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My bet with John Lennon

My bet with John Lennon

In the 1970s I had become freelance and had been commissioned to write a book called “Plan your export drive”. Always with an eye to promotion and marketing, I had included a chapter entitled “Business gifts and bribery”. I had learnt from many interviews with British exporters that when they were bidding for multi-million-pound contracts overseas, they were often up against competition from unscrupulous foreign suppliers who built a few million pounds extra into their prices to be used as promises of backhanders to people who could smooth approval of the contract.

An early copy of the book was sent to Cliff Michelmore, presenter of the TV current affairs programme called “Tonight” which went out at 6pm every weekday. He duly pounced on the chapter about unfair competition in world trade and invited me to appear for an interview on “Tonight”.

I arrived at the BBC TV Lime Street Studios near Shepherds Bush, West London, and was ushered into its equivalent of the Green Room. There were 5 or 6 guests waiting to be interviewed. I remember that one was a Swedish chap with some comments to give on English manners and there was also John Lennon, already at that time at the height of fame as a Beatle. He was to be interviewed on his new book of comic poetry called “A Spaniard in the Works”.

One by one the guests were called out to appear on the programme, live, until there were just three people left – me and John Lennon and a young BBC girl in a 60s miniskirt, whose job was to look after us.

“Where’s the lav?” John asked the girl and she led us down a corridor and pointed to the loo door. Then she waited outside, obviously apprehensive in case we might do a bunk and disappear before we had appeared on the show.

John and I stood next to each other, using the urinal. “I bet you sell more copies of your book than I sell of mine”, I suggested by way of conversation.

John looked down on me with some scorn. “I’d sell more of mine if there was nothing between the covers”, he said.

Back in the Green Room, there was a television set on one side of the room. It was showing the Tonight programme live. John asked the BBC girl if we could watch ITV instead.

“Oh”, she said, probably never having been asked that before. “I’ll have to change the aerial.” To do that she had to kneel on the settee opposite ours and reach right over to almost floor level to plug into a socket. John stared at the enticing rear view she presented and gave me a big nudge.

Red in the face, the BBC girl got back on her feet and fiddled with the monitor to get a better ITV picture.

“Oh”, said John to the girl. “That’s not much cop. Can you change it back to BBC?” And he gave me another big nudge as the girl duly obliged by stretching back over the back of the sofa.

John was next to be called and I watched on the monitor as he joked around with Cliff Michelmore and then it was my turn. I was led up some stairs and through a poorly lit backstage area where the floor was writhing with wires and cables. Then I was plonked on a chair in front of Cliff Michelmore and quizzed about how rife bribery was in international business. He asked if all countries practised it and I said something to the effect that in countries like Sweden it probably wouldn’t be necessary to offer bribes. He then asked me what British exporters should do and I suggested that to be on level terms, perhaps they should make funds available to their sales agent in the foreign market and leave it to them to do whatever was customary and acceptable locally.

Then, as if only a few seconds had passed, I was finished. It had been a 4-minute interview. As I walked away from my chair, the Swedish guest called to me: “Don’t think it doesn’t happen in Sweden, too!”

Then I heard Cliff Michelmore rounding off. “This is the final programme for Tonight. We shall be back next week at the later time of 10pm with a new current affairs show called “Twenty Four Hours”.

I had been the very last person ever to be interviewed on the nationally famous Tonight programme. It was being closed down. I had been so tense after a live interview on national television that I almost thought I was responsible for its demise.

I never saw John Lennon again, but I think it’s a safe bet he did sell more copies.

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