Sunday, 13 January 2008

Yes, it's his real name


Richard Quest works for CNN. He fronts two shows - The self-titled and gloriously vague "Quest", in which he travels somewhere to meet someone and ..um..talks to them. Seriously, I've tried to find a deeper thematic element to the series and come up blank. His other show - and the one that, many years ago, brought him to my attention, is the risible "Business Traveller", which is kind of porn for travelling salesmen without being, you know, actually porn for travelling salesmen. It concerns itself with how best to be a high-flying, globe-trotting, modern-world-bestriding business titan. Once a month, Richard advises us on which Japanese airports serve the best sushi in massage chairs, which brand new platinum plated ultra-portable laptop computer is the most essential for slicked-suited office mavericks like you to play minesweeper on, and what you should do to unwind once you've closed that huge deal in Macau. It is, in other words, 98% fantasy for fantasists, and I think it knows it.

Richard Quest is tall, bespectacled, English, very English, and enthusiastic to the point of spontaneous human combustion. He leans towards the camera and shouts at you as though no electronic technology were required for you to hear his urgent report from a Tokyo mobile phone superstore. He does that thing with his hand that Tony Blair started doing when his advisers noticed that Bill Clinton started doing it. You know, that gesture where you make a little fist and then point with the first knuckle of your forefinger, jutting out slightly. I remember reading about this a few years ago. Image consultants had decided that it was a way to emphasise a point without actually pointing your finger, which could, apparently, be taken as overly aggressive. I think that may have been the moment that believeable party politics actually keeled over and died. Anyway, back to dear old Richard. He puts all THE emphasis ON all THE wrong words. Best of all he concludes each episode of "Business Traveller" with the frankly lucifer-summoning catch-phrase "Wherever your travels take you - I hope it's profitable". All these are reasons to hate him. All good reasons for me to fill the next few paragraphs with anger. But I won't. For the truth is I love this man deeply.

Having researched his career a little I know that he worked his way through the ranks of the BBC over the course of many years, and has ended up at that bastion of bluster and manufactured panic, CNN. A long career in that famously cynical industry could make even the most idealistic man jaded. But not Richard. His genius is in his enthusiasm. It's real. When he reports about artificially intelligent toilets at Tokyo's Narita airport (as he recently did), he's genuinely as interested as when he talked about not leaving your laptop turned on and unattended in a cheap hotel room when you go out (as he also did). He virtually glows and shakes as he revels in the simple joy of telling you stuff. His appearance helps, undeniably. Appearance-wise, he is half the Muppets' Guy Smiley made flesh, and half the kid that Boris Johnson would have paid a gardener in toffees and copies of Razzle to beat up and lock in the shed at prep school. He is still that kid, except that now he is paid what I'm assuming is a generous salary to fly around the world, business class, to tell you where to find wifi in Brussels, or how nice it is to spend an afternoon on a boat in the Seychelles.

Like any great clown, the joy isn't so much in what he's going to do, but simply what circumstance his producer has decided to put him in today. And like any great clown, he always wears the same motley. Tailored suit - usually dark blue - from Hong Kong, white shirt, cheap tie from an airport, glasses, shiny shoes. The opening shot of the show will have him walking towards camera, gesturing wildly with an unhinged grin on his face - same every episode. Only the background changes- one month it's Dubai airport, the next he's in the desert with pyramids behind him, or in Paris trying to look casual sitting outside a cafe, or in the USA walking around the world's biggest lost luggage warehouse. I once saw him doing a piece to camera while striding down the middle of a 747, in flight, halfway through a long-haul flight, talking in HIS characteristic WAY much too LOUDLY. The great part was that as he bounced down the plane, gesticulating wildly and bellowing at the camera, the poor passengers, one by one - almost without exception - jerked awake with a start as he passed them . In the centre of the frame was his grinning, happy face, blissfully unaware that he's framed each side by exhausted passengers glaring at him with thoughts of presentercide in their minds.

