William Donaldson's Week: To Yarmouth, not for nothing

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The Independent Online
DID I say last week that I'd fired Bill Deedes from El Independo, my comical soap for BBC 2? If so, I don't know what came over me. A joke, I suppose, and not a very good one.

That's not what happened at all. I did arrive before him at Kudos Productions - where Geoff Atkinson and I are supposed to be writing the thing - and Mr Deedes did find me sitting in his chair. I immediately got up, of course, made him a cup of coffee, politely read the work he'd done while I'd been faffing around in Atlanta (negotiating with Rupert Murdoch's lawyers) and listened attentively to his many excellent ideas as to how we should now proceed.

And then I fired him.

I run ahead of myself, however. The hour I'd spent with Atkinson before Mr Deedes arrived had been sticky, to say the least. We'd achieved more in the last three weeks working with Mr Deedes, he said, than in the previous six months with me.

For one thing, Mr Deedes had proved the richer source of laborious racontage, notwithstanding the fact that most of it had had to do with magpies and how to kill them. This was preferable, however, to my stuff about shipping it green on a submarine's bridge or locker-room stories about my prowess on a rugger field.

Second, and more important, he said, Mr Deedes, in a distinguished 50-year career, had never been obliged to have his stuff subbed directly by libel

lawyers - even ones as eminent, resourceful and understanding as Oswald Hickson, Collier and


'I'm not denying,' said Atkinson, 'that many of their Mr Alway's jokes are better than yours - indeed, all of them are - but being shackled like this because you can't distinguish between good taste and a hole in the road is holding us up. David Liddiment, the BBC's startlingly gifted head of entertainment - naturally desperate for something to take the curse off Ben Elton's The Man From Auntie - telephones me every day to check on work in progress. I'm obliged to tell him that, thanks to you, El Independo will appear to have been composed by toothless poodles; that we've lost our two main characters - a common couple trying to improve themselves.'

'That doesn't matter,' I said. 'The column features plenty of other common characters keen to improve themselves - you, my sister Bobo, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Nicholas Coleridge . . .'

It was at this point that old Bill Deedes at last pitched up, and in a state of some excitement. 'I've cracked it]' he cried. 'You'll remember that Sir Victor Pritchett was asked on his 90th birthday what was the most important lesson he'd learnt in a long life. Sir Victor said: 'Just this: that in

the end everyone wants to be respectable.' That will be our comedic starting point. Two ambitious characters, one of either sex, mistake each other for a stepping-stone to respectability. The farcical possibilities are endless.'

'Brilliant]' said Atkinson. 'Thanks to Donaldson, alas . . .'

'And that's not all,' said Mr Deedes. 'To root the enterprise in classical satire - you'll have read Professor Willey's The Seventeenth Century Background - we need an alien character who can view the goings-on as disinterestedly as a man from Mars.

'Here's my suggestion. Soon after the war, a Hungarian girl arrives in London and, knowing little of the local mores, marries a common little north London salesman. In due course they have two daughters. One grows up to be of easy virtue - working in a wine bar, sleeping with British Airways personnel, eventually living with a darts team - the other to be a morally dyslexic little prig.

'Meanwhile, a low-status male, on the look-out for a respectable cohabitant, passes up the wine bar daughter and makes off with the little prig - not realising that in reality she's an escort girl, who, typically, banks with the Abbey National and leads a life of the utmost probity. What do you think?'

'Excellent,' said Atkinson. 'Our only problem is that, thanks to Donaldson's insecure grip on what amounts to acceptable taste, Mr Alway will insist that the low- status male is of unidentifiable proportions and that he lives in Suffolk or Wales. I'll see if I have any Welsh or Suffolk jokes in my computer.'

He punched the keyboard and then reported failure.

'Not to worry,' said Mr Deedes. 'I have the relevant jokes to hand. Naff things the Welsh do: turn Cardiff Arms Park into a cauldron of emotion; keep a welcome in the valleys; pour hot cheese over things and call them rabbits. And here's a Suffolk joke. Two Londoners are in a pub. 'We should go to Yarmouth,' says one. 'You can get it for nothing in Yarmouth.' 'How do you know?' asks the other. 'Have you been?' 'No,' says his pal, 'but my sister has'.'

I was speechless, frankly, but Atkinson laughed so much that his ginger wig fell off.

'Brilliant]' he said. 'Our only other problem is that Mr Alway has already ruled that the two daughters must be called Sharon and Tracey.'

Mr Deedes looked unhappy. 'Who's that defiantly middlebrow fellow? Writes too much. Fired his PA. Customarily wears a basque. The PA, that is.'

'Keith Waterhouse.'

'That's the one,' said Mr Deedes. 'We'll not want people to think he had a hand in it. I suggest we call the little prig Emma Jane - a name that Mr Donaldson has already used appropriately in his best book, Both The Ladies And The Gentlemen. His best, that is, apart from his bruising masterpiece, Is This Allowed?'

'Thank you very much,' I said.

Then I fired him.

Next week Atkinson and I will visit Yarmouth in the interests of research.