21 March 2009

"Humiliation, that's what you need..."

Our village hall still has one of the original Roy Castle Clean Air stickers in its window, having proudly (and pompously) banned smoking within following the ex-Record Breakers host's campaign during his last months to get smoking banned in public places.

His dying wish was, of course, granted as law a couple of years back. My personal belief is that the smoking ban has ruined pubs and clubs, but that's another issue entirely. Each time I walk the dogs past the village hall and see that sign, it reminds me a great story from my time as a hack.

Castle was from Huddersfield originally, the town where I worked as a rubbish agency reporter between 1993 and 1998. Upon his diagnosis with lung cancer, he immediately began to embark upon his campaigns to research specifically into lung cancer and rid public places of the risks caused by passive smoking, as this was the proffered explanation for how he caught the disease. He had been a lifelong non-smoker but had spent many years playing the trumpet in smoky venues.

Part of the campaign was a Tour of Hope, as he called it. This was deliberately timed to coincide with his terminal decline to add extra poignancy and give him something of a positive send-off. His wife, Fiona, became a major figurehead and much praised individual as she dealt with media inquiries while having to watch her husband get closer to death in public.

The tour involved a coach travelling the nation, handing out leaflets and giving speeches and interviews and generally spreading the word that people should be protected in public places from other people's smoke. Press campaigns got Castle to stick dogends on his chemotherapy-assisted bald pate, which were helpful but a little disconcerting, but there's no doubt that the media responded and the publicity was vast.

The timing of the tour itself was deliberate, as was the final venue - Huddersfield. Castle was well-loved in his hometown even though he'd not lived there for years. He had been born in 1932 in Scholes, a tiny village on the edge of Holmfirth, and had done his early dancing at a tap class in the town.

Now, by the time the coach was due in Huddersfield, Castle was very weak. His declining strength had rendered him unable to dismount the coach at previous venues to carry out interviews and press the flesh. Therefore, his people had hired Simon Bates to act as spokesperson for Castle, and his job would be to say hi to the crowds and then do the individual media interviews.

So the coach pulls into Huddersfield railway station, one of the more beautiful stations in the country, and polite applause greeted Castle as he waved out of the window. Bates jumped off the coach, clutching the vehicle's microphone (the one that was probably used to say: "on your right, Cooper Bridge auto-spares where Peter Sutcliffe got his false number plates" as the party left the M62) and gave a brief but positive little spiel to quite a large crowd. He explained that Castle had not spoken on the last handful of stops around the country, but as this was his hometown and the last one of the tour before he went home, he would be doing so.

This brought some nice applause. Meanwhile, me and the assembled local hacks were behind a cordon, desperate to get some audio. Sue Cain, a skilled reporter from BBC Radio Leeds, flashed a winning smile at a security man which was enough to get her under the rope and her labelled mic was soon poking round the corner of the coach as Castle began to address the crowd from his seat, with the window open.

I can only remember his first line: "By, it's grand to be home!"

Anyway, he gave his speech and got wildly applauded, and then it was time for Bates to do the individual interviews. As a newspaper hack, I didn't need to talk to him individually as I could just make notes from his replies to one of the radio hacks. So as Sue interviewed him, I scribbled in my best Teeline the wise, earnest words of Bates. I can't recall him saying "But what was the year?" once...

Afterwards, a small throng of us were comparing notes when we noticed that Christa Ackroyd, famed host of Yorkshire TV's nightly Calendar programme, had turned up. It was the middle of the afternoon so she wasn't doing a live broadcast but she was swanning around through the cordons in a way the other folk representing media organisations were not allowed.

A few mumbles among the rest of us had begun when we noticed an elderly lady, in full overcoat and hat, approach her, clutching a notebook and pen. They were close enough for the conversation to be heard.

"Excuse me, are you Christa Ackroyd?"

She noticed the autograph book and immediately plastered on the smile she keeps for the proles.

"Yes I am."

The old lady nervously shuffled closer.

"You're Christa Ackroyd who's on the telly every night?"

"Yes I am."

By now, Ackroyd was trying to coax the woman into thinking she was quite approachable, quite normal and more than happy to be asked for her autograph.

The woman got braver.

"I wonder if you could do me a big favour?"

Ackroyd now had a look on her face which seemed to just say "for God's sake YES! Just give me the book!"

"Of course, my love."

The woman paused, shoved the book and pen at Ackroyd and asked:

"Would you get me Simon Bates' autograph?"

Well, I've never seen a face drop as quickly as Ackroyd's did. I can only compare it to those old films which feature the Golden Gate bridge suddenly collapsing into the strait and floating away, cars and all, to the Pacific. The gaggle of earwigging hacks of which I was part was in silent hysterics, trying to conceal our mirth by swiftly walking away to a safe distance before letting it all out. I have no idea whether Ackroyd took the book to Bates or just stormed off in a huff. I don't suppose either ending matters because the plot was just so perfect, although I'm sure she did the right thing as on the one subsequent occasion I did meet her, she was very civil and perfectly fine.

I got a smattering of copy in a couple of broadsheets the next day and Sue Cain became a good mate until I left Huddersfield. I think she's in Scotland now. Roy Castle died just weeks after his visit.


Louis Barfe said...

Smashing. Almost to the end, I was convinced it was going to be a Bates story. Talking of whom, I appear to have lost my copy of his autobiography My Tune. I'm a sucker for a DJ autobiog.

Chris A Tye said...

Ah, Christa Ackroyd. If she ever dies, Boots make-up division would go into liquidation within about half an hour. Shame that wasn't on a live broadcast.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this. You are a good story teller.