By Max Carlish.
It’s really uncool to namedrop, as I was saying to the Dalai Lama the other day. But my old Oxford friend the comedian Stew Lee tells a funny story about his experiences with our fellow Oxonian, David Cameron, which ends with Stew enthusiastically drinking a bucket of vomit in some appalling Bullingdon Club initiation rite.
At the end of the routine, Stewart reveals that he made the whole thing up and never actually met Cameron. However, speaking as someone who did know The Prime Minister briefly during his time getting his hands dirty in the private sector, Stew did get Cameron right in at least two respects. And neither involves a bucket of vomit.
What you are about to read is a true account of my own experiences with Cameron, when I became a colleague of his at the upstart, flashy TV conglomerate Carlton Communications which for a time also ran the Birmingham-based Central TV.
If I’d been listening properly during that year nearly two decades ago when we worked together, I would have realised that Dave was actually telling me that partly the secret of his success, like a lot of languid old Etonians, was that you couldn’t see his ambitions clearly.
You couldn’t see him coming.
There were also clues in what Dave said to me about the way he would go on to govern his party and ultimately the country. I remember one time when I asked him what Carlton’s ‘vision’ or mission was. I will never forget his answer, which made my blood run cold: “Max,” he told me, ‘”If you carry on talking like that round here, you’re not going to last very long.”
What he meant was that Carlton didn’t do woolly things like ‘vision’ or mission: it was tough, streetwise and would react to the market.
Later, after becoming Tory leader, Cameron would resist huge pressure to publish the Tory manifesto – because he knew that if he kept Tory policies vague he would alienate the least amount of people. Along with the swivel-eyed ideologues of Thatcherism, this is another vital Tory tradition – that of pragmatism and a distrust of any ‘isms’.
The blood-running-cold comment was made by Cameron when we were having lunch, shortly after my ‘annointment’ at Carlton as the young turk protege of a talented but notoriously lazy head of programmes. The job turned out to be a diamond-laced goblet of pure poison. But I didn’t know that then.
My recent success – which had got me the job at Carlton – was working as an independent producer and had been capped by an unlikely successful fly-on-the-wall series following the tantrums and tiaras backstage at the Royal Opera House. The series won awards and was even hailed by some as one of the first ‘docusoaps’. I still don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of this.
It was enough to get me noticed by a circle of uber-posh high achievers which Cameron was part of. Also in this clique was Dave’s best friend at college and his best man, who I’d been matey with at Oxford, an incredibly affable and charming Old Etonian – “the acceptable face of toffness” as me and my trendier-than-thou lefty friends called him.
At Oxford, I once saw our mutual friend down an entire pint of tequila with a tiny dash of lemonade. What was really impressive (and I believe they teach lessons in this at Eton) was that while completely boozed up he maintained an immaculately urbane, witty and charming persona and always made you feel very important. This was also an obvious characteristic that David Cameron had, as I remember him that day over lunch – the charm and urbanity I mean, rather than the ability to down unfeasible amounts of spirits. And this is the first thing that the comedian Stew Lee got right about Dave, without ever having met him:
When you were in the room with him, those watery, slightly wry and ironic blue eyes made you feel as if you were the most important person on the planet. Until the next person comes into the room.
And it was these eyes that I found myself staring into over an absurdly good bowl of butternut pumpkin squash soup at a lunch arranged in absentia by our mutual friend from Oxford, and Dave’s best buddy from Eton, who clearly still thought I might have something to offer the future Prime Minister. So it had started with a summons from Dave to the palatial but rather pretentious Carlton Communications Headquarters, at No 1 Knightsbridge, an address designed to impress.
On arrival, I was ushered into the lobby which sported a forty foot modern art installation. Like his good friend Charles Saatchi, Carlton boss Michael Green liked to display his wealth on his walls through art. The bizarre installation was a group of oversized baskets yoked together with massive iron chain links (was it supposed to symbolise the subsuming of the rural and pastoral modes by the coming of the Industrial Revolution ?)
The supermodel receptionist then led me into what I can only describe as a private corporate dining cabin. After I’d had a chance to absorb the discreet air of opulence, a surprisingly casual (even then he was pioneering the radical tieless open necked shirt look he would go on to make famous) figure wafted in: he might have even been in his shirtsleeves.
I was immediately drawn in by those pale blue eyes and probably at that point would have agreed to anything, even though I knew Cameron was ‘a ’Tory boy’ and wanted to be an MP when he left Carlton.
While Dave was still exchanging pleasantries, he produced a remote control with just one button. He rather formally pressed the button and with a swish the door opened and two impeccably dressed and completely silent corporate butlers appeared with the stunning soup. But I didn’t have time to appreciate the soup because, by now Dave had launched into the most incredibly detailed and well-informed meta-analysis of The Bill, which for those who are too young to remember was a blockbuster police soap opera made by Carlton’s deadly rivals Thames.
As I tuned into what he was saying, I began to realise that Dave knew every story-line, character, nuance of plot and even details of set decoration. It was almost as if Rain Man, had become the world’s greatest expert on this rather unexceptional cop show. But then Dave had got a first in Politics Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, so we all knew he was pretty bright.
To this day I don’t know why he felt he had to show me how au fait he was with The Bill as an opening. It might have been because he knew that I was from the production arm of tv and wanted to prove that he wasn’t just a ‘policy wonk’ at head office who had no feel for our actual product – the programming.
It’s since occurred to me that even then he was sharpening his Machiavellian talents – and that the reason he was scrutinising The Bill so closely was to see if he could get them into trouble with the regulator for over-violent plot lines before the watershed (This was an old trick widely used by the intensely competitive ITV companies against each other. I also saw it go on between departments and even within departments at Carlton).
But this extraordinary peroration about The Bill by David made more sense, after I found out later that unlike many of his class and background, he has a true love of popular culture… even the cheesiest. For instance, it is alleged that one of his favourite musicians at Eton had been Phil Collins and Dave had been seen practicing his air drumming technique to the epic break from In the Air Tonight which has since been made famous by the Cadbury ad featuring – appropriately for Dave – a silverback gorilla on percussion.
But worse was to come than a lecture on The Bill on that fateful lunch at Carlton HQ, and I’ve often wondered whether it was then that I sealed my fate – and persuaded Dave that, despite the recommendation from the guy who’s still his best friend, I was a ‘political dud’ who would only be of minimal use to him in his silent but deadly ascension of the greasy pole.
Tomorrow : David Cameron, me and Cutlery Shame.