How Baldrick and I Brought Down the Government
I was probably 13-14 years old and about to go through the same old Sunday night ritual, fighting my father about what time I had to go to bed.
As the eldest of five, I was always last up, but Dad had a nominal 9.30pm cutoff time assigned to me. This was a nuisance as every Sunday at 9pm, BBC2 tended to show a great film. I cannot tell you how many films I saw the first half hour of during my teens.
On this particular evening, the film was All the President’s Men, the film about Watergate starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. Somehow, I persuaded Dad to let me stay up. By the end of it, I decided I wanted to be a journalist and bring down the government. No specific reason: Just bring it down. It was the Thatcher era and I would later join Militant, so it doesn’t sound that unreasonable now. But I guess if I had been more mature I would have wished for something like “to boldly expose injustice wherever I found it.” But I was a teenager and therefore only dealt in apocalypse as anyone who had seen my teenage haircuts would know.
But how? No-one in my family had even been to university. I spoke to the school’s career advisor who gave me some leaflets but said I should consider a job in a supermarket instead. When I finished school my mum said I should also consider working in Tescos to help my Dad out rather than go to VI Form. I’m not sure why I was considered by so many to be supermarket bound, but wisely I ignored them all.
The pamphlets told me the best way to become a journalist was get a degree and then do the National Council for the Training of Journalists course at Harlow College. It also advised that competition was stiff and only candidates who had already done some writing were likely to get in.
So I got to VI Form and co-edited the monthly magazine – Newspeak ’84. It was a bit more varied and centrist than its Orwellian reference would suggest. There was more poetry and humorous articles than rants by a Rik Mayall-esque team of spotty oiks shouting “Fascist!” I contributed to the annual mag too, then my magazine at PNL and finally, I set up my own magazine called Comedy Review.
This was the era of cut and paste fanzines that you could sell in bookshops and mine focused on the alternative and classic comedy scene. I interviewed Michael Palin and Peter Cook, attended the recording of shows like Alas Smith and Jones, French and Saunders and Filthy, Rich and Catflap. I was 18 at the time, which makes me feel either precocious or wildly ambitious in retrospect.
My favourite sketch show on TV was Channel 4’s Who Dares Wins – the first show made by Hat Trick Productions – starring Phil Pope, Julia Hills, Jimmy Mulville, Rory McGrath and Tony Robinson. Andy Hamilton, one of the writers, very kindly invited me along to a writing session at Limehouse Studios – where Spitting Image was also being made. The studio, where Canary Wharf now stands, was the only structure left in the building site that was shortly to emerge as Docklands.
The Who Dares Wins team were brilliant. I started going every week. They would listen to my ideas (which never got used) and really encouraged me. I was very shy and quiet then so was no bother to anyone. It would be just a great personal memory except it took me one step closer to bringing down the government.
A year or so later, it was announced the BBC were about to start work on Blackadder the Third. I wrote to Tony Robinson via his agent, reminded him of who I was and he wrote a lovely informal letter back inviting me to attend Blackadder rehearsals at the BBC’s North Acton studios. A great exclusive for an 18 year old.
I spent a week in rehearsal with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson and the rest (Ben Elton wasn’t there for some reason). It was an inspiring experience, silently watching them craft that week’s episode. I even got used as the casting vote on a couple of contentious lines. I have some pictures somewhere of Tony and Rowan reading one of my fanzines. I do remember that I asked John Lloyd if I could skip one of the days (as if he cared!) because it was my birthday. How old are you, he asked. 19. Cunt, he replied.
I finished my degree and applied for local authority funding for the NCTJ course. They turned me down. This was a disaster. I needed cash and that meant work.
I tried to sign on but the benefit office insisted I apply for the Civil Service to show I was looking for work. I got a bit over-zealous and three or four steps later found myself as a fast-track management trainee in the Employment Service.
It wasn’t the DSS but had a similar role. They assigned me to the fraud team in East London. These were depressing days. All I wanted was to be on my course and definitely not having to talk down an irate claimant who was threatening me and a colleague with a machete in some sqalid drugs den in West London.
But I saved the money for the course and quit.
I interviewed for the NCTJ course and they said something like: “You did very well in the tests, you have shown an ongoing interest in writing. However, you are 2 years older than most, you have a good job and there’s a recession on.”
I spluttered out a reply that it was my bloody choice whether to give up the job. I’d been working hard to get on this course and had only taken the job for the 18 months to save up the course fee.
I remember specifically taking out the copy of Comedy Review that had my Blackadder article in it. “They told me they had never let another journalist into rehearsals. I’m good. You can’t make my decisions for me.”
I got in, thanks to Tony basically.
At the end of the course I came 2nd in the country in my journalism finals and was lucky to get a job at the Hackney Gazette.
Everything happens in Hackney. On my first week a postman got shot and killed, and a poor African boy with a bone tumour on his head the size of a cat came into town for surgery. In the years to come I would see children die, hang with David Bowie, McCartney and Ralph Fiennes in Mare Street, but could not have forseen the dramatic events about to unfold in the political sphere.
I was new and learning, greener than Robin Hood but thank God, my fellow Gazetters, Mark Gould, Carol Dyce and Russ Lawrence looked out for me. They showed me how to sell tips to other news organisations to supplement the meagre Gazette salary. They taught me the ludicrously difficult language of tabloidese.
