It was (although you might have slept through it) Oscar Week. And the nominations in the Best Excuse For Not Interviewing Colonel Gaddafi category are:
Alan Dean, in I Missed Him In Three Countries and Didn’t Get Any Of His Loot…
David Baird, for Close, But No Cigar… and
Revel Barker, in The Get Out Of Jail Free Card.
In the ‘real’ world of what the show-biz writers called Tinsel Town (do they still call it that?) – and this week’s celeb scoop – Stephen Bates reveals how oft-nominated Kenneth Branagh nearly became One Of Us. He must be regretting it, every time he reads this site.
And we have had a card from the cartoonist, Rudge, who’s on holiday.
But first… Andrew Drummond was reading Ranters last week, and suddenly started to feel very old.
God, I know them all…
By Andrew Drummond
Good heavens, now I KNOW I’m getting old. In your last edition you had Geoff Seed, who I worked with at Twenty Twenty Television (we went round the world together first class for Channel 4); Bob Warren who I worked with for nine years at the News of the World, and Derek Jameson for part of that time. Then there’s Revel Barker, who I crossed swords with when he was at the Daily Mirror, Arliss Rhind – well he was one of the many Scots Expressmen at the time including Brian Steele and Alan Cochrane, a great crowd.
I think some of the stories have blurred with age though. Bob Warren probably was indeed the smartest and most gentlemanly chap at the News of the World, but actually there were a few pretty close to him in those days. The newsroom was a bit like public school with our token East Londoner, Ron Mount (ex flying squad) holding the candle of the masses and meeting up with his doll in the Printers Pie after work.
Derek Jameson was right when he talked about the freelancers of course, run by features. I am sure he is aware of ‘the animals’ room’. The post office tent was acquired by Ian Cutler and was used more as a stunt for a documentary for ITV. At one stage it took off by itself down Mercers Road N19 – for the cameras of course.
For Derek to say that he did not know what was happening under him now I find a little difficult to believe.
I never had any moral difficulties working for Bob, but I did in the latter stages with other editors. Reporters with tumblers against walls? – never. Of course Derek doesn’t believe that. But I certainly remember ringing Koo Stark once on a private number and saying it’s Andrew here. ‘Yes. Darling’ – ‘No actually it’s Andrew Drummond here’. The conversation did not go far. I think there may have been an errant Post Office telephone worker involved.
Well back to Revel Barker. He was of course an old Mirror hand, but back in the late 80s he was controlling Maxwell’s Special Squad dedicated, I think, to trying to keep their boss out of the paper and Paul Callan in it.
I remember shortly after leaving the NoW offering Alastair Campbell at the Daily Mirror (yes: him) an exclusive with the family of a chap called Derrick Gregory who was due to hang in Malaysia for drugs trafficking (I had investigated the syndicate for C4). The Mirror were to fly the parents out and pay £1,000 towards his defense costs plus my fee. (Paying costs is all pretty much illegal now I guess. But Gregory had serious mental health issues and was a very sad case so there was no moral issue for me.)
Paul Callan flew out to Penang with the parents to join me, and announced that the £1,000 was no longer on offer.
While Callan was recovering from the flight during which I understand he had put on an entertaining cabaret for the flight attendants I collected the family from his hotel.
‘I’ve got a mother. I’ve got a father. Now hand over the ****ing money,’ I told Paul on the phone. He checked and indeed they were gone.
‘In all my years of journalism I have never been treated like this,’ said Paul. ‘You’ll never work again.’
Nevertheless deadlines were pressing and Paul and the wonderful photographer Nigel Wright (now in Australia) duly handed their advanced expenses to the lawyer and were issued with a receipt.
Business done. The rest of the week went fine with the Mirror making most of his buy up and me habitually pulling Paul (and maybe vice versa) out of those massive Malaysian drainage ditches on the sides of the roads, and sometimes out of the bars, too.
The Mirror even staged the victim’s last supper, buying a slap-up meal from a five-star hotel and wheeling the trolley into Penang Prison. There was however a long wait before officials let the Mirror team in and Callan was, well, hungry.
I did work again. I have not stopped. I’m still working. It’s still fun. As newspapers are not sending like they did in the good old days, I have sent myself. But it will never be the same…
Andrew Drummond worked on the Street from 74-86 at the Evening News, Daily Mail and News of the World before making TV documentaries and being a founding member of the Observer Film Company. He left in 1990 to freelance out of Bangkok.
