Diary - Paul Gambaccini

On American TV, I once watched Cassius Clay reciting poetry to Liberace on the piano. TV treated me

I am speaking in the River Room of the House of Lords to a standing audience of high-powered legal types, all invited to consider joining Amnesty International's "Circle of Justice". Most of these dignitaries, none wearing wigs, are paying attention, although some are understandably gazing at the famous wallpaper. My sales pitch seems to be going well when I am flabbergasted by the sight of an elderly, bespectacled gentleman in the front row.

It is Charles Wheeler. My mouth keeps going, but I am thinking that it can't be Charles Wheeler. What would he be doing here?

I recall interviewing Elton John about his American breakthrough at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970. He had been playing away when suddenly he saw Phil Spector's legendary pianist Leon Russell in the audience. Although his fingers somehow continued to move, Elton feared that Russell would snarl "This is how you play the piano" before beginning a brilliant recital.

This is hero worship. Elton recovered at the Troubadour, and I regain self-control at the House of Lords, confident that the dignified figure before me cannot possibly be Wheeler.

Afterwards I tell the Amnesty director Kate Allen of my shock. "It is Charles Wheeler," she says. "Come meet him."

I mentally shrink to Munchkin size as I did when I first met Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, Jacqueline Kennedy and, well, Elton John. A man is overcome in the presence of someone of both distinction and integrity. To me Wheeler is for ever the face and the voice of the BBC in Washington, DC during some of my country's most difficult years - no, not now, the Nixon era.

The River Room event turns out to be a success, and the Human Rights Action Centre is over halfway to its fundraising goal with five months remaining. I commit myself to organising a fundraising concert at the Palladium at the end of September, trying to pretend that it will not stress me from here to the melting ice cliffs of Antarctica. I should treat this page as a recruitment column and offer any superstar of music, comedy or broadcasting who wishes to appear for Amnesty at the Palladium the opportunity to e-mail me at paulgambaccini@hotmail.com. This offer naturally extends, heaven forgive my chutzpah, to Charles Wheeler.

I mentioned Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. The father of the actress Sigourney, "Pat" Weaver was the head of programming at NBC during the 1950s and introduced both breakfast and late-night television with Today and Tonight, respectively. Though the names may have been less than imaginative, they survive to this day.

Tonight had been a comedy show when presented by the comic genius Steve Allen. In 1957 it was turned over to Jack Paar, and the chat show was born. Paar introduced the stage furniture of the desk, chair and sofa that is still the set-up on late-night shows around the world. I was reminded, watching a new DVD of the recently deceased host's work, why my American network television viewing peaked in the mid-Sixties, when I was a teenager. TV was live. Anything could happen. One of my favourites, children's comedian Pinky Lee, suffered the first televised heart attack. A top newsman, John Cameron Swayze, did a commercial for Timex watches in which the timepiece fell off a turning motorboat rotor.

"We can't see the Timex," Swayze gallantly ad libbed, "but if we could, we'd see it was still running!"

And Paar presented a late-night show that assumed we had a brain and were interested in the real world. His guests included Senator John Kennedy, Richard Burton as Hamlet, the revolutionary Fidel Castro, a piano-playing Richard Nixon and, in his first TV appearance after the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy. Paar used guests from the world of entertainment in novel ways, including deliberately mixing up the cue cards for a duet between Judy Garland and Robert Goulet, and presenting Cassius Clay reciting poetry to Liberace's piano-playing.

How could I ever settle for anything less? When I think of American TV today, I marvel at how it treated me as an adult when I was a child and treats me as a child now I am an adult.

I am asked by a music industry publication to write about my "greatest radio moment". My instinct is to remember programmes affected by historic moments - a conversation with Janice Long cut short by news of Margaret Thatcher's resignation, Saturday shows altered by the passings of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. I then realise that I should write about my greatest radio moment not as a broadcaster, but as a listener.

I entertain a couple of wonderful memories but decide there can be only one greatest, and it must involve my all-time DJ hero, B Mitchell Reed. He called himself our "Leader", and we were his "Scooters". BMR, as he called himself, served on WMCA (New York) only for about 18 months, but what a musical ride that year and a half was. Beatlemania, the British Invasion, the ascension of Motown and Spector - they all occurred on his watch. He went on to become one of California's pioneers in free-form radio.

He promised that at the end of his final show he would tell us what his first name was. He was true to his word. In his last link, he said: "And, Scooters, the B stands for Burton."

For a moment, I knew my hero.

Next Article