Photo by Jason Alden (Independent)
MA: Neville Thurlbeck! Tabloid award-winning legend! I can't believe I'm interacting with the man who enabled Jeffrey Archer to bring himself down, turned Max Mosley's life into a national peep show and introduced us to the joys of Rebecca Loos. How much have you been offered for your memoirs? Tell me you're writing your memoirs (I know a great agent, by the way).
NT: First of all, before I answer your questions, please forgive me if I begin on a very serious note and say how very much I like the curtains in Madame Arcarti’s virtual boudoir. And I’m really rather envious of you having Molly Parkin as a fiancée too as she was quite a dish in the 1960s (and I’m sure she still is).
The memoirs business is something which does crop up frequently. But I can’t fathom who the blue blazers would be interested, apart from media types. It strikes me that it would be a heck of a lot of work to make about £62.50. I’ve been asked to get involved in all sorts of documentaries and drama docs too. But they all want me to pour a bucketload over my former colleagues. I respect them too much to do that. Even the odd one who I don’t care for I may criticise in private but never in public.
MA: Which scoop are you the most proud of?
NT: I guess the Jeffrey Archer investigation was the most worthy as it exposed his perjury, made him stand down as a candidate for London Mayor and sent him to jail. But in terms of circulation, it would have to be the David Beckham scoop which put on hundreds of thousands of sales and went right around the world.
MA: And which scoop, in retrospect, is the one you most regret. And why.
NT: The story which saddened me greatly was our Ricky Hatton splash when we caught him taking hard drugs. I was the man who got that famous picture of him snorting a line of cocaine in a bedroom using a hidden camera. I can see why that was a great tabloid story and a valid one at that. But nevertheless, Ricky Hatton is a great person and a wonderful sportsman and I was sad to see him on our front page like that. Since then, it looks as though he has cleaned up his life so I try to hold onto that positive.
MA: All these scandals you've brought to our attention - they must have left you with a sour view of humanity. Or perhaps you have a strong spiritual disposition...
NT: I have a very positive view of humanity. The News of the World was all about human frailty and there is often much to admire in epic tragedy and how people respond and deal with it. I still believe that most people are fundamentally good. And during my 20 odd years on the road, I was always amazed by the kindness of strangers. And yes, I’ve always had a pretty strong spiritual disposition. I go to church twice a month and always have. Last night, I was underground in the church boiler room shifting gallons of paint so we could get our fire safety certificate! And I always have a drink with the vicar on the first Monday of the month – what I call ‘having a bev with the rev’. Oh, and I’m in this Sunday’s Passion play! Now there’s a little line to pick up for a few of the third rate diary columnists knocking around Fleet Street that like to pretend I’m a celebrity and write rubbish about me!
MA: And now you're reviewing theatre shows - is it true, for nothing? How did the gig come about?
NT: I reviewed the National Theatre’s War Horse for the blog and the local paper where I live, the Surrey Comet, emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing plays on their patch. They don’t have the budget to pay me a bean but I agreed on the spot! I go anyway and it’s a fun thing to do.
MA: I LOVE your blog. It radiates charm. So few journos can do blogging. Would you describe yourself as a 'seducer'? Considerable charm must have been deployed in your career to win people over. I mean, when did you lose your virginity? What's your star sign?
NT: That’s a very kind thing to say. I’m not sure I’d describe myself as such. As a journalist, I found playing a straight bat was the most successful tactic. And most importantly, to just be myself. The public can spot a phoney and smell baloney from 100 yards. 17. Libra.
MA: Now, look. Imagine you're Lupert Murdoch (the Sunday Times has confirmed Wendi calls Rupert 'Lupert'). What's the one thing you would have done, or not have done, in handling this awful phone hacking crisis?
NT: I would have knocked on Rebekah Brooks’ door when I realised my evidence in defence of the ‘For Neville email’ had been sat on.
MA: Did you ever meet Lupert when he visited Wapping? What's the poppet like? He's Pisces, you know - very clued into surfing people; very seductive....
NT: I met him once or twice in passing when he was introduced to me in the office – “And finally, this is Neville, he’s the idiot who writes all the embarrassing, troublesome stuff,” that sort of thing.
He was very low key. The first time I met him, he appeared at my shoulder to read what I was writing on screen which was quite alarming as I was sending a very risqué joke to a friend.
MA: I thought shutting down the News of the World was a bit drama queeny. I know it did the trick of shutting up Carole 'What the hell?' Malone, but I mean...
NT: It was a tragedy. 168 years of history and nearly 300 jobs down the spout to save a few faces. And it didn’t work.
MA: I have to ask this Neville and you don't have to answer. But are you, or have you ever been, in possession of information that could bring down the entire media empire presently called News International?
