Interview: Paul Gambaccini, American-British radio and television presenter
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Radio DJ Paul Gambaccini has secured a payout from prosecutors over unfounded allegations of historical sex offences. The presenter, 69, was arrested in 2013 over a claim he sexually assaulted two teenage boys in the early 1980s. Mr Gambaccini always denied the claims, calling the case “completely fictitious”. He spent a year on bail before the case was dropped. Two years later he gave this interview to Katie Jarvis
I’m about to begin interviewing Paul Gambaccini in the green room at the splendid Blenheim Palace Literary Festival, when – get this… Daniel Finkelstein bounds up the stairs.
“Hello, Paul!” he enthuses, sitting beside us both (greeting me equally kindly).
The UK’s most brilliant music presenter (one might well argue); and the Times associate editor/brilliant political columnist (with whom many do, indeed, argue).
With no disrespect whatsoever, this is a BOGOF beyond compare.
What’s more – they start to chat about the Beatles!
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Birthday, Christmas, and all that.
Yesterday, they were both (separately) at media screenings of Beatles videos – some never seen before; some terrible quality, now restored: all part of a new box-set.
“Hey Bulldog – how about that!” Daniel marvels. “I was with Mark Lewisohn [Beatles expert-beyond-compare] and you would have thought he’d have seen enough Beatles in his life; but he was completely…”
“Yeah! I’ve never seen that Hey Bulldog before. Nobody had!” Paul turns to me to explain. “No one had ever seen it before because no one had realised it was Hey Bulldog.” The story goes that the Fab Four – in their larky Liverpool way – filmed the music video for Lady Madonna while actually singing Hey Bulldog. But no one twigged for decades.
“And Hey Bulldog is one of my three or four favourite Beatles songs,” Daniel finishes, while noticing that Paul and I (accidentally) spontaneously look doubtful. “Which you may regard as eccentric…” he concedes.
“And Your Bird Can Sing,” I venture. “Which,” I point out to Paul, “you chose on
Desert Island Discs. In 2002.”
“I can’t remember what date it was,” he replies.
“She’s just out Gambaccini-ed Paul Gambaccini!” Daniel hoots.
Birthday, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Ah, yes. Because, larkiness aside, that’s what we’re here for.
We’re here not to talk about Hey Bulldog. Nor to talk about the fact that, for example, Paul Gambaccini got Paul McCartney’s first post-Beatle interview (Rolling Stone, 1973). Or that he was named Philanthropist of the Year in 1995. Or his Sony Radio awards for his BBC work. Or that this clever man turned down places at Harvard, Yale and Princeton for a degree from Dartmouth in his native USA, which he rounded off with scholarships from Oxford. Though we should be.
Instead... Instead. We’re here to talk about the moment Paul Gambaccini’s two-tone doorbell tolled, at 4.38am on October 29, 2013. He only hears the second tone – thinks he must be dreaming. Nightmare. Because, of course, it is the Met – two officers to arrest him, and a posse to search his London home. He is given enough time to put on a blue suit and his wedding shirt, and to kiss Christopher, his husband, goodbye.
“Make them like you,” Christopher says. “I love you.”
And then Paul is taken down to the Underworld, aka Charing Cross Police Station, where he has to wait for hours for a solicitor first to awaken and then to arrive. (The fiendish point of the early-morning call, by the way, is to catch someone unawares about something they may or may not have done 30 years-or-so previously. No flies on those police officers.)
No, we’re here to talk about the year Paul spent under Operation Yewtree – never charged with any offences; bailed and rebailed seemingly endlessly - and the agonising (moderate, contemplative) book he has written as a result: Love, Paul Gambaccini.
The funny thing is that the doorbell chime wasn’t a surprise. The Jimmy Savile failures were appalling – no one can deny that. But the moment Paul Gambaccini read that the Met had set up a dedicated website, encouraging members of the public to accuse celebrities of sexual offences, he figured it was just a matter of time.
In Paul’s case, he was arrested for three alleged sexual offences “at a flat belonging to the neighbour of Mr Gambaccini”.
“Not one thing was true except that I did have a neighbour in the year 1978.”
As we sit in the green room, looking back over that traumatic year, it seems a lifetime away. A lifetime in which many friends – Elton John, Stephen Fry, Andrew Lloyd Webber among them – fought his corner, even at their own expense. In which (mainly right-wing, ironically) newspaper commentators such as Daniel Finkelstein questioned the absurdities of his position. In which the public proved endlessly supportive. And, at the end of which, the allegations were dropped, as ephemeral as snowflakes that melt on contact with solid ground.
“The police completely overlooked the nature of the relationship between the celebrity and the public,” Paul tells me, as he sits, sipping water (ever the clean-living teetotaller). “Whereas the man in the street is known to the people he’s met in his life, the celebrity is known to as many as he’s met in his life and millions of others, for some of whom he has satisfied emotional needs. Every celebrity I’ve known has had a fantasist or a stalker of some variety.”
Indeed, as Paul relates in his book, on the same day (post-arrest) that he is hysterically begged not to attend the launch of a book about Top of the Pops, he has dinner with Derren Brown at the Wolseley, who tells him, “There was a woman who thought we were married, to the point where she maintained a marital
home. One day she suddenly realised I wasn’t her husband and she was really married to [the actor] Antony Sher.”
Paul laughs, albeit hollowly. “All of my celebrity friends have had somebody – and this includes unattractive people; this is not limited to beauties. They fall in in love with the voice, for example.”
