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Book extract: Beyond the Microphone – Best and worst celebrity interviews

Allow me to ask and answer some questions of myself. Actually, these are questions I’m asked quite frequently. What or who was your best and worst interview? Who would you most like to interview today? Who, looking back through history, would you like to bring back and interview? These are not easy questions to answer, but let’s work through some of the more interesting folk who have graced my studio.

Spike Milligan was the first major star I ever interviewed — if interview is the right word. Wellington, 1980, and the great BBC star of the Goon Show took over the programme. Spike was crazy; everyone knew that but he was also a genius. I got to ask the first question, which he completely ignored and started prattling.

I soon learned that he was completely uncontrollable and gave him free rein. At least I had some input into his family. His mother, whom he loved dearly, lived in Woy Woy on the New South Wales Central Coast, between Sydney and Gosford. That at least gave me a momentary anchor, but then he was off again.

Having interviewed a number of British comedians over the years, I can say that away from their scripts, few are funny and some downright dull. Spike was funny. There was a great deal of laughter, except for one subject. He was down on Arabs. Keep in mind this was 1980, long before matters Islamic were an everyday discussion point.

Mr Milligan got much exercised over the behaviour of wealthy Middle Eastern businessmen who came to London to play. He related an incident of a young attractive woman he knew who had been drugged, raped by two men and dumped out of a car. It was for me a new slant on race relations. I was uncomfortable, but he was on a roll. A little investigation later showed he was not necessarily wrong, and were he to still be alive it’s not difficult to imagine what he would be saying about the state of Britain today.

A few years later Sir Harry Secombe, who along with Spike was a comedic genius on the Goon Show, was at a nearby table in a Double Bay, Sydney restaurant. Not one to miss an opportunity, I utilised his proximity to organise an interview. If Spike was a baptism of fire, there was an upside. If that was as wild and uncontrollable as it got, I was prepared for anything. And if there was one that might have thrown me in those earlier years, it was Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher on low volume
The year was 1982, the Falklands War. Prime Minister Thatcher was fighting not only overseas but also on the home front with the media. She had not given an electronic interview for three months, refusing to deal with the BBC. For some reason she decided to talk to me. The support that the Muldoon government had given her undoubtedly had something to do with it.

So I found myself sitting in a studio in Broadcasting House in Wellington at 2.30 am waiting to be patched through to the prime minister of the ‘British Empire’. As we were to discover, the office at Number 10 Downing Street is full of anti-bugging devices. Not surprisingly we began the interview, ‘Prime Minister, good morning’ — well, how else? Mrs Thatcher was low volume and the technician at my end tried to boost the level. I plunged ahead, knowing this was a one-off chance and you don’t waste the time of Number 10. But reception got worse and eventually after asking her to speak up a couple of times the tech shook his head.

Taking a deep breath, I interrupted and explained the situation. Surprisingly, she was understanding of the problem and waited patiently while we attempted to fix it. I was half expecting her to say she had pressing issues and needed to go. Eventually, we carried on and she explained aspects of the war, appreciation of New Zealand’s support and we covered one or two other areas that now escape me.

Not surprisingly, British radio and television were antsy for obvious reasons; and while in the greater scheme of things it is of little consequence, ask anyone in the business what it’s like to trump the opposition, in this case most of the world’s English-speaking electronic media.

Not reading Jeffrey Archer
The year of 1983 was memorable for who it threw up for interview. In the space of a week we were visited by three internationally famous, if not acclaimed, authors. First to arrive was Jeffrey Archer, and this proved to be an experience. Unashamedly, I don’t often read books before an interview. Yeah, I know — what an unprofessional admission. Certainly I look at them, although there has been the occasion I haven’t. Archer came through the studio door and we were introduced. The book was The Prodigal Daughter.

‘Have you read the book?’


‘Have you read any of my books?’


Turning to his company rep he remarked, ‘What bloody show is this?’, at which point the ad break finished.

