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How A 'Cowardly' War Correspondent Wound Up In A Battle With Reality

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  • How A 'Cowardly' War Correspondent Wound Up In A Battle With Reality

    By Zoe Brennan

    Daily Mail 1087673/How-cowardly-war-correspondent-wound-battl e-reality-TV-judges.html
    Nov 20 2008