Gaddafi (nearly) and me
By Alan Dean
British mercs, Czech weaponry, a mystery boat on the Dalmatian coast and some nasty pieces of work from the Morrocan secret police. It was late 1971 and I was looking into a story about an abortive coup against Muammar Gaddafi, a bit of a mystery man at the time: he had overthrown Libya’s King Idris a couple of years before.
I had recently arrived in Belgrade as a stringer for Associated Newspapers, the Yorkshire Post, the San Diego-based Copley News Service and several other titles, and was thrown in at the deep end on the coup story, which had come from a whispered tip-off from a friendly attaché at the British embassy, who, it turned out, was the MI6 ‘resident’.
The coup attempt against Gaddafi, financed by one of the deposed king’s wealthy Libyan émigré friends and backed by Muhammed Oufkir, the hardline henchman of Morocco’s King Hassan, would have gone ahead had it not been for the intervention of some ‘heavies’ from MI6 and the CIA. They had been ordered to prevent the boat carrying the mercs and ammunition sailing from Dubrovnik. London and Washington backed Gaddafi at the time – it was all about the oil, of course.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the mercenaries had sailed out of Dubrovnik and reached Libya. I’ve no idea why, though we can all guess, the story was ‘suppressed’ for some time, and it was to be a while before a Sunday Times crew exposed the plot. But it was a good yarn which earned me a fat fee and some very liberal Fleet Street-style expenses. All in all an excellent kick-off to my Our Man In Belgrade days.
Gaddafi was also responsible, in a way, for encouraging a ‘friendship’ between me and a member of the KGB, although Ivan preferred to be known as the Belgrade correspondent of Izvestia, or was it Pravda (time has blurred the memory somewhat). He was a small, portly figure, and he would roll up at my villa in Dedinje for breakfast, always with a fresh bottle of vodka, and from time to time a jar or two of Beluga caviar.
Ivan and I were both keeping an eye on an oil pipeline that was being planned to carry Libyan crude oil inland from a port near Rijeka on the Croatian coast. These were the chilliest of the cold war days. And the question was whether the pipeline was going to carry oil to the West, or would link up with a system taking it to the communist East.
Over vodka and bacon butties (an East meets West breakfast) we would discuss everything except the pipeline – until the vodka bottle was empty, and then the words ‘Jugoslavenski naftovod’ (Yugoslav pipline) would creep into the conversation. Ivan was about to justify his expenses for our morning talks in the villa conservatory… though he never did
When Ivan left Belgrade I threw a party for him (the expense claim to the Daily Mail read ‘entertaining a senior KGB official’). During the party, which was attended by a large bunch of journos and selected diplomats, I announced that the British government would like to recognise Ivan for his services to Anglo-Soviet relationships, but because he was Russian, he could not be awarded the usual OBE or CBE. Instead, he was to be made a Knight of Great Britain, and I gave him a parchment scroll that had been made for the occasion. Knight of Great Britain? He would be entitled to put the initials after his name…
My next Gaddafi encounter came when I went to Malta for Copley News Service to report on Maltese-Soviet ties. I arrived at a time when Gaddafi was about to open a Libyan Cultural Centre on the island and was invited to the opening. Somebody told me that the thousands of books on Arab culture donated by Gaddafi had failed to arrive on time for the official opening event.
Luckily, a local businessman stepped in and lent the cultural centre enough books to make a good impression for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Gaddafi never tuned up for the opening. He sent Abdessalam Jalloud, the then Libyan prime minister. It was just as well the minister did not inspect the books stocking the shelves: they were lined with several rows of Jewish literature, including several volumes in Hebrew. Sabotage? Who knows. But whoever placed the books on the shelves may have had supermarket training – the more provocative titles proclaiming Zionism, were all at eye level….
Sometime later, while I was living for a while in London, Gaddafi came into my life again. I had been involved in the launch of a new Arab-Far East publication, working for Selim el-Lozi, the Lebanese publisher of Al Hawadess. Alas, he returned to Beirut for his mother’s funeral and was assassinated – leaving me without a job. A friend told me she had been asked to come up with a concept for a youth sports magazine, concentrating mainly on football. Not my scene, but I told her I would help her – the fee was too good to turn down. I was surprised by the venue for the eventual presentation: the Libyan Embassy. The potential backer of the new magazine was none other than Muammar Gaddafi.
The scene at the embassy was surreal. As we were shown up to the third-floor office of the attaché we were to meet we had to pass a dozen or more armed Libyans, who looked as they had come from central-casting for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia – all dressed in djellabahs and armed to the teeth.
