Ned Sherrin CBE – producer, performer, writer and director – was born in Somerset in 1931-2007. He qualified as a barrister before going into television where he made his name on satirical programmes such as That Was The Week That Was and Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life. He has produced several films, including The Virgin Soldiers, and her presents the weekly radio programme Loose Ends. He has directed many plays, including Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, and among his publications are Loose Neds and Theatrical Anecdotes.
I interviewed him in 1997. Here is what he told me then.
You wrote in your book Loose Neds that you had read about twenty in-depth interviews with Ned Sherrin and they were all more or less identical. Why do you think that is? Is it perhaps because you yourself decide which areas are to be covered, or are the interviewers just no bloody good?
The latter certainly. What they do is get the cuttings out and read everybody else’s interview and then they ask the same questions. Biographical stuff is usually cast in the same mould and practically everybody’s heard it every time.
People are often suspicious of professional funny men, believing that behind all the jokiness and wit there lurks a sad unhappy figure. Is there any truth in that in your own case?
No. Anyway, I’m not a natural funny man. Most of my jokes depend on people writing them for me. Your question reminds me of a wonderful remark at Willy Rushton’s funeral. Auberon Waugh said that he didn’t think he’d make jokes as he’d been asked to do, because death was a serious business. ‘On the other hand,’ he added, ‘I suppose if Willie was here this morning we’d both be having a good laugh at the death of Sir Laurens van der Post.’ [Laughter] That seemed to sum up the essence of the Private Eye joke – very funny, very topical, very cruel.
You talk about the ‘differences’ you felt as a child growing up on your father’s farm, not having the instinct of a country boy and planning your escape route. Have you ever wondered why you felt different?
No. I liked the country, but mooning around after cows wasn’t my idea of fun. The glamour and glitter of the bright lights appealed to me more. I remember as a small child there was a cocktail party held in the big house in the village. My parents hated parties so my brother and I went alone, and I was absolutely fascinated. It was there I heard my first piece of theatre gossip, I heard someone say, ‘Did you realize that Ivor Novello has inherited the mantle of Owen Nares?’ This seemed to me to be the most priceless bit of information but there was nobody in the village I could share it with. I was happy to get away.
By cutting yourself off from your roots you inevitably created a barrier between you and your family. Is that something you have been able to live with easily?
I get on particularly well with my brother even though we’re wildly different. It was very convenient that he wanted to farm and could take over from our father. I didn’t want the farm so I didn’t have to be there.
Did you feel you were a disappointment to your father?
I don’t think so. He was a bit disappointed with That Was The Week That Was. He loved it when I was doing nice safe programmes like Tonight with that nice Cliff Michelmore, and a nice quiz programme with that nice Franklin Engelmann, but he was a bit worried about having to explain away TW3.
But did you get on?
Yes. My only criticism of my father – I’ve probably inherited it – is that if he had one joke he would flog it to death and this could be a bit tiresome. I don’t think he understood why I wanted to go away but since I never had to ask him for any more money after that he was probably quite relieved.
In your autobiography you tell the story of how you were unable to kiss your dying father. You tell it matter-of-factly without sentiment, but I thought it was the nearest you came to having a serious regret…
Yes…but in fact we invariably kissed on leaving. It was simply that on the occasion in question somebody else arrived just at that moment, and so it had to wait until after he’d died.
Back in the 1960s when you pioneered That Was The Week That Was did you and those you worked with have the feeling that you would change the world?
No, we had the feeling that we’d all enjoy ourselves on a Saturday night. TW3 had grown out of the news documentary aspect of the old Tonight programme and that great upswing of activity from Private Eye, the Beyond the Fringe team, and all the change that came about with the angry young men. What we were doing was a distillation of a movement which had already been started. The difference was that we were peddling it to a far bigger audience – that was why it had the impact.
If there was no such lofty notion as changing the world, wasn’t there something terribly trivializing and therefore trivial about what you were doing, as if nothing mattered very much?
No. I think we set out to do a more adult sort of entertainment than was generally available at the time. For true satire you do probably need to have an almost irrational passion, it needs to be wild and damaging. But we were never really trying to peddle perfect satire, we were doing a sort of communication with the audience in informal terms late on a Saturday night. The only time I got really worked up about anything was when Macmillan was succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home instead of Butler. I thought it would have been much more interesting to have Butler and I commissioned a very strong piece which apparently upset Sir Alec a great deal. But in the long run I think rational criticism is probably better than burning passion.
Do you think there was a kind of shift in society at the beginning of the 1960s which made a new kind of satire and irreverence possible?
Yes. Attitudes took a little time to change after the war, but then there was Look Back in Anger in 1956 which altered everything. Another terribly important time was when rock and roll came in, and the whole forelock-touching philosophy seemed to go out of the window.