The book – mostly in the form of diaries, written contemporaneously – is a revelation. Both to the reader, and to Paul Gambaccini himself. Because it’s the kind of year when you find out who your true friends are. Though actually, as the police work their darnedest to make these baseless allegations stick (flying to New York and LA to interview friends and acquaintances Paul himself hasn’t seen in decades), it’s not people who fail him. It’s organisations.
A long-time supporter of Amnesty International, he’s amazed when the charity quietly fails to return his phone calls asking for help. (Clearly, wrongful arrest is only an abomination if it’s east of Afghanistan.) The National Theatre, despite years of support from Paul, never bothers to call, except to ask for money.
Worst of all is the Labour Party. For 25 years, he actively and faithfully supported them, only taking “a walk round the block” during the Iraq War. Yet they blocked him on his arrest. And, when Stephen Fry spoke out against Operation Yewtree at a Labour fundraiser in front of Keir Starmer [the former DPP]: “Stephen went back to his seat, next to Miliband’s, and Miliband turned to him with, ‘I can’t believe you said that’. Whereas Neil Kinnock went over and hugged him.
“Anybody who puts their personal ambition ahead of justice is unworthy of political position.”
Don’t think it’s all bleak reading, though.
For there are some very funny moments in the diaries. Such as the time the late DJ Mike Smith heard a fellow presenter disparaging his wife, Sarah Greene, on live radio. He waited until a record was put on, before barging into the studio and starting to strangle the man in question, adding, “Next time, I won’t stop!”
(“Which DJ was that?” Daniel asks. Paul names a famous broadcaster, well known for discussing colleagues’ private lives on air. “Everybody at one point or
another has a great story about X. Bob Harris [as a Radio 1 presenter] needed to get to the train station and X said he’d give him a lift. They got halfway there when Bob said something that rubbed him up the wrong way. X told him, “Get out!” And he just made him get out of the car, in the middle of nowhere, even though Bob had no idea where he was. Loopy.”)
There are also more unfunny revelations than one interview can possibly mention.
• Sandi Toksvig being approached by the police and asked if she would like to complain about anyone. A-n-y-o-n-e;
• Names of the (often innocent) accused being leaked to newspapers by police officers;
• The Orwellian language used by police and the CPS in which ‘complainants’ become ‘victims’ (why bother with the legal process at all?);
• Paul’s work drying up at the exact moment he needs to find tens of thousands in legal fees: his loss, he calculates, is more than £200,000. And that’s not counting
loss that cannot be valued: privacy; reputation (at least for a time); peace of mind; respect for the law. And all for a ‘case’ the police finally admit had a three-to-five percent chance of conviction: “All the jurors would have had to show up drunk on the same day,” is Paul’s summation.
The ultimate coup de (dis)grâce? For me, it’s when it’s finally announced that there will be ‘no further action’. And, as they drop the (non) action, the Crown Prosecution Service – for the very first time – specifically detail the charges that were never brought: “There is insufficient evidence to prosecute in relation to allegations of sexual offences made by two males believed to be aged between 14 and 15 at the time of the alleged offending.”
So these are the things that Paul Gambaccini didn’t do.
So this is the smear that will stay with him to the grave and beyond.
Don’t think of an elephant.
Reading Paul Gambaccini’s book, I cannot believe his prose is so measured. “I lived through McCarthyism as a boy. I saw the Joseph Welch speech. I saw the Edward R Murrow commentary. It was an inspiration to me not to scream and rant. Every time I do an interview, I have to lock the angry Paul in the green room because, if he gets out, then it is 50 shades of rage.”
He’s at his closest to anger when talking of cases that, at the time of writing, are on-going. Particularly that of his friend Cliff Richard.
To be honest, you have to ask why allegations that are so hard to believe – leading public figures being stopped by Ted Heath from castrating a child, for example – were labelled ‘credible and true’ by a police force that had no right to make such pronouncements. More Nineteen Eighty-four. More Milgram.
Of course, there are real victims. Of course, these victims are done no service
by anything other than due process, properly invoked. And by – something we seem to have been avoiding – looking more carefully at Savile, not simply dismissing him as incomprehensibly evil. Finding patterns that will help us in the future.
“I briefly interviewed Savile for a programme where I asked DJs for their favourite record,” Paul says. “And he chose Ray Charles, I Can’t Stop Loving You,
because it was his song for his mother, the Duchess, who was dead. And that’s when he said, on Radio 1, that he kept his mother’s dresses in the closet. And I’m doing this interview and thinking, ‘Ni-ni-ni-ni…’ So there’s something there.”
Again, his passion is reserved for righteous action: He thinks the British people, whom he pronounces kind and generous, deserve a better police service than they have. ‘Rail against it. Write to your MP! Make a noise!’ he urges. But despite the injustices and disgraces, he’s not going anywhere. When he needs fresh air and a breath of sanity, he flies to New York. But home is here, with Christopher, where life is slowly returning to normal.
So. Finally. I’d urge everyone to read Love, Paul Gambaccini. And I’m not giving away anything when I say that it takes me to the end of the book to understand the title. This is a book that, effectively, begins, ‘Dear Reader’. It is a letter.
It’s a letter that says, ‘Cave!
‘Because this happened to me, it could happen to you.
Love, Paul Gambaccini.’
Love, Paul Gambaccini: My Year Under the Yewtree, is published in hardback by Biteback Publishing, price £20.