End Game: Faking it
Laurie Taylor comes clean
‘‘I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil … I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil.” Like other Radio Four people in Broadcasting House I’ve learned to live with Dave Simmons’ habit of talking to himself, come to realise that the constant muttering he does in the lift and the corridors is his way of dispelling the latest horror to invade his life. All anyone could get from him a few months ago was “Frappuccino. Frappuccino. Fucking Frappuccino”. He was, it seemed, absolutely furious about Starbucks’ invention of bogus Italian words to describe their latest overpriced coffee concoction.
But in the last few weeks he’s stuck resolutely with the famous line from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. And this time round hardly anybody has looked puzzled by his muttering. Most of us know only too well that he’s referring to the witch hunt engendered by Mark Thompson’s recent staff announcement that standards of truth-telling on the BBC have shrunk to such a low level that they can only be remedied by brand new courses in trust and honesty.
In the days following that announcement there was a veritable orgy of accusation. Why was it that Liz Kershaw was being hung out to dry when we all knew that much the same thing had been happening for years on Tom and Dick and Harry’s shows? Why had nobody mentioned the little editorial cheat on You and Yours, the pretend location interview on Saturday Live, the dubious letter of praise on Thinking Allowed? Nobody bothered to produce any hard evidence for such assertions. Why bother? The game had changed. Now everybody suddenly had the license to claim that they’d seen Goody Osburn with the Devil.
And then, after a few pints in The George, came the rush of personal admissions, the slightly hysterical desire to make a cleansing confession. There were modest tales about the time that Geoff had stood on the roof of Broadcasting House and pretended to be in Manchester, about the day when Gloria had pretended to burst into an office and confront a wrongdoer when in fact the door had already been open, the morning when Janet had added a little extra birdsong to buck up her visit to the Devon countryside.
But slowly the ante was raised. Somebody told the story about how David Attenborough had once discovered a flying snake which wouldn’t fly and had then got the crew to take it up in a plane and throw it out of the cockpit so they could get the necessary shot. Even though I fought against it, I knew the time had come to confess to my own distinctive mortal sin.
It had all begun quite innocently. During my time at the University of York I discovered that my elderly laboratory technician was obsessed with parapsychological phenomena. So much so that he had a habit of leaving a tape-recorder running in his front room all night so that he could capture any passing spirit voices. This sounded a perfect item for the Sunday morning radio show called Snooze Button which my friend Victor Lewis-Smith was then presenting on Radio York. The technician could come in and talk about his beliefs. But then we had a better idea. Why not play a part of the nighttime tape the technician had recorded and see if anyone else could hear what he claimed to hear? And then, after we’d realised the tape contained nothing but random traffic noises, we had an even better idea. Why not play the almost blank tape and then add a muffled message at the end? We decided on the phrase “Hello Trevor” and after declaring that we could hear nothing at all ourselves duly played the tape on air. Perhaps, we said, there were others, more tuned into spirit life, who could do better?
The station was immediately swamped with telephone calls and letters from newborn spiritualists. Some listeners even turned up at the station to insist upon their special powers. A story appeared in the local press. Victor and I were summoned before the station manager. Something had to be done. And done immediately. There was only one get-out. On the very next Sunday morning programme we announced that we were staggered by the previous week’s response. The only way to establish the truth, said Victor, was to play the tape again. We did so, but this time without our “Hello, Trevor” insert. York returned to normal. The spirit world receded.
“How do you feel now that you’ve got that off your chest?” asked Peter, as he collected the orders for the next round. I replied that in the present climate there was only one word to describe my new state of being. Shriven. ■