It’s been a busy month for celebrity interviews. In the current issue of Cornwall Today, you can read chats with chef Rick Stein (pictured above, with me), Quo frontman Francis Rossi and actress Felicity Kendal, all of whom have connections to Cornwall. I spoke to them all in the past month, and also shook hands with Sir Ben Ainslie when he visited Truro School to open its new sports centre.
Is it OK to admit I still get nervous about certain interviews? Like, those with famous people? I interviewed Francis Rossi over the phone. I went into a private office, so that no one would hear if I made an idiot of myself. “You sound edgy,” he said within seconds of picking up. By the time I left the room, I realised I was sweating.
That makes it sound like it was a dreadful interview. In fact, it wasn’t. Rossi was absolutely lovely. He talked a lot, and swore a lot, and was very open about the break-up of his first marriage. In short, he was pretty normal, and very modest, despite having done made some amazing music over the past five decades.
Students often ask me to name the most famous person I’ve ever interviewed. The truth is, those that impress me the most are the ones who were famous when I was a kid, only dreaming of doing the job I’m in now. Rossi is one of those. I’m the roughly the same age as the song Caroline (which was written in Perranporth), and when I was a kid, my uncle was in his mid to late teens, sporting long hair and listening to loud music. My grandparents were of the “Call that music?” view, but I loved it. Speaking to Rossi brought it all back, and I told him so at the end. He seemed genuinely pleased. “Tell him thanks very much – he’s kept me in a job,” he said.
It’s lovely when someone famous appreciates the impact they have had on the lives of others – after all, if they’re in the entertainment business, it should make them happy to know they’ve succeeded. But sometimes, celebrity interviews can be a disappointment. Not everyone wants to play the publicity game.
One that sticks in my mind was a gentleman actor known for being charm personified, who turned out to be anything but. I saw him being interviewed on TV recently, all smiles and kind words. Amazing what a huge difference the camera makes. With a bit of work, I managed to cobble together a pleasant piece for that month’s mag; a colleague on another publication told it exactly how it was. I’d already used that trick with someone else who had been equally uncooperative, and felt that twice would look careless.
It can be hard if you’re basing an interview on a play you haven’t seen, or a gig you haven’t been to yet. There’s only so much online research you can do, and it will never replace first-hand experience – my best interviews have been those where I have felt inspired by the work we’re discussing. But most of the time, you do your best to come up with a list of questions that you hope are informed and engaging enough to spark a natural conversation.
If you get to meet a celeb in person, so much the better. One of the first well-known people I interviewed for Cornwall Today, way back in 2006, was Rick Stein. He was in Padstow for the launch of his new beer, Chalky’s Bite, named after his little dog who had as big a following (if not bigger) than the man himself. I hadn’t been in the editor’s seat for long, and it seemed like an appropriate initiation to interview someone who had done much to promote the county on the small screen.
I was characteristically nervous, but at the end he said: “Good interview, by the way.” I felt like a student who had been patted on the head – and in a good way. I like praise. So I was happy to meet him again when he presided over the launch of Spires Restaurant at Truro College’s city campus. He peered over my notebook: “I recall complimenting you on your shorthand last time,” he said. I glowed, and had my photo taken with him (for the CT Facebook page, of course).
He was equally gracious and genuine with the student catering team, and with those who approached him for autographs and photographs. In short, a really nice guy doing a good job – which is what really counts, in my book.