Smoker’s lung, Hansen, Livingstone
The road to Herend in Hungary winds past a spectacular lake. It’s always been one of the favourite tourist spots for Budapest daytrippers, and my father often used to go swimming there with his friends.
His client was Sandy Chadha, managing director of Britain’s biggest battery distributor, Supreme Imports in Manchester, and I was to be part of a surprise package of motivational speakers and entertainers for the company’s top executives.
The calibre of the other speakers convinced me that this was an event I’d enjoy — the journalist and presenter Hardeep Singh would be acting as compere, introducing me, the impressionist Jon Culshaw, Ken Livingstone and Alan Hansen.
I hadn’t seen Alan since the late nineties, and I knew Hanna would want to meet him again… she was ever so slightly smitten the first time. He has a magnetic presence, radiating charisma — you get a sense of that on Match Of The Day, but the vividness of the man is much more powerful in real life. His blue eyes look as if they’re powered by a pair of Sandy Chadha’s Duracell’s.
I was impressed by Sandy too, a young man who has driven the company until it dominates the world market. He told me his hobbies were Thai boxing and chess — sounds like the perfect combination for the boardroom.
Ken Livingstone admitted he had never given credence to metal-bending, until he saw the spoon curling up in his hand. Like all good politicians, he possesses a practical open-mindedness which lets him change his beliefs in the face of the facts.
I asked him what he was up to, now that Boris is Mayor of London, and he told me quietly that he’s working on his autobiography. “I haven’t got a publisher yet,” he said. “Let’s get the book written first. But I’ve no intention of locking myself away with a word-processor forever — I intend to run for mayor again. That’s my long-term plan. I can’t help it… London is in my blood!”
Then he started explaining why the congestion charge mattered, so I moved away to listen to Alan talking about the devastating effect relegation will have on Reading FC, owned by my friend John Madejski: “They’ll be counting the cost in tens of millions,” he said.
The last time I saw Jon Culshaw from Dead Ringers, we were on a ship in the English Channel, searching for a patch of sky without cloud. It was 11 August 1999, and at 11.11am the sun was hidden by the moon in a total eclipse.
Incredibly, there was another total eclipse across much of the world the day before we met in Manchester. “Every time I see you, the sun goes out!” he quipped.
Shipi spotted that during my act, Jon was standing behind the curtain offstage, his gaze fixed on me. Afterwards, he strolled through the audience, imitating my voice so perfectly that when Hanna heard him, she turned to talk to me… and I wasn’t there.
The next day, we toured Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition. All of us found the sculptures, created from the corpses of real human beings, to be shocking and disturbing. Hanna was upset by the starkness of it: “Is that all we are?” she said. “Like skinned rabbits in a butcher’s shop?”
To me, the emptiness of the bodies fortified my belief that the human soul is what defines us and gives us life. Von Hagens had stripped away more than the skin… he had emptied his models of their real meaning.
One body presented a gruesome depiction of the damage tobacco can do to our insides, and I remembered that when I fly to Moscow for my next series I will be travelling with an extra lung. It’s part of my dramatic campaign to convince viewers that they must quit smoking to save their own lives — and, crucially, to persuade the millions of children in my audience that they must never start.
The lung was handmade by a specialist firm in Hungary which makes imitation body parts for training hospital doctors. When I first decided to wage war on the tobacco epidemic in Hungary, I wanted to use a real human body from the Budapest morgue, but the TV chiefs flatly forbade it.
I managed to lay my hands on a real mortuary table, and a doctor who was able to plunge his hands realistically into the chest of a dummy to pull out the artificial lung. With a combination of shock and hypnotic suggestion, we convinced 57,000 people to quit smoking that night. The real victory, though, will be enjoyed in future decades, by the children who vowed that night never to touch cigarettes.
The Russians are just as dedicated to fumigating themselves to death. My extra lung is going to have a lot of work to do.
This antique TV camera, on display in the corridor of a Moscow studio, reminded me of my first ever television appearance, in Tel Aviv almost 40 years ago. With its four red eyes staring at me like an alien, I remembered vividly how a panel of sceptical scientists attacked me — their words were so venomous, and they refused so nastily to let me demonstrate my powers and overturn their arguments, that I lost my temper in the end.
Throwing the table over, I marched out of the studio, turning the air blue in Hebrew, English and Hungarian. In fact, I swore so floridly that the tape was never aired. I had long forgotten that incident… but the old camera’s four-eyed gaze brought it flooding back. This time, though, I controlled my language.
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