The pitch was made to what was a Libyan version of The Dragon’s Den. But our concept was not accepted. We were given silver-framed photos of the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya aka the Leader and Guide of the Revolution and a four-figure cheque for ‘our expenses’ So it was not a complete waste of time
Alan Dean started on the Clapham Observer and worked as a stringer for the Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Mirror, Yorkshire Post, San Diego-based Copley News Service and the South African Argus group at various stages during the 60s and 70s based in Tangier, Saigon, Tel Aviv, Beirut and Belgrade. He was assistant editor of To The Point International and Middle East Events before setting up a publishing company to produce travel industry magazines. Now retired he lives in Antwerp, Belgium and is writing a book based on his stringing experiences.
By David Baird
Howard Baker, a witty New York Times columnist, once outlined his test of a good reporter.
‘You are put in a room with no windows and no reading matter and the door is locked. Six hours later a man enters the room and declares: No comment.
‘You have 10 minutes to write a 500-word report.’
Lucky fellow. That hack had it easy compared with the challenges a reporter is likely to meet when he ventures into North Africa and the Middle East.
In the drama of recent weeks information has exploded out of the Arab world as ‘the people’ have taken to the streets. It is not usually like this. ‘Impenetrable’ takes on a new significance when you find yourself attempting to dig up a few facts in the realms of potentates, as I know to my cost.
Take Morocco’s Ministry of Information where I once had the temerity (OK, naivety) to ask for well, er, information. This caused something of a sensation. The flunkeys gazed at me in bemusement (later I realised they thought I was taking the piss). Funny lot – stone-faced guys of above-average height and width, with guns peeking from beneath their jackets.
Of course, their job was not to offer information but to control it. In most of those countries journalists are about as welcome as tsetse flies. They are whistled up when some official pronouncement has to be made. And swatted if they get out of line.
Morocco, ruled by an all-powerful monarch titled Amir Al Mumining (Commander of the Faithful), is relaxed compared to some other locations. Even so, on my visits I could never quite get out of my mind how his predecessors entertained themselves.
A century or so ago the so-called Lords of the Atlas had sophisticated tastes. One sultan would order a slave to hold his steed whenever he mounted. Then, in one graceful movement, as he swung into the saddle he would lop off the slave’s head with his scimitar. Just for laughs.
Now that may not happen today – scimitars are in short supply. But I could not help fingering my neckline nervously on more than one occasion as I sought to establish a few basic facts in the Arab world.
Take Algeria. Covering the election of a president there, I could only find a room in Algiers’ most expensive hotel (bring your own toilet seat). Instead of witnessing delegates picking the new man, the media were sealed off in ‘the press centre’, a concrete bunker in a sports stadium miles from anywhere. After three days they were bussed to the venue, for a 20-minute photo opportunity. Then it was time to go home.
A Spanish correspondent told me how on his arrival in Algeria he had sought interviews with several ministers, or their spokesmen.
‘I have still to receive an answer. But I live in hope. Only been waiting 18 months.’
Diplomats fared no better. One told me how, wanting to invite the president’s wife at his embassy’s national day reception, he had tried to check the correct spelling of her name. ‘We cannot help you. That information is classified,’ replied the president’s office.
Then there was Gaddafi, as crazy as a desert fox, ruling by whim and judged by a fellow Arab leader to have ‘a split personality, both evil’.
Years back I encountered the Teacher-Leader when Maclean’s magazine of Toronto sent me to Libya for a conference of African leaders. The media scene was reminiscent of that in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and some of the leaders present could have qualified for bit parts in The Godfather. You would not want to meet them in a dark alley nor for that matter on a well-illuminated highway. And they were running countries…
But they had been feted in London and other capitals. Politicians had warmly shaken their bloodstained hands, eager to share in their mineral wealth or to conclude profitable trade deals. They rationalise it – I believe – as ‘realpolitik’. (And they call us journalists cynics.)
One of the most sinister of these tyrants was Mengistu, the Ethiopian dictator dubbed ‘the black Stalin’. As he swaggered about surrounded by armed guards, I swear that evil emanated from this poison dwarf. Easy to believe the rumour that he had personally executed Emperor Hailie Selassie.
Initially Mengistu headed a 97-member revolutionary council. But not for long. Half of them were soon in the cemetery – and Mengistu allegedly pulled the trigger himself. When he finally fled into exile, he was welcomed in Zimbabwe by that other great humanitarian, Mugabe.
