I CAN’T tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to strangers at parties by hosts who then add “Be careful what you say to him, he’s a journalist”.
And to be honest it gets right up my nose.
I have friends who know a minor league TV actress. Whenever we go to their house for a soiree I can’t help but notice that she sits a long way from me. Clearly she thinks I have a tape recorder whirring away under the table. Or she doesn’t like me.
Maintaining the balancing act of journalistic news sense and a level of trust is hard. On meeting Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole the other week I almost witnessed my recorder self-destruct, such was the level of mischievous indiscretion.
And there’s the rub. Does one dish the dirt when someone – a celebrity, a TV actress, a film director et al – speaks rather too candidly? Is it a quick call to the tabloids to trash someone’s reputation? Decisions, decisions...
I’ve never been a hatchet man. I remember the great columnist Donald Zec, the Daily Mirror’s man in Hollywood in the 1950s, who had a hotline to stars like Humphrey Bogart and Kirk Douglas. He had only to call them for an exclusive. And they were happy to talk. They knew the score. As Douglas said: “Put the knife in gently.”
So when Nigel Cole began a gleeful demolition of a contemporary Oscar-winning filmmaker I gently reminded him that the tape was running. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everybody hates him.”
Then he mentioned Christopher Walken, star of his 2008 post-Calendar Girls film $5 a Day.
His comments are unprintable. And it was all on the record. And that’s not the first time. I have an overflowing archive of interviews with the rich and shameless of the movie world.
In among those familiar tones are, invariably, those moments when someone utters something wildly libellous, controversial or just plain nuts. Inevitably such commentary is followed by “But, of course, you won’t use that, will you…?” It’s almost like an invitation.
Thus the journalist’s honesty, conscience or plain courtesy comes to the fore. No wants to be slapped with a writ so libel is to be avoided. But what about honest opinion? I can’t believe the number of times I’ve heard people like Sean Connery or Richard Harris slag off a producer, director or, in Harris’s case, Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Sometimes by reining back you save them from themselves.
Cole and others like him are a journalist’s dream – and nightmare. It’s easy to stick it to famous folk. The trick is to know when, for why, and for what.
I’ve always stuck to the old maxim that one should be pleasant on the way up because the people you upset will remember you on the way down. Maybe Nigel Cole is sufficiently settled to not have to worry about the Christopher Walkens of this world. Clearly Mr Cole won’t be in a hurry to work with him again.
Maybe it’s all about having a connection. Perhaps Cole saw in me someone he could confide in, knowing that his opinions would not be broadcast. Or maybe I’m just a soft touch. Either way, I’m a keeper of secrets.
But are they really secrets? Chances are Cole has said similar things to other writers. Yet gossip has never been my bag. The catch is that it was the funniest part of the interview.