TV presenter slash reporter Jonny Maitland tells Jo Reynolds why he can’t stop taking the p***.
How long have you lived in the area?
Since 2002, but my connection to the area goes back much further. I’ve worked at the BBC since 1995. My father grew up in Acton so I feel very connected.
Do you like it?
I love it. I hate it in the country. I hate travelling. I hate being away from home. I love being sociable and the key thing when living anywhere in London is that if you want a massive bit of socialising then you can have it just like that. If you want complete and utter privacy then you can also have that. I love having your social cake and eating it and being surrounded by people but also not having to have anything to do with them. I like observing people and I like having people there but not having to have something to do with them. It’s not too crowded and not like the West End where it’s just teeming with unbearable numbers of people. It’s a real community.
You grew up in Surrey and went to Epsom College, a public school? Do you feel like the posh boy?
I don’t feel like I really belong. I think it’s a kind of Jewish thing. My mother was Jewish and very conscious of not assimilating so she pretended to be something else. She was worried about anti-Semitism. A lot of people in the 60s and 70s were and so they didn’t let on that they were Jewish. She changed her name from Mehlman, which was her married name to Maitland to disguise the Jewishness. My father was quite working class and my mother was a kind of strange Middle Eastern, moneyed, well-off immigrant. I went to a public school but I grew up in a kind of working class oiky place called Sutton. I have never really felt posh. Funnily enough I think posh people don’t regard me as posh but working class people think I’m a bit posh.
Is that the way you like it or do you feel like an outsider?
I’m happy to be very Groucho Marks about it – I don’t want to be part of the club who would have me as a member. I don’t want to be categorised anyway.
You left King’s College London with a law degree. What kind of a lawyer would you have been, a money- snatching shark or a pro bono saint?
A money-snatching shark, definitely. I just hated the idea of being a lawyer, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. And the qualification. The Jewish mother thing: doctor, lawyer… You know the old joke. A Jewish mother on the beach shouts, help, my son the lawyer is drowning!
You are probably best known as a current affairs TV reporter on ‘Tonight’, ‘House Of Horrors’ and ‘Watchdog’. Is TV the best way to expose injustice?
Reporter slash presenter. No, because it takes too much resources and is too picture-led. The papers are far better. But now I have a play out, which is thankfully doing well (“Dead Sheep, at the Park Theatre, N4) I am getting talked about more as a writer, which I prefer. As for exposing injustice, my next play, “An Audience With Jimmy Savile” – also at The Park – aims to do just that. It’s a part verbatim piece which aims to answer the big question: how he got away with it for so long. It will be controversial but it is the right thing to do, I am very confident about that. Theatre can often deal surprisingly effectively with this kind of issue.
On your Twitter profile you state, I hate Twitter. Why?
I don’t understand it. It’s full of self-obsessed narcissists who seem to feel the need to say RIP this and RIP that. Why the f*** are we interested in what they think? It’s full of really nasty people who attack you personally and viciously for holding a particular view and they don’t engage with the argument. They just insult you. So, it’s a putrid cesspool of narcissistic bile.
Do people have a go at you on Twitter?
Yes, because I do ‘Sky News’ and I express an opinion on something and they just start calling me a w***er. I don’t mind if people say they disagree with me but when it gets personal… It’s a hundred times worse for other people but how can you not take it personally when someone personally abuses you? I don’t like it, it’s unfair, and it gets me going, but I have learned not to engage. And to block them.
Are you obliged to tweet because of your job?
I wouldn’t have gone onto it had the BBC not made me when I did some programme for them. I have very few followers. I hate it but I might use it to publicise my play. It’s a necessary evil. It’s like if you have cancer, you have to have chemotherapy. Twitter is the same and if you are involved in the media industries then you have to use Twitter. It’s not particularly pleasant but it helps you get a result.
Do you think Twitter will last?
It’s here to stay. And it might be useful if someone wants to get in touch with me, offering me a big gig or something.
How do you feel about being accessible 24-hours-a-day to strangers?
I don’t mind too much. I did an article in the papers recently about a nutcase who was a conman. The guy keeps ringing me up and threatening me with a law case because he knows my number. It’s not like I’m a super mega celebrity.
Do you prefer working for the BBC or ITV?
I don’t have a preference. I like working and doing projects that engage me creatively and the BBC and I have a bit more of a love-hate relationship. I love working for them and I love a lot of the people who work there but I hate so much about the organisation’s wastefulness and, almost, moral corruptness and the appalling way that they deal with people; the way they pay off executives with a million quid when they only need to pay them a hundred grand; when they say this is the best idea they have heard in ages and then say a week later that they haven’t got a slot for it. That’s just lying. It’s a disgrace. There is lots to love and lots to hate.
Do you feel that you have to be on best behaviour because you are a TV personality?
I’m 53 now and I know who I am. I don’t behave that badly. I suppose the things I used to do twenty years ago would get me into trouble now. I’m married now and have a kid and I don’t feel the need to modify it. I’m probably a bit impatient in shops but I don’t think I’m well-known enough to merit a piece in the gossip column saying he behaves like a w***er in the local bakery.
Did you write your Wikipedia entry?
I did write my Wiki entry although my brother who is a bit of an eccentric has been editing it more recently and making it look like it has been written by someone who is a bit unhinged, so I have had to re-edit it. He put in things about our mother and him and how I went to university because it was his suggestion. I think the internet is just a big ocean of narcissism for some people and I’m no different and Google myself.
How do you want to come across, as the playful guy or the guy who tackles serious stuff with a wry grin?
