As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, twenty-five years ago I was caught up in a bit of brouhaha when I decided to “out” a couple of Conservative politicians live on national telly.
I should point out that at that time in the mid 1990s, government ministers like this pair — or depending on your point of view, couple — delighted in appearing as hard nosed, dogmatic and intolerant as possible, partly to appeal to their party’s rabid right wing (average age: 75) but also because for some reason they “thought it was what people wanted to hear.”
After numerous cash for questions controversies and sex scandals that seemed to engulf the Conservatives almost the moment John Major’s sclerotic leadership started their delusional, derided Back To Basics campaign, the government had lost what little credibility it had left, and almost two decades of unbroken power that kicked off with Margaret Thatcher in 1979 were drawing to a close.
The thing that did it for me was that almost exactly a year earlier — 21 February 1994 to be precise — the majority of the the government, and indeed the vast bulk of Tory MPs, had voted against equalising the age of consent for gay men to bring it in line with 16 for heterosexuals. Major’s cabinet agreed to put forward a compromise measure reducing the homosexual age from 21 to 18. A lowering, yes, but expressly not equality and therefore still regarding gays as second class citizens.
Hey, guess what? Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo voted for 18, as did Simon Burns, the member for Chelmsford who happens to be David Bowie’s cousin.
Six opposition MPs went to the opposite extreme, voting against 18 because of their strong commitment to equality at 16, of which my very own Labour Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate, the double Oscar winning actress Glenda Jackson was the most prominent.
I applauded the principled stand Miss Jackson and five other MPs took. In response to the defeat, gay rights group Stonewall launched a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR declared in 1996 that an unequal age of consent was a breach of human rights, thus it was finally equalised only after the Labour government of Tony Blair took office.
Ultimately, a vote for 18 was a vote for discrimination, a reprehensible archaic act. So if the story of Lilley and Portillo being closet cases was true then in my view they were most certainly fair game. That kind of rank hypocrisy always deserves exposing and, yes, practicing homosexuality while publicly condoning or enacting laws that seek to class it as inferior is always worth being “outed” for, whatever their political allegiances or country.
And as Mrs Slocombe would say when she wasn’t banging on about her pussy, I am unanimous in that.
So, if I can pick up the tale, after I asked the unmentionable on live television, 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 wide defiant grin as we got up to leave. And as we did, I sensed a distinct chill in the room.
Accompanied by my writer friend Spencer Kansa, I was about ten metres from the exit when I became aware of three production blokes homing in on me. They looked like they meant business.
“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 in no uncertain terms I was being detained “for your own safety.”
Suddenly I had the distinct impression this trifling little matter was far from over.
“Could we have your name, please?”
“You’ve just made a very serious allegation about a government minister.”
“I merely asked a question.”
“But it was designed to embarrass the Secretary of State. He’s furious.”
“So? Again, it was phrased as a question. I was merely curious. If it’s true it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“He’s so mad we could be the result of legal action because of this. We can’t let you go until you give us your name.”
At this point I started to become agitated, especially as the rest of the studio audience continued to file past towards the exit. And a few of them didn’t hold back in their abuse as they saw me cornered and prevented from leaving.
“Idiot. What you said was pathetic.”
And so on and so forth.
Then a middle aged silver fox with a bow tie and a chronic case of halitosis leaned in towards my face and snarled at me from about two inches away.
“I just want you to know that you said was absolutely disgusting. I KNOW HIS WIFE!”
Shame she doesn’t know you well enough to tell you to invest in a bottle of Listerine, I thought.
Of course, I wish I’d have said it but it felt like I was in enough shit as it was, and insulting a bad-breathed bore that was probably planted in the audience by Conservative Central Office or Peter Lilley himself would have to wait.
Then I began to be more physically aware of one of the three interrogators, who actually looked more anguished than angry. It was his turn to speak. He introduced himself as the producer of the show.
“Look, many of us have heard these stories as well. But this wasn’t the place to voice them. We’re a new programme, and we might get taken off air because of this.”
