25 JUNE 1994, Page 40

Long life

Just a minute

Nigel Nicolson

Most elderly people dislike being pho- tographed. Few of us age so beautifully as Elizabeth Longford or Stephen Spender, and vanity is the last human failing that we shed. But the lure of television remains constant, I suppose because we imagine that speech and gesture will impart to our features an animation that disguises our decrepitude. It is also flattering to be told that at 70 or 80 our opinions and reminis- cences are more interesting to the public than they would have been at 40. We still count.

So when invited to take part in a televi- sion programme, we consent, too proud to complain that everyone is being paid for their performance, except us, the stars. Nor do we realise that the attention of the cam- era, the praise of the producer, arc the softest of soaps. The hours of rehearsal and recording will be shrivelled to a few sec- onds when the programme is edited. An old courtier who was interviewed for The Windsors complained to me (actually he was boasting) that the session took an entire morning, 'And I don't suppose that they'll show more than ten minutes of it.' `Ten minutes!', I cried. 'You'll be lucky if they give you two sentences.' In the event, they gave him three.

Undeterred by his experience, I gave of my best last week from 9 a.m. till 2 p.m., and when we were finally released, I asked the producer how long the programme would last. 'Well, actually,' she replied, somewhat embarrassed, 'five minutes.' We were a slot, which combined with other slots, would fill a gap in our regional net- work, Meridian, between quizzes and Emmerdale. And for this we had walked up and down, rehearsed, declaimed, gestured, for five hours, losing with every repetition, every interruption, an ounce of sparkle. The interruptions were many, dogs barking or planes zooming, and when I suggested that these sounds were as natural to the countryside as the cooing of wood-pigeons, I was told sharply that it was not the prac- tice of Meridian to include them. So once again, please: 'My favourite flower is Anchusa Loddon Royalist .... ' The interviewer, Roddy Llewellyn, leant across to my co-star, Sarah Gough, and gently massaged her scalp, `To relieve tension', he explained. We weren't in the least tense, only bored, and slowly frying in the hot sun.

Still, it was a lovely day in a lovely place, my childhood home, Long Barn near Sevenoaks, and it was a pleasant task to explain how my parents created this garden on a hillside. My memory was stirred by the steps on which we were sitting. There are seven of them, leading down from the ter- race to the lawn, and with each advancing year, I would jump from a higher step, till the day came when I cleared the entire flight in one triumphant leap.

I did not tell Meridian this, thinking it boastful, but I did recall for them how I went butterfly-hunting with Virginia Woolf in the fields and spinneys which we over- looked from the terrace. Once she paused, leaning on her long bamboo, and asked me, `What's it like to be a child?' She was then writing To The Lighthouse, in which figured a boy of my age, and she never missed an opportunity to gather copy. 'Well, Vir- ginia,' I replied 'You know what it's like. You were a child yourself once. But I don't know what it's like to be you. I've never been grown-up.' In repeating this anecdote to my mother, she said, 'When he does grow up, that boy must be a politician. He knows how to avoid answering questions.' But like so much else, it will lie on Meridian's cutting-room floor.