4 October 2009

Claptrap 6: An offer I couldn't refuse


This is the sixth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voicesand the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

Part 1: Claptrap - The Movie
Part 2: Eureka!
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre
Part 4: How to get a book published

The conference at which I'd had the unexpected chance to show some of the results of my forthcoming book to people from the media was only a week or two before the Chesterfield by-election that was scheduled for 1st March, 1984 - and where former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn, who'd just lost his seat in parliament, was standing as the Labour candidate.

A bird in the hand?
Peter Snow, one of the presenters of BBC 2's Newsnight, had been at the conference - after which, he was quick to phone me about going on the programme on the night of the by-election. I had, after all shown quite a few video clips of Mr Benn in action during my presentation, and had devoted several pages to his extraordinary speaking abilities in Our Master's Voices.

Although I was a regular viewer of Newsnight in those days, I knew that there weren't very many of us. Nor did five minutes on BBC 2 at dead of night seem the most promising way to promote the book - especially when someone from World in Action, with it's many millions more viewers, had told me not to sign up with anyone else until I'd spoken to him.

Over the next few days, there were more flattering calls from Newsnight urging me to agree to do an analysis of of Mr Benn - but still no word from Gus Macdonald of Granada. Had he really meant it, I wondered, or was it just conference ale and camaraderie that had been speaking? Should I commit to the BBC's bird in the hand or keep waiting for Granada's unspecified bird in the bush?

There was only one thing for it. Dreading another rejection to add to my collection from publishers (Claptrap 4), I steeled myself and dialed the number on Gus Macdonald's card.

Or a bird in the bush?
"Ah, I'm glad you've called" he said (much to my relief). "I've had an idea I'd like to talk to you about and was about to phone to suggest meeting for lunch."

Granada's London offices were in Soho, where I soon found myself at a Chinese restaurant being confronted with an offer that seemed far too good to be true.

"We'll find someone who's never made a speech before," he said, "then we'll film you coaching her on the stuff in your book and see what happens when she speaks at a party conference."

"But" - I'd never claimed it was a 'how to do it' book, had no idea whether the findings could be put into practiceand asked the obvious question: "What if it doesn't work?"

"Doesn't matter," he said "we'll just fade it out and roll the credits as she's climbing up to the podium. It would be a far more interesting way to tell the story of your research than all these boring Horizon programmes with professors droning on in front of rows of book shelves."

He'd even worked out that it would have to be someone from the SDP, because the new party had rules that would more or less ensure that a member would get to speak if they got their names down soon enough - whereas speakers at Labour Party conferences had to catch the eye of the chair and speakers at the Conservative Party Conference had to be vetted in advance. In any case, he knew the SDP president, Shirley Williams, and was pretty sure he'd be able to get her to call our Eliza Doolittle to speak.

And an Eliza, rather than and Edwin, Dolittle it would have to be, because this was the age of Margaret Thatcher and it was well known that she'd had a lot of help with speech-making and presentation.

To say I was taken aback by the idea would be an understatement. He was offering me the chance and the funding to carry out an experiment that I knew the Social Science Research Council would never have supported in a million years. Admittedly there was the rather large risk of putting my research on the line in front of 15 million viewers, rather than a few hundred readers of a learned journal. But if I'd been afraid of taking risks, I'd have had more sense than to go into conversation analysis in the first place.

Would a failed speech have been screened?
In retrospect, there are two reasons why I don't believe for a moment that Granada would have gone ahead and shown the programme if the experiment hadn't worked - however neat a way of telling the story it might have been.

One reason was that no contract had ever been written down or signed, which presumably meant that they could easily have ditched it and shown something else in the event of failure.

Another is that I learnt from Ann Brennan, after she'd won her standing ovation, that she too had asked the same question, "What if it doesn't work?", the night before she made the speech.

Gus's reply to her was rather different and more forthright than the one he'd given me six months earlier:

"It would just mean that the book's no b****y good."

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