An email is forwarded to me: it’s from Newsnight. How exciting! The government has just announced a minimum price for units of alcohol, and what with my having written an opinion piece for the Guardian decrying the policy before it was even announced, they want me on the show. I seem, for unfathomable reasons, to be the Guardian and Indie’s go-to-guy for defending unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman.
Is this recognition, or the thing that will lift me into it? I don’t get invited on to the telly very often. I’ve always rather liked Gore Vidal’s comment that it is for appearing on, not watching, but the watching/appearing on balance is heavily weighted to the former – and I don’t even watch that much TV.
I call the Newsnight number.
Now, I have experience of TV producers and it has made me wary. This is how it goes. I get called up either by someone like Newsnight or someone making a programme about something I know a fair amount about. I am, particularly in the first instance, asked for my “line” on whatever it is. I spend the next five minutes talking extempore – and, if I may say so, not entirely stupidly, and often make the person down the other end of the line laugh a few times.
I feel rather pleased with myself. They say they’ll get back to me. Then, after a few hours of not knowing whether I have to keep my evening free and sober or not, I ring up and ask if they want me and then they say either “well, it’s just not the line we want”, or “we got Nigella Lawson instead”, or a shifty-sounding “I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit of a squeeze . . .”
Well, there you go: I would be deluding myself if I imagined I had any clout or brand-recognition, as it were. I suspect that Will Self does not get dicked around like this. (“Sorry Will – we won’t be needing you after all. It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze . . .”) Which, incidentally, is fine by me – the more appearances on TV by Mr Self, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
Slightly worse, though not quite as insulting for some reason, is the occasion when the programme-makers get in touch with you because you really do know what you’re talking about. In my pantheon of time-wasting shits, the throne is held by whoever was responsible, some six or so years ago, for making a programme about the Modern Review, the magazine started by Julie Burchill. As I’d been its literary editor for almost all its life, they came round to the house and picked my brains for hours: I gave them an endless supply of anecdotes and fruity gossip, they drank four or five bottles of my wine, and then . . . they decided they didn’t want me after all.
At that point I resolved to be firm and simply not answer when TV calls. If it decides that I’m not famous enough to be on it, then why are its minions asking me to be on it in the first place? There is also the assumption that you will be prepared to drop everything – and for nothing. When I ask the chap from Newsnight about payment, the tenor of the conversation changes markedly and quickly. “There is a disturbance fee of £75,” he says frostily – which is actually acceptable. Having to stay more or less completely sober all evening and then do some nerve-wracking quick-thinking in front of the cameras on live TV is a good working definition of disturbance, and although £75 is hardly a life-changing sum, it does represent seven bottles of decent wine.
You’re so vain
In the end, the good people of Newsnight decide that having me on will be “a bit of a squeeze” – although they do not have the courtesy to inform me; I have to extract their decision from them myself. Well, that’s TV people for you. With one or two exceptions, such as the lovely Daisy Goodwin, Razors, and, from what I’ve seen of him, Melvyn Bragg, most of the ones I’ve met have a sense of arrogant vanity and self-importance that would make an actor blush.
Put it this way: I’m friends with more lawyers than I am with TV people. (I also hear, from someone who is in a position to know, that they are more likely than any other profession to fuck their way to the top. Put that in your pipe and smoke it when you contemplate the astonishing success of [enormous list of names redacted on legal advice].)
Of course, this is all sour grapes, I know that, but really, pace Gore Vidal, is it psychically healthy to say “how high?” when TV asks you to jump? The great consolation is that TV, as a medium, is dying. Its death-throes, as it flails around desperately for an audience, will make gruesome and yet not terribly compelling viewing.