favour for a friend. That Sunday I bought a copy of the Times to look for the article. I scoured the TV and entertainment sections and found nothing. I shrugged and decided this was about par for the course. But then emails started to arrive. The first one was from my old friend Simon Butler in Cambridge. "Great piece in the Sunday Times! I particularly admire the response to the interview question, must try that one next time." What? I went online and found the Sunday Times piece. Reading it was a bracing, icy shock. I had just about convinced myself that nobody was likely to read it when more friends began to email me. And even while I was answering those emails the story began to pop up all over the internet. Like evil toadstools sprouting, was my main thought. The Telegraph and The Mail now had it. What was going on? I went back to my copy of the Sunday Times and discovered why it wasn't in the TV section. It was on page 3 of the news section. In fact, it pretty much was page 3. The chief problem was that the story was being slanted as an attack on the BBC, an institution I revere. (I mean, Composer of the Week that week on Radio 3 was 'Bebop' - what could be better than that?) It seems that I had inadvertently handed a certain section of the press a magic bullet to fire at the Corporation. The most contentious bit being I suppose that, when asked in my job interview for script editor of Doctor Who, what I would most like to achieve, I'd replied "Overthrow the government." Of course the ensuing response I'd described, gently but firmly discouraging any such action and the ensuing discussion about the parameters of the job, weren't cited in any of the articles. I felt terrible. I composed an email to my agent and sat tight. On Monday she replied saying about the story, prophetically, "I suspect this won't disappear in a puff of extra terrestrial smoke." That was just before we learned that virtually all the Monday papers had picked up the story. And just before I got the phonecall from BBC Radio Wales, who wanted me to come on at drive time and talk about the, ahem, situation. I agreed enthusiastically. I wanted to put my point across. I was quite nervous about the radio spot, until I got the phone call asking me to appear on TV that night, on Newsnight on BBC2. Right then, no disrespect to Radio Wales, my nerves about being on local radio vanished, to be replaced by apprehension about appearing on national television.A few hours later I was being sat on the sofa in the Newsnight studio where they do the "soft" pieces. "Please sit with your right thigh on the seam of the sofa, Andrew. Look into camera 2, please. Thank you." I was seated, thigh on the seam, between Gavin Esler, our host for the night, and Tim Collins, who was sort of the Conservatives' man in science fiction. All three of us were slightly orange as a result of the make up. Tim and Gavin managed to have what seemed like a lengthy conversation about the British tradition of fantastic literature while I mostly fiddled with a glass of water. But I did manage to get a few key points across, and hopefully achieved some damage limitation. You can watch a clip of the show here. Then it was back into the deserted green room, where a pile of wet wipes awaited, piled on the arm of the sofa, for us to remove the make up. I rode back in a taxi through London at midnight, looking out at the streets, feeling strangely light headed and happy, making a note never to pick up the phone to a journalist again.

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