Friday, March 20, 2009

Tom Driberg has long been a figure of fascination to me. He was a life-long friend of Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, a man of the left, a rapacious homosexual, a disciple of both Lord Beaverbrook and Aleister Crowley and an alleged double agent. About 20 years ago (tempus fugit, etc), Francis Wheen wrote an excellent biography of Driberg, and, last night on BBC4, William G Stewart added to the sum of Dribergian knowledge with an excellent documentary on his friend and former employer.

Yes, the same William G Stewart that presented Fifteen to One and produced The Price is Right. Although he's probably best known for his game show work, Stewart's one of the cleverest and most versatile operators in television. Among his other achievements, he produced Bless This House and directed David Frost's demolition of insurance fraudster Emil Savundra. When I interviewed him in 2005 for my book Turned Out Nice Again, he explained that Frost could go from interviewing heads of state to presenting Through the Keyhole because, whatever the vehicle, the important thing was communication. Watching this informal but very informative documentary, I realised the same could be said about Stewart, a fundamentally serious-minded man and one of LE's genuine intellectuals. Had it not been for Grace Wyndham-Goldie's snobbish inability to countenance employing a man who hadn't been to university, he might well have made his name in current affairs instead. Certainly, the contacts he made in his time as Driberg's assistant would have come in very useful.

This is as good a place as any to note something that I didn't have space for in the book. He rescued Don't Forget Your Toothbrush after an utterly disastrous pilot. Not being an insecure sort, Stewart downplays his contribution, saying that Chris Evans, John Revell et al were very nearly there, and just needed someone with a bit more experience to tell them what worked and what didn't before they found out the hard way. Evans and Revell tell a different story, and say that without Stewart there would have been no show worthy of transmission.

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