Sarah Sands

Diary - 1 March 2003

Revealed: The reason why print journalists stay off-screen

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I have written a novel about Middle England's love affair with female newsreaders. I was struck by a survey which showed that viewers of these grave messengers of world events could remember only the first 30 seconds of what was said. The women newsreaders really are talking heads. My implicit thesis is that press journalists are superior to broadcasters: they are all form and no content; we are all content and no form. But the truth is that our invisibility is a matter of public courtesy. When the BBC began its highbrow fourth channel it recruited presenters from the press, who subsequently wrote of the channel with high regard. Viewing figures plunged. Within the BBC the channel was colloquially referred to as the ugly channel. Yet we still believe that lighting and make-up can achieve miracles.

And sometimes they can. I was photographed for the March edition of Vogue, to go with a book-related piece that I had written on ...well, frankly, who cares? A team arrived at the Daily Telegraph with case after case of clothes and make-up. As an understated, bare-faced stylist quietly hung the clothes on the rail, Telegraph staff began to gather and then swarm and snatch. Shrieking, we staggered around in six-inch heels and wrapped ourselves in fine fabrics. The office started to look like Calcutta. The Vogue crew grew pale.

What the photographer wanted was a scene of throbbing news urgency. He asked to see the newsdesk, engine-room of the whole operation. A daily paper in the middle of the day is a bit like the English seaside out of season. At the end of the vast, empty expanse, a couple of subeditors sipped Cup-a-soups. I tried to explain that in an hour the room would be transformed by the returning army. Vogue may be used to waiting around for Naomi Campbell, but not for the night newsdesk. As the crew swished away, they spotted the area where the designers sit. A row of pretty young things in combat trousers making patterns on their computers looked up and waved. Could we pretend that this was the news desk? asked the photographer wistfully.

Finally he opted for office minimalism - an area of space temporarily vacant during a periodic desk reshuffle. The housing shortage is nothing compared with office overcrowding. The photographer snapped away and I tried to ignore the smirking faces of colleagues walking past behind him. Perhaps if he came closer, I would feel less exposed. He politely but firmly kept his distance. Only afterwards did I learn the humiliating truth from a photographer on another magazine. The older you are, the further away you have to be shot from. My head in Vogue is the size of a pin, but it is no less of a miracle to me.

Boris Johnson made a cruel but true observation about my novel. Wasn't it a failure of imagination to call the Italian romantic lead Berluscoli? 'You can't just alter one letter and hope that nobody notices,' he said. 'Couldn't you have looked round a graveyard to get some ideas?' Thinking up names is far more difficult than I had imagined. I came up with several authentic-sounding surnames. Too authentic, as it turned out. My editor explained that it was distracting as well as libellous to give characters the same names as famous actors and actresses. I became so fed up with copyright by the end that I named a protagonist after myself.

The second most difficult thing about writing fiction is the sex. You have a choice between metaphor or pornography. Metaphor can sound absurd and inaccurate. Explicit genitalic language is descriptively superior and, of course, more evocative. But novelists get a bit hoity-toity about copying out pages from Penthouse. My loss of nerve was not literary pretension so much as maternal modesty. The first draft of the computer manuscript was pitifully sex-free. I was driving to work with my husband when he casually mentioned that he'd glanced at the script the night before and tried to brighten it up a little. That evening I checked his improvements. At the end of each chapter, regardless of the context, he had cheerfully typed in, 'Then he entered her greedily.'

Jacqueline Graham, the gorgeous publicity director at Macmillan, has been rushed off her feet. She reports that the phone never stops ringing with people asking for copies. 'And the funny thing is, they are all from the Telegraph.'

Rugby World Cup fever is already under way in our household. To get us all in the mood, the family is imprisoned in a room by my 17-year-old son and forced to watch Austin Healey's Rugby Nightmares. The premise of this video is that Healey is stuck in a hospital bed after being virtually crippled by injuries. A sadistic nurse yanks him about to howls of pain, followed by a huge close-up grin. Healey then compiles an archival video of great rugby highlights, which are categorised along the lines of Great Collisions, Amazing Injuries and Famous Fights on the Pitch. (According to Healey's website, customers who bought this video also bought Jethro Says Bull'cks to Europe, Cliff Richard - the 40th Anniversary Concert and WCW - Superbrawl 11 - Luger vs Sting.) One highlight of Healey's Rugby Nightmares is a player having his eye stitched up (the sequence is repeated several times). Another is an English player in the scrum being kicked into oblivion by an Australian. The coup de thZ