Do you think the success of the show had something to do with the final loss of the empire and the old English certainties falling by the wayside?
Yes, we were all getting into a more questioning mood at that time. In the old days a BBC reporter confronting a minister at the airport would say, ‘Oh, excuse me, sir, have you any interesting message to tell us?’ But when the Robin Days and the Ludovic Kennedys and the Ian Trethowans of the early days of ITN got to airports they asked different questions. Once the attitude started to change it became a groundswell.
The kind of interviewing at that time was certainly different from today…
Yes, but I sometimes think it goes too far today. I’m often quite in sympathy with politicians who feel they’re getting a rough time on Today. Sometimes the interviewing is extremely good, but at other times it really does get terribly irritating when the interviewer jumps in before the person’s uttered two sentences.
What did you think of the old-style John Freeman kind of interview?
I thought his interviews were fascinating. People seemed to have more patience to listen then but now we’re in the era of the sound bite. Television producers feel that an audience cannot sustain interest for more than a minute or two. That seems to me to be very damaging. The very funny interviews that John Fortune and John Bird do so exquisitely on the Rory Bremner Show seem to hark back to a golden age.
Bernard Levin said that TW3 was about ‘filth, sedition and blasphemy’. Did Levin just fail to get the joke, or what?
I’m sure he was being funny. That was Bernard’s great rallying cry. But in fact he was an integral part of the programme and chiefly responsible for a lot of the filth, seduction and blasphemy.
In a sense you were the odd one out in TW3 – you weren’t a bearded leftie in sandals but more a Tory of the old school, as Willy Rushton called you. Did you ever feel like the odd one out?
No, I felt rather paternal towards them in fact. I was roughly ten years older than Frost and six years older than Willy Rushton, and that made a difference.
When Kennedy died you went ahead with TW3 the following evening. Malcolm Muggeridge said afterwards, ‘They are probably all thoroughly ashamed of it.’ Were you? Or was anyone in fact ashamed?
No, I think we had no alternative. Malcolm felt that the brief of the programme was to mock everything, but in fact the brief off the programme was to reflect our feelings on behalf of the nation at the end of each week. It was like a mini New Year’s Eve every Saturday night. The whole nation, the whole world indeed, was shattered by the Kennedy business; all we could do was reflect that.
Philip Larkin, in his poem Churchgoing, describes how people hide behind jokes and irony when in fact there is an urge to be serious, of which they are half ashamed. Have you ever been conscious of anything like that?
Yes. I’ve just published a novel and I found the authorial voice which pontificates on the fates and predicaments of the characters a bit embarrassing. One felt perhaps one was revealing a naivety in oneself which one would prefer people not to be aware of.
Do you feel that your public persona is different from your private one?
No, I think it’s exactly the same. I would be surprised if people who know me well would say there’s any difference at all.
When I read through your autobiography each page seems to be packed with parties and social events, an endless stream of gossip and amusing observations. But I didn’t get the sense of there being any serious philosophy in your life – principles or beliefs you hold dear. Do you have any?
I don’t think I do. I’m a walking definition of a wet Church of England conservatism, which some people hold to be no religion at all. I’m probably just too self-satisfied. I’ve enjoyed life far too much to search for any more serious purpose.
Where do you stand on religion, for example?
Well, it’s seven minutes’ walk to Chelsea Old Church and I do that about once a month. That’s where I stand on religion.
Is that out of habit or conviction?
Out of habit. Also out of enjoyment, which is another reason for doing it. I like the idea of going to communion once a month. On the whole I feel comforted by it and I like to put in a few requests each month. I don’t waste my time on trying to formulate a concept of God. I have observed far brighter people than me trying to do just that and failing.
But do you find as you get older you tend to be more religious?
Again, I haven’t noticed a great change in my attitude. God may have done, but I haven’t.
You have often said that you have never had any problems with being gay. To what do you attribute the lack of complications?
I don’t know. I didn’t ever discuss it with my parents or with any member of my family. I would have been entirely outside their imagination and comprehension. One was a little worried during the early 1950s and 1960s because one didn’t want to be arrested and sent to prison – for any reason let alone for one’s sexual preferences. But apart from that it has never bothered me.
Is it perhaps easier to be gay when you move in theatrical and artistic circles, as you do?
I’m sure that’s true. If I’d been growing up on the farm, then I’m sure it would have been very difficult and embarrassing. That may have been one of the contributory factors to my wanting to leave.
Have you ever encountered serious prejudice?
Only on one occasion and that was recently. I had been booked to speak to a firm of stockbrokers in January and at the last minute they rang up and said that perhaps I wasn’t the sort of person they would like to have speak to them.
It’s thirty years since Viscount Montgomery made his famous remark about homosexuality: ‘This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are the British, thank God.’ Although we have undoubtedly come a long way since then, do you perhaps think the underlying British attitude remains the same?
