When Aarthi and I started doing the show and interviewing people, I read up on all the great interviewers - past and current - to learn the art of interviewing a person. Of all the things I read, the anecdote that stayed the most with me came from an unlikely source. In John le Carré autobiographical work The Pigeon Tunnel, he describes being interviewed on French TV by Bernard Pivot. These following lines have always stayed with me
Pivot has the most elusive quality of them all, the one that film producers and casting directors across the globe would give their eye-teeth for: a natural generosity of spirit, better known as heart. In a country famous for making an art form out of ridicule, Pivot lets his subject know from the moment he or she sits down that they’re going to be all right. And his audience feels that too. They’re his family
Here reproduced in full is “Bernard Pivot’s necktie”. The rest of the book is great, do buy it! Here’s a video of the actual appearance but do watch it after you’ve read the account below.
Few interviews are pleasurable. All are stressful, most are boring, and some are downright awful, particularly if your interviewer is a fellow countryman: the seasoned hack with a chip on his shoulder who hasn’t done his homework, hasn’t read the book, thinks he’s doing you a favour by making the journey and needs a drink; the aspiring novelist who thinks you’re second rate but wants you to read his unfinished typescript; the feminist who believes you’ve only made it big because you’re a plausible middle-class white male bastard, and you suspect she may be right.
Foreign journalists in my simple lexicon are by contrast sober, diligent, have read your book inside out and know your backlist better than you do - with the exception of the odd maverick such as the young Frenchman from L’Evénement du jeudi who, undeterred by my refusal to grant him an interview, ostentatiously staked out my Cornish house on foot, overflew it in a small low-flying aeroplane and reconnoitred it again from an inshore fishing boat before writing an article about his escapade that did full justice to his powers of invention.
Or there was the photographer - also French and young, but dispatched by some other magazine - who insisted that I inspect samples of his work before he took my portrait. Opening a greasy pocket album, he showed me photographs of such luminaries as Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth, and when I had dutifully admired each, fulsomely as is my way, he turned to his next exhibit which consisted of the rear view of an escaping cat with its tail raised.
‘You like cat’s arsehole?’ he demanded, keenly observing my reaction.
‘It’s a nice shot. Well lit. Fine,’ I replied, mustering whatever sangfroid I possessed.
His eyes narrowed and a smile of great cunning spread across his absurdly young face.
‘The cat’s arsehole is my test,’ he explained proudly. ‘If my subject is shocked, I know he is not sophisticated.’
‘And I am?’ I asked.
For his portrait he wanted a door. An outside door. Not of any particular character or colour, but a recessed door, with shadow. I should add that he was a very small man in stature, almost elfin, so much so that I was half inclined to offer to carry his large camera bag for him.
‘I don’t want to pose for a spy shot,’ I said with uncharacteristic firmness.
He dismissed my concerns. The door wasn’t about spies, it was about profundity. After some while we found one that met his strict criteria. I stood before it and looked straight into the lens as instructed. It was like no other I had ever seen: a half-globe, ten inches in diameter. He had dropped to one knee, with one eye glued to the eyepiece, when two very large men of Arab appearance drew to a halt behind him and addressed me over his back.
‘Excuse me, please,’ said one. ‘Can you tell us the way, please, to Hampstead Underground station?’
I was on the point of directing him up Flask Walk when my photographer, furious at having his concentration disturbed, swung round and, still on one knee, screamed a piercing ‘fuck off’ at them. Amazingly, they did.
Setting such incidents aside, my French interviewers over the years have, to repeat, displayed a sensitivity that their British counterparts would have done well to emulate: which is why, or how, on the island of Capri in 1987, I signed away my life to Bernard Pivot, the shining star of French cultural television, founder, creator and anchor-man of Apostrophes, a weekly literary talk show that for the last thirteen years had held la France entière in thrall at prime time every Friday evening.
I had come to Capri in order to collect a prize. So had Pivot. Mine was for writing, his for journalism. Now imagine Capri on a perfect autumn evening. Two hundred dinner guests, all beautiful, are gathered under a starlit sky. The food is divine, the wine nectar. At a high table for the honorands, Pivot and I exchange a few merry words. He is a man in his prime - early fifties, vivid, energetic, unspoiled. Noticing that he alone of all the men is wearing a tie, he makes a joke against himself, rolls it up and jams it in his pocket. The tie is significant.
As the evening progresses, he chides me for refusing his overtures to take part in his programme. I feign embarrassment, tell him I must have been going through one of my rejection periods - I was - and somehow manage to leave the matter unresolved.
At midday the next day we present ourselves at Capri’s town hall for the formal award ceremony. The lapsed diplomat in me cautions a suit and tie. Pivot dresses informally and discovers that, whereas last night he wore a tie and didn’t need to, today he wears no tie when all about him are wearing theirs. In his speech of acceptance he laments this lack of social graces, and points to me as the man who gets everything right but refuses to appear on his literary programme.
