Writing Life

 

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By pauldodgson, Jul 8 2016 11:03AM

It happened on a train somewhere between Swindon and Chippenham early in the year 2000. I was returning from London and eavesdropping on a gang of well-groomed teenagers communicating in faux street talk. I had an idea.


At the time I was a producer for BBC Radio 4 and to survive meant selling your bodyweight in ideas for new shows so I was always waiting for light-bulb moments. They occurred very rarely, but that afternoon I had a vision for a whole series. Why not, I thought, get load of old people to rip the piss out of youth culture in a comedy show? Even the title came to me in the moment. Fogies. There would be two teams interrogating and interpreting ghetto talk, pop music and so forth. It would be hilarious. It would be cult listening. Old people would think it was funny and young people would think it was funny in an ironic way.


Then I had another idea. Why not get young Fogie-in-Chief, Boris Johnson to be the chair. It would be even more hilarious.


At the time Boris was the editor of The Spectator magazine and was making a spectacle of himself on numerous TV shows. His shambolic appearances on Have I Got New For You were so bad they were thought to be good.


Radio 4 decided Fogies was a good idea and commissioned the series. They even gave me broadcast dates, which is unheard of in the prestigious 18:30 comedy slot without lengthy negotiations and a pilot episode being made first.


At this point I hadn’t even asked Boris if he wanted to do it, so I wrote him a polite letter, describing a ‘new satirical comedy project,’ but leaving out the name of the programme.


A few days later I received a call from Ann Sindall, Boris’s formidable secretary and gatekeeper, summoning me to a meeting at The Spectator offices in SW1. I sat outside his office feeling like a schoolboy about to see the headmaster. When I was ushered in Boris stayed behind his desk under a portrait of himself. Maybe the desk was small, but Boris seemed larger than expected. Usually it’s the other way round with people you know off the TV, but Boris seemed bigger, blonder and even more bumbling. I felt as though he was standing at a fork in the road. When he looked one way he could see himself as Nicholas Parsons and the other way Winston Churchill. We didn’t exactly have a conversation, but I sort of told him the idea (pitch is perhaps too strong a word) and Boris sort of said yes.


So I booked the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House for a string of recording dates. Then I turned on the radio one morning to discover Boris had been selected as the prospective candidate for Henley, replacing Michael Heseltine in the next election. My bosses at the BBC made it quite clear that I needed to get up to London pronto and make sure his parliamentary aspirations didn’t get in the way of our comedy show.


So first thing next morning I was back in front of the desk. I could tell right away Boris wanted out. He didn’t look me in the eye and had a sort of mumbled conversation with himself while I did the hard sell. But he couldn’t actually say no, so like a doorstep conservatory salesman I carried on talking. Eventually I said, ‘So, we’re still on then. Great.’ Boris didn’t disagree.


But without actually saying he didn’t want to do it anymore, Boris slowly withdrew from Fogies. First he told me he didn’t have time to travel to Broadcasting House for the recordings. No problem, I responded, we can do it upstairs in The Spectator dining room. Next, he didn’t have time to write a script. No problem, I said, I will write a draft and you can put it into your own words. Calls were not returned and messages went unanswered.


I felt like a captain steering his ship towards the rocks. I knew there was no way that this lack of engagement would sustain a whole series. I began to worry so much that I started losing sleep. Then one afternoon I was staring at my computer screen trying to write to my bosses admitting that Fogies was going to be a mighty cock-up when the most extraordinary thing happened. An email arrived from Radio 4 telling me that a new comedy series like this is never ever commissioned without a pilot being made first and that is what must happen. The transmission dates were cancelled. Just make a pilot episode they told me. I made prayer hands, looked up to the sky and said thank you.


On the day of the recording the team assembled in the garden of The Spectator. Among the participants were Grahame Garden, Edward Enfield and representing young people, Marcus Brigstocke. There was no sign of Boris. Eventually he lumbered into view clutching the script that he hadn’t yet read. Then he looked through it and decided it was fine as it was.


We all trooped upstairs to where a BBC engineer had set up recording equipment. It was supposed to be recorded in front of an audience made up from staff and friends of The Spectator. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen because nobody had been told the recording was going on. A colleague from the BBC was with me and I instructed the sound engineer to laugh out loud whenever possible. So there were three of us in the audience.


All things considered the show wasn’t too bad. Marcus was funny at undermining Boris and Grahame Garden knew exactly when to chip in with a witticism. But Boris dissociated himself from the script by reading it badly and saying, ‘it says here,’ when it came to a joke. There were only two of us laughing as the engineer, trained not to laugh out loud when the tape was rolling, couldn’t change the habit of a lifetime. It was never going to be a winner.


So it was no surprise when, a few weeks later, the news trickled down from Radio 4 HQ to say Fogies would not be going ahead as a series.


Eventually a letter arrived in the post from The Spectator. It looked as if it had been written on an old fashioned typewriter and consisted of one sentence. ‘I am sorry I was completely…’ At this point the typing stopped and the last word, ‘hopeless,’ was written by hand.


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