Gaddafi swept around Tripoli in a large Chevrolet limousine, attended by a cohort of young female guards, all nubile, all poker-faced, and all wielding Kalashnikovs.
Getting an interview could be easy or impossible. I met a British TV crew who had flown out specifically to talk to the Leader. After nothing happened for a week, they prepared to leave, but then came a message to go immediately to Gaddafi’s HQ. There, as they started setting up their gear, in walked the man himself. He smiled and nodded, then left the room. And that was the last they saw of him.
When I mentioned to the British ambassador that I was planning to visit Benghazi and the interior, he went pale and virtually begged me to forget such an enterprise. Months later I learnt why: the embassy was engaged in delicate negotiations to save a British businessman facing the death penalty for alleged spying.
The big conference never happened as most African leaders, unable to stomach Gaddafi, boycotted it. Lodged in a passenger ship parked in the harbour, we of the press filled our time embellishing rumours and relating anecdotes. An Associated Press veteran recalled the perils of annoying potentates.
‘Chatting to Bokassa once. Remember him? Lovely fellow. He crowned himself ‘emperor’ of the Central African Republic. All went well until I asked the wrong question. He flew into a rage and knocked me to the ground. The last thing I remember was the imperial boot descending on my face.’
High-level pressure was necessary to free him from prison. Other victims were less fortunate. Later it was revealed that Bokassa’s refrigerator was full of body parts. He scoffed them, believing they gave him supernatural powers.
Mind you, there were lighter moments. As when I found myself in the depths of the Sahara, reporting on a shindig organised by the Polisario rebel movement demanding independence from Morocco. Their war started in 1975 and continues – anybody remember it?
Into my tent came two Japanese women, carrying a mountain of equipment. They had flown all the way from Tokyo to cover the event for a major TV network. They spoke no Arabic or French and little English.
A few hours later they presented me with a tent they had lugged across the world and said goodbye.
‘But nothing’s happened yet,’ I gulped.
‘Have film. Now must go. Back to Tokyo. Sayonara.’
‘I see. In-depth coverage?’
They bowed out, smiling.
It reminded me of the tale told by Edward Behr (Time, Newsweek, and author of the classic book Anyone here been raped and speak English?). He was in Brazzaville, resting up from covering mayhem in the Congo, when a puzzled Japanese correspondent approached.
‘Please, I am here two weeks but is happening nothing. Where is this war?’
Behr pointed across the Congo River.
‘Just over there, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is Congo-Brazzaville. You are in the wrong country. ‘
Another job, another country. In Riyadh a Filipino – one of thousands doing menial jobs there – gave me an idea of the welcome to be expected if you offended the Saudis. He said he had been imprisoned on a trumped-up charge.
‘My cell was a hole in the ground, so small I could not stand up. I was there for a year. In the end I confessed and agreed to convert to Islam. It was the only way to get out. If you’re a foreigner here and get involved in a traffic accident, don’t stop. Head straight for the airport – or you’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars.’
It’s different in the kingdom’s palaces, as I saw when I followed Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau – arrogance personified – around Saudi Arabia. The atmosphere of A Thousand and One Nights rules in those marble pleasure domes.
At a dinner in the royal palace, I found myself sitting next to the Saudi chief of police. Between knocking back sheep’s eyes and glasses of asses’ milk, the strongest stuff available, I tried a little light conversation.
What penalties, I asked, did Saudis face if they were caught drinking alcohol?
The police chief permitted himself the suspicion of a smile.
‘They go to jail.’
‘And if they’re caught again?’
Incredulity spread cross his delicate features.
‘Again?’ A chill went down my spine as he rasped: ‘Then they go to jail and they don’t come out!’
You know, asses’ milk isn’t so bad. You can get a taste for it.
Shropshire lad David Baird worked for the Daily Herald, the Sun, the Daily Express, the Yorkshire Evening News, assorted weeklies, before fleeing to Canada (Ottawa Citizen), Australia (Brisbane Evening Telegraph, Mount Isa Star), Hong Kong (China Mail, South China Morning Post, Far Eastern Economic Review) and a few other spots he prefers to keep quiet about. Now based in Spain, he tries to write and sell books. His latest, Typhoon Season, is due out this month. Available on Amazon. It is published by Maroma Press, http://maromapress.wordpress.com/
By Revel Barker
I’d moved into management by April 1986, when American aircraft bombed Libya. Editorial manager Ken Udall rang Daily Mirror editor Richard Stott the morning after the bombing and told him: ‘Revel’s on holiday in Tripoli.’
