(Left - The elusive Honor Blackman)
Over the years, I have interviewed a wide range of celebrities. One thing I was taught very early on was to remember that they need you just as much as you need them. The Faustian pact is that exposure for their performance is what fills your column inches. That said, the relationship between journalist and performer is a delicate one which needs, on your part, careful handling. In most cases, you have to pander to their fragile ego and allow them to delude themselves that they are doing you a huge favour by even deigning to talk to you.
That said, the vast majority of celebrities are aware of the game we are all playing and readily buy into it, so long as you play the game as well.
Dance diva Carol Leeming was probably the first celebrity I interviewed. I had done a load of research, including distilling the promotional material her record company supplied me with, and she told me that this was very impressive as most interviewers never bothered to read what they were given and, arrogantly, assumed they could wing an interview. I took that as a lesson learned.
My next interview, Margarita Pracatan (Google her!), showed how important research was and how it can all go wrong. I was invited to a nightclub where she was performing and introduced to her backstage. The idea was that we had set up a TV camera in a VIP suite and she was going to give me 15 minutes before she went onstage to perform. It all started so well, I had a list of questions and points for discussion until I hit a couple of errors. Throwing caution to the wind I just threw my notes up in the air, laughed it off and managed to get through the rest of the interview. I vowed never again to trust only one source when researching a guest.
Sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, fate will throw a spanner in the works. I was asked to interview the two leads in a touring production of 42nd Street. I arrived well ahead of schedule with my camera crew and we set up in the side room we had been allocated in the venue. Very soon James Smilie, erstwhile Prison Governor in Prisoner Cell Block H, appeared and we chatted amiably while we waited for his co-star, Gemma Craven, to arrive at the venue. A harried stage crew member popped his head round the door to tell us that Ms Craven was still 20 minutes away. Mr Smilie, bless him, started to do his callisthenic warm-up on the floor while we waited. Ms Craven eventually dashed in, all apologies for getting caught in traffic, and gave a magnificent interview. There had been little I could do in the circumstances other than wait and hope so I just sat back and chatted with the crew and James.
Other pre-arranged interviews went very well. I remember getting to spend a very pleasant hour or so with Jeffrey Holland to promote his one man show about Stan Laurel. A list of questions and my mobile phone recording the chat and we could have easily whiled away an entire afternoon. This was a man who was so experienced in playing the publicity game that, afterwards, I realised he had steered the chat and had revealed no more than he was happy to.
My encounter with the lovely Dannii Minogue was a prime example of how the management entourage surrounding artistes often colour our view of them. I had already set up an afternoon of filming at a Halls of Residence at my local university when I was told that Ms Minogue would be performing for the students that afternoon. We spent a good week trying to contact her management and publicity people to get permission to interview her but to no avail. They wouldn’t even return our calls. So, come the day, we set up the TV equipment on a landing outside her dressing room and waited for her to arrive. Soon we got word that she had just pulled into the car park so I sent the director down to say that we were set up and could she spare us 10 minutes for an interview. He stressed that if she said no then we would pack up and leave. Minutes later he bounded up the stairs like a toddler on Haribo saying she was happy to be interviewed. Sometimes it helps if you can get to the celebrity direct.
A week later we were filming interviews at a music festival in London and she was appearing. When she saw us she ran over and we got a second interview.
For all the interviews that go smoothly or turn out well despite the circumstances there are the ones destined never to turn out right. This is what happened when we tried to interview Ms Honor Blackman. Ms Blackman was appearing at a local theatre in her one woman show and so we approached her publicity agent and asked if we could travel down to London, interview her and screen it a couple of days before she was due to appear locally. We were overjoyed when he said she would be happy to be interviewed. We duly travelled down to London from Leicester with a film crew and set up in the theatre bar where she was due to perform that night. We were so excited at getting an interview with such an iconic star that we failed to check the outside of the theatre for her promotional material. We waited and waited and eventually rang the publicity agent to find out where she was. He got back to us to say her phone was off but she must be on her way. To cut a long story short it turned out we were at the wrong theatre, similarly named but the wrong theatre. Very apologetic the agent said it was now too late as she had to prepare for the show that night. I called him the following day to apologise once more and asked whether we could do the interview when she was in Leicester for her show the next week. Thankfully she agreed so we turned up at the theatre the next week and did the interview. She was gracious and funny and very accommodating. I saw her show that night and was astounded at her professionalism and stamina for her age (74 at the time, I think). Imagine my mortification the following day when the director rang me and told me that somehow there was no sound on the tape.
Doing interviews outdoors, and especially at any kind of festival, is fraught with distractions and technical difficulties. I have done a couple of al fresco gatherings and, touch wood, they have come out OK if you factor in having to raise your voice against the background noise. They are very useful because, if you can manage to get backstage and into the VIP area, it is easy to get chatting to all sorts of people without battling your way through management reps.
Radio interviews are a lot easier than TV if only because you don’t have to look too presentable. The other thing is that you can have a list of questions and background notes right in front of you and running out of questions is every interviewer’s nightmare.
Telephone interviews are also a lot easier for the same reasons. When I was required to fill a quota of column inches every week I found that cultivating a relationship with book publishers got me telephone access to all sorts of authors, some with celebrity status and some not, but all fodder for journalists.
When I wrote for lifestyle magazines it was also necessary to schmooze up to venue owners to provide you with copy. Once again that symbiotic relationship worked both ways and once you had regular contact with a named person the columns virtually wrote themselves.
Back in the day when I was on the other end of the pen and trying to get exposure for various people and places in the press I learned very quickly that if you can provide a journalist with ready written copy then he will usually use it.
As a journalist, I was always grateful for promotional material that didn’t need rewriting, especially when I was up against a deadline.
Journalist Paul Towers is LPT patron. He kindly offers mentorship to our apprentice reviewers and writers.
WHEN INTERVIEWS GO WRONG
By Paul Towers