I dropped into my seat, slammed open the mike and said, ‘Jeffrey Archer, good morning.’

With little choice he sat down and responded. Stuff the book. I’ve learned that the author, and we’re talking fiction here, is what sells the book. I don’t think we mentioned the book apart from that was why he was here. We talked British politics, world events, his life and any other tangents that took our fancy.

We extended his time. After he left his rep returned with an invitation for dinner. When next I met him it was in Adelaide in 1985. He told me that his diary recorded that the interview with me was the best of his whole world tour. Now, Mr Archer, as I have discovered, is a wonderful flatterer. However, on this
occasion I prefer to accept him at his word.

The lady of Lace
Shirley Conran was renowned for her classic book Superwoman. I remember her for her strength of character. I perceived her to be a small ‘f’ feminist who retained her femininity. She was doing the international circuit promoting her novel Lace, which would later be made into a mini-series in the US. Lace was salacious, as were a number of books at the time, particularly from British authors. Think Jackie Collins, for example.

In writing this book I have enjoyed making numerous Google visits to check on where some of these people are now. A few are dead; others — well, Shirley Conran is alive and kicking. Here is a story from the Daily Mail dated August 2012. The author, Jenny Johnston, interviewed Conran, who is about to turn 80. In answer to a question about whether her sex life was as important to her as portrayed in the book, Conran replied, ‘What do you mean was? That part of me is not dead.’ And then she explains she had to have the TV moved from the foot of her bed otherwise it would get kicked.

Lace’s opening words are ‘Scrape, scrape, scrape,’ being the description of an abortion. And the opening chapter ended with ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’ It was re-released last year on its 30th anniversary. You may be wondering why I have included all this extraneous detail. It happened that my mother was visiting at the time and she had listened to the programme, as always when here. As soon as I walked through the door she demanded, ‘Did you bring the book home?’ Producing it to confirm yes, she pounced on it. That night she read it without stopping, until finished. She didn’t go to bed
until dawn.

This was my dear sweet, late-50s mother who didn’t drink, smoke, use bad language or have affairs. The strongest substance she ever had was coffee and I was unaware of her fiction reading because all I ever saw was the business pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and a couple of magazines. But here she was the next day having discovered a novel that was literally tagged a ‘bonk buster’. And as if it wasn’t obvious, she admitted to being
fascinated by it.

From this I learned two things. I didn’t know my mother as well as I thought and surprises can come out of left field. Second, it confirmed again that it’s the conversations with and about authors that sell their books. Shirley was the magnet. I hadn’t read Lace and we hardly touched on its contents.

The third author within seven days was Douglas Adams, famous for A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sadly, I didn’t sync with Adams. He was a cult author, but I couldn’t relate and I’m sure it must have been me that was the problem.

Another author I looked forward to spending time with, years later, was PJ O’Rourke. A very astute observer of political matters, O’Rourke had often had me chuckling with his written commentary. He can still do it. And we share the same side of the political divide. However, he was not an easy interview and at the writer’s lunch held at the Regent, Auckland, he simply read from the book — and rather poorly at that.

Having said the above, I think occasionally allowance should be made for other factors. We all professionally, or otherwise, have our off days and New Zealand is a long way for anyone doing endless tours and ‘not another interview’.

The memorable but unknown 'W'
Speaking of bad days reminds me of W Mitchell, a name not universally well known but once introduced, never forgotten. ‘W’, who had more than his share of bad days, is responsible for one of the great quotes — ‘It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it.’ W Mitchell lived through two serious accidents and survived serious injuries.

I first read about him in Anthony Robbins’ book Unlimited Power. ‘W’ was in New Zealand for some seminars so I got to see his injuries and question him about his life. He had done many, probably thousands, of interviews so there was nothing I could ask that would surprise. There were some quite personal questions and he answered them by giving even more information than I was looking for.
Anthony Robbins’ book was published in 1986. In it he described ‘W’ in the following way:

"One of the most vital, strong and successful people I know … since his terrible motor cycle accident, he’s known more success and joy than most people know in a lifetime … he’s become a millionaire in business … he ran for Congress with the slogan, ‘Send me to Congress and I won’t be just another pretty face’ … he has a fabulous relationship with a very pretty woman."

