Miles Kington: How railways almost landed me a job in Hollywood

The other day I was sitting with a group of friends watching a film they wanted us to watch, called Little Miss Sunshine, and I am glad they did, and we did, because it was very good and very funny, but the really funny thing was that right at the very end while we were still idly watching the credits the name of the producer was flashed up and it was Ron Yerxa, and I said, "My God! Ron Yerxa! I know that name! In fact, I have met him! Now, where did I meet him... I know! He was the young man who came across from Hollywood..."

At which point I realised that any explanation I would give would not be nearly as interesting as I thought it would be, nor nearly as short as it should be, so I shut up right there and then. But as you and I have a few moments to spend together today, and as I think I can now make it a lot snappier, I'd like to venture to tell you about the time I met Ron Yerxa.

I'm taking you back now to the 1980s, at a time when I was doing a bit of television. In fact, I had been asked to present one of the programmes in Great Railway Journeys of the World, and had the great good luck to be given the chance to go to Peru and up the Andes, to explore the top of the highest railway in the world, whereas Michael Frayn got the longest straightest railway (in Australia) and Michael Palin got the wiggliest, most Scottish railway line – well, I am sure that is not how they allocated them, but that is how it came out.

Anyway, some time in the early 1980s I got a mysterious phone call from Hollywood, from a man who claimed to be a movie executive, and who was interested in talking to me about getting a script written. It was to be based on a novel by Irwin Shaw, called Nightwork.

"Why me?" I said.

He said it was rather difficult to explain over the phone and he would like to fly over to Britain and talk me through it. Which he did several weeks later, and took me out to Claridge's, together with a young American sidekick called Ron Yerxa, and explained that his studio, which was CBS, I think, owned the film rights to this novel by Irwin Shaw called Nightwork, which was all about an airline pilot down on his luck who finds $20m in cash, takes it all to Europe with him and becomes a kind of engaging master-criminal.

"The trouble is," said the older movie man, whose name I can't remember," is that Irwin Shaw is now dead, and before we can get the movie made, we have to get script approval from the widow, Mrs Irwin Shaw. And she doesn't like anyone we suggest. Until the other day, when she rang us up in great excitement, and said she had seen this British rail documentary, about a guy going up the Andes, and she was absolutely convinced that the presenter would be the right guy to do the script for Nightwork."

"That's me?" I said.

"That's you," he said.

I thought about it.

"That doesn't make sense," I said.

"No," he said. "It doesn't make sense. The talent for making train films is not the same as the talent for turning a novel into a script. Nevertheless, she has the whip hand and seems to have fallen for your pretty face."

Ron and he briefly surveyed my pretty face.

"So how do you feel about coming across to Hollywood and doing a script for us?"

And making a mess of it, he meant, and proving to her that I was the wrong man, and then getting a proper writer in on the job, and clearing the whole thing up. Nice idea. But I didn't go to Hollywood. And they never made the film. And I don't know what else happened, except that young Ron Yerxa, whose name I do remember because it was so unusual, went on to become a full-time producer of not bad films (Cold Mountain, etc, etc).

Hi, Ron!

Got any jobs going?