Arthur Taylor gave me a brief outline of what would be required and led me into the biggest TV studio I had ever seen. There was almost nothing in there except a backdrop, a stool, a camera, a monitor, and a teleprompter. This was the entire kit with which Parkinson had made himself famous. If I got the audition right, it could be my turn.
This chapter would be more fun if I could say that I got it wrong. But my guardian angel descended, radiating benevolence. Later on I was told that the guardian angel was wearing the face of Lord Bernstein, who was watching on closed circuit in his office....
The prospect of sudden fame was not without its attractions. The show had made Parkinson well known enough to earn the envy of his fellow journalists – the envy being expressed in the form of vituperation, as usual – and there was also the spectacle, edifyingly close to hand, of George Best and his supporting courtesans. They were looking at him as if he could work miracles. Since the only miracle he was currently working was to toss a beer coaster in the air and catch it without looking, this should have been evidence of their stupidity. But they didn’t look stupid. They looked like the kind of Scandinavian air hostess who could speak four languages and fly the plane if the pilot died of food poisoning. So it should have been clear to them that their hero, when away from the football pitch, had little to offer except a snarl of lechery. But it didn’t work that way. Fame was a universal solvent. Up went the beer coaster, and their eyes flashed as he caught it. You could tell that their underwear, if separated from their bodies, would just hang in the air, like a cloud. [pp. 88-91]
Granada’s veteran star front-man and resident drunk, Bill Grundy had one of those faces where the bags under the eyes acquire bags under the bags, until finally you are looking at the terraced paddy fields of a Chinese hillside. Gravel-voiced and ready to quarrel even with inanimate objects, he had an indiscriminate hostility that must have cried out to be avoided even before alcohol let it loose. We only ever had one conversation. On a train trip south to London, during one of the rare periods when he had not been banned from the bar car, he approached me, teetered for a while in what looked like a summoning of strength, and fell towards me while shouting, ‘Fuck off.’ The first word occurred in front of my face and the second behind my back. Miraculously, he did not hit the floor, but swung back into the vertical position, from which he continued to fix me with a glare made incandescent by hate and blame. But he was sober on the famous day at the studios in Manchester when he hosted the Sex Pistols for their very first television show. The Sex Pistols had been dug out from under a wet rock by Tony Wilson. Grundy, along with the rest of the world, had no idea of who they were. Grundy’s encounter with this new cultural phenomenon became instantly famous, on the assumption that an uptight tradition had come face to face with a new anarchy. The fact that Grundy, in his lifetime, had done far more damage to his body with chemicals than even Sid Vicious would achieve before his early death was not apparent on screen, where Grundy continued to look like a model of established poise even as the Sex Pistols demonstrated their prototype version of the collective psychosis which, while it may well have given a salutary jolt to popular music, also did so much to make Britain a nastier, uglier, and more unsettling place. All I can add now is that their behaviour on screen was nothing to what they got up to backstage. The little shits were genuine, you could say that for them: they weren’t putting it on. Cooling my heels while waiting for a gig of my own, I was in the green room before they went on. I was there while they were digesting the information that Lord Bernstein would not let them on the air unless their girl mascot [Siouxsie Banshee] discarded her swastika armband.
Though it was obvious that the boys had little idea of who the Nazis had been, and equally obvious that the girl had no ideas at all about anything, nevertheless there could be no doubt that the whole bunch fully understood the moral choice before them. Either they must accede to this irrational demand from the ruling toff [Jew] or else they must forego their television appearance. As rebels, they resented the coercion. But as professional rebels, they wanted the telly exposure. A band of revolutionaries who blamed the authorities for their own compromises (they were exactly like the previous generation of dissenting young thinkers in that respect) they had, in their anger at being forced to submit, no way of reasserting themselves except to attack something. Luckily they must have decided that I was even less interesting than the furniture. So they attacked themselves. The one calling himself Johnny Rotten snarled at one of his lieutenants – I think it was Ken Putrid – and informed him that he was a wanker and a tosser. Ken Putrid told the girl Nazi that she was a slag and a cow. Sid Vicious spat vengefully into the biscuit bowl. They jabbed their bunched knuckles towards each other’s mouths, head-butted the air between them, lashed out in all directions with improbably large boots. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sid Vicious asked me, his lips flecked with foam. It was the first time I had ever heard this deliberately terrifying question, and I didn’t have an answer ready. (The only advisable course of action, I have since found, is never to have an answer ready. Replies such as ‘I thought I was looking at the model for Michelangelo’s David, but it turns out that I was mistaken’ are not to be recommended.) The volume of their acrimony was ear-splitting, the monotonous filth of their language soul-destroying, the intensity of their randomized galvanic aggression all the more unnerving because they directed it at themselves. But they all went slouching into the studio when their moment came. And later on I was told that they had merely been discussing the matter. Apparently they were always like that. Well, at least they had each other. [pp. 220-222]
New Faces, a much bigger show mounted by ATV in Birmingham, had been too much like being on television. I was invited to do the first two of the three pilot programmes and I had a big in-house success as the hard critic telling the pitiless truth to the hopeless aspirants who wanted to be stars. One of the acts I had seen before: he was a bloke who blew up a hot-water bottle until it burst and then sang ‘Mule Train’ while hitting himself on the head with a tin tray. The studio audience, which included the mandatory number of women in knitted hats, appreciated my saying, while he was being carried out, that I hoped the following contestants would be able to match the standard he had set. Laughs along those lines were not difficult to obtain. In the hospitality room afterwards, the ATV executives painted pictures of big things to come, mentioned improbably large sums of money, and promised to introduce me to Noele Gordon, star of Crossroads, an epically tedious soap opera which rated on such a scale that it kept ATV afloat, and thus conferred on Miss Gordon the same status as a queen termite.
I, too, quite liked myself in the hard critic’s role. It consisted mainly of thinking up smart lines during the hapless punter’s number and then delivering them when it was over: an easy gig. But I didn’t like the role itself. If I took the job, I would have endless opportunities to crack wise, but I would also have endless opportunities to look like a witch-finder personally operating the joystick of a ducking stool. I thought the aspirants were touching even when untalented, and if they were talented then they had a better right to hog the screen than the judges. (When the show finally went to air with somebody else sitting in the hanging judge’s seat, Victoria Wood turned up as one of the contestants, won in a walk, and went on to help revolutionize light entertainment so that such a format, though it would never cease to flourish, would also have to live with a general awareness that the real joke figures were the judges.) I also didn’t like a clear suggestion from the second in command of the studio that we, the judges, might like to consider the handsome young male tenor among our slate of contestants as the only possible winner. The handsome young male tenor was contracted to Lew Grade’s agency, and Lew Grade [Winogradsky] owned the studio. Not that Lew Grade could be accused of a conflict of interest. As he would have been the first to point out, he just liked it when his interests as an impresario, agent, and broadcaster all coincided: no conflict there. In my first year as a TV critic I had received a bottle of champagne from Lew Grade and I sent it back to him without acknowledgment. When I met him after the first New Faces pilot he was ready to forgive my rudeness, although not until after he had mentioned it. I could see that the forgiveness would continue on a large scale if I stuck around. I can’t deny that I had visions of a white Rolls-Royce convertible with a blonde in the passenger seat, like the one driven by the show’s producer, who charmingly referred to the audience as ‘the nellies,’ and to the genre of spectacle into which New Faces fell as ‘nelly-vision.’ [pp. 223-224]
Clive James: North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs vol. IV, Picador, London, 2006.