John Walsh: Tales of the city

Battle of wills at War of the Worlds: a summer blockbuster from Paranoid Film Productions
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The Independent Online

Did I, they enquired, have a mobile phone? Hand it over, they said. You'll get it back afterwards. You're not getting into this screening until you give it here.

I meekly complied and watched my trusty Nokia 5520 being wrapped like a slab of Caerphilly in a polythene bag. Inside, I took my seat and gazed into the lens of a camera 40 feet away: "Infra-red," said my friend Roger who knows all about this stuff, "for detecting recording equipment." I opened the press material and read a sternly hectoring message insisting that nothing could be written about the film before today's date and that, if I felt unable to comply with this requirement, I shouldn't be at this screening, quite frankly, and should just eff off right now.

Short of being actually slapped across the face by the producer and director, I can't imagine being made less welcome at a movie. Paramount and Dreamworks, co-producers of War, are naturally anxious not to risk bootleg copies being made of their hundred-million-dollar intellectual property. But what do they imagine I'd have done with my mobile?

The Nokia 5520 can, if pushed to the limit, make a film lasting 10 seconds. It's used for this purpose by my son and his amusing friends, who construct mini-dramas featuring a plastic shark riding a skateboard to a thunderous soundtrack of Iggy Pop singing "Lust for Life." But I couldn't do much justice to the scene in which an alien tripod bursts out of the sidewalk and causes an earthquake. A screen that's only three inches by two isn't ideal for conveying that sense of apocalypse you need. And, despite my formidable powers of persuasion, I can't see hundreds of Spielberg fans flocking to my garden shed to watch 10 seconds'-worth of tiny people running away from a titchy alien arachnid on my trusty camera.

But guess what? The movie's New York premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre turned nasty when Paramount told security guards to confiscate every mobile phone and every women's handbag. The whole audience had to queue for ages to retrieve them. Tom Cruise's sister (and now his Scientology-devotee publicist) was forced to stand in line, probably for the first time in her life. So was Tim Robbins, who's one of the cast. And, mirabile dictu, Spielberg himself had to hand in his cell-phone – presumably to stop him making a cheap knock-off of his own movie and flogging it to the Koreans. They're thinking of naming the studio Paranoid Film Productions.

Watering my bed...

Tomorrow the Mayor of London will meet the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, and ask her for more legislative powers to control the misuse of water by metropolitans. He will ask for laws to meter water use; to ban hosepipe use; to ban lawn sprinklers and to introduce standpipes in the event of a winter drought. Alongside these restraints, Kenny has also suggested we should all give up the sybaritic, Cleopatran luxury of taking a bath when a shower would do, give up peeling spuds or brushing our teeth under a running tap and, lastly, stop flushing the loo after only micturating.

I'm alarmed by the way the Mayor's requests for legal bans of this and that sit alongside laughingly casual "suggestions" about how we should change our behaviour. You know what's going to happen, don't you? Only last week we had the "intelligence-led approach to enforcing the law" against people smoking in public – namely, encouraging informers to ring a hotline to shop their nicotine-puffing associates. Now this. Soon, neighbours will be reporting each other's profligate sprinkler-play and rambunctious hosepipe abuse. Then there'll be the whispering campaigns against chronic bathers ("I heard her taps going for a whole ten minutes – is there a reward for this, by the way?") And finally there'll be the knock at the door in the night and the voice saying, "Reginald Snow, we 'ave reason to believe you've bin flushing non-Number Two waste products down your lavabo. in flagrant contravention..."

...with my tears

I got back from a week in Thailand to find 17 voicemails waiting. One was tremendously exciting. "Hi John," said a male voice, "I'm from Nigella Lawson's TV show, and I'm ringing to ask if you might be able to come in one morning for a screen test. Call me on this number..." I stared at the phone. What joy, what bliss, to be a guest of the luscious Nigella as she knocks up a frying-pan of flambéed Bananas Foster, while pouring you a slug of Côte Roti! But what was this "screen-test"? Did it mean you'd appear on the show only if the camera loved you? I looked in the mirror. Flayed by the Thai sun, my cheeks and forehead were a deep crimson, my eyes (freed from their Boots shades) a pallid white. The camera was not going to love this.

For an hour I pinched my skin, rubbed in moisturiser, lay in the last rays of the heatwave, did everything short of crash under a sunlamp to regularise my physiognomical pigmentation. Then I rang back. "I'm so sorry," said the voice, "We called a week ago. I think all the slots are taken by now."

I'm a broken man. I wait by the phone – at work, at home, any phone – for a call that will never come. My one change of stardom and I blew it, because I was on Phra Nang beach when I should have been pouting into a camera in Shepherd's Bush. I just sit, muttering over and over, "Ready for my close-up now, Miss Lawson..."

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