But to hell with them. They should have realised that they were in the presence of greatness and bought the man a drink. For Richard Quest may be the last non-ironic, non-self-effacing, non-post modern presenter on television. I saw him on two consecutive days last month. On the first day he was interviewing Santa Claus at the South Pole. The following night he was chairing an industry summit on global warming. "That", my wife offered, "Isn't right". And if it were anyone else, she'd be dead right. Anyone else caught doing a stupid Christmas fluff piece would be laughed at if they then tried to do a heavyweight global warming thing the next day. But for Richard it works, because he gives the exact same amount of gravitas to Father Christmas as he does to global warming, either that or he treats them with the same amount of passive-aggressive contempt. I'm not sure. Either way it works.

Wherever I am in the World, there's usually CNN, and I always - always - flick it on in the hope of finding Richard bouncing around some far-flung city scaring the locals. I've been in the depths of depression and loneliness, only to be giggled out of it by the vision of Richard walking towards the camera, all elbows and knees akimbo, proudly saying where he is in the world, and what he's going to tell us about. Still need a reason to love him? Consider this: A couple of years ago Al Jazeera TV were pouring lots of money into setting up an American version of their channel and were poaching some big names with some even bigger pay cheques (all of which, hilariously, two years later, have started bouncing). They approached Richard and asked him if he'd like to work for them, and his reply, reportedly, was that he was "a little too Jewish and a little too gay".

I mean, someday, to buy the man dinner.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Bubble Wrap


Waiting in line in the check-in queue at glamorous Gatwick airport, I am engaged in conversation by an old-ish gentleman wearing the interesting combination of a tweed suit, flat cap and tracksuit top. He questions me gently but thoroughly about the auto check in machines that we have all had to use and which are new to him. We agree that they clearly don't make check-in any quicker but just break one large queue up into two large queues with a lot of confused old people, while saving money on staff. "You'd be in trouble if you couldn't read or write", he offers, which is true, although if you're resourceful enough to have booked a ticket, then I'm sure you'd find a way to overcome this little hurdle. We continue chatting and he tells me that he came from the Caribbean a long time ago and has now retired back there, which sounds like a good plan if ever I heard one. He asks me what I do, so with my usual slightly cautious chuckle, I tell him. "Wowee", he says carefully, "A juggler. Wowee".

At that moment, we hear raised voices over by one of the check-in desks and we all glance over to see a middle aged man sweating and flushed in his blue suit, shouting at a resolutely calm and curly-permed check-in girl. He has been told that he's only allowed to check in one suitcase. He has two. "How long has there been this stupid rule?", he bellows without looking at the girl behind the desk. "More than a year, sir", she smiles back. "Where does it say that on the ticket? It should say it on the ticket. It doesn't say it anywhere on the ticket", now he's looking at her, which is great as it means he sees her hold up his ticket and point with a long perfectly manicured pink nail to exactly where it say it on the ticket. Then he whirls around to face the queue, sees me with my two big suitcases and points angrily, "What about him, he has two cases". I respond with my most winning-est grin, safe in the knowledge that as someone working on a cruise ship I have a special sea-mans exemption and can carry twice the amount of luggage that you plebs are allowed. I am special. The man next to me in the line that I was talking to giggles.