Montgomery is an interesting one because he was in fact fascinated by young men always. I imagine he didn’t realize that there was a sort of subliminal homoerotic feeling there. It takes an awful long time for things to change but I would have thought that prejudice was moving backwards, albeit very slowly. Homosexuality is a very difficult thing for people to imagine, and perhaps even more difficult if they’re unconsciously suppressing some impulse in themselves and are rather frightened of it.
In your latest book, Sherrin’s Year, you say that you have never been reluctant to engage a male prostitute, and you describe how you respond to adverts in the Gay Times and so on. Have you never longed for a more sustained relationship?
I’ve attempted two more sustained relationships, and in both cases they were happy, but they ended when the other person went off. Now at the age of sixty-five it is perhaps too late to be looking for a new sustained relationship, and the idea of being irresistibly attractive to somebody at sixty-five would be a triumph of hope over experience.
Most people still think there is something a bit sad and desperate about going to a prostitute…is that a completely mistaken view, would you say?
Some prostitutes have become my best friends – an interesting variation on the idea that some of my best friends are prostitutes. I’ve become friends with many men whom I’ve met in that way, some of whom have stopped being prostitutes, some of whom have carried on doing it.
You say that prostitution is a better idea than exploiting a young actor who might be hoping for work. What did you mean by that remark exactly, and why does there have to be exploitation at all in a relationship entered into freely?
It’s the old story of the casting couch. There was a whole wave of protests in the theatre in the 1940s because of the theatrical managements which was particularly successful was reckoned to be run by homosexuals, and young actors were getting jobs for the wrong reasons. That sort of thing is tiresome.
You are chairman of a consortium which has proposed a twenty-four-hour gay radio station for the UK. How do you rate the chances of that happening?
It’s difficult to know but I think it would be very valuable. It would be a music-based station and everybody knows that the best modern music is played in gay clubs. Indeed heterosexuals often go to gay clubs simply because of the music. It’s also an opportunity for communicating with gays who are not lucky enough to be in the London mainstream and may be feeling left out in the provinces with no one to talk to or understand their problems.
How politically involved are you in the gay movement?
Hardly at all apart from charity work. The AIDS thing has been such a threat that I do as much as I can for Crusaid and the Terence Higgins Trust, but I’m not good at marching.
Have you yourself ever had cause to worry about AIDS?
Yes. My sex life is really restricted now, so there’s much less chance of getting it and there’s all sorts of precautions one can take if one was going to the ultimate extreme. I don’t actually do that any more, but certainly I consider myself lucky not to have got it. I stopped counting after more than fifty of my friends had died, and so in those terms it’s perhaps remarkable that one hasn’t got it. Certainly several of my ex- – I hate the word partners – lovers have died of AIDS.
Isn’t it traumatic when one of your friends dies of AIDS?
Yes, but fifty traumas is a lot, so you become a bit inured to it. It doesn’t stop the sadness of course.
You refer a couple of times in your diary to Peter Tatchell’s Outrage campaign to expose bishops and other prominent figures, but it’s not quite clear whether you approve of this action…
I desperately disapprove of it. I always remember Runcie’s address from the pulpit in Southwark Cathedral at Mervyn Stockwood’s memorial service. Mervyn had been one of the people on Tatchell’s list for outing bishops. The Bishop of Bath and Wells into whose diocese Mervyn had retired thought he had better ring up Mervyn and warn him, and Mervyn to his great credit told the bishop that if the press got on to him to be sure and tell them he had lots of women as well. [Laughter] In fact the evidence suggested that Mervyn, though naturally homosexual, was celibate, but he wasn’t going to be frightened by Peter Tatchell.
Do you think you can be gay and still be the messenger of God?
Oh certainly. I don’t see any reason why not.
The Old Testament would suggest otherwise…think of Sodom and Gomorrah…
Yes, but there were all sorts of primitive community restrictions then. I mean, it wasn’t a good idea to eat pork or seafood in the desert either. There’s also the fact that John was the disciple that Jesus loved, so there’s the other side of the question.
Are you sensitive to criticism?
I prefer good notices to bad.
Caryl Brahms, your late writing partner, described you as a narcissist looking into a lake and saying, ‘I’m perfect.’ Do you plead guilty?
Yes – but I don’t think it’s the whole man. Caryl was very acute but she was also frustrated if she didn’t get her own way, and we had lots of artistic quarrels during the nearly thirty years we worked together.
In some ways you strike me as being an English version of Gore Vidal…sharp, acerbic, also gay. Would you be flattered or dismayed by the comparison?
Oh, I’d be flattered, but Gore would be dismayed. He’s not speaking to me at the moment, but that’s my regret and his loss. Gore is a volcano of natural wit and a writer of the utmost brilliance. It’s like comparing the genius and the journeyman.