He looked pained, and then the penny dropped. He batted for the same team:
“We’ve got a programme on gay rights coming up soon. You could have spoken on that. Please, please just tell us who you are.”
“And then you’ll let me go?”
And as I started to tell them by name, one of the last audience members paraded past.
“Nasty little queer,” he shouted.
I stumbled and continued, with my name… Well, a name.
With the constant Rottweiler interrogation and verbal abuse from the less enlightened sections of the studio audience, it felt like attaching my own name to this could backfire spectacularly. But because I was a little flustered and cornered, my poor brain seemed unable to pluck any random name out of the air, and instead it opted for a name I knew that was not a million miles from mine.
But who was he? Well, Stefan Dufeniuk was a subscriber to Crankin’ Out, the David Bowie magazine I published at the time. The very same magazine that Mark Adams, the person that related the Peter Lilley shagging Michael Portillo story, had secretly started working on; the very same one Spencer Kansa had just started writing for.
I can’t say I’ve ever met the poor guy whose name I’d just purloined. The little I knew of him was literally his postal address, so maybe the fact that he was from my mum’s birthplace of Nottingham might have been a subliminal reason why his name was the first that entered my head. Or perhaps we’d just communicated by post I’m not too sure. For obvious reasons, my diary entry on 19 February 1995 was slightly sketchier than it would have normally been.
Either way, I felt pretty darn stupid I chose a surname as uncommon as my own, though perhaps a John Smith may not have been quite as convincing to the ITV mob. So, Stefan Dufeniuk if you’re reading this, I humbly apologise.
Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity the three musketeers let me go, with some reluctance it seemed. I’d managed to get myself together enough that when they asked for my phone number I gave them a random one, based on my previous home phone in Golders Green. Still, somehow it felt like this story might not have peaked.
As I ventured out into the wintry weather of Waterloo, to my surprise, Spencer was waiting for me, and to no one’s surprise it was raining. Hello again England!
Spencer had company, passing the time with an older bovver boy dude that looked like a cross between Arthur Mullard and a wrestler.
“God, what took so long? What did they want to know?”
I filled him in, gave a cursory but wary nod to the curious bloke sniffing around and suggested we get out of the rain.
“They gave you shit eh?” said the tattooed fella.
“You could say that,” I replied, with unchecked sanguinity.
“You should have heard some of the people muttering away as we left. You’re public enemy number one,” said Spencer, bemused.
“I don’t know what the big fuss is about,” said Mullard man. “The story about Lilley and Portillo was printed in Scallywag months ago.”
“Scallywag? What’s that?” said I.
“It’s a satirical magazine like Private Eye, but they publish stuff Private Eye are too scared to. Used to be called Camden Scallywag. Major sued them not so long ago when he was accused of having an affair.”
Oh, just great. I must have looked simultaneously alarmed and baffled. I was a writer (albeit a fledgling one) and Camden was my borough, yet I had no knowledge of Scallywag. Still, the threat of legal action was slightly more pressing right now, though I suppose if I was actually asking a question based on something printed in a magazine then the onus probably wouldn’t be on me. Perhaps.
I thanked the mystery man for his information and told Spencer I fancied a drink to calm my nerves.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Mullard man. “They have nothing on you.”
I laughed and told them I gave a false name and phone number anyway. And with that he bid us farewell, and Spencer and I headed along the embankment, not really with a specific destination in mind, but keen to work out exactly what had just transpired. I was feeling slightly without allies, after all.
“What happened to your ‘Answer the question’ then?”
“I wanted to do it, but when there was so many groans and moans I thought better of it.”
“Oh, thanks for your support.”
“Don’t be like that. You expected some of them to laugh, and no one did.”
The conversation went on ping ponging like this for several minutes, me feeling like a group of one, and Spencer looking more than a bit like a chicken. Though right now I felt like the headless one.
As we continued our ‘heated debate’ I looked up and realised we had reached Westminster Bridge. We crossed it and savoured the ironic sight of the Houses of Parliament, the bastion of power over the minions. I’d just potentially libelled one of Her Majesty’s Right “Honourable” government ministers and here we are heading straight for their HQ.
