Etc. Sketches

Lunch with The Fence

The Terminator is an actor, columnist and comedian. A regular and beloved presence on British television, he recently won plaudits for a passionate defence of the BBC on the panel show Have I Got News For You. We met him to discuss the future of the embattled corporation and more.

It’s a pantingly hot July afternoon, and I am watching The Terminator take a long, grateful slurp out of an Aperol in an Italian restaurant on his home turf. We’re sitting on one of the two tables outside at Rosella’s, a family-run trattoria on the Kentish Town end of the Highgate Road. In the space of a month, Britain has gone from a bleak, unending winter to the full promise of another blazing summer. In that same time, the Dyson Report has led to the latest crisis at the BBC, with Martin Bashir found to have obtained an infamous interview with Princess Diana through ‘deceitful behaviour’. The ruling that has encouraged the corporations’ many enemies in the tabloid press – and in government – to agitate for permanent reform of the national broadcaster.

The Terminator has worked at the BBC for the best part of 20 years, and tells me that he has a plan. But first, a waitress has to wipe up the diced tomatoes of the bruschetta al pomodoro that have unfortunately become dotted around the table. It is an uneasy antipasto for a microprocessor-controlled robot – albeit a robot of such strong opinions – to consume elegantly. There has been much to discuss.

‘I have made the point that smartphones really are the bane of civilisation, and while I still stand by that view, I have become something of a WhatsApp devotee of late. Extremely useful for bringing friends together with a view to some direct action,’ The Terminator tells me with his characteristic brio.

‘We have this group chat which has just been bursting with ideas. Victoria [Coren Mitchell] set it up. We have Robert [Webb] and Olivia [Colman] chipping in morning through till evening. Richard [Osman] knows how people are thinking on the higher floors. And a few other people too. Alan [Rusbridger] is very keen on emojis, which you wouldn’t expect from him.’

While I am fascinated to learn what covert action this guerrilla band of well-remunerated media stars are planning, I have a few questions of my own to pose to The Terminator. If he says the ‘news is a boring programme’, then why are so many comedians placing politics at the beating heart of their output?

‘So, if I understand you correctly, you are implying that all comedians should produce output that is totally and completely apolitical?’ The Terminator counters with something of his trademark world-weary irritation.

Some people, I venture, have pointed out an irony in that The Terminator’s defence of the BBC came on the programme Have I Got News For You, a satirical panel show that throughout the noughties provided our current Prime Minister with a platform to seduce the nation with his raffish wit.

‘I always found Boris perfectly amiable in a sort of shambolic way. I once stayed up until two in the morning with him. We were drinking white wine in my flat in Kilburn – after the Spectator summer party. I remember the evening well: we talked about General Flavius’ strategy at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. I have always been fascinated by the last days of Rome.’

Our starters arrive, a burrata for myself and some calamari for The Terminator, which draws a startled outburst from my guest: ‘Can someone please explain to me in detail the reason for the total and utter ubiquity of the burrata in this city? Is there some other Italian diary product that English people are permitted to consume?’

I guide the conversation back to the Conservative Party’s angsty wrangling of the BBC. In 2019, a poll conducted by Reuters found that BBC News was the most trustworthy news service not only in Britain, but across the world. An institution of such unalloyed power is always going to attract the opprobrium of the Tories, I suggest.

‘There used to be a fairly identifiable type of Tory who was civilised and likeable, but now the party just seems to act as an umbrella group for out-and-out shits.’

At that moment, we are interrupted by an unexpected guest: The Terminator’s brother-in-law, the food critic, Giles Coren, who I discover lives in the area. When we are introduced, Coren claims to have never heard of The Fence, before telling us that he is off to meet Gary Lineker at Pizza East Shoreditch, then walking away in the direction of Hampstead Heath.

Is Coren part of this WhatsApp group?

‘Well, we thought it might be useful to, you know, get some tips on what the thinking is in Murdoch land.’ Terminator goes onto mention a number of Times employees who are not close relatives who are fulfilling that function, and I promise not to reveal their names. But as our main courses of veal Milanese and branzino al limone are served, I am minded to ask him more about what he and his associates are plotting in defence of the Beeb.

‘Well, we were really inspired by Led By Donkeys [a Remainer pressure group] and we thought that we had to make big, headline-grabbing stunts which still resonate. So, we’re putting together funding to celebrate the greatest hits. We’re going to project the Nazi episode from Fawlty Towers onto the White Cliffs of Dover, which I think will be a reference the layman will get. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation to be broadcast onto the National Gallery, David Attenborough’s Life on Durdle Door, and so on. I am waiting on a call from Jeremy Clarkson. I don’t know whether you’ve seen his farm program on Amazon Prime – really very good stuff all round.’

It’s a fascinating idea, I say, which will be sure to be a big hit on social media. The Terminator is an occasional presence on Twitter, where he has learned to self-regulate his comments. ‘It is depressing to observe how this platform, which rewards the purest bile, has slowly but surely found its way into the political mainstream.’

I am minded to point out that this would be a very good tweet in itself, and that The Terminator could perhaps share it with his 2.1 million followers, but I think better of it and go inside to pay the bill. When I return, The Terminator is staring at his phone.

‘Oh cobblers. Oh shit. Oh shit shit shit. I’ve got the wrong Jeremy. My agent has made the most almighty balls-up here. I’ve texted Paxman about whether he can give Jemima Goldsmith my number.’

The Terminator looks up and gives me a haunted look. ‘And Paxman is not happy to hear from me.’

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