William Donaldson's Week: It's the way you bleep 'em

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The Independent Online
THANKS to David Liddiment, the BBC's gifted head of entertainment, this column is now fitted with a sophisticated bleeper system, of the sort that prevents participants in Have I Got News For You and other shows from giving sudden offence in the Year of the Family.

The need for such a device became clear on Tuesday, when Mr Liddiment - concerned that the south London interior decorator who vets my stuff might hold similar powers of censorship over my upcoming soap, El Independo - summoned me and Geoff Atkinson to a meeting at the BBC.

I'd last sat in this office three or four years ago, and on that occasion, you may remember, Mr Liddiment's predecessor as head of entertainment had given me a beefy lecture on the art of situation comedy and then, since Root Into Europe had been under discussion, had brought up the subject of who should play Root.

'Nigel Havers, do you think?' he'd said.

There seemed little danger that Mr Liddiment - a serious, tall young man in spectacles - would say anything as foolish. He did point out, however, that it was unclear from my column which characters in El Independo the south London interior decorator allowed me to identify by name and which he didn't.

This was a problem, since it was by no means obvious how I could identify them for Mr Liddiment without identifying them here, and I said as much to Mr Liddiment.

'Since I'm already a third of the way through this week's column, that won't be possible,' I said. 'The south London interior decorator could spike the whole damn paper.'

'In that case,' said Mr Liddiment, 'perhaps Geoff Atkinson, who, as far as I know, doesn't have a column, could do the talking. Where is he, anyway? I thought he was coming to the meeting.'

Here was another problem. On the principle of divide and rule, Atkinson was even now pitching El Independo to Seamus Cassidy at Channel 4. That's a bit risky, you may be thinking, but I'm someone who has published the same novel four times under different titles (twice by the same house) without being up in court more than once and on that occasion winning.

'He'll be joining us shortly,' I lied.

Mr Liddiment scratched his head, glanced at his watch and then came up with the solution - instructing his secretary to rig the office up with a bleeper system of the sort described above.

'Right,' he said, once this had been installed. 'Now we can proceed. Bleep.'

'We've started already?'

'No,' he said. 'I've spilt coffee down my trousers. So - here's the situation: we've commissioned you and Atkinson to write a satirical soap on the subject of class.'

'That's right.' I said. 'And we shall concentrate on the difficulties in Mr Major's so-called classless society of distinguishing between a member of the lower orders - the south London interior decorator, say - and his superiors. In my day it was simple enough. As between my father, a self-made millionaire from Glasgow, and his horny-handed gardener, Spong, which was truly a gentleman?'


''My father,' I said. 'Spong was an untrustworthy oik. These days, however, you can attend the Independent's Christmas party with an apparently well-brought up young lady such as Amy Jenkins (who, thinking that Mrs Rock was a less suitable name for a screenwriter than Mrs Schnoz, recently dumped my friend Simon the Rock and twice in my presence made eyes at Pete the Schnoz) only to discover after a matter of minutes that she'd already left with a feature writer who looked like a Millwall supporter - later reporting that after she'd gone she'd 'got on one'.'

'Got on one?' said Mr Liddiment. 'On one what?'

'An 'E', I rather think.'

'An 'E'? What's that?'

'Precisely,' I said. 'You see my difficulty.'

'I'm beginning to,' said Mr Liddiment. 'Back to the south London interior decorator, however. Apart from your father and Amy Jenkins and the south London interior decorator himself, no doubt, you plan to feature certain characters from your column, two of whom, at least, can't be identified by name.'

'Exactly,' I said.

'And who might they be?'

'Bleep, my bleep,' I said, 'who, as you know, ran off in June with an immensely bleep man who markets bleep and lives in bleep.'

'I see,' said Mr Liddiment. 'You can't even say that bleep, your bleep's, immensely bleep man lives in Cornwall?'

'I mentioned Cornwall last week,' I said, 'but only because Classy Cressida had an excellent joke involving A L Rowse, which I then forgot to use. His celebrated book, Tudor Cornwall, was inferior, in her opinion, she said, to its less well-known sequel, Stewart Hampshire. But I don't think we'd get away with it a second time.'

'We just did,' said Mr Liddiment. 'However, casting the two leads may not be easy. Agents will be baffled by character descriptions consisting of 'a bleep young bleep and her immensely bleep man who lives in bleep'. Any chance of getting Nigel Havers, do you think?'

I left at this point, and later rang up Atkinson to discover how he'd got on at Channel 4.

'Seamus Cassidy was a little confused by all the bleeps,' he said.

'What bleeps?' I said. 'You don't have a column.'

'Yes, I do,' he said. 'I write about snooker in the Sunday Times, which, as you may know, is now read for libel by a south London interior decorator with pressed jeans and a silly little beard.'

Don't say I didn't advise you last week to sell your shares in News International.