The James Clayton Column – Lateshowgate: The Movie

James casts his eye over the David Letterman furore, and wonders just what film might come out the other end of it...

Time was when the UK ruled the world of espionage cinema and disseminated stone-cold spy classics such as the early James Bond flicks, The Ipcress File and Where Eagles Dare as standard. At some point, though, Britain decided to vacate the hot seat (it’s an ejector seat) and hand over controls to the USA. Since then, Hollywood has been the power base for clandestine cloak-and-dagger movie plots.

Post-Watergate, America pushed out sophisticated ‘secret hush-hush’ thrillers like The Conversation and All The President’s Men and assumed supremacy in the field of conspiracy-themed films. Now emboldened and unstoppable, Hollywood carried on to covertly claim mastery of the schlock-horror film right from underneath Britain’s nose as well.

Whilst we humble Brits were busy searching around wondering where all the haunted house movies and Hammer horrors had gone, the USA lifted the entire British film industry and extradited all the best British actors and filmmakers. If only Harry Palmer hadn’t let the Yanks take over, hung up his spy specs and retired to write cookery books…

Consequently, it’s hard to imagine that conspiracies are creaking on in the United Kingdom and that there are espionage organisations actively functioning to try and thwart them. I don’t doubt that there is a dark and murky world of trafficking and terrorism out there, it’s just difficult to get beyond images of MI5 or MI6 operatives beyond spoof-007s in the vein of Austin Powers or Johnny English. On the 21st century espionage scene ruled by Jack Ryan of 24 and Jason Bourne, the iconic British spy is sadly stuck in the 1960s.

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It’s also inconceivable, as far as criminal schemes go, that the sort of blackmail shenanigans experienced by Late Show host David Letterman would happen on this side of the Atlantic. When people want to bully or berate TV personalities in the UK they either write angry letters to whichever knee-jerk tabloid newspaper is baying for blood or simply tut and turn the box off. In contrast, in the States, where an atmosphere of reserve and restraint doesn’t stifle the population, people go apeshit in indignation. If they don’t like what they see on the television or on the cinema screen they burn effigies and send death threats.

Beyond the bilestorm unleashed on Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand last year, underhand activity against British telly stars is not going to get more vicious than people suggesting that perhaps the ancient and apparently indestructible Bruce Forsyth is past it. Nothing like the Letterman case could happen here, but – on the basis of my skewed media-saturated understanding and impression – the strange sordid scenario strikes me as the sort of thing that normally happens in the American Land of Possibilities.

If you were to read news of Jon Stewart being kidnapped by a militant redneck sect, Jay Leno defecting to North Korea (notice the similarity to Kim Jong-il?) or Oprah Winfrey organising attacks on the Afghan insurgency you wouldn’t check the calendar to affirm that it wasn’t April Fools’ Day. The incredible extortion attempt on David Letterman – let’s be lazy and call it ‘Lateshowgate’ – thus seems entirely credible; in fact, it comes across as the sort of crazy drama that the American showbiz world experiences as a day-to-day reality rather than an outstanding event.

What is perhaps most interesting in the whole affair is not that talk show hosts have sex with staff or that there are TV producers hellbent on malevolently screwing people over for their own gain. Reading about Lateshowgate, what really captures me is the fact that in the blackmailer’s threat was the promise that he would write a movie screenplay if Letterman didn’t comply with his demands and pay $2 million.

Not since Quentin Tarantino suggested he’d like to write a movie adaptation of Sesame Street has a potential screenplay caused so much unease in the boardrooms of Hollywood. Yet, despite concerns about the schemer’s plans, I personally reckon that the production of a script based on the “terrible things” done by Letterman and the subsequent bizarre blackmail plot would be brilliant. If reassessed, the whole random episode could be calmly resolved and result in a riveting crime conspiracy thriller for the ages.

The black comedy shades and plot ironies evoke thoughts of Hitchcock films and remind me of the 1986 ransom farce Ruthless People. With the same ‘holding-a-TV-star-hostage’ idea that provided great material for Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, Letterman’s ordeal is already worth the green-light. What I see here is a showbiz version of Burn After Reading without CIA bureaucrats. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, an acerbic and intelligent cinematic story would undoubtedly be the outcome.

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The whole fiasco has everything you could possibly want from a crime caper, except perhaps a villain with a ridiculous accent. It’s got sex, big money, media darling glamour and a mysterious manipulating puppet master with a personal grudge. The fact that the blackmailer – for all his cunning – decided to happily accept a very traceable fake cheque as payment also puts in place a sense of absurdity and stupidity that calls to mind some of the Coens’ most idiotic criminals (Jerry Lundegaard of Fargo and Chad and Linda of Burn After Reading, for example). Letterman’s status as a comedian further guarantees that Lateshowgate: The Movie won’t be a po-faced potboiler that audiences will pass up on in favour of a popcorn flick.

In bandleader Paul Shaffer, there’s also a wisecracking sidekick to provide musical interludes and act as the archetypal ‘concerned close friend who is the only person the victim can trust’. Get an acclaimed A-lister to bring pathos and a Shakespearean tragic hero aspect to the main role and the whole thing is tied together as a promising movie that can’t possibly bomb.

The final postmodern masterstroke comes as the main actor appears in character on the Late Show to be interviewed by the man they are mimicking. Hollywood – having assumed the mantle as the master of crime-conspiracy film ages ago – should deliver this thriller; that is if they haven’t been planning it all along. Could it be that the whole thing is a set-up to stimulate the Late Show With David Letterman‘s viewing figures? The plot thickens…

James’ previous column can be found here.