Words of the week: `Don't mention the S-word ...' Martin Bell's last assignment
The man in the white linen suit bade farewell to the BBC with a report on the UN Secretary-General. David Akerman was the producer
Saturday 21 June 1997
Martin Bell is a supreme news reporter. Deadline in 20 minutes? No problem. Never writes a note. Simply talks over the edited TV pictures. A staccato style. To the point.
Martin Bell is a loner. He has no use for producers. A producer friend put it another way. "Oh my God! Don't get me wrong, he's a lovely man - it's just that he hates us." I didn't care. We had a great assignment: an access-based documentary about the new Secretary-General of the United Nations is not a hardship posting. It is a plum.
I had begun without him, winging into New York last December on the day that Kofi Annan took the oath of office. "Tell us who the correspondent will be," said the excellent but cautious Fred Eckhard, Annan's media man. "Then we'll talk."
Martin was first choice. A good call, Martin Bell! Well that's different. Come on in, they said. Take a seat. Let's talk access. As in access-based documentary. Martin Bell? That will do nicely.
Martin and Kofi Annan knew each other from Bosnia (Annan is a former UN head of Peacekeeping) and had a warm regard for each other's work.
Soon we were cruising down Second Avenue in the SG's armoured Cadillac, sharing his thoughts about this crisis and that, travelling with him to Africa, taking our place in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, talking with him on plans. "A friend of mine told me I had the job from hell," an exhaused Annan recalled late one night after a gruelling day. But we were flies on the wall. We had the job from heaven.
Between ourselves, Martin and I had ground rules. Rule Number One: no "S-words". Martin doesn't like the "S-words". Sequence and Structure. Sequences are the events, incidents, exchanges that you film. The structure is where you put them. Martin's view was that we'd see what we got to film first; I could plot the structure later. "Nothing good ever came out of a committee," he said, then paused, studying his brogues. "Except the Authorised Version of the King James Bible." He added: "That did."
Rule Number Two: "Wheels Roll". As in Wheels Roll 9am. That's when we leave the hotel. On the stroke of nine.
I tested the limits, cloaking structural matters in a dozen crazy euphemisms. One morning I opened with a grand: "Now, about the narrative flow ..."
I got no further. "You're about to use the S-word!" Martin said accusingly. He was having none of it.
And I tried to be on time. Really I did. But on the Wheels Roll question, there was no question. As one morning the minute hand approached two minutes past (I swear) Martin was smouldering. "All my life I've attracted unpunctual people," he lamented.
We were an odd couple, this diffident, trenchant newsman and his slightly manic producer. But it worked for us. The painful truth is that we liked each other.
Martin Bell has travelled the globe. When Martin Bell tells you you're going to be thrown off the last plane from Angola to Europe for 36 hours you'd better believe him. It will happen. I woke him in the hotel at midnight with my SOS. He had the last taxi in Luanda despatched within minutes.
"That was the last call I wanted to get last night," he said over breakfast. What he didn't say was, I told you so.
Africa was an adventure shared. The UN lost a Secretary-General in the 1950s in a plane crash in the Congo. We recalled this circling blindly in heavy storm clouds aboard Kofi Annan's flight into a former Angolan war zone. Then the thought occurred.
"To lose one Secretary-General in a plane crash in Africa is unfortunate," we chimed together. "To lose two is careless!" Bonded by gallows humour our spirits rose for all of 10 seconds.
Martin didn't see himself as a born film-maker. But he's good at it. True to his word, he left the film's structure to me. When I showed him my plan he made one suggestion, which solved a problem and greatly improved the flow. I took it gratefully.
The title was his, too: The Whole World in his Hands. It inspired the music - and when we heard Elizabeth Parker's ideas on tape we celebrated with a glass of beer during happy hour at the Waldorf Astoria.
Then, back in London, came The Vanishing.
"There are complicated things going on in my life at the moment," he said casually at the BBC lifts. "I'll tell you about it on Monday, if you don't read about it in the gossip columns first."
When I saw his picture floating eerily over the opening titles of the TV news bulletin on Sunday night I thought he had died - which would have complicated everyone's life; it would also have demonstrated macabre prescience.
Now it was his turn to apologise.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But somebody had to do it." The rest is political history.
This article appeared in the BBC's journal `Ariel'.
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