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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Manhattan in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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How Woody Allen's Manhattan became Donald Trump's New York

Trump took everything that Allen hated about California - charity galas, golf, awards fever, architectural bad taste - and brought it to New York.

The transformation of faded, fire-ravaged, job-bleeding ‘third-world’ New York (signature headline: “President to City: Drop Dead”) into a safe, clean, smug, wealthy, first-world-problems kind of place (presiding logo: “I ❤ NY”) is popularly associated with the work of three men, Ed Koch, Donald Trump, and Woody Allen.

In their different ways, they embodied – when they didn’t help to engineer – all manner of civic, fiscal, economic, municipal, cultural, and spiritual change. 1978 was the turning-point. That year, Koch became mayor and went about healing the crises that had occurred under the previous incumbent, Abe Beame. Trump, exploiting the city’s new tax incentives, bought the decrepit old Commodore Hotel – later the Grand Hyatt – and began negotiating the sale of the Bonwit Teller flagship store, just south-east of Central Park, the future site of Trump Tower. In that same year, Allen – who was born in Brooklyn in 1935, the year that Trump’s developer father, Fred, began to concentrate his business in that borough – co-wrote, directed, and starred in Manhattan, which was released the following April.

The film, which has just been reissued in a 4K print, is an attempt to salvage New York from its scuzzy 1970s manifestation, and an exercise in what the cinematographer Gordon Willis called “romantic reality”. In glistening widescreen black-and-white, abetted by a Gershwin score, Manhattan presents the borough as an assemblage of highlights: Bloomingdale’s, John’s Pizzeria, the Dalton School, Hayden Planetarium (actually a set), 30 Rock, MOMA, the Guggenheim, Elaine’s, the Russian Tea Room, and so on. Sitting in the park at Sutton Place, in sight of the Queensboro Bridge, Allen's character Isaac Davis says, “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anybody says. Really a knockout.” (The moment required some airbrushing. The crew had to find a bench from somewhere and on the original poster the image was tinkered with, to reduce the size of the buildings in the background.)

The case-against had been made, or at least heard, two years earlier, in  Allen’s first proper New York film, Annie Hall. At one point, Alvy Singer (Allen) says that his friend Rob (Tony Roberts), who loves Los Angeles and thinks Alvy ought to move there, should be doing Shakespeare in the Park. “I did Shakespeare in the Park," he replies. "I got mugged.” In Manhattan going to Shakespeare in the Park is invoked as just another pleasant thing to do and the only threat to safety is the occasional rain storm. Nobody troubles to talk up LA. (The reasons that praise for that city falls on deaf ears in Allen’s work include its lack of seasons, its love of prizes, its congenital faddishness, and the necessity to drive.)

The film’s opening is a montage of over thirty images (pedestrian excitement, New Year’s fireworks, a pre-Trump skyline), garnished with Gershwin, and set to a voiceover of Isaac contemplating possible first paragraphs for a novel. It’s also the sound of Allen airing his conflicted feelings. The first begins, “He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion.” He proceed to dismiss draft versions as too corny, too angry, too preachy. He eventually settles on one that begins, “He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved” and ends “New York was his town and it always would be.” But in every version, there is some acknowledgement of Isaac's romanticism – the rosy tint of his perspective.

On Manhattan's release, the New Statesman film critic John Coleman, used it as an occasion to knock Annie Hall and Interiors (1978), in the process eliding some very large differences. He described the films' shared setting as “elitist, snob-cultural New York chic, full of encounters in OK restaurants between people with time on their hands and themselves on their minds”. Coleman was following a critical agenda set by Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books (“the sense of social reality in these pictures is dim in the extreme”). However, Didion was a self-confessed apostate from New York worship – leaving the city was the subject of her essay “Goodbye to All That” – so maybe she was just the person to miss the point entirely? James Wolcott, looking back in his memoir Lucking Out – in some ways a riposte to Didion's neuroses – calls the film's opening “a balm for every bruise that New York had taken in the seventies, a relieved sigh from the trenches signaling that perhaps the worst was over, somehow we had come through”.

Allen made no attempt to defend the city against a more general, less time-specific charge – what might be considered the "Manhattan libel".  As Alvy Singer puts it, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers.” He speaks for his creator when he adds, “I think of us that way, and I live here.” In Allen’s view, New York was not just decaying but decadent, heaving with snobs as well as lowlifes, its integrity under threat from above and below. Sitting with Annie on a park bench, he pokes fun at the passersby, among them a cigar-chewing mafioso and “the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest” – in fact, Capote himself. The film stages encounters with both kinds of bad New Yorker, who are placed in implicit contrast with a pair of European film-makers who, to Allen, embodied the right balance of refinement and modishness, sophistication and popular appeal. Waiting outside a cinema to see Bergman’s Face to Face, Alvy, a stand-up comic, is accosted by a pair of Italian-Americans who vaguely recognise him from television. Queueing elsewhere for a documentary, he winces as a academic from Columbia complains about the new Fellini.

