I was tooling around writing the odd feature for a variety of publications and running my own light removal business (basically Man and a Van) when I unexpectedly got a call from my friend Suzan Davies. She’d worked in TV and Radio for a while and had recently landed a job as a producer in the BBC’s Religious Broadcasting department. As a result of the usual BBC quirks, she’d been asked to produce an evening show for Radio 1 and wanted to know if I fancied working as a researcher on the programme. She said that they were basically looking for someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music and felt that I fitted the bill nicely. I told her I’d have to think about it…….beat…… ok when do I start?
I turned up at BBC Broadcasting House to discuss what was required with Suzan and her senior producer, David Winter. I was hired to research for one day a week at the rate of £30.00. I was left in no doubt that I would be required to work more than one day a week in actuality, but that was how things worked at the mothership of broadcasting. When we finished talking David asked me if I would pop into his office for a chat. He told me that they were also looking for someone who could interview celebrities for soundbyte inserts in the programme and did I think I could do that? He explained that doing this would increase my earning potential considerably, which sounded good so I said I was sure I could do that. He asked me if I’d ever used a Uher and I was mystified as to why he wanted to know if I could use a carpet sweeper (the Ewbank was a very popular brand of carpet sweeper, at the time), but just said that of course I had!
It turned out that a Uher was a BBC standard issue, reporter’s tape machine. Sensing my misplaced bravado, I think, he said it would be best if he sent me on a ‘Uher familiarisation’ course anyway.
He then told me that they’d been trying to organise an interview with Muhammed Ali, who was making an appearance at a benefit show for Welsh boxer Joe Erskine, at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London. Apparently all their requests had met with a negative response but he asked me if I thought I may be able to get an interview. He handed me two comps to the event and I said I would try my best.
I did the ‘Uher familiarisation’ course, which lasted all of fifteen minutes and plotted how I might be able to wangle an interview with the most famous person who’d ever lived!
I turned up at The Rainbow Theatre on the Saturday morning of the benefit, not knowing my arse from my elbow, but absolutley determined to get my interview. I managed to track down Ali’s PR and they more or less laughed at my request for an interview, saying that the world and his wife wanted an interview with The Greatest. They told me that they would be doing just two interviews, one with ITN and one with BBC TV News, so I’d just have to to arrange to take my sound from them. I was told that the ITN interview would take place at 1300 and the BBC News one at 13.10.
Not sure how to proceed, I hatched a plan! I tracked down BBC News reporter Kate Adie, introduced myself and asked her if it was possible for me to tag onto the end of her interview, as we were both batting for the same team as it were. She looked me straight in the eye and said:
No more, no less and then she went off to talk to one of her cronies.
There was little chance of me doorstepping Ali, ie. getting next to him and presenting him with a microphone, as he was surrounded by ‘minders’. I then hit on another ‘plan’.
I walked out to the lobby where there was a bank of payphones and called a photographer friend of mine. I asked him how he’d fancy taking some pictures of Muhammed Ali and explained I was at the benefit and had a spare pass. He said he’d love to, but wasn’t sure he could get there in time as he lived in Luton. It was about 11.30 so I told him to grab his camera, catch the next train and get a cab from the station, which I’d pay for. He said he was already out the door!
It was about 12.50 before he turned up to find me waiting, in an extremely anxious state, by the entrance doors to the theatre. I quickly explained the logistics of my plan, without filling him on the reasoning behind it. He looked at me as if I was barking, but consented on the basis that any madcap plan was worthwhile if it got him some prime pics of The Greatest Boxer the world has ever known!
At 13.15 precisely, five minutes before I anticipated the BBC News interview ending, I went to the edge of the massive throng surrounding Ali, pushed my photographer friend in front of me and commanded him to ‘walk’. What I haven’t told you so far is that my friend Sylvester was a giant of a black man from Oklahoma. As he walked through the crowd, with gruff ‘excuse me sirs’, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. We ended up, without any perceived objection, at the elbow of Ali, who was being interviewed by the delightful Kate. As I’d hoped, all the minders etc., had just presumed Sylvester was another member of the Ali entourage and so had given way.
The second Kate withdrew her microphone, I slipped mine under Ali’s nose and said “Radio 1, can I have a few words”!
He just said “Yeah sure”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see his PR people waving their arms in the ‘no’ signal, but I had a hunch they wouldn’t interrupt The Greatest in mid-flow. Muhammed talked to me for ten minutes answering all my questions and doing his familiar media routine about being The Greatest and the prettiest boxer the world has ever seen. At the end of his spiel, he put his arm around me and said in an extremely humble manner:
“Is that ok for you, because I can do some more if you like?”
I assured him that was fine and switched off my tape recorder.
I moved away and removed the tape from the machine, putting the prized reel in my bag for safe-keeping. I’m sure I slept with that tape under my pillow for the next two nights!
I watched as Muhammed accepted every request from members of the audience for photographs with him, many of which involved him dandling their babies and small children on his knee. I have rarely seen such humility in a world famous ‘celebrity’.
On the Monday morning I trekked down to Portland Place and walked into David Winter’s office and he motioned me to sit down. He asked me how it had gone. I explained what had happened with the PR people and Kate Adie and assured him I’d tried my best. He said never mind at least you tried. I got up to leave and as I was opening his office door I turned to him and said :
He said “Yes”
“You didn’t ask me if I got the interview”
He looked at me with a stare of disbelief and said:
I told him I did and then sat back down to explain the rest of what had happened. Without even listening to my tape he told me:
“Young man, you’ve just got yourself a job”
He later told me that he would have given me the job anyway, simply based on my efforts, even if I hadn’t got the interview and was completely amazed that I’d actually pulled it off.
I’m convinced that Mohammed Ali realised very quickly that I was a greenhorn, but gave me his time because he recognised another ‘fighter’. I am of the opinion that Mohammed Ali is one of the greatest people who’s ever walked this planet, not so much because of his boxing which is a brutal sport, but because he used his fame in an effective way to fight racism and downtrodden people in general. When he was asked why he refused to fight in Vietnam, resulting in him being stripped of the boxing World Championship crown, he answered:
“Because no Vietnamese ever called me nigger”.
In those few words, he summed up the gross stupidity of racism and moved the cause of Black Americans, in their fight for equality, on in leaps and bounds. Yes racism still exists, but without Ali I don’t think we’d be anywhere near where we are, in terms of not discriminating against people because of their race or the colour of their skin.
The boxing commentator Harry carpenter’s friendship with Ali is well documented. When I had Harry as a guest on a TV programme years later, he was quite offish with me until I mentioned that I’d interviewed Ali and talked about how he’d treated me, whereupon he more or less welcomed me as a member of a very exclusive family and I know exactly why. Interviewing Muhammed Ali was an absolute privilege. To my mind he will always be The Greatest.
The Boxer, written by Paul Simon also fits into The Greatest category as far as I’m concerned. For my money, it is not only The Greatest song ever written by one of The Greatest songwriters of our times, but is one of The Greatest songs ever written in the canon of popular music.