Seventies Nostalgia

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Showbiz publicists

Celia Birtwell, Jeffrey Lane, Frances Lynn
In the late Seventies, it felt safe to roam around London streets late at night. Visiting American celebrities weren’t so regimentally guarded as they are now. They weren’t always flanked by burly bodyguards, or a retinue of anxious PR people forbidding journalists to ask them an impromptu question. When I used to be a freelance film journalist, it was easy to get interviews with celebrities. Nowadays, showbusiness is completely PR driven. If you are lucky to get more than ten minutes with a celebrity, their subservient publicist will be glued to their famous clients' side, making sure you stick to asking innnocuous questions. In 'the old days', stars were more accessible. I once asked the actor Robin Williams for an interview in Tramp, the Jermyn Street nightclub and he granted me a breakfast session the following morning at the Savoy. In those days, journalists were allowed to enter the five star hotels by the main entrance and sit in the lobby with their camera crew, if they had one in tow. Nowadays, journalists are usually requested to use the tradesmen’s entrance.

When Raquel Welch was promoting her yoga book, ‘The Raquel Welch Total Beauty Book’ at the Hippodrome in the early Eighties, a gang of enthusiastic journalists, myself included, had no problem plonking ourselves down uninvited at her table. We consequently spent the entire evening with her, blatantly holding our tape recorders underneath her nose. Her personal publicist hovered discreetly at a distance, forbidding anyone else to join our table for the entire evening.

I had known most of the showbiz publicists since my days as a press officer for Warner Bros. After I became a journalist, they always made sure I was at the top of their scheduled interview list, even if I was writing the article for a small circulation periodical. When I once interviewed the late Robert Altman at the Athenaeum, his PR left me alone with him for the entire day. I was one of the few journalists who interviewed Frank Zappa when he was once in town for a couple of days, because his PR lady who got me the gig was one of my tennis partners. But, if you ever let the publicists down, like not turning up for an interview, you were out. Once, I inadvertently upset a well-connected socialite after writing about her wedding reception at Mr Chow. Her powerful PR friends blacklisted me for a week, until they realised they needed me to write 'puff' pieces about their ‘A’ list clients.

I was friendly with the PR lady, who was looking after Cary Grant when he worked for Faberge, and consequently I was one of the chosen few who was granted a 'one to one' interview with the legendary actor. I used to smoke in those days, and before my interview, the PR lady told me I was not allowed to smoke in Mr Grant's presence. I got an even bigger shock after the PR left me alone with the silver haired ex-film star in the lobby of the Royal Lancaster hotel. Mr Grant informed me he wouldn't permit me to use my tape recorder. His reasoning was he could tape himself. Nowadays, the publicist would definitely have sat in on the interview, and under similar circumstances, I would have been grateful for her recollection afterwards.

Because I had been given a freebie tape recorder some time before, I had woefully neglected my shorthand and my speed had been reduced to about 25 words per minute. I prayed the interview would be brief, but unfortunately we got on so well, that Cary refused to answer all his incoming phone calls, saying he was tied up. So, there we were, Cary Grant and I lolling around on the sofa together, while I tried to dredge up some original questions to ask him. I was unable to appreciate his nuggets of wisdom though, as I was on constant red alert, frantically hoping I was going to remember everything he uttered. I would have been with him for a week if his wife hadn’t come up to interrupt us after several hours, saying they had an important appointment to keep. I could have kissed her. I ran out of the hotel, sprinted all the way home and threw myself over my typewriter where I bashed out my interview purely from memory (my random notes were illegible). I must have done something right, because when the Cary Grants visited London next time, Mrs Grant rang me up to say how much her husband had enjoyed the interview. Nowdays, the PR would have passed on her comments to me.

Copyright: Frances Lynn, 2006


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