Fly-on-the-wall in Bournemouth

WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK
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The Independent Online
As I half expected he might, my friend Mr Rod Ellis of North Street, Clapham, has put aside How To Tell If Your Parents Aren't On Drugs and 101 Things Streetwise People Do and, instead, has commissioned himself to update Balzac's Guide To Respectable Women.

In a letter this week, he more or less accuses me of having got the whole thing wrong - not least in the matter of Michelle, Bournemouth and the couple next door who watch Inspector Morse, play Scrabble and invite you to take potluck on Sunday.

"All this is simply boring and snobbish," he says. "Allow me to put you right. A respectable woman has a Polish boyfriend and three strapping brothers who adore her.

"She votes Labour and speaks French. She travels to Venezuela with a girlfriend, gets into scrapes and pays for the damage with her brothers' credit cards. They forgive her.

"She lives in a house in SW6 bought for her by her father. Sometimes she leaves the iron on when going out to dinner and burns the house down. (`What's all the fuss about?')

"Once she might have worked in publishing, but not since our better houses were taken over by barmy jumped-up women with names like Ros. Lady Lucinda Lambton and Miss Daisy Waugh are respectable women. Mr Alexander Chancellor is a respectable woman, but Miss Tina Brown isn't. Nor, I'm afraid, is Miss Debbie Mason. Respectable women don't in the early morning arrive in Bournemouth with their cameras in a transit van and sneer at your Venetian blinds, your mountain bike, your serviettes and cruet."

You don't as a rule get much change out of me by criticising Debbie Mason, but I've had certain moral qualms myself in the past few days, not only about her intentions towards the unfortunate couple in Bournemouth, but also about documentaries as a genre.

Nor is it the first time that I've had these qualms - well, not qualms, precisely (since we've all got a living to make), surprise, rather, that members of the general public (and thank goodness I'm not one of them) are so eager to be made monkeys of in a prime-time slot by two chaps in gym-shoes with cameras and a hand-held mike.

Mark Chapman, the limitlessly gifted director of Root Into Europe, is the most honourable man I've ever met, but he won't mind my saying that he can't, on Mr Rod Ellis's analysis, be called a respectable woman.

One one occasion, when shooting Root, Chapman persuaded the French police to take up position on one side of the Bois de Boulogne and, like beaters driving pheasants towards the guns, to flush out, from behind trees and under bushes, plump poules de nuits, Brazilian transvestites and merchant seamen helping out, meekly acquiesced.

That wasn't the act of a respectable woman, as I explained to Debbie Mason over lunch - an occasion made possible by a delay in the Bournemouth shoot. Michelle rang me on Monday to say that the couple next door were on holiday in the Canary Islands and that we should therefore postpone our visit for a week.

Miss Mason, who had just attended a television festival in Cannes (in itself, not a very respectable thing to have done), where she had been accused of flirting with Mr David Liddiment (which, on the other hand, does seem quite respectable,), found this most amusing.

"It's getting better and better," she said. "Venetian blinds. Inspector Morse. And now they go on holiday to the Canary Islands!"

"You shouldn't sneer at people simply because they live in Bournemouth," I said.

"Yes, you should," she said. "Anyway, I'm not sneering. I'm the mistress merely of the peak-time docu-drama. I'm morally neutral. I'm a fly on the wall. I see what I see. I in no way influence proceedings."

I wouldn't want Miss Mason to pop round to my place with her morally neutral eye when I was on the Zimovane, but, taking this line of argument to be something of a dead end, I now came in at a different angle.

"We're getting in a muddle here," I said. "El Independo isn't, in any case, a documentary but a fiction on the subject of respectability; its protagonists, a thin man in trade and two sisters, one of whom is a little prig on the game, the other a cheerful girl who sleeps with British Airways personnel. Which sister, in his search for respectability, will the tradesman choose? It's a work of the imagination. You're getting confused."

"Bollocks confused, young man," Miss Mason snapped. "You haven't got an imagination, and there's a court order which says as much."

This was untrue, in fact. I was sued once by an American who claimed that a certain novel couldn't have been written by me since I had no imagination - evidence to this effect being offered, I must admit, by my own literary agent. Happily, the judge found for me.

"According to Michelle," continued Miss Mason, "the gourmet blue cook next door drinks dry white wine and water. Only call-girls drink dry white wine and water. If she has a sister who sleeps with British Airways personnel we've got our cast."

"I wish to have nothing to do with this," I said.

"How would you like to be Associate Producer?" Miss Mason said.

Really! I'm attracted to the management side of things - leafing through Spotlight, carrying the per diems on location - but if Miss Mason thought I could be bought like this she must take me for a fool.

"All right," I said.

I've rung Michelle and the shoot takes place next week. I wouldn't want to be the couple next door, however, when Miss Mason arrives with the morally neutral lens.

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