Jeremy Vine Meets…

Friday, May 14, 2004 by

“I’ve seen you 13 times in concert,” Jeremy Vine boomed to his guest by way of an introduction, “I should warn you – I don’t know if I need counselling!!!” “Probably,” came the tight-lipped response. “Come over here,” our host commanded, in a voice simultaneously unctuous and uncompromising. A slightly discomfited Elvis Costello trotted on behind.

For the last in his series of assiduously informal interviews for daytime BBC1, Vine kicked off by letting the viewers into a secret. His knees were “trembling slightly – I’ve been a fan since they were poking out of a pair of shorts.” Dressed in a scruffy green shirt and jeans, he welcomed Costello into what appeared to be a dusty loft conversion, all wood flooring and clear plastic chairs. The cameras rolled to capture the pair “greeting” each other with pronounced inelegance, as the film crew deliberately stumbled into shot and Costello’s cautious composure and sparkling suit and tie left Jeremy looking every inch the middle-aged fanzine writer with too much time on his hands.

Before the pair could get started, however, it was back to the urgent voiceovers: “Elvis Costello is one of the finest songwriters the country has ever produced,” Jeremy lectured. “He somehow harnesses pile-driving musical power to the cutest lyrical touches.” A selection of clips accompanied this bombast. Watching some of the man’s greatest hits, there wasn’t much that sounded particularly “pile-driving”, nor was there a great deal of evidence of him wielding especially cute lyrics. But there was no time to ponder this discrepancy further, as Jeremy had more vital information to share with his guest.

“In 1985 when I was a student,” he resumed, now seated so close to Costello that their knees were almost rubbing, “I wrote you a letter.” His companion settled his features into a rictus of polite bemusement. “10 years later, I did the same thing.” For someone who founded their reputation upon the focused interrogation of politicians, then furthered it as the avuncular everyman on Radio 2, such a display of unabashed self-centred reminiscence – and so early on in proceedings – was highly disconcerting. Barely 60 seconds in he’d already told us what to think about Costello. A minute later, and he was telling the same thing to the man himself.

The anecdotery meandered towards the observations that Jeremy had asked his hero out for a glass of beer but had never received a reply. “Ah, well, I’d stopped drinking by then,” Costello courteously responded. “Yeah, well, maybe that’s why,” was the somewhat pointless retort, as Jeremy tilted his head 90° and went all dewy-eyed. “I remember seeing you in concert once – and I’m going to speak to you as a fan for a few minutes now …” Costello regarded his questioner’s face as if it were a dartboard. A few minutes? Almost a quarter of the interview had passed and we were still hearing about Jeremy’s infatuation. “This is also embarrassing for me.” It was hard not to agree. “I gave you a huge thumbs up from the front row during ‘Shipbuilding’, and you looked daggers at me!” Much haughty laughter. A piqued Costello stirred into life to defend his trade. “I was behaving as a pop fan,” pleaded Jeremy, finding his guest at fault for not acting in the manner befitting a dispenser of the cutest lyrical touches, and worse, for personally slightly his biggest-ever fan.

More head-tilting. A strip of studio light seemed to fall across Jeremy’s glinting pupils. “His music is intensely personal,” our voiceover tutorial continued, “it asks questions of the listener. So I thought I’d ask some back.” At last – to the real business in hand. A chance for Costello to chat about his long career, his numerous records, the practice of making a living from writing and selling music. Well, not just yet. Jeremy wanted to read out some of his favourite Costello lyrics. This sort of thing never works – even the most versatile and articulate come unstuck when attempting to recite the words of a song, simply because they’re not meant to be read out loud, they’re meant to be sung to music. “It sounds totally different the way you emphasize things,” Costello chuckled as Jeremy struggled to intone a few lines from Tramp The Dirt Down. He followed with an excerpt from another song, Green Shirt, and the confident assertion, “That’s an indictment of journalism, isn’t it.” “I think I was just lusting after Selina Scott,” tittered Costello. At least he was having fun.

Time was getting on, and Jeremy still had more things to say about himself, including nothing less than a statement of personal epiphany. “As a journalist I take these lines to heart,” he spluttered emotionally, “and this is very serious, because I believe the greatest problem with my profession is compression.” This was some doing: not only had the interview encompassed Jeremy’s exploits as über-fan to a run down of Jeremy’s all-time top 10 lyrics, now it stood on the edge of a retrospective of Jeremy’s entire career. Here was a man who had the ear of the nation’s movers and shakers. “I’m just thinking Tony Blair might be a fan of yours.” Even the Prime Minister was involved.

Jeremy went on to challenge Costello over his views on the war in Iraq. This was all very well, and his thoughts were eloquently expressed, but it wasn’t clear why any of this was important. After all, Costello’s a pop star. He admitted himself he wasn’t properly qualified to comment on all these kinds of subjects. Indeed, at one point he even went so far as to profess ignorance – “I don’t know, I’m not a politician.” As an authority on music, on the music industry, on the entertainment business – yes, Costello’s probably as good as they come. But an expert on Middle Eastern affairs? Why should we presume he has anything relevant to say? It’s not his job to. Neither was it Jeremy’s to hold him to account for not having all the answers. Unlike, the unspoken assumption went, his questioner.

Even the last few minutes of the programme, where topics such as the influence of Costello’s family and his experiences at the hands of corporate record bosses allowed for more free-flowing discussion, weren’t free from Jeremy seeking to reveal yet more of his personal obsessions. What did the man think of Fame Academy? Would he have appeared on it if he were 20 years younger? Surely he would. Why wouldn’t he? At least Costello was able to come back with a neat crack about the lack of television exposure available to performers of his generation: “All of the jobs that would have been spread out among the rest of us were given to Jools Holland.”

“Well,” sighed Jeremy, essaying a parting gambit of pile-driving subtlety, “I hope you enjoyed the fact we didn’t ask you why you’re called Elvis – a great achievement on our behalf!” To the echo of the host’s ever-present guffaws, Costello grabbed what was left of his dignity and disappeared down a staircase. A textbook lesson in how not to conduct a TV interview, the preceding half hour had granted the viewer precious little insight about an enduringly famous musician, and a hell of a lot about the fixations of an aspirant chat show presenter. There might just have been a reason why Costello never replied to any of those letters.


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