‘W’ went under a truck on his bike, the petrol tank exploded and he suffered third-degree burns. After recovering and getting on in life he was in a plane crash that only just failed to kill him. When you meet W Mitchell you have to force yourself to not stare. His face has been totally rebuilt because of the burns from the bike crash. It is as bad as I’ve seen.

I met and interviewed a man who was not quite as described by Robbins. ‘W’ worked hard, tried to help others by talking about his own survival and, because he was a survivor and unique, was in demand as a guest speaker and motivator. But there was something else and it only appeared after we finished the interview.

Here is the great thing about radio. There are two of you in the studio. When the microphones are open, the whole world might be listening, but when the mikes are closed it’s just you and the interviewee. During the ad breaks the conversation often continues in a different way. Confidences are exchanged.
Prominent people will reveal things and the reverse is also true. I’ve told some total strangers (in the greater scheme of things) personal matters, because at the time it seemed to fit.

What I learned about W Mitchell was that he was lonely. Not just run-of-the-mill lonely but empty lonely. He needed love, like we all do. He needed someone to touch, not just physically but emotionally. And he confided in Carolyn [Smith's wife and radio producer] also because she makes you feel like you can. Both of us felt desperately for him and I do hope he has found what he most wanted.

The greatest political novelist
Although not known in New Zealand, I want to include Allen Drury. In my early days of ZB, before Newstalk, I dug Drury out and interviewed him a couple of times. Allen had been a political correspondent on Capitol Hill in Washington DC when in 1959 he wrote a novel, Advise & Consent, which became an instant best-seller and won him the Pulitzer Prize. A movie version starred an Oscar-worthy line-up including Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton, in his final role. While made in 1962, as late as 1991 it was praised as ‘By far the best political movie ever made in this country.’

Anyway, Drury wrote a couple of novels in the early 1980s on the Cold War and how it might conclude. Fortunately, it didn’t end the way he portrayed it might. He had the Soviets making the play. In 1986 I was passing through San Francisco where Drury lived, so at the end of an interview I issued a request to meet.

I was surprised that he agreed and surprised again when he suggested we lunch together. After all, what did he have to gain? As it turned out, I learned plenty from our lunch — his inside knowledge of US politics plus astuteness in international relations. As one commentator said of Drury, the media always played him down because of his ‘stated’ conservative views.

Porn star shock shot
Not surprisingly, whenever there is an interesting or famous guest, various and numerous folk in the building (and there are now over 300) appear from nowhere. Just to see, sometimes to try to meet and even on occasion to ask for a photo. On this particular day, there was a preponderance of folk who appeared, mostly male but a few women also.

I was interviewing a young woman from Las Vegas. She had a BA majoring in Communications from the University of Las Vegas and most of us didn’t even know that Las Vegas had a university. I had been to Las Vegas two or three times by then and had even thought of buying a home — they were very inexpensive. In 1983 I’d been to a talk station and talked employment. Seriously, they paid a pittance.

So it was of great interest to me regarding the university. Not so the onlookers. They were far more interested in her occupation, for my guest — her (stage) name was Ashlyn Gere — was a movie star. Well, actually, a porn movie star. A full-on, go the whole hog, porn movie star.

I first said no when she was offered but was encouraged to by Trish Carter, who was programme manager in Newstalk’s early days. It was worth doing to try to establish why a seemingly intelligent woman with a degree would choose to do porn. The answer seemed to be because she actually liked it. It was, however, when the interview was over and we went to the newsbreak that things took an unexpected turn.

Miss Gere had a very threatening-looking bodyguard who would have made her feel extremely safe. He had a Polaroid camera and had taken a couple of shots during our discussion.