Someone who doesn’t take himself or the work too seriously. The more I went into investigative journalism… that is a complete misnomer because my initial reflective reaction to things is comedic and p***-taking and then about a millisecond later I think, that would make a good story/report/piece in the paper. I’m not a good journalist at all but I can communicate, I can broadcast and I’m good at story telling and I can get things across well and I can write well. I’m useless at facts, I’m impatient, I’m not a good fact-checker and I’m not very thorough, and I get bored easily so I’m a s**t journalist really. I have been lucky and been able to make a living out of journalism because ultimately I am not really doing journalism. People see me doing these programmes and think I’m doing the journalism but I’m not, I’m just turning up and fronting it.
Does that limit what people will let you front – because they think you won’t take it seriously?
I’m limited because I’m pale, male and stale and I’m 53 and I’m lucky to have a gig at all. If I was more representative, more ethnically and sexually representative, then I would be more in demand. I totally accept that. There is a massive choice out there and I’m lucky to have a gig at all. I have two gigs: the ‘Tonight’ programme, which is a great gig. And I do the paper reviews on ‘Sky News’ which is fun.
Do you have to be disciplined to do all of this stuff?
No, I don’t work that hard and the ‘Tonight’ programme isn’t that much work. I just turn up, film and go home again, so it’s a bit of a dream gig really. I did this really successful show called ‘House of Horrors’ which got nominated for a BAFTA for best factual entertainment, which was about dodgy builders. I used to unmask dodgy builders and after seven series the bloke rang me up and said do you want to do another series and I said, to be honest, I really don’t. It was just so boring sitting in a room all day long looking at footage of a plumber doing nothing. And I had done seven series. I do get bored easily so I would love to do more radio but I know that if I did LBC everyday or whatever I would be having a nervous breakdown after three months and get really depressed. Whereas what I do now is great.
Do you need all these hats?
Oh yeah. Variety. I’m really enjoying writing at the moment. I had a big surge at writing books at the beginning of the noughties. I wrote five and a couple of them were okay and I realised I could write books. I could never write a novel but I could write nonfiction but interestingly now I found that I spent so long seeing books and plays and films and thinking, is it me or is that really shit? Am I just kidding myself or could I do better? I think I might be deluding myself but I’m going to have a go anyway just to see. My first play is being staged and we will find out if it’s any good next year.
Your Wiki entry suggests that your mother was extraordinary. Would she be proud of you becoming a playwright?
She was very proud when I got into the BBC. She rang reception and said, my son is on the BBC, put me through to him. She liked to shock. She opened a hotel for homosexuals in a very suburban part of Surrey called Ewell just to p**s off all the neighbours. She behaved atrociously. I wrote a book about her and although it was half about what an entertaining person she was, it was also half about her being a bit of a crook. Her moral compass was a bit askew.
What skewed it?
I don’t know if it was the culture she came from. Some people want to make a lot of money and be successful and they see shortcuts and she saw short cuts that were probably initially slightly questionable but not illegal. For instance, like borrowing money off old people, which is pretty bad, taking advantage. Then once you have crossed that line, well, it’s a bit like fare dodging. Once you have done something morally questionable, you are in it. So, what made it askew? I don’t think she was brought up with a rigid sense of what was the right and decent thing to do.
Do you parent your son the way she parented you?
I try not to but I’m very well aware that I have a rather laissez-faire attitude to parenting like my parents did with the big exception that my parents just weren’t around at all. I’m at home all the time and I may not be fantastically hands-on all the time but my wife is and I’m around a lot. Even if I’m working all day I can still have breakfast with him and do bedtime stories.
Does he watch you on the telly?
He’s four and he says, Daddy’s on the telly, Daddy’s on the telly.
When you are not working how do you like to relax?
I play scrabble in the London Scrabble League once a week. I’m quite competitive. I came third last year out of 112. I’m nationally rated. My highest score is 275 points. Quartzes – 8 letters across two triples. It’s called the 9-timer because you get three triples. Of course, it’s ultimately much more satisfying to write a play, and a good scene, when you have achieved something that one hopes is funny, dramatic, meaningful, entertaining…
Thank you, Jonny. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you.
Cahoots Theatre Company in association with Park Theatre presents the World Première of
by Jonathan Maitland
“Margaret Thatcher [is] terrifying as she manipulates and bullies her cabinet colleagues to turn them into her own puppets in a taut and absorbing new play, Dead Sheep.” The Stage
“…this fine, and often very funny, debut play by former BBC reporter Jonathan Maitland. Nallon is brilliant. It’s not just the voice that is uncanny, the walk, the glare, every gesture brings [Thatcher] back to life. “ Indepedent
“James Wilby as Geoffrey Howe gives him a handsome, romantic edge not often accorded to politicans and makes the sub-plot of his solid and enduring marriage to determined feminist Elspeth (Jill Baker, spot on), deputy head of the Equal Opportunities Commision and a persistent thorn in the Thatcher flesh, both fascinating and endearing.” Londonist
Previews: 1 Apr 2015
Press Night: 2 Apr 2015 (7pm)
Plays until: 9 May 2015
Tue – Sat Evenings 19.30
Thu & Sat Matinees 15.00
Please note that Stalls seats A46-55 and B46-59 are classified as on-stage seating.
Post Show Debate
The following performances will be followed by a special Dead Sheep Election Debate: a 45 minute Q&A sponsored by the Electoral Reform Society, featuring a panel of politicians, writers and entertainers:
Thursday April 16th at 15.00
Thursday April 23rd at 15.00
Thursday April 30th at 15.00
Wednesday May 6th at 19.30
Approximately 120 minutes including interval
£25, £20 Full
£15 Tuesdays – Residents with N. London postcode or Under 25s (Proof required, limited availability)