‘He does some daft things,’ Stott told him. ‘But he doesn’t go to Libya on holiday. Thanks for reminding me, though… The place you’re thinking of is Tunisia. That’s near enough.’
(And no – Tunisia wouldn’t have been my choice for a family holiday either, but my son, then 12, had won the trip in a raffle.)
So news editor Tom Hendry rang our hotel.
‘Been watching television?’ – No.
‘Seen the papers this morning?’ – No.
‘Then you don’t know the yanks have bombed Libya… can you get yourself there?’ He said he had reporters in Switzerland, Cyprus, Rome and Malta, but nobody could get a flight into Tripoli.
Had the Yanks, perhaps, bombed the airport? That might explain the difficulty.
‘Ah…’ he said. ‘But you could drive there.’ It was, after all, only an inch away on the map.
I could try, I told him. I’d need to hire a car but I couldn’t imagine the folk at Hertz or Avis reacting kindly to the idea of one of their cars leaving the country and going into a war zone, so we’d have to be prepared to cover the insurance ourselves.
‘I’d need to get the ok for that,’ said Tom. ‘But the person I’d have to ask is you… can we cover it?’
I said I thought we probably could.
Then, I told him, there was the small problem that the border between Libya and Tunisia had been closed for 12 years, so I might not be able to get through.
And I thought I had an Israeli visa in my passport, which might be a bit of an obstacle.
The only other slight complication I could think of was that I was actually banned from entering Libya, because I’d described Colonel Gaddafi as a loony and the Libyans had taken offense, although if there was any security on the border I thought it was unlikely that they’d know that.
So, I said, I’d ring Hertz. I reckoned it would be about a ten-hour drive.
‘That’s great,’ said Tom. ‘Honestly, it’s a delight to be talking to an old pro. Most other people would just have put up a load of reasons why they couldn’t do it.’
Driving south I was stopped by armed police, arrested at gunpoint, taken to a police station and locked in a cell. I was interviewed by progressively higher-ranking officers who had possibly monitored the phone conversation because they wanted to know why I was driving to the border when I knew (they told me) that it was shut.
The interviews were going nowhere because the cops were insisting on speaking only French, Arabic or German and I was waving my passport and explaining that I was English and that was my preferred language. (After a while they took my passport off me to stop me doing that.) But I was going nowhere, either, and eventually they released me on condition that I returned to the hotel and stayed there.
I found a phone and rang the office. Night news editor Alastair McQueen asked why I’d been arrested. I told him they were blaming me – as the token Brit – for bombing Libya (our government had allowed the US Air Force bombers to fly from bases in the UK). And apparently among other things I was thereby responsible for the death of Gaddafi’s daughter who had been killed in the bombing.
‘Did they tell you her name?’
‘That’s his adopted daughter,’ said Al. ‘Are you sure she’s dead?’
‘I didn’t ask to see the body but, yes, the cops were all pretty positive about that.’
‘Fine,’ said Al. ‘You’ve got the splash. I’m putting you over to copy. And thanks… I’ll buy you lunch when you get back.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘And I’ll sign the exes.’
You will Oscar, you will
By Stephen Bates
It is not really on a par with the Man Who Sold The Beatles, but I suppose I can lay claim to a tiny theatrical footnote as the Man Who Advised Kenneth Branagh Not To Become An Actor. I thought he might make a better local paper journalist instead.
This is how it happened. It was back in my days as a trainee journalist on the Reading Chronicle in 1978 and, being at a loose end when there wasn’t a parish council to cover in the evenings, I did a spot of amateur acting with local groups. That summer, the Berkshire Shakespeare Players advertised, as they did every year, for a cast to play Othello in the open air at the ruins of the medieval abbey in the centre of town – a strikingly atmospheric location were it not for trains pulling into Reading station a couple of hundred yards away, jets roaring low overhead on the descent into Heathrow and the close proximity of Reading prison, whose inmates usually objected vociferously from their cells to recitations of the immortal bard just beyond the walls late in the evening. Othello’s dying speech – ‘Soft you, a word or two before you go…’ would accordingly be drowned by cries of ‘Shut the fuck up, will you?’ most evenings.
