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

Martin Bell is an early bird. I spent three months running to catch up with him. And he's the one with the limp.

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'.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    SEN 1:1 Teacher

    £120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

    SEN Teachers and Support Staff

    £50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

    English and Media Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week