The late Lord St John of Fawsley, whose death was announced yesterday, is not perhaps the first person who you might expect to find celebrated here. As Norman St-John Stevas, he was a Tory minister for the arts and an early confidante of Margaret Thatcher. His politics were hardly ours, nor his religion – he was a prominent Roman Catholic. As for his personality, Edward Pearce, in his obituary for the Guardian, captures this well: ‘Mannered, self-applauding, with an aura of camp and given to tiffs and squabbles, he had outstanding intellectual gifts, vitiated, despite an underlay of real scholarship, by eternal public performance.’ Yet for several years he played an important part in my life, and in the development of Illuminations. Indeed, there is a very real sense in which LSJ, as we came affectionately to refer to him in private, was the company’s saviour.
As I understand the backstory, one of his consolation prizes from being cast out from the cabinet as a ‘wet’ in 1981 was a seat some time later on the board of BSkyB. In 2003 he headed the search committee for a new chief executive that appointed the 30 year old James Murdoch. As his political utility waned, however, Sky shifted him off the main board and made him Chairman of Sky Arts. Neither he nor those at Sky struggling to make sense of this recent acquisition – which was, after all, not the most obvious offering for the commercial broadcaster – quite knew what his role was meant to entail. But one thing that was probably involved was the discussion of programme ideas.
LSJ wanted to see a project that brought together two of the passions of his life, art and religion. Sky Arts discussed such a notion with several production companies – and our idea, which eventually became Art of Faith (and available here as a DVD), was preferred. I was commissioned to write a detailed treatment and Sky Arts allocated what was, at least for them, a generous budget. For a first series of three programmes, we got to film around the world in many of the major buildings in the traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism – and a great treat it was too.
The reason that I think of LSJ as our saviour is that the commission came during some dark days for the company. After a BBC project crashed and burned (another tale for another time), our work for the corporation and its then entirely unsympathetic arts commissioners had dried up. Channel 4 was in one of those moments when it had more or less given up on the arts, and we had not sufficiently developed the alternative forms of cultural production (for museums, for DVD, for iPads) which are now so important for us. We were looking at a lot of red ink – and no obvious way to find a path back into the black.
Art of Faith, which we made with the estimable John McCarthy, came along at just exactly the right moment. Had it not, I’m far from sure that the company would be where it is today – or indeed whether it would be anywhere at all. But it did mean that I had to make a number of visits to LSJ’s Westminster apartment. I rather enjoyed these audiences with the great man, whose wit and immense erudition I came to admire. I was also fascinated by aspects of his life like the table of silver-framed photographs, which featured family, friends and those who he had encountered in his professional and personal lives. In the front row, as I recall, were snapshots of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, and Rupert Murdoch.
In the opening minutes of my first encounter I spotted on a table Rosemary Hill’s recently published (and excellent) biography of the nineteenth-century architect and designer Augustus Pugin. Looking to find some common ground, I mentioned that I had just finished reading the book. ‘Ah, Pugin,’ LSJ said, ‘I have one or two of his things upstairs.’ As indeed he had (the ‘things’ being fine decorative objects), in the small Catholic chapel he had built on the roof of the apartment block, and in which a priest regularly celebrated Mass. ‘You must come to Mass sometime,’ LSJ said invitingly. Sadly, I never did.
I did attend his summer drinks party, which was packed with the Lords Howe and Heseltine and their like. But I spotted none of the new breed of Tories. LSJ and I also continued to exchange Christmas cards, even after the second series of Art of Faith was long put to bed. (This second series had taken us to India, China, Japan and Thailand, for which we were truly grateful.) While we were planning and making the films, LSJ demonstrated a healthy interest in where we were going and what we intended to shoot, but as far as I know he never watched the final result (at least he never passed any judgement on them).
We had only one significant falling-out, which was over the inclusion in my original treatment of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool built in the early 1960s by Sir Frederick Gibberd. LSJ was having none of this: ‘dreadful building,’ he said with typical forthrightness, ‘Paddy’s wigwam, we used to call it – dreadful.’ Whether or not LSJ could call the shots in such a manner became something of an issue between him and Sky Arts, but eventually a compromise was concocted and the Metropolitan Cathedral remained unfilmed (we went instead to the Matisse chapel in Vence).
What LSJ also cared about was the series of theological lectures by notable divines that he organised alongside the broadcasts of Art of Faith. Exceptional exertions went into their planning – and Sky Arts was dragooned into filming and broadcasting them to a presumably rather bemused (and tiny) audience of culture vultures. The most notable address was one by the then Cardinal Archbishop at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where LSJ had been Master. LSJ’s introduction of the Cardinal Archbishop went on and on and on, with no-one (certainly not the current Master, seated in the front row) prepared to bring it to an end. Some learned (and blessedly brief) reflections on St John the Divine from the Cardianl Archbishop and a decent dinner afterwards went some way to compensate.
Both I and Illuminations have, as a consequence of all this, much for which to thank Lord St John. The company continues to trade, my colleagues have had amazing filming trips to mosques around the Mediterranean, Shinto shrines in Japan and Hindu temples in India – and I got to go to Angkor Wat, which I had dreamed of visiting since reading about it (I think) in Look and Learn at the age of eight. In more personal terms, too, for all LSJ’s eccentricities – or perhaps precisely because of them – my life is the richer for my occasional encounters with him. I am sure there are many others who today feel the same.