In the meantime, I got to know my area. We had many colourful characters.
One of them was a Tory councillor by the name of ******* ********. He had a local business and had two hobbies. One was to come in with files on the “loony left” who ran Hackney at the time. With his help, I actually worked on a story that saw a Labour councillor go to prison for fiddling his expenses. His other hobby was to annoy me in the hope of getting me to run puff pieces on his business. Mostly I refused of course.
We would banter with each other but one day he took it badly and started insulting me.
“You think you know everything don’t you? You know NOTHING. One of our councillors gets pregnant by a government minister and you know nothing about it.” Well I do now chummy.
Now, as far as indiscretions went, this was a big one. There was only one heavily pregnant councillor at the time, a lady called Julia Stent, who was one of ••••••’s fellow Tory councillors.
I pressed him over the coming weeks but could get no further. Just taunts.
Then he started to tell me stupid stuff. “It happened at the Tory Party conference blah blah. “ All this because I wouldn’t run a picture of his business premises. I suspect the Donald Trump presidency is like this.
One day, I said “at least give me an initital?”
He must have been particularly addled that day because the conversation ran:
- Ok. Y.
- George Younger?!
- Then it’s Tim Yeo then.
- Oh shit.
I spoke to my colleagues. We didn’t know what to do with this info and I was way too green. I looked in our photo files and found a colour photocopy of Cllr Stent with John Major in Dalston on a recent visit. I put it to one side.
Eventually I went to the editor Roger Jones. He said, we can’t touch that. Give it to the News of the World and they can break it and we can follow it. I think he was thinking of the lawsuit that might follow if we got it wrong.
One of the journalists at the Gazette was a bit quicker than me and more opportunistic and though he didn’t have the names to fill in the blanks, sold the info that I DID, to the News of the Screws.
So I got a call from the lovely Annette Witheridge. She offered me £5,000 (half my then salary), the chance to work on the story and some shifts at the News of the World if I helped her. And that’s the deal I took.
I spoke to my local MP Brian Sedgmore about it. He gave me a few clues but also warned me never to call him at the House of Commons again. Why? “The phones aren’t safe.”
By now ****** ******** had realised the full extent of his mistake. He too brought up the spector of bugging and surveillance. “I’ve told Central Office what you are doing and now the security services are bugging your phone.” I never thought for one second then or now that they were but it was interesting to have it thrown at me as both a threat and a warning. Sedgmore, who was my neighbour until he died a couple of years back, used to say: “Remember that café where we met to discuss so and so…? See you there in 5 minutes. Hurry.” It was quite good fun really.
Re: the story. Things began to move. The baby had now been born. Investigations showed no father listed on the birth certificate. The story was as good as dead now. The only way they could run it would be if either parent admitted it in public. This wasn’t going to happen of course. We had no proof.
Some poiitcal context here. Tory Prime Minister John Major had recently launched his Back to Basics campaign – a warm beer, jumpers for goalposts vision of Britain that was based on “moral” behaviour. Woe betide any politician that dares to go down this route and so it proved for Major.
Annette Witheridge called me one day to say: “Incredible. Yeo’s solicitors have sent us a full confession. They must think we have more than we do.”
And so on Boxing Day, the start of the quietest news week of any year, the story broke. Tim Yeo offered to resign and Major reportedly turned it down. Unfortunately for them, this meant the press could keep going on about it just long enough for Annette to discover a) Tim Yeo had already fathered another child while at University and b) had said a few damning things about single mothers.
Those with a long memory will remember that over the next year there were almost a dozen Tory scandals around sleaze leaving Back to Basics in tatters and contributing greatly to petering out of Major’s premiereship. The talk in Fleet Street was that the Yeo and David Mellor stories let the media scent blood and files were opened. Blair’s Labour capitalised mercilessly and at the next election, Major was out and Blair was in.
It did wonders for my career of course and 6 months after joining the Gazette and a full year before I became fully qualified, I was headhunted by the Daily Mirror to work at weekends. I then moved onto The Times where the newsdesk used to tease me with the epithet “The Man Who Brought Down the Government.” This was a pisstake and they took it no more seriously than I did. In reality, there were 100 cogs and my contribution might have been equal to the smallest of those cogs. But I was happy to have made a contribution. Dad, a lifelong Labour supporter, said: “It’s a good job I let you sit up and watch All the President’s Men then, isn’t it?”
A few years ago, I was asked by Hackney Council to make a film about the borough to promote it during the Beijing Olympics. I remembered that Tony Robinson had grown up on Amhurst Road in Dalston where his parents had a corner shop. I dropped Tony’s agent a line with a photo of him reading my magazine 25 years before and tried the old “I hope you remember me?” schtick. He called and said he did and so I asked Tony if he would like to fly in a helicopter over the borough doing some kind of commentary cut with images from the ground. Sure.
I got invited over to his pad to plan it all out and over coffee, told him the above chain of events going from Comedy Review to The News of the World. Tony has been a lifelong trade unionist and I thought he would be pleased. As I said, “Just think Tony, if you hadn’t invited me to Blackadder and I hadn’t got on the course….” For all my reasoning about the size of our contribution, even I caught the odour of smug in this comment.
He thought about it a bit and said: “If that’s true, does that mean you and I are just a tiny little bit responsible for Iraq then?” I decided I didn’t want to look at the causal chains of connection anymore.