“How did we end up here?” Spencer enquired.
“We’re not paying attention, are we? Westminster is the last place I wanna be right now.”
And then, right at the moment we passed parliament, a black car pulled up and stopped near Big Ben. It was a Sunday and the road was quiet, but even so it looked unusual. I started to fret.
And then, unbelievably, out of the car rolled someone I was now unfortunately familiar with, someone who had just appeared as a guest on a certain show called Jonathan Dimbleby not more than an hour ago…
It was Donald Dewar!
Phew. Armed with a couple of files under his arm, the Labour MP was making his way into parliament, on a Sunday no less. And he wasn’t even in government. I bet his opposite number Peter Lilley wouldn’t be seen dead at ‘the office’ on the so-called day of rest. Bless him.
I had a vague idea that Spencer and I would head to a pub I knew on Whitehall called The Clarence. It was a nice old traditional boozer with inexpensive cider (yup, at age 25 I had yet to acquire a taste for beer. Late bloomer, as I said), and if the light’s I could still see the vomit stains on the pavement outside where my sister Stella chucked her guts up a couple of years earlier. It was New Years’ after all (cough cough).
As we walked past 10 Downing Street, home to Peter Lilley’s boss the Prime Minister John Major I got cold feet and decided I wanted to head home. Perhaps we were still a little too close to the levers of power for my liking. Spencer headed back to Balham to write an article for Hustler (yes, that Hustler) and I caught the Jubilee Line from Charing Cross Station on the very street I was born, Strand. No ‘The’, just officially Strand, which is German and Dutch for beach, as the north shore of the River Thames had once reached that very spot.
I got home to West Hampstead around 4pm and the first thing I wanted to do was see how the whole palaver looked on the broadcast. This was my first time speaking on the tellybox after all.
As most of us I’m far too self critical, and being on the box just magnifies the things you aren’t keen about, especially when they’re on yourself. Andy Warhol once said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Well, here I was making darned good use of 15 seconds. I cringed all the way through it… until I saw Donald Dewar sporting the widest grin I’d seen this side of the Cheshire Cat. I laughed uncontrollably and thought maybe, just maybe it was all worthwhile.
I went to call Spencer for a bit of a follow up, which is when I noticed there were a couple of answerphone messages on my BT handset. When I played them they were both from the audience researcher for Jonathan Dimbleby, a woman called Alison Fuller. I had spoken to her briefly after ITV had received my request for tickets. That was her job, to screen the potential audience, so that her background checks are supposed to ensure audiences “embody the image of their city”.
Beep. “Hi, it’s Alison Fuller from the Jonathan Dimbleby show. Could you call me back, please?”
Beep. “Hi, it’s Alison Fuller from the Jonathan Dimbleby show. Please could you call me back?”
It was my voice on my answer phone asking people to leave a message. Remember when you did those little personal touches?
To try and throw her off the scent, I hastily recorded a new answerphone message in case she called back again.
In the most upper crust aristocratic older English gent accent I could muster I warbled “Please leave a message after the tone” and hoped that would suffice. They didn’t call me Posh Paws at school for nothing, you know.
About half an hour later the phone rang, and, of course, I let it go through to answerphone but with the volume up so I could hear any message being left.
“Steve? It’s Wendy… call me back when you…”
I grabbed the receiver. Wendy was a Bowie friend I’d do music related social things with so she was OK. Kind of.
“Hello dear. That answerphone message… it doesn’t sound like you.”
“That’s the idea… dear.”
She’d just got in from work so hadn’t seen the transmission. So I proceeded to give her a brief summation of the shenanigans of the day, which, being a unionised nurse and card carrying Labour voter she found pretty bloody hilarious.
We ended the conversation with a promise to meet in the coming week, and I decided to go in search of food. I was positively ravenous. No sooner had I put the phone down it rang again, and as a reflex action I put the cradle to my ear.
“You forgot something?” I asked Wendy.
“Hello…. It’s Alison Fuller.”
To be continued.