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It was 25 years today I tried to “out” a couple of Conservative cabinet ministers on national television

It’s the afternoon of Friday 18 February 1995 and a work friend has dropped around some page proofs of a David Bowie magazine I was publishing called Crankin’ Out. I’m at home in West Hampstead, and he’s on his way into Central London for an evening shift at his “proper” improper job on the production team of the Express “news”paper group.

Though production is a rather unglamorous (though perhaps suitable) position in publishing terms, being part of the Daily Express and Daily Star tabloid teams meant my associate was privy to all kinds of scurrilous office gossip that would waft in to the building.

After a quick cup of tea and a cursory glance at the planned pages — of which he wanted his design contributions kept under wraps because a mutual Bowie associate of ours called Kevin Cann wouldn’t be impressed. Eventually that changed, but replying to a perfunctory “what are you doing this weekend?” as he made his way to the door, I told him I had audience tickets to a taping of ITV’s Sunday lunchtime public affairs programme the Jonathan Dimbleby show, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to use them.

“Oh, who’s on?, asked he.”

“Peter Lilley and Donald Dewar and the subject of poverty,” I replied, voicing my indifference. 

“Peter Lilley? You know he’s shagging Michael Portillo, don’t you?”

“Really? I’ve heard rumours about them separately being gay, but… together?”

“Yeah, they were caught in the act at the House Of Commons. Someone walked into one of their offices and found them going at it over the desk.”

A devilish grin appeared on my visage and I thanked him for the information. And he continued to pass on the latest goss he’s heard on the grapevine. A few months later he told me something very scandalous about Prince Andrew, one which Buckingham Palace later denied (cough, cough).

The most startling one was a similar story about David Bowie, but alas, as the man with the mouth is Mark Adams, who went on to work for Bowie, typing up news stories for BowieNet and Total Blam Blam, I think that’s most definitely a story for another day. But it’ll come. All I can say right now is thank heavens for diaries and dictaphones. 

The more I thought at about this the more I was in mind to attend the programme after all. I was certainly interested in politics, and as the mid ‘90s was the time when I’d gone back to college my mum suggested I might think about following my father into local politics, maybe as the inevitable springboard to something bigger.

But right now I had a couple of other fish to fry.

Billed as ITV’s new “flagship” political show, Dimbleby had been airing on the main commercial station in Britain for less than a month (despite what Wikipedia tells you, it began on 22 January 1995). The presenter that gave his name to the show had famously asked his royal chum Prince Charles if he’d been unfaithful to his estranged wife Princess Diana just a few months earlier. 

Quick off the mark, I had already applied for tickets to the two previous broadcasts, but again, I wasn’t enthused by the chosen topic or the interviewees, which followed the simple one Tory, one Labour format, and so they remained unused.

A vague plan started to form in my mad head. I called my writer friend Spencer Kansa in Balham and asked if he was doing anything on Sunday morning.

“Usually recovering. Why?”

“I’ve got tickets to this new Jonathan Dimbleby programme and wondered if you fancied it.”

“Politicians? Ugh.”

“I know, but I’ve just heard something so salacious about one of them, I think it might be fun.” I grinned… from ear to ear. “I’ll tell you more when I see you.”

“Hmm, alright then.”

Piece of cake! 

ITV’s Sunday politics show has been made out of London Television Centre on the South Bank of the Thames since Weekend World back in the 1970s. With its famous backdrop of the river and central London skyline beyond, it was a fixture on everything from This Morning with Richard and Judy to London Tonight.

Armed with nothing more than a pair of tickets and my honour (or lack of it), I arranged to meet Spencer outside the building at 10.30.

Due to the ungodly hour we were being marched in to ITV Towers’ holding area (actually their onsite cafe), I realised that the programme must be going out live.

I told Spencer what Mark Adams had delighted in letting slip about Lilley and Portillo, then Secretary of State for Social Security and Secretary of State for Employment respectively. The fact that they were also two of the three right-wing Eurosceptic members of John Major’s flailing government, an illiberal anti-Europe trio that the Prime Minister himself had referred to in an unguarded comment as “bastards”, made me doubly determined to provoke them. For the record, the other bastard was the even ghastlier (if that’s even possible) John Redwood, who would challenge Major for the leadership of the Conservative Party four months later.

I told Spencer of what I’d planned to ask if the microphone should come my way. Of course, there was no guarantee it would. I’d been an audience member of the BBC’s Question Time, hosted by the elder Dimbleby brother David the previous November, and went home unheard. This time I was adamant I was going to be heard.

Spencer laughed. 

“This is hilarious. OK, so as soon as you’ve asked him, I’ll stand up and shout ‘answer the question!”

Brilliant. He was even more of an anti-establishment rebel than I was. Our dastardly plan was ready for the floor.

As is always the case with television studios, our venue looked substantially smaller than it does on the box. Lilley’s opposite number in parliament and for the programme was Labour’s Donald Dewar, Shadow Security Secretary for Her Majesty’s “loyal” opposition.

The “debate” dragged on a bit. It felt like I’d had my hand up for an eternity, and as the clock ticked towards the end of the programme I started to think I wouldn’t bother. I put my hand down. 

Then, a godsend.

Diminutive Dimbleby wanted someone “who really wants to tackle” the Secretary of State to have a go.

My hand swiftly shot back up.

“Anyone want to oppose him?”

Not ‘arf.

“The gentleman in the second row.”

This was it. My first time talking on telly, so start as you mean to go on, right? Resplendent in my lovely Gaultier glasses and black crepe jacket my friend Judi persuaded me to buy from the same Kensington Market (the very same clothing emporium where a young Freddie Mercury had once fitted an even younger David Bowie with a pair of boots back in 1969), I sound like I’m waiting for my balls to drop. What did drop, however, was something that landed ITV and myself in hot water for months.

“The gentleman in the second row.”

Crikey, there was no never no turning back now.

“Yes, this is a question for Peter Lilley, but it’s personal like the last one. There’s a lot of stories going round London at the moment that he and his cabinet colleague Michael Portillo are lovers. Is it true?”

A chorus of gasps and tuts from the studio audience, but, alas, Spencer stayed seated, and silent. The rotter.

So, I guess I was all on my own then.

“I think we might have grown up conversation in this audience, please, and not stupid conversation,” said a rattled Dimbleby, even more odious than before. 

Some of the audience clapped his patronising putdown, and I felt a little deflated until I saw the looks on the faces of Lilley and Dewar. Lilley thought better of retorting but resembled a red-faced child that had just eaten a vat of beetroot. Dewar, meanwhile, was grinning from ear to ear. Of course he was!

There was another few interminable minutes of the show to go and then the cameras stopped rolling. Herr Dumkopf Dimbleby went out of his way to get a bitchy dig in as we gathered our things and got ready to leave the studio.

“Well, with the exception of one person I’d like to thank you all for coming.”

Revolting little asswipe. As I was in the second row I made sure he noticed my defiant grin as we got up to leave. I sensed a slight chill in the room.

As we were about ten metres from the exit I became aware of three production blokes homing in on me.

“Excuse me, could we have a word, please?”

And with that, Spencer looked at me alarmed and said he’d wait outside, as I was told I was being detained “for your own safety.”

Suddenly I had the distinct impression this trifling little matter was far from over.

And now for something completely impertinent.

To be continued.

Steve Pafford


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