"No," I heard her say, "Stephen Fry can't be located. But we do have a substitute."
Ah. That's what I was. Not there to discuss the awards, as I'd thought. This was back to Oscar Wilde. Which is where the trouble had started.
Earlier that day I'd been at the unveiling of a memorial to that self- destructive man, over 100 years after Oscar Wilde's trial opened at the Old Bailey - on 3 April 1895. It had been a quiet ceremony.
Maggi Hambling, the sculptor, had concocted a slightly grotesque creation. The head of Wilde, hairy, effete and thick-lipped, seemed to be waving a bejewelled hand from the depths of his marble sarcophagus. Perhaps Wilde on a plinth would have been more appropriate, as that was how he saw himself.
Then I had to dash. Down the Strand to the Savoy Hotel, where I was attending the Evening Standard awards luncheon.
Whether one likes award ceremonies or not is beyond the point. They are part of our lives now, and, in the theatre world at least, they help draw attention to one of the country's greatest and most profitable industries.
However, half-way through my melon (when you tell the Savoy that you're a vegetarian, they take it seriously), a spokesman for the event whispered apologetically in my ear that he would be very grateful if I were to agree to doing an interview.
With respect, I abandoned my conversation and followed the spokesman into the foyer - and then out on to the street.
There was a camera. It was on the far pavement. A BBC lady asked me to step over to be wired for sound. A technician puzzlingly enquired whether I had hearing problems before inserting a minute plastic object in my left ear. Through the noise of the traffic, I could just about hear what seemed to be the news. I guessed I was on when that was finished.
The Peter Mandleson story featured in considerable detail - the bars he is reputed to have visited in Brazil and so on - and then on to other matters. It was cold out there, and still the newscaster chuntered on, and still I waited patiently to be interviewed. At the very moment that I was struggling to adjust to my role as a Stephen Fry stand-in, who should arrive, but Stephen himself.
"Oh my God," he said. "You do it," I said. "No, you," he replied. "Please - no!" I said, trying to unfasten the microphone from my belt. Then the technician decided. "We're almost on the air. It's too late. You're on, Mr Hawthorne." And I was. Through the roar of London's traffic a voice seemed to be asking: "What relevance do you think a statue of Oscar Wilde has today?"
"Well," I answered, "I've just been listening to the news story about Peter Mandelson, and I think..."
"I'm sorry", the interviewer cut in. "We don't want you to talk about personalities."
The programme, you should know, was going out live. I was flabbergasted. "If it's not to do with personalities then what is it about?" But I was cut off.
Right. Fine. The BBC, in its all-powerful position, seems to think it can operate as it pleases. Double standards to the fore. We're perfectly happy to discuss the details of Mr Mandelson's alleged sexual activities in the news because that is fact, but we do not want to hear any discussions about it, or opinions.
The fact remains that what Peter Mandelson does is not my or anybody else's business. I do not know the man. I have never met him.
But what, more importantly, I was not allowed by the BBC to infer, was that Mandelson's situation is not a million miles from Oscar Wilde's. Have we learnt nothing in the past 100 years?
To hold someone up to ridicule because of his or her sexual proclivity is cheap, hypocritical and retrogressive. Would we dare do the same were they Jewish, black or a member of any other minority group? And to censor somebody because he has dared to draw attention to the parallel between the past and present and hint at the inherent dangers seems to me to be dangerously close to bigotry.
I made my way back to the award ceremony, seething with rage about injustice, bigotry and hypocrisy. I don't suppose many people noticed. But, dear old Auntie, if you set yourself up to have such high moral standards, as you have done all these years, then you ought to be bloody well ashamed of yourself.Reuse content