Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet
Issue Number 12
19th February 1998
Note: This article has no relevance for my many non-British subscribers. Anyone else I strongly urge to pay attention and to follow my advice.
Last Thursday, the 12th February, I had a telephone call from a London Weekend Television researcher called Reuben Stone. He told me he was gathering interviewees for a new television show hosted by someone called Jerry Sadowitz. This would, he continued, be a place for the airing of, and keen debate over, controversial views of all kinds. It would go out late on Tuesday evenings on Channel Five. It would be innovative and "fun" television. Would I like to be a guest on the first show?
I read Gore Vidal many years ago to the effect that one should never turn down an invitation to sleep with someone or to go on television. I have more often than not broken the first part of the rule, but have always tried, with one or two exceptions, to keep to the second. On this occasion, I kept to it. I discussed going on to advocate the legalising of all drugs, and then of all guns, before settling on the repeal of the laws against drinking and driving.
Of course, I am a realist about my chances on television. On the wireless, I can say what I think, and develop it at length - sometimes even getting the time to say it all over again. On television, everything must be abbreviated and repackaged for an audience with an attention span that apparently shortens by the decade. I have no illusions about the medium as a place for informed debate. I assumed that on this show, I would face an actively hostile studio audience, and perhaps host, would have no more than a minute to say my piece, and would then be cleared out for someone else to come on and moan about the dog mess in the streets.
Even so, it is necessary to go on television. It lets me reach out to the masses, no matter how briefly; and every so often, I do score a direct hit—as when on Newsnight last July, I made a Government Minister squirm about the plans, announced the same day, to lower the age of consent for gay sex to 16 and raise the age from smoking to 18. Though the message itself should never be compromised, television requires endless compromise over the means of spreading it.
My real misgivings started the following Tuesday, when I received a letter of invitation and a contract. The latter was an odd and ungrammatical document, badly photocopied. It read:
In consideration of LWT filming me
I agree to assign the entire copyright
in my participation in
The People V's Jerry Sadowitz
to LWT (who may cut and edit the
same as they deem fit)
and give all consents necessary for
it to be used in any form and any media
and waive all moral rights.
Neither the BBC nor Channel Four has ever demanded that degree of control over the material. Nor has either ever insisted on written details of my sex, my date of birth, and my occupation.
I supposed it was a set up of some kind. We were being got into the studio under false pretences, and would then be made exhibits in a freak show. I thought of cancelling. But my Libertarian Alliance colleagues Chris R. Tame and Brian Micklethwait had also agreed to go on—Brian with me, Chris the evening after; and, after discussing the matter, we decided to set aside the suspicions we all shared and to give the show a fair trial.
That is what Brian and I did earlier this evening. We arrived at a studio in Wandsworth, and were greeted by Mr Stone—a fussy young man in black, with a hint of effeminacy that would once have indicated a minority taste, but is nowadays probably just the fashion for fussy young men in black. After a spell in the VIP hospitality lounge, we were ushered into the studio, to sit with about 40 other people. There were some dance students next to us, and in front some charming people from the Church of Scientology who had read, and admired, my article on the persecution they face in Germany. Then, all my worst fears were confirmed.
Jerry Sadowitz bounced in, got up as a sort of cross between Billy Connolly and Dr Who as played by Tom Baker. As is usually the case with imitations, he was decidedly inferior to both. He sat behind his presenter's desk, a top hat pulled over a mass of untidy curls, a fake cigar in his hand. The show was being recorded, so he could make as many mistakes as he pleased: the editor could clean the performance up later into something a little more coherent than the reality.
The format of the show was to have each guest go up to him in turn. They would open their mouths and try to make a point. Each would be interrupted at best, and at worst shouted down with a stream of vulgar abuse. After about a minute, Mr Sadowitz would hit a bell in front of him, and the guest would have to get up and leave the platform. Anyone who refused to leave would be assisted from the platform by a bouncer who looked genuinely thuggish.
Perhaps to keep us interested, Mr Sadowitz had begun by waving ten £50 notes at us. Whoever begged most abjectly on camera would win these before the end of the evening.
While the audience was encouraged to cheer and laugh for audience shots that could later be spliced into the show, Brian and I tried to smother the horror of the proceedings in a conversation about the Asian economic crisis. After the first guests had been dispatched, however, I decided I had had enough. Had the show been going out live, it would have been worth risking an encounter. I might have said something sufficiently cutting to deflate Mr Sadowitz. As it was, anything remotely challenging would almost certainly have hit the cutting room floor before tomorrow lunchtime. By the end of the editing, I would have been made to look like the character Peter Sellars played in Being There.
I will do most things to get the libertarian message across—I even sometimes agree to appear with Nicky Campbell, so long as he offers cash. But I am not so desperate for publicity as to risk an appearance with Mr Sadowitz. This really was one of those times when Gore Vidal was not the best guide to action. I got up from my seat and walked out of the studio. I collected my coat and bag from the hospitality lounge and made for the main doors.
I was held up for a few minutes by Mr Sadowitz's agent. A man quite evidently more charming and able than his client, he tried to wheedle me into staying. He gave me a cigarette. he flattered me horribly. I was there as one of the stars, he confided. Why else had I been one of the select few let into the Green Lounge? "Don't think you will be treated like the little people who had been allowed on just to warm things up." I would be given the chance to speak my mind. "Jerry's a really great listener. This is the start of something big." I was polite but firm. The cigarette extinguished, I walked through the main doors into the street outside.
Brian left about ten minutes later. His resolve to sit the thing out and hope for a sound bite on tax cutting crumbled after one of the Scientologists was sent off at the first mention of her faith. He avoided the agent, but was chased instead by Mr Stone. It was unnerving, I suppose, to have half the VIP guests walk out 20 minutes into the filming of the pilot show.
Now, the purpose of this article is not to complain—I half guessed what the show would be like, and it was my fault that I went as far as I did with it. My purpose is to warn. A show like this needs a regular stream of victims. I have no doubt that Mr Stone and his colleagues will be hard at work again tomorrow, scouring London for them. If you belong to a new religious movement, or are a hunter or shooter, or a vegan; if you are a drug legaliser, or a sado-masochist, or a libertarian—in short, if you have views that are not as often expressed in the media as you would wish, you are in danger. You are in danger of being made to look utterly foolish, and of having your most cherished beliefs made an excuse for foul-mouthed merriment.
Brian and I got away just in time. Chris has some ripe words ready in case Mr Stone should dare call him tomorrow to confirm his appearance. Whatever your minority opinions—no matter how alien to those of the Libertarian Alliance they may be—I hope you will take warning from our experience. If you are called by Mr Stone, you are advised to refuse any offer he makes. If you have already been persuaded to go on the show, you are advised to cancel.
I cannot believe that The People vs Jerry Sadowitz will go far beyond its pilot, this to be shown next week. Even in this age of cultural barbarism, there remain standards of taste strong enough to drive that sort of trash from the main media. However, just in case the show does not collapse under the weight of its own awfulness, here follows the address of the television company responsible for the show, and to which complaints may be directed:
The People vs Jerry Sadowitz
London Weekend Television
The London Television Centre
London SE1 9LT
Tel: 0171 261 3897 or 3027