‘Would you like a photo?’ she asked, and without waiting for a response came around to my side of the studio and sat on my lap. In doing so she pulled her top over her head and revealed she wore nothing underneath. Not knowing what to do, my hands were hanging down by the chair, so she took them and placed them firmly over her well-endowed, surgically enhanced breasts. Mr Universe took the photo.

The crowd in the control room — well, the guys were apoplectic, the girls laughing themselves silly.  Somewhere in a file or a bottom drawer that photo still exists, but I think we shall not include it in the book.

Celebrities are guests for a reason. They are looking for publicity for something, be it a book, a concert, a movie — it’s about promotion. The vast majority put on their best public face and mostly it’s genuine.

Eartha Kitt was, in her day, a big star. The first song of hers I heard was ‘Let’s Do It’, and it was the only version that mattered. It positively dripped with suggestion. But she had developed a reputation for — shall we be generous — being difficult. As I was to find out when she was gone, the woman in the studio was ‘all over me’ compared with her attitude beforehand with curt, sharp responses to Carolyn’s attempts to engage her — demands, for instance, for ‘rosewater with petals’ or something equally ludicrous. I think the term ‘nasty bitch’ might have been floating about. Brittle might be appropriate.

Not too far behind Miss Kitt I’d position a female author, and this one was a great surprise. The American Frances Mayes established herself by moving to Italy and publishing with huge international success the book Under the Tuscan Sun. While I love the book, and her following titles, the author was devoid of personality. At least she was in my studio. And it needs to be said that her experience with Italian craftsmen was quite contrary to mine. The temptation to address her complaining, about their unreliability and lack of service, by suggesting it might have something to do with her approach, was overwhelming.

But I refrained. Carolyn, who is rarely unkind to anyone, was most cutting after both these guests had gone.

Carrying on with Khan
Speaking of my producer, I have enjoyed watching the occasional reaction from some guests over the years. Carolyn is much loved by all who work with her. She is warm, friendly and intelligent, does a superb job and is not unattractive. As a result the odd approach has been forthcoming. The Pakistan cricketer Imran Khan was the first.

When she asked for an interview he would agree if she had lunch with him. She talked it over with two or three of us and the decision was to accept, for Khan was not just a sportsman but politically active. In the studio he did the interview with his dark glasses on and sitting sideways without looking at me. I wanted to slap him, at least verbally, but endured the rudeness. Carolyn had lunch with him at the Regent, avoided his advances and declined his astonishing invitation to accompany him back to Pakistan. A few years later he married Jemima Goldsmith who was not dissimilar in appearance to Carolyn.

Over the years there were others. Some would ask me during an ad break if she were attached, and I couldn’t blame them. Christiaan Barnard, the world’s first successful heart transplant surgeon and renowned womaniser, asked Carolyn to accompany him to the Bay of Islands. A very well known All Black proposed dinner after an interview and rang more than once trying to change her answer. With hindsight and considering how things have turned out, I find it all somewhat amusing.

Someone asked me recently, ‘Will you miss all this when you decide to hang up the microphone?’ The answer was: ‘What makes you think it will be my decision?’ (Actually, when Nigel Milan was CEO of the company, he said the programme was mine as long as I wanted it. I treated his remark with some considerable doubt but have to admit to having exceeded my expectations.) The short answer is yes, I will miss it. There have been and still are some exciting aspects to what a few of us are privileged to do. The number of famous and not-so-famous I’ve spent time with is amazing.

People like Rolf Harris and Barry Humphries, Kris Kristofferson and Michael Crawford and Jools Holland. Willie Nelson I only interviewed on the phone, so that hardly counts.

Meeting Barry and Edna
Barry Humphries and I go way back, except he didn’t know it. In my early teens, catching the overnighter from Sydney to Melbourne, I used to look intently at the houses when the train passed through the suburb of Moonee Ponds. Of course, that was where Edna Everage lived. A few years later at university in Canberra there was great excitement in the student union when Edna came to town. I have to confess my own disinterest at the time. Over the years I was aware of the trauma that seemed to occupy his life, being found passed out drunk in the gutter during a life down-cycle being an example.