The Berkshire Shakespeare Players drew their cast each year from the cream of local drama groups, and not a few of the clots, such as myself, recruited to make up the numbers. I was somewhat intimidated at the auditions when the man obviously destined to play Othello stood up and announced that he saw the character as a Very Black Man Indeed before proceeding to give a startling impression something like Paul Robeson, no mean feat as he was a slender middle-aged white man. Even the worst of us got parts – I had a couple of brief speeches as a Messenger – ‘The Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes!’ – which was probably appropriate for a reporter from the local weekly paper.
By far the worst of us was a chap called Ted, who got a part every year despite being the world’s worst actor. They’d given him a single line once, but he had forgotten it. This time, he played a clown (textual scholars will know there is actually no clown in Othello) serving as one of the extras at the back, dressed in a magnificent jester’s costume, like a playing card with bells at every corner. Ted did not have to try hard to steal every scene, even while lurking at the back. All he had to do was shake his head slightly and the bells would start to tinkle. He had a habit of marching on first at the front of every crowd scene, even when he was supposed to be following in attendance to one of the main characters. That is, until one night as we prepared to march on Cyprus. Othello, by now in full armour and made up to be very black indeed, loomed over him. ‘Listen Ted,’ Othello hissed. ‘We’ve got two choices. Either I go on first. Or you go on first. But if you go on first, let me tell you, I’m not following you.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Ted, tinkle, tinkle. It was the only night he went on second.
Anyway, I had the use of the Chronicle office mini in the evenings – 200,000 miles on the clock and the footwells full of empty crisp packets and old coke cans – and they asked me to give a lift to the teenager playing Cassio, who needed transport to get to rehearsals and lived not too far away from me. As we drove to the sundry halls where the cast was gathering each evening, we discussed the future. Young Kenneth, 16 and at the local comprehensive, was undecided about whether he wanted to become an actor or a journalist – he had already offered his services as a teenage columnist to the local evening paper.
Flush with the showbiz experience of doing the Chronicle play reviews, I told him acting was a dodgy career – you’d never know when you’d be out of work, jolly uncertain, badly-paid. Whereas, local journalism: £23 a week and use of the office mini, life of excitement – magistrates’ courts and golden weddings, maybe Fleet Street one day if you were lucky… I thought I sounded quite sage and convincing and he nodded politely.
The production was all good fun. The only glitch occurred when a rather curmudgeonly review appeared in my own paper. There was a certain froideur in the dressing room that night – the rest of the cast all assumed I’d written it; or at least should have kept it out of the paper. I hadn’t of course, and couldn’t have done. It was an early lesson in the power of the press reviewer.
I wish I’d realised that I was in the presence of a young star at the time. I and the rest of the cast just thought Branagh was a good schoolboy actor. Well, the show ended and we went our ways, me onto an evening paper and eventually the BBC where, some years later, I opened the Sunday Times magazine one weekend and found a photograph of my former lift companion lauded as Best Newcomer in the West End. He was about to play Henry V at Stratford at the age of 23, a year younger than Richard Burton had been when he played the role. I got in touch and he wrote back suggesting a drink before the show.
The thing was, he said when we met in the pub opposite the theatre, he’d auditioned for RADA and when he graduated had been offered two parts: a spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a speaking part in a new play in Greenwich called Another Country, opposite another young actor called Colin Firth. He’d opted for the speaking part, the play had transferred to the West End to rave reviews, he’d won an award, and the RSC rang up – nine months after their offer of employment as an extra – to ask him what part he’d like to play.
With cast-iron self-confidence, he’d suggested Henry V and they had laughed and rung off. Then he’d gone off and done some television work and a few months later, the RSC rang back and said: ‘You know you said you’d like to play Henry V…’
He’d contacted Prince Charles when he got the part and went to see him to ask what it was like to be a prince because, coming off a council estate in Reading, he didn’t know.
Luck and nerve, as well as talent – attributes that might have stood him in good stead as a journalist if he hadn’t been seduced by the stage. The last time I saw him – except on the screen that is – was as I drove my daughter to her nursery in our family secondhand car. We pulled up in the queue at the Chiswick roundabout and there, in the next lane, was a stretch limousine with a chauffeur in a peaked cap in front and Kenneth Branagh on his mobile phone in the back.
Time was, I thought to myself, when you were happy to hitch a lift to rehearsals… you just never know, do you, why people choose not to become journalists? There’s no accounting for taste. That production of Othello was the last time I tried acting –daily newspapers don’t allow for such luxuries – but at least I can say I went out in the presence of a star.