Carried away by this perfectly judged charm offensive, I spring to my feet, tear off my tie, hand it to him and, before a packed crowd of enthusiastic witnesses - for the sake of the drama if no other - tell him that it’s his, and that from now on he has only to show it to me and I will appear on his show. On the flight back to London next morning, I wonder whether promises made in Capri are legally binding. Within days I know they are.
I have committed myself to a live interview, in French, of seventy-five minutes’ duration, to be conducted by Bernard Pivot and three top-tier French journalists. There will be no prior discussion, no questions will be telegraphed in advance. But be prepared - thus my French publisher - for a wide-ranging debate covering all topics including politics, culture, literature, sex and whatever else comes into Bernard Pivot’s febrile mind.
And I have barely spoken a word of French since I last taught it at O-level thirty years earlier.
The Alliance Française occupies a pretty corner house in Dorset Square. I drew a breath and entered. At the reception desk sat a young woman with short hair and large brown eyes.
‘Hullo,’ I said. ‘I wondered whether I could arrange to brush up my French?’
She stared at me in stern bewilderment.
‘Quoi?’ she said, and we took it from there._
First, in whatever French remained to me, I spoke to Rita, then I spoke to Roland, and finally to Jacqueline, I think in that order. At the mention of Apostrophes they sprang into action. Rita and Jacqueline would take turns with me. It would be an immersion course. Rita - or was it Jacqueline? - would concentrate on my spoken French, help shape my responses to predicted questions. Jacqueline, in collaboration with Roland, would plan our military campaign. On the principle of ‘know your enemy’, they would make a study of Pivot’s psychology, document his tradecraft and preferred areas of discussion, and keep a tight hold on the influx of daily news. The producers of Apostrophes set store by the programme’s topicality.
To this end, Roland assembled an archive of old Apostrophes episodes. The rapidity and wit of the participants’ exchanges terrified me. Without telling my tutors, I furtively enquired whether I might after all insist on an interpreter. Pivot’s reply was instantaneous: on the strength of our conversations in Capri, he was convinced we could manage. My three other interrogators were to be Edward Behr, polyglot journalist and celebrated foreign correspondent, Philippe Labro, well-known author, journalist and film director, and Catherine David, respected literary journalist.
My distaste for interviews of any kind is not an affectation, even if now and then I give in to the temptation or bow to the pressure of my publishers. The celebrity game has nothing whatever to do with writing, and is played out in a quite different arena. I was always aware of that. A theatrical performance, yes. An exercise in self-projection, certainly. And from the publishers’ point of view, the best promotional free ticket in town. But it can destroy talent as fast as it promotes it. I’ve met one writer at least who, after a full year of promoting his work worldwide, feels permanently drained of creativity, and I fear he may be right.
In my own case, there were two elephants in my room from the day I started writing: my father’s lurid career which, if anyone had cared to make the connection, was a matter of public record; and my intelligence connections, which I was forbidden to discuss, both by law and by personal inclination. The feeling that interviews were as much about what to conceal as what to say was therefore rooted in me well before I embarked on a literary career.
All this in parentheses as I take my place on the platform of a packed studio in Paris and enter the land of serene unreality that lies just the other side of the fence from stage fright. Pivot produces my tie, and with gusto tells the story of how he came by it. The crowd loves it. We discuss the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. A clip from the movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold provides respite. So also do the lengthy contributions of my three interrogators, which tend to be more like mission statements than questions. We discuss Kim Philby, Oleg Penkovsky, the perestroika, glasnost. Did my team of advisers at Alliance Française cover these subjects during our operational briefings? Evidently it did, because by the look of me I’m reciting from memory. We admire Joseph Conrad, Maugham, Greene and Balzac. We ponder Margaret Thatcher. Was it Jacqueline who tutored me in the rhythm of the French rhetorical paragraph - state the thesis, turn it on itself, enlarge with your own summation? Whether it was Jacqueline, Rita or Roland, I protest my thanks to all three and the crowd again erupts.
Watching Pivot perform in real time before a live audience that is free-falling under his spell, it’s not hard to understand how he has achieved something no other television character on earth has come within shouting distance of imitating. This isn’t just charisma. This isn’t just energy, charm, deftness, erudition. Pivot has the most elusive quality of them all, the one that film producers and casting directors across the globe would give their eye-teeth for: a natural generosity of spirit, better known as heart. In a country famous for making an art form out of ridicule, Pivot lets his subject know from the moment he or she sits down that they’re going to be all right. And his audience feels that too. They’re his family. No other interviewer, no other journalist of the few I now recall, has left such a deep mark on me.
The show is over. I may leave the studio. Pivot must remain on stage while he reads out church notices for next week. Robert Laffont, my publisher, guides me quickly into the street, which is empty. Not one car, not one passer-by, not one policeman. On a perfect summer’s night, all Paris is wrapped in slumber.
‘Where is everybody?’ I ask Robert.
‘Still watching Pivot, of course,’ he replies contentedly.
Why do I tell this story? Maybe because I like to remind myself that, amid all the ballyhoo, this was a night of my life to remember. Of all the interviews I gave, and the many I regret, this is one I’ll never take back.