Interviewing Humphries was a revelation. His memoir had just been published. What an extraordinary man he turned out to be. Highly intelligent, witty and sharp with a touch of self-deprecation — as a raconteur he was up with the best. We both came from Melbourne, so there was common ground. We had at least one friend we shared. On his ‘Goodbye’ world tour in 2012 he remembered details of our previous conversation that I had long since forgotten. Then on the spur of the moment I asked him if he knew my cousin Evan Jones, who is a poet of the cult variety. Not only did he, but he has a copy of Evan’s first volume in his book collection. Personally, I never understood a word my cousin wrote.

Clive James was another Australian lost to the Mother Country. After Sydney University he went to Oxford and from there to Fleet Street. He has all Humphries’ characteristics of wit, intelligence, articulateness and success. The excuse for our interview was his book Cultural Amnesia, a major tome numbering 900 pages. Using this book I want to exploit an ulterior motive.

Social media has turned everyone into a critic or commentator with, I think, detrimental results. If you were to look up Cultural Amnesia on Amazon you will find the usual reviews contributed by amateurs. They may have read the book, maybe not — maybe part of it. Maybe they like Clive James, maybe they don’t. How anyone could rate the book just one star is far beyond my comprehension. But some do and I just don’t get it.

The same applies to so much in life. If you don’t like something, don’t buy it, don’t read it, don’t listen to or watch it. I have learned to take little notice of others’ book pinions on Amazon and elsewhere. The principle that everyone’s opinion is equally valid is past its use-by date.

Appearing in a spy thriller
Some years ago, a friend expressed concern that I didn’t read fiction. I was too occupied with current events. That vacuum was soon to be rectified by a new author, Daniel Silva. President Bill Clinton and I have one thing in common: our favourite fictional character is Gabriel Allon, Daniel Silva’s complex combination of art restorer, assassin and spy. I discovered him about the fourth book in the series.

After I had interviewed Silva twice, his books started to sell in New Zealand. As a payback, he wrote me into Portrait of a Spy. It was just one mention, but imagine reading a novel and there you are — and it was wonderfully topical, for it involved a forged New Zealand passport. It’s been a pleasure to introduce Silva’s books to many people over the years.

Donald Trump’s opinions are far and away superior. If you want to check, just ask Donald — he has strong opinions on everything. Having decided we would like him on the programme, Carolyn went in search of an interview. With help from the Internet it’s now much simpler to find someone’s contact. But that’s the easy part. Getting past Mr Trump’s guard dogs was the challenge, but anyone wanting classes in how to be a top producer could adopt Carolyn as a role model.

At first he declined, then declined a second time. Persistence and charm, though, eventually won through and the producer got to speak to Mr Trump, who told her he was too busy, maybe some other time. When Donald eventually yielded, he acknowledged her attributes live on air, and in glowing terms.

A missed invitation
It was not long after we spoke that Donald Trump did a joint business deal with a man named Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. The book had become an international best-seller. But in the early 1990s Kiyosaki, then unknown, wrote If You Want to be Rich & Happy, Don’t Go To School, and the title attracted my interest, so we had him on the show. He made a number of visits to New Zealand and conducted a series of seminars. In fact, New Zealand became a ‘laboratory’ for developing his programmes.

We seemed to get on well and apart from being on air a few times we shared a meal. When the Holmes TV programme did a ‘hit-job’ on him (over an incident in a seminar when a woman was reduced to tears), he came to me for advice.

Kiyosaki, originally from Hawaii, had a ranch in mainland US and invited me to be his guest on numerous occasions. I couldn’t make it, but some time later I wrote to him about visiting. Eventually, I received a reply — a standard fan mail reply that went something like ‘Thank you for being a friend’. Whether or not he was aware of what had happened I don’t know, but the next request from the promoters for an interview was declined. Certainly, though, Mr Kiyosaki found fame and fortune.