In Manhattan, the gangster types are gone, but the film reinforces the idea of New York as a phoney-magnet. After bumping into his married friend Yale (Michael Murphy) with his lover Mary (Diane Keaton), Isaac complains to his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a seventeen-year-old high-school student, that Yale has always been a sucker for the kind of women who involve him “in discussions of existential reality.” Though Isaac soon falls for Mary himself, a glimpse of their first date shows him throwing up his hands as they emerge from a screening of the silent Soviet film Earth, and we cut to them reentering her apartment as he says that as far as he’s concerned, a great movie is something with W.C. Fields. In the next scene, standing before a sculpture, he mockingly deploys Mary-ish terms like “negative capability”. She ends up back with Yale.

***

Allen managed to sustain his adoration of the city by associating its true nature exclusively with things and types he doesn’t loathe. It’s an incoherent vision – or at least fixed according to his unique set of peccadilloes, his narrow definition of what isn’t philistine and what isn’t pretentious, what occupies the space between the anti-rational and hyper-rational. Alvy Singer calls himself a “bigot but for the left,” but Allen's position is a little more paradoxical. He abhors mass-culture phenomena like pop music and television, but worships baseball and basketball and old movies (often watched on late-night cable). He looks with equal disdain on haute couture and academe, corruption and radicalism, accountancy and flower power. He loves museums and jazz and Chinese takeaways but is suspicious of conceptual art and rock and fast food. He likes pizza but not punk, smutty jokes but not foul language, gazing at bridges but not crossing them, psychoanalytic vocabulary but no other kind of jargon, Broadway but not modern theatre, cultural references but not high-culture seriousness (what Alvy calls “fake insights”), city parks and rivers but not the country, kooks and innocents but not hippies, the yuppie-crowded Upper East Side – “the zone” – but not Wall Street or, really, any of the downtown area. (Gershwin is a kind of ideal – a graduate of Tin Pan Alley, immersed in the French art song and Austrian modernism, who wrote jazz and "folk opera".)

At the end of Manhattan, Allen names eleven things that make life worth living – a hodgepodge that reflects his arbitrary high-low aesthetic. Seven of them are strongly associated with New York: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Brando, Sinatra, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, “Tracy’s face.” Even Cézanne’s "incredible" Still Life with Apples and Pears is housed at the Met.

The gentrifying processes that occurred during Ed Koch’s administration made Manhattan-worship a more obvious pastime – and an easier position to maintain. There were fewer problems of the crime-and-garbage variety, although it’s possible Allen over-stressed the revamp. Less overly romantic than ManhattanHannah and Her Sisters (1986), which concerns the extended circle of an Upper West Side family, prompted the charge of white-washing. Even Mia Farrow’s mother, Maureen Stapleton, who appears as the matriarch, said that the film was so beautiful “it almost makes you forget all the dog poop on the streets.”

Allen has said that his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors was intended as a retort to Hannah and Her Sisters, in which, he felt, he’d been too easy on the characters. (His original title was Brothers.) But there are also signs of Allen becoming tougher on his setting. Early on, Clifford Stern (Allen) and his niece emerge from a screening of Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith and confronts “awful”, rain-lashed Greenwich Village, the real city diverging from the sparkling pre-war paradise.

And if the city's economic revival had done something to bridge this chasm and return Manhattan to its pomp, it had its downside – no, not the escalating rents but the influx of vulgarians, responding to the re-found hipness. As Allen softened on artsy types, he redoubled his aversion to the airhead. In Hannah and Her Sisters, there's a young record company executive – Dusty – whose approach to art collection is entirely determined by size and colour scheme. And in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford’s brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a television producer with a “closet full of Emmys”, a dyed-in-the-wool Los Angeleno, is considering a move to the city, a place he describes, in one of many pseudo-epigrams, as “thousands of straight lines looking for a punchline.” (Allen’s twin bugbears, philistinism and prentension, are perfectly combined in Lester’s reference to a university course on “existential motifs in my situation comedies”.) Husbands and Wives (1992) revealed more fears of a total Californification of the city's tastes and habits, the full list of pathogens that had blown eastwards including charity galas, long speeches, astrology, aerobics,  golf, health food, cocktail dresses, awards fever–and architectural bad taste.

The chief representative of these changes – the vulgarian-in-chief – was Donald Trump, another immigrant from the outer-boroughs (Queens, in this case) who as a boy had made saucer-eyed visits to Manhattan. To the adolescent Allen, New York was the place depicted by Hitchcock in Mr and Mrs Smith, the formula he lovingly re-created in the film within The Purple Rose of Cairo (1986): tuxedos, evening gowns, white telephones, theatre trips. For Trump, it was the Midtown bustle and neon that made New York feel like “the center of the world.” Allen, starting out, aspired to be like S.J. Perelman, or Groucho. Trump emulated his developer hero Bill Zeckendorf. Fred Trump did most of his work in the outer boroughs. (He even inspired a song by another Woody, Guthrie, who was appalled by the segregation policies in Trump senior's housing projects.) But in The Art of the Deal, Trump recalls that he had “loftier dreams and visions” and couldn’t shake his determination that Manhattan was where the action was – or would be. He claimed that though the city was at a low – “suffering from a crisis of confidence” – it didn’t keep him “up nights”.  Things “ultimately” had to turn around. In the meantime, “I saw the city’s trouble as a great opportunity for me.”

