My wartime memories? Well, they changed the stew

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The Independent Online
NOT LONG ago I received a fax from a man in France who is doing a thesis on the state censorship of news. More specifically, he is doing a thesis on censorship in Britain during the Falklands war, and he wanted to know how much I could tell him about this.

This was slightly embarrassing as, although I can remember exactly what I was doing the day our lads landed on the beaches of Normandy (I was throwing a boiled egg on the floor and trying to hit my younger brother Stewart with my spoon, or, if I wasn't, it was one of the few times in 1944 that I wasn't), I have a very dim memory of the Falklands war.

Looking back, I find that the one thing I can remember is that the British public tended to divide into two groups. There was one half of the population who switched on avidly to find out all they could. Theother half thought the war was a totally loony business and switched off whenever they got the chance.

Not being involved in Mrs Thatcher's war at all, I allied myself to the second group and consistently avoided the televison news (a habit I have maintained to this day, and to which I chiefly attribute my youthful appearance and springy gait), but when the war was over I compared notes with a friend who had followed it avidly and found we had something in common. We were both ignorant. Whether we had followed the news or not, we both knew nothing about the progress of the war. Official secrecy was so total that even the fully informed knew nothing.

I faxed back to this effect to the man in France and thought I had done my duty. But he faxed me again and said: 'What about Scoop? Don't you remember being on the satirical TV programme Scoop? How much censorship was there there?'

Of course I remembered being on Scoop. It was a BBC programme made in Bristol. (This was before John Birt came along and decided that regional programmes were detrimental to the image of the BBC and tried to cut them out. In those days there were regional heads of broadcasting who tried to do the same thing on the spot.) I remembered Scoop for two reasons. One was that I met my future wife for the first time in the studios. The other was that it wasn't really a satirical programme at all - it was one in a long line of attempts to do on TV something as good as the News Quiz on radio. It wasn't bad, actually, and though I came consistently last (and I still have a presentation wooden spoon to prove it), I enjoyed it.

What I can't remember is anything about the Falklands coming up on this supposedly topical programme, even though we must have been in the middle of hostilities at the time. So I rang the then producer, Colin Godman, and he told me they had seen the programme as a way of getting away from the war as much as anything.

'The only time I can really remember the Falkland Islands coming up,' he said, 'was when during one run-through you kept referring to them as Las Malvinas and the chairman, Richard Stilgoe, said to me nervously, 'Look, Miles isn't going to call them Las Malvinas on air, is he?'. I told him that I had no idea if you would or not.'

'And did I?' I said.

'Rather to my disappointment, you didn't,' he replied. Oh. Pity. Still, it was a time of self-censorship all round. I suddenly remembered that about that time I was having a book of Let's Parler Franglais pieces published by Jeremy Robson, who felt it needed an extra gimmick. I suggested that he should put on the front: 'Avec Free Gift] Un Souvenir Sketch Map des Iles Falkland] Ex-Army Surplus]' Jeremy thought this was in bad taste and vetoed the idea.

But the Argentinians were also guilty of self-censorship. With exquisitely bad timing, someone had opened an Argentinian restaurant called The Tango in Covent Garden just before the war started. I went there once, in peacetime, and had their excellent Argentine stew. I returned after the war had started and found that a) it was empty b) the stew had disappeared from the printed menu.

'No Argentine stew?' I asked the waiter. 'Si, we have still got it,' he said, 'but the name has been changed. It is now Spanish stew. However, it is exactly the same in all other respects.'

I still haven't faxed back to the man in Paris. It all seems a bit hard to explain convincingly enough to be worthy of a thesis.

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