London, Feb. 4: British journalist Martin Bashir has re-established himself as the master of the confessional interview after his coup in securing an exclusive insight into the life of the reclusive pop star Michael Jackson.
Last night’s 110-minute documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, in which the singer revealed that children sleep over at his home and even in his bedroom, was watched by 14.1 million people in Britain — half the TV audience.
Bashir, who got Princess Diana to admit she had been involved in an adulterous affair with James Hewitt, a British army officer, in a famous interview on BBC Panorama in 1995 — that programme was watched by 22.8 million viewers in the UK — has not got anything quite as dramatic this time. But eight months of following Jackson around has paid off and today, at least, the programme is the main talking point in Britain, with most experts agreeing that the singer’s revelations about his relationship with children will not help his career.
Much of the filming was done at Neverland, the Peter Pan world, complete with its own zoo and fairground, Jackson has created at his 4,000-acre ranch near Los Angeles.
Bashir himself remained conspicuously low profile today. He is 40, from a Pakistani Christian background — he has been to India in the past to do a documentary on the persecution of Christians in the country — and lives in London with his English wife and three children.
In a statement, he said: “While I can say it has been a privilege to get close to someone I believe to be the greatest vocalist and songwriter ever to perform on the stage of popular music, it will be a relief to walk away from Neverland and return to the relative normality of a family life, three naturally conceived children and the weekly trip to Sainsbury’s.”
Life for Bashir has not always been easy. His coup in getting Princess Diana, the big interview everyone wanted, unleashed such a torrent of jealousy from rivals that he was eventually forced to leave the BBC and seek work as a freelance on commercial television. He joined ITV in 1999.
He may now have requests from camera crews to follow him around for eight months. Although he does not exclude himself from London’s Asian circuit — he has supported a campaign to encourage Indians and Pakistanis to carry organ donor cards — he is not a part of the set.
TV insiders say that the Jackson programme would have been a “money no object” project, costing ITV at least £500,000. Bashir may qualify for a fee of £50,000 plus, but can make much more if he gets a percentage of the overseas sales.
Living with Jackson, which has been heavily trailed in Britain, has been bought by the American broadcaster, ABC, for £3.5 million. Other buyers will not be difficult to find and could make Bashir a rich man.
As to why he gets the interviews others cannot, there is no easy answer. He is not a natural for TV, in the sense his dark jowls and sweating face often make him look uncomfortable under bright lights. But he has a soothing psychiatrist’s manner — “go on Michael, tell me” — which probably encourages his subjects to drop their guard.
The very quality which may be a disadvantage in Britain — his brown skin — may help him outside Britain. His reputation in securing Diana was probably the one factor which clinched matters with Jackson, who was probably seeking a way of improving his tarnished image. Bashir said he secured the interview with Jackson simply by writing to him and requesting the singer to tell it like it is. Jackson, he said, was not given a prior viewing or editorial rights and was certainly not paid any money.
Not that the singer needs any. Bashir gets him to admit he is worth a billion dollars.
One of the bizarre episodes in the documentary occurs when Bashir accompanies Jackson to his favourite shop in Las Vegas selling vulgar imitation furniture, vases, urns, chess sets and object d’art.
He wanders through the store, buying rows of items — “this, those, those two, these” — without bothering to look at the price tags. The bill comes to $6 million — loose change for someone who began receiving cheques for big amounts at the age of 12 when he and his brothers formed the Jackson Five.
Later they would have sex in the same bedroom while he pretended to be asleep. When his first girlfriend, Tatum O’Neal, tried to make love to him, he covered his face with his hands. She walked away.
Jackson said he did not like buying jewellery except when he did so for his mother and his great friend and patron, the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Bashir gets to meet Jackson’s children Prince Michael I, aged six, Paris, aged four, and the baby, Prince Michael II (nickname Blanket) who was dangled dangerously from a hotel balcony in Berlin. Their mothers are nowhere in the picture. It was unclear whether the youngest was conceived naturally or via a surrogate mother.
Psychiatrists will note that the two older children wore masks at all times, while Jackson bottle fed the youngest with a green gauze covering his face and resting on the singer’s rapidly vibrating knees.
A 12-year-old boy, Gavin, who had been a cancer patient, was among children who routinely slept over in Jackson’s bedroom. The singer claimed the relationships were innocent and not sexual. “My greatest inspiration comes from kids... it’s all inspired from that level of innocence. I just love being around that all the time,” he said. “It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep — I tuck them in and I put a little music on and when it’s story time I read a book.”
Jackson said that “I have slept in a bed with many children”, including actor Macaulay Culkin and his brother Kieran. “When you say ‘bed’, you’re thinking sexual,” Jackson said. “It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep. I tuck them in... It’s very charming, it’s very sweet.”
He denied ever having face surgery — Bashir’s reaction to this was sceptical — but admitted he had undergone two nose jobs to help him to breathe better.
Jackson’s violent father had taunted him about his “big nose” and had used a belt to force his sons to dance better, the singer said.
In 1993, Jackson who says he identifies with Peter Pan, was accused of molesting a boy who had stayed at his home. No charges were made after Jackson bought silence by paying millions of dollars.
“I felt very uneasy about these conversations,” Bashir records in a voiceover.
When Jackson shows Bashir a mock up of the tomb of Tutankhamun, he is asked if he would like to be buried in a similar.
To which Jackson replies: “I don’t want to be buried — I would like to live for ever.”