How we Met: Martin Bell & David Soul

Nick Smurthwaite
Saturday 10 April 1999 23:02

A war reporter with the BBC for more than two decades, Martin Bell MP, 60, had a change of career in 1997 when he challenged the discredited Tory MP Neil Hamilton for the seat of Tatton. The ever-present white suit symbolised his anti-sleaze ticket. He has been married three times, most recently to Fiona Goddard, and has two grown-up daughters

David Soul, 56, was half of the TV detective team Starsky and Hutch, before going on to a career in music and on stage. He has had two No 1 hits in Britain, and will soon embark on a 10-date concert tour of the country. His latest theatre venture was Nick Darke's The Dead Monkey, in which he played alongside his fourth wife, Alexa Hamilton. They live in London

MARTIN BELL: I made a rather controversial speech about journalistic ethics when I came out of Bosnia in 1996, and I was invited to ride my hobby-horse on Newsnight. Afterwards there was an intriguing message that David Soul, the actor, had called to speak to me. I knew who he was, although I don't suppose I'd seen more than two episodes of Starsky and Hutch in my life.

So I called him back and we met, and it transpired that he'd had a long- standing idea for a television series about a reporter in a war zone, played by, guess who, David Soul. It seemed like a reasonable idea, and as he'd never been in a war zone, he wanted some collateral information about how war correspondents operate. Soon after that we met again at La Gaffe, the restaurant in Hampstead where I am to be found every Sunday evening, being a creature of habit. I don't make friends easily, but we got to know each other quickly and I found that I liked him a lot. It may appear as if we have little in common, but David is basically an old- fashioned radical, a sort of American William Cobbett.

We met regularly after that. I advised him on the kind of things that had happened to me which might make a storyline. The thing with most TV series about journalists is that they get it wrong. The cameraman never holds the thing properly on his shoulder - that kind of thing.

I like the fact that David seems unaffected by being famous. It can't have been easy when Starsky and Hutch finished, but he just got on with life and forged a career for himself as a singer and stage actor. He had a difficult time last year when The Dead Monkey was savaged by critics. I had a call from the Daily Mirror asking me what I thought, as if I was expected to denounce him. I wasn't interested in what the critics thought.

When I was pitchforked into electioneering quite unexpectedly in 1997, I sort of recruited this little circle of friends and family. My daughter Melissa became my front woman, my book editor became my election agent, my Bosnia and Gulf War cameraman became my driver and minder, my nephew my issues adviser. I thought it might be a good idea if we brought in someone to add a dash of pizzazz and excitement. David was in a play in Lincoln at the time but he was pleased as punch when I invited him to join us. Initially he was just coming over for the day, but he finished up staying a week, including for the count. He was incredibly helpful and picked up the spirit of the thing really quickly. He was absolutely brilliant at door-to-door canvassing, especially with the more mature ladies. They'd open the door and there was Hutch. He concentrated on the under-privileged areas, the people who'd lost faith in politics under the Tories. On one occasion he gave an impromptu rendition of "Don't Give Up On Us" at a young people's shelter. I also had the ex-police commissioner John Stalker helping the campaign, so we had the bizarre spectacle of the real cop, Stalker, and the fictional cop, David, on the same campaign trail.

I think the fervour in the constituency, the idea that perhaps we could make the impossible happen, took him back to the heady days of Kennedy's presidential campaign. I know he got a real buzz out of that.

DAVID SOUL: You could say I met Martin on TV. I'd just moved to London when one night I turned on the TV and there was this chap in a white suit talking about the responsibility of news coverage, what should and shouldn't be told. What he said resonated with me to such an extent that I called the BBC and left a message asking Martin Bell to call me. I figured he'd probably be curious enough to want to know why the hell David Soul had called him ... and I was right. Within 20 minutes, he'd called back. Martin isn't the kind of person to suggest a leisurely lunch at the Garrick Club, so the first place we met was one of those stand-up coffee places at Kensington tube station. I told him about the series I was developing, which had really grown out of my secret desire, from an early age, to be a journalist.

Martin is not a demonstrative man, nor does he show a lot of emotion, but he is very loyal and there is a small coterie of family and friends he's very close to. They meet up every Sunday at La Gaffe, and after we'd met a few times he asked me if I'd like to go along and meet the gang. I'm always ready to meet new people - I sometimes find it easier to get along with strangers than with the people I'm closest to. I make friends easily but they're often quickly gone. There's a tenacity about Martin which ensures that our friendship is kept up. He'll always pick up the phone and extend an invitation, even if the conversation lasts only 10 seconds. I'll talk to someone I don't even like very much for 45 minutes and nothing will come of it. There has to be an investment on both sides for true friendship, and that's the case with Martin and me.

There are so many things about Martin that I admire. For me, he harkens back to another time, to the old values. He embodies the integrity and dignity and directness that I grew up with in the American Midwest - I was president of the Young Democrats of South Dakota in 1960 when the Kennedy bandwagon was rolling. Martin reminds me of those times, which is why I was so pleased to support him in his campaign. Mind you, my first response when he told me he was running was "What the hell are you doing?"

You knew you were supporting an honest, decent man. Whether or not he had any experience of politics was not the issue. The atmosphere at the count was extraordinary. Martin's not effusive, but I felt he was bursting inside. What really came through was his genuine humility, the fact that he so wanted to share his victory with everyone who had helped him. It was the British version of Mr Smith Comes to Washington.

Martin inspires tremendous loyalty in people. I know I'm not the only person who values his integrity and decency, those qualities that make him such a vital and valuable asset to the political life of this country.

The first concert in David Soul's British tour will be on 23 June at the Aylesbury Civic Centre (01296 486009)

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