Whitebait for Dr John
And then there is Mac Rebennack, aka Dr John. Sometimes life’s pleasures are unannounced. Walking into the River-tent at the 1989 New Orleans Jazz-fest, to see the Neville Brothers, Dr John had the stage. More than one New Zealand promoter tried to organise a tour, but it took until 2004 when Brian Richards put it together.

The Doctor spent an hour on the programme, which was too short — too short because it takes him so long to say anything. His guttural, laid-back Southern drawl makes him sound like he’s on drugs — which he was for much of his life. He is lucky to be alive after nearly dying on more than one occasion. In fact, the year before his 2010 visit the doctors thought he was a goner.

In 2004 we went to lunch at Sails, along with Brian Richards, his agent and some of his band, The Lower 9–11. And that’s when Mac discovered whitebait. In 2010 that’s all he wanted to eat, but being out of season it meant complications. Sails’ chef found some frozen whitebait at some ridiculous price and after me telling him it was off the menu, he was ecstatic.

There were just three of us lunching that day. For no reason that I could fathom, Mac said something I couldn’t quite grasp. On asking him to repeat it, he said, ‘Leighton, you a blessin’ in my life.’

Mac is not a pretentious man, but he is a showman. He’s had enough bad times for 20 men. In the 1960s he owned three brothels in the New Orleans French Quarter. Along with much of the New Orleans night-life, they were closed down by District Attorney Jim Garrison, the same Jim Garrison who prosecuted Clay Shaw for conspiracy in the JFK assassination.

Mac told me that prior to being elected District Attorney, Garrison was a party boy at those same establishments. Along with a lot of other entertainers, Mac was run out of his home city by Garrison. He moved to Los Angeles and it was there he adopted the persona of Dr John.

He spent time in a federal penitentiary in Texas for drug convictions. He lost a daughter and a number of friends to drugs. And his finger was shot off in a club during a struggle. Doctors reattached it, but not exactly straight. I think it was a wonderful highlight of his life for it was his bad finger that caused Mac to drop the guitar and concentrate on piano. And it’s his piano playing that I love most of all.

Back in 1989 when I saw him for the first time he had just gone dry. No drugs, no alcohol, and he’s never touched them again. The doctors told him he was going to die and he stopped. It was the same year that he changed musical genres and concentrated on what might be called American Classics for the next 20 years. That is the Dr John I love. They will play his version of ‘Blue Skies’ at my funeral — in 30 years.

Sean Connery, Mickey Rooney and Michael Caine are among a myriad of actors who passed through the studio over the years. Connery, the best and only James Bond, was reasonably tough work. He was here for business reasons, but we talked him into the studio. Sitting next to him at lunch I suppose was a privilege, but the conversation was stilted.

Michael Caine I’ve loved ever since his brilliant movie Alfie. Even so, it is extraordinary the number and quality of movies he has starred or appeared in.
However, the Oscar for my favourite actor interview goes to Charlton Heston. We interviewed on April 15, 1996, when he was touring and promoting his autobiography. That is the date he autographed his book, In the Arena, for me.

So why Heston as my favourite? Simple really — he was a conservative actor in the liberal snake pit that is Hollywood. He starred in so many classics. He never compromised his principles. He had bearing. And he was great to interview. Oh, and he was President of the American Rifle Association. Finally, for anyone who doesn’t know, he involved himself in the civil rights movement and was an active supporter of Martin Luther King. You could imagine Heston quite easily as one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution. He was a legend.

Which brings me back to answer the questions at the beginning of the chapter. I can’t answer the ‘best interview question’. It might be a cop-out, but there have been so many. The worst interview? I don’t want to answer — even the bad ones were worth it.Of anyone I could interview, past or present, the answer is Thomas Jefferson.

© Beyond the Microphone by Leighton Smith
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand 

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Comments and questions

A good read, but more of Leighton's personal life and relationships would have fleshed him out for the reader.