"Fine", says the angry man, "FINE", and starts to unzip one of his suitcases. Now pretty much the whole queue is looking. There is little more intoxicating than the opportunity to see inside someone else's suitcase. We all peer at it as inconspicuously as possible, which isn't very. Then he opens it. It's full of bubble wrap. Completely full. There is nothing else in the case at all. Just bubble wrap. He starts to unload it. Dumping armfuls of it onto the floor by the counter, it's unfolding and unrolling as he unpacks it, so that the pile on the floor next to him is much bigger that the size of the suitcase it came from. Finally he's done, the zips the full suitcase inside the now empty one and throws it onto the conveyor belt. "OK?", he snaps. He gets given his boarding card and storms away. We all mutter amusedly to ourselves and continue to gawp at the huge pile of bubble wrap, which must be at least three feet wide by two feet tall. A little bubble-wrap mountain. Mount Pop. Now the check-in girl is peering over the front of her counter and looking at it too. She ponders for a second, picks up her phone, says a few words, smiles and hangs up. Within a couple of minutes a particularly large member of the airport staff has frog-marched the now very angry man back to the counter, dragged a trash can over to him and now stands over him as the furious man realises what he has to do and starts to put all the bubble wrap in the trash. Now my part of the line are laughing openly, and the check-in girl smiles sweetly at us while we all watch the man clear up his mess and slink away, completely defeated. "Wowee", says the man next to me, between little wheezy laughs.

The rest of my flight is uneventful and fairly pleasant, until I reach Barbados, my destination. There's some problem with immigration - they need to know what hotel I'm staying at, but I have no idea as I just get picked up at the airport and taken there. Clearly this means that I'm attempting to stay in Barbados illegally, or forever, or I'm a terrorist, or something. Either way I get lead to a little office and told to wait while they make some phone calls. I lean on the side of a desk and immediately get told off and told that chairs are for sitting. I giggle and mumble "Settle down Beavis" under my breath and sit in one of the blue plastic school chairs. There's a TV in the corner of the room showing "The High Chapparal" and above it, on the wall, a notice that says "All human interactions are an opportunity to learn or teach". I wonder which one is being done here. I take out my phone to make a note of the the sign, a move which attracts the response "No phones". I guess the assumption is that I've had enough and have decided to call in an air-strike or something. If I had the power to call in air-strikes I would have used it a long time ago and not on somewhere as gorgeous as Barbados. Are you listening Stevenage, Swindon and Peterborough? Anyway, they confirm that I am not a danger to the Barbadian way of life, but I am, in fact, just a snarky juggler, so the let me go.

By the time I get to my hotel I'm starving. Having been to this hotel before, I recall that the vegetarian food wasn't much of anything, so I set off up the road to investigate the pizza place I saw from the taxi window on the drive it. There it is, in the middle of a bunch of pre-fab shops and pastel coloured bungalows, "Mamma Mia's Authentic Italian Deli and Pizzeria". Looks like it could be promising. On entering, I realise that it's more than promising, it's great. Full of cocky Italian folk ("Do you take visa cards? Yes. Do you do take out? Yes. Can I have a large Aosta pizza? No. I JOKE!"), it's actually like being in Italy. Shelves full of big sausages, cheeses, wines, breads, lots of good-looking little snacks wrapped in twists of paper and stored in big jars. And Chinnoto, my favourite non-Coca Cola fizzy drink. Back in my hotel room I sit on the bed, open the pizza box, flick on the TV and take my first bite. "Wowee", I say to myself, "Wowee".

Friday, 4 January 2008

End of year mullarkey

It's been quite the year.

Started it by closing up "The Impossibles" at Croydon, a show I was very proud of, with a lovely cast, which played to tiny audiences thanks to the theatre's..um..shall we say "creative" approach to marketing. Still, one London newspaper reviewed us and Jack Black on the same page and we got more stars than the overrated fat boy, so that's something.

Then the travelling began. Dubai first, then the Caribbean, then a few months of Greece, Turkey and Italy with a cruise ship. Then Hannover to play in the gardens. Then Toronto to play in the streets. Then Hannover again, this time to play on the same stage that Josephine Baker and Bob Bramson worked. Then back to the Caribbean. Then the big finish - Deptford - for a show with swearing, sleaze and decent audiences! And currently a cosy front room in chilly London.

Met lots of new friends, got closer to some old ones, and lost one of my best.

An amazing, tiring, beautiful, rewarding, and completely heartbreaking year.

End of the year photo mullarkey
























Thought I'd post a few of my favourite photographs from the last few months. All the above people are fine, wonderful and as off-kilter as you could wish for. Happy to know them all, I am.