NT: Of course in 23 years, you do get to see and hear an awful lot and the higher you move up the more you see and learn. But I’m not vindictive and my difficulties with News International were brought about by an ignorance of my true position. It’s complex but all will be revealed and resolved in time so I’m relaxed about it and getting on with life.
MA: Do you miss the pressures of Fleet St? You were mightily successful. What's the one thing on a daily basis that tells you that life now is better or worse than it once was. (Sunday mornings must feel odd - no more sense of triumph/dread).
NT: Life is better as I’m much fitter. I got a border terrier last year (‘Ralphie’ after Sir Ralph Richardson because he looks like him!) and we go for a run every morning. And then a long walk every afternoon. He’s a splendid little lad and we’re best pals. As well as the dog, I also get to see my family a lot more too of course! And they tell me how nice it is to have me around such a lot. I faff about working for my property company/doing charity work for Talking2Minds/reading/going to the theatre and doing the odd trip here and there to see old friends in far flung places. And I make the dinner every night too! There was no point having a cleaner and a gardener when I was around so much so I’m ironing, pruning and dusting too! So I’m becoming quite domesticated. My family finds it all highly amusing as that never used to be me when I was on Fleet Street. In many respects, I’ve never been happier and I don’t fear for the future.
But of course, I miss the hurly-burly of Fleet Street. When this has all been lifted from my shoulders, I’ll look around and choose my new direction. In the meantime, I’ll keep buggering on.
MA: Do you get offered a hot drink in the cop shop? Are the plods civil to you? I thought your recent arrest was a little odd, a little hasty.
NT: Horrible vending machine coffee. Mr Plod is always very civil to me and I am always very civil to him too. He has a job to do and it’s quite an important one. I haven’t met a single person who would disagree with your view on the last arrest though.
MA: What's Rebekah Brooks like? I was reading a bio of Elizabeth I recently - flame-haired, dissembling, paranoid, rarely ate. While others feasted on 10 course meals, Elizabeth would sit there picking away and imagining ills after a workaholic day of the screaming abdabs. Beating up poor Cecil. Does Rebekah call you late at night from Chipping Norton and tell you to behave yourself?
NT: My view of Rebekah is controversial and at odds with a lot of people at News International who seek to place the blame for everything on her shoulders. She didn’t close down the paper. Rupert and James Murdoch did. While I was her news editor, I found her to be bright, imaginative, inspiring, loyal, good natured, utterly professional and totally dedicated. She could however be moody. And if anyone provided incontrovertible proof that one of her project ideas was unworkable, it could take forever to move her. I don’t mind admitting I am extremely fond of her. I’m afraid bail conditions prohibit telephone calls from Chipping Norton. But if she could, I’m sure she’d call to tell me to calm down and stop fooling around.
MA: If Screws: The Musical ever gets made, whom would you like to play you and why? And Lupert - it's a pity Wilfrid Hyde-White is not around, though I don't think his Aussie accent would've persuaded. To play James Murdoch I would resurrect Max Headroom - but you're probably too young to remember him....
NT: If I am to be the black hearted villain the Guardian thinks I am, then it would have to be George Sanders or Cecil Parker.
If I am to be the wrongly accused man trying to prove his innocence as my family think I am, there would be none better than Robert Donat.
But if I am just to be the bumbling clot who pretends he knows everything and secretly knows nothing, as my chums think I am, then it would need to be Will Hay.
But if you were to go for boring authenticity, probably James Bolam in his younger days as we both come from the same town and went to the same school and kind of walk and talk in the same fashion, although he is a little broader in his accent.
I do remember Max Headroom too. I can even recall the Billy Cotton Band Show on Saturday nights!
MA: Tell us what you're up to now - I see your sister has launched a glossy magazine. If she's seeking a reputable media astrologer....
NT: I’ll ask her. It’s called R&R and is at http://www.randr.co.uk/ (little plug for little sis!)
This week I’m meeting a TV production company in town which is producing a documentary on PTSD for Sky 1, presented by an A list TV celebrity. I have persuaded them (or should that be “seduced them”?!) into featuring Talking2Minds and the men and women we have helped. I am going to give this 100 per cent and do everything I can to help them make it happen.
MA: And finally, Neville, imagine you're Madame Arcati (I sense your inner thespian) and make a prediction about how Hackgate will climax.
NT: A small number of convictions of some very talented journalists who hacked phones but stopped doing so many years ago when their colleague was jailed. Some people will rejoice. Others will be sad. But life will move on.
MA: Neville Thurlbeck. Thank you so much for your time. Arcatistes everywhere wish you well.
NT: It’s been a pleasure sweet girl. But I still don’t understand why I had to do the interview in this ra-ra skirt?
Neville Thurlbeck is PR Director for Talking2Minds, a charity which treats sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Donations can be made at http://www.talking2minds.co.uk/