When Peter Rosengard embarked on a new career as a television chat-show host, he didn’t realise he would end up talking to himself.
The other evening my wife told me that my latest plan to escape from a career as an insurance salesman by becoming a television talk-show host was beginning to intrude into our lives. We were having a dinner party at home when I turned to the man next to me and said to the rest of the table: “My next guest this evening is Andrew Davies, a chartered accountant from East Finchley. Please give him a big welcome…”
“Well, I’ve got to practise somewhere haven’t I?” I said as we prepared for bed. “But not at my dinner party. And I didn’t like having all those cue cards stuck to the dining-room walls either,” she replied. “You spotted them, did you?” “Only 32 of them,” she said. “The card that read, ‘So your new book, Accountancy – A Walk on the Wild Side, is out on Tuesday?’ was staring me in the face all evening. It put me right off my dinner,” my wife said, “Damn! I think I forgot to ask that one,” I said as I tried to put thoughts of Peter Rosengard Live out of my mind.
I first had the idea of a talk show about two months ago. On the Tube going out to the City to sell a policy, I read that David Letterman, the talk-show star in America, had signed a contract with CBS to present a new series worth £11m a year.
I could live on that, I thought. Everything seems to have their own talk show these days; why can’t I? I’ve spent 20 years selling life insurance to everybody from lords to dustmen; I must have interviewed more people than any host alive; and if the guest is boring, I can always sell them a policy.
The next day I hired a camera crew – well, an unemployed cameraman with his own camera. We headed into Soho in a taxi. Sitting on the jump seat, I did a few “1,2,3s” and “testing, testing” into the mike and began. “What I think the world, or at least British TV, is ready for is a neurotic, funny, articulate, modest new talk-show host. Don’t you?” There was no response from Nick behind the camera. “Well, don’t you?” I persisted. After a long pause he offered a reluctant “yeah”.
Stuck in Regent Street traffic, I thought I would do my first interview. I poked the mike through the partition. “What do you do for a living?” I asked. “Me?” the driver said, turning round and narrowly missing a bus. “I’m a taxi driver,” “Of course you are. I am new at this.” “But I’ve only just started driving a cab,” he said. “Oh really,” I said. “What do you usually do?” “I’m a talk-show host, but I’m unemployed.”
I paid the fare and ran through the traffic into Piccadilly Circus. Nick followed, filming from the hip. “And the BBC used to employ 12-strong crews to do this?” I thought. Birt, baby, I am on your side (if you are reading this, John, let’s do lunch, OK?).
I spotted a Michael Jackson clone in the crowd by Eros. I walked over and said: “Welcome to London, Michael. I see the skin problem has progressed quite quickly and you are now totally white. You also seem to have become a woman. Tell me, what impact do you feel this will have on your career?”
The girl, dressed head to food in Jackson leather hear, ignored me, but a black woman started to scream: “You cannot just walk up to people and say Michael Jackson is white. Michael Jackson is not white.” I slipped instantly and effortlessly into “talk-show host mode”. Panicking, I ran inside the Criterion restaurant. The woman followed me through the revolving doors. Nick followed her, shooting away. She was in full cry: “You are an ignorant, unattractive, stupid, ugly man.” I came back fighting. ” Oh come, you can do better than that. Get off the fence, say what you really feel.” The woman stared at me, speechlessly, for a second, then leapt into the wildly revolving doors and was propelled back into Piccadilly.
A few days later I was having breakfast with an insurance client in a Holland Park hotel when in walked Salman Rushdie.
He sat down at the next table and ordered bacon and eggs, fresh orange juice, toast and a pot of tea. I went over and slapped him heartily on the back. “A terrific read, Salman,” I said. “I really loved the book. Don’t listen to whatever anyone else tells you, it was great. And if you ever need a place to stay for a couple of nights, we have a spare bedroom.”
He looked up at me, rather like you would if confronted at your breakfast table by an escaped lunatic at Broadmoor. “I am Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC Television,” he said, glancing around nervously.
At moments like this in the life of a wannabe talk-show host, all your senses come togethere of blinding, almost cosmic, clarity and you think very quickly indeed. “Does this mean I do not get the show?” I asked.
After one day of vox pop filming around London, I ended up with nine hours of video film. “Look Peter, Alan Yentob is a very busy man,” said a friend who had offered me his editing suite. “He is not going to sit down and watch nine hours of your running up to Covent Garden porters and asking them, “Do you find yourself, in a quiet moment, reaching for a book of poetry?”
Reluctantly, I said I would consider cutting the film down to six hours. He threw me out of the editing room and 10 minutes later handed me my pilot show reel. It was three minutes long. “Leave them begging for more,” he said.
I sent it off to all the television companies and sat back, waiting for the offers to pour in. Meanwhile, I thought I had better employ an agent to negotiate the best deal.
I found an agent sitting alone in the Oxford Street offices of one of the world’s largest theatrical agencies. He watched my video in total silence. He said he would be happy to represent me. (“I don’t like it,” I thought as I left his office. “It was just too quiet in there.”) I rang him half a dozen times over the next weeks, but he never returned my calls. Finally, I decided to fire my agent, but I could not get him on the phone to tell him.
The producer of the Big Breakfast asked me to do a screen test. “Maybe they have Michael Douglas or Arnie lined up for me,” I mused on the way to their office. I interviewed John, a telephonist.
I was a little nervous, I have a long upper lip and it gets very sweaty. It could become my gimmick. (“Have you seen that geezer with the long sweaty upper lip on television?”) I was told that John, when not behind the switchboard, was apparently a num of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Order (known as Sister Dominatrice).
“And my next guest is John, and he has flown all the way from San Francisco to be with us tonight,” I began bouncily. “I am from Willesden, actually,” he said. “It’s so difficult to find good researchers today, isn’t it?” I said, in the same tone my mother used when trying to find a reliable daily woman.
I had breakfast meeting in a West End hotel with another producer. Everything seemed to be going well until water started to pour from the ceiling on to the producer’s bald head and kipper breakfast. The head waiter said: “It is the Japanese. They always forget to turn the bath taps off.” My guest vigorously towelled himself down with his napkin. “We really must talk soon,” he said as he squelched off.
So now I am “resting” along with Wogan, Aspel, the cabbie, and several other of my “peers.” But I did get a personal letter this morning from a major television company’s head office of light entertainment. “Dear Peter,” it began promisingly, “please consider Peter Rosengard Live dead. Yours sincerely …” I read it half a dozen times before passing it across to my wife at breakfast.
“What do you think it really means?” I asked her. She glanced away from her paper for a couple of seconds. “Well, I think it means forget it, it is over, finished. I do not want to hear about it ever again. Why darling, what do you think it means?” she said, turning back to her paper. “So you don’t think it is some kind of euphemism for ‘I am really rather interested’, do you?” I asked, as I thoughtfully spooned some cereal into my mouth. “No,” she said.