In 1971, the year he became head of his father’s company, Trump Management, Donald Trump moved into a run-down flat on the Upper East Side – with the coveted 10021 zip code – which he jokingly called his penthouse. Meanwhile, Allen was living barely three blocks away in a penthouse duplex that Dick Cavett likened to the hero’s home in the 1930s New York film The Man Who Played God. But Trump soon caught up in the grandeur stakes, nabbing the penthouse triplex atop the Trump Tower, and a Park view from 57th and Fifth rather than 74th and Fifth. Allen was chauffeured round the city in a cream Rolls-Royce, Trump in a silver Cadillac (with his initials on the number plate). With Ed Koch being perennially single, Trump and Ivana competed with Woody and Mia as the leading couple of 80s Manhattan – both relationships lasted the whole decade before hitting the buffers in similar tabloid style – but they represented altogether different versions of the new New York. 

There’s a brief, almost perfunctory moment in Manhattan where Isaac notes a group of construction works pulling down an old building. “Can’t they have those things declared landmarks?” Mary asks, and Isaac reflects that the city’s “really changing”. The next film Allen made in modern New York, Broadway Danny Rose (1984), was supposed to have a 1940s setting, but Allen said that he couldn’t find “a half block” of Times Square that hadn’t been “junked up”. In Hannah and Her Sisters, an architect whose own work strains to respect the atmosphere and proportions of the surroundings does a tour of local charms which ends with a concrete, hole-punched slab on the Beaux-Arts-heavy East 62nd Street, an edifice that the journalist Joe Klein described as resembling a cheese grater. “What’s permitted in this city is just terrible; it’s a crime,” Allen said, the year the film came out. (In Annie Hall, architectural inconsistency is strongly associated with Beverly Hills: “French next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese.”) By the time of Husbands and Wives, he had a character who worked for the Landmarks Trust. A magazine editor played by Liam Neeson tells her, “I don’t believe in capital punishment except for certain New York developers.” (Preparing the way for the Tower, Trump had refused to preserve – in fact, cosigned to the jackhammer – the bronze grillwork and a pair of art-deco fifteen-foot-high bas-relief of goddesses dancing over Fifth Avenue.)

Trump had received a name-check in Crimes and Misdemeanors when Lester says into his dictaphone: “Idea for series: a wealthy, high-profile builder who’s always trying to realise grandiose dreams à la Donald Trump, to be shot in New York.” Though the idea is supposed to reveal Lester’s frivolity and self-absorption – he's mid-conversation at the time – it’s telling that even he shows a hint of scepticism. 

Then came Celebrity (1998), the satire which to date remains Allen's final statement on modern New York. The film is a reply to Manhattan, its use of black and white and an opening onslaught of New York locales seeming darkly ironic – as if this hell-hole is worthy of monochrome and montage! Although the central character, the journalist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), seems to be writing the same book as Isaac in Manhattan, this time the city fails to come through. At one point, a mad young movie star (DiCaprio) takes Lee to the Trump Marina in Atlantic City for a boxing match and a foursome. Later, Lee’s ex-wife, a teacher-turned-TV host, wanders around a fashionable restaurant, Le Bijou, making small talk for the camera with an estate agent to the stars, a disgraced senator, a gossip columnist – and Trump himself. It was an inspired manipulation of available resources. Le Bijou was really Jean-Georges, which is based at the lobby level of the Trump International Hotel and Tower–an attack on New York in the 90s could hardly do without one of his branded buildings – and Trump often demanded an appearance in films that made use of his buildings. (Ed Koch’s cameo, in the short film Oedipus Wrecks, came at Allen’s request.) Here Trump reports plans – invented, but only just – to erect a "very, very tall and beautiful building" on the site of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The new fame-and-lifestyle obsession is aligned with the desire to dislodge a priceless monument in favour of a shear-wall phallus.

Manhattan could only have been made during a very short period.  It’s a snapshot of a city in transition, at just the point when the horrors of the 70s were beginning to fade and the horrors of the 80s – by Allen’s lights – had yet to declare themselves. For the next twenty years, even as he yearned to idealise New York, Allen couldn't ignore the new realities, and Celebrity marked the point at which the scales tipped. Since then he has sought alternative routes to a romanticism of place, setting his films against an unspecific, attractive New York movie-backdrop (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda), venturing to Europe (London, Barcelona, Paris, Rome), and travelling back in time. Starting with Zelig (1983), he has paid half-a-dozen visits to New York’s hallowed past. After all, the decades of greed, kitsch, and indifference to history furnish varied opportunities for nostalgia. His next film, Wonder Wheel, concerns a Coney Island amusement park, and takes place in the late 1950s – just moments before Fred Trump started work on Trump Village, the twenty-plus-storey apartment complex that overshadowed Steeplechase Park and dwarfed its prize ride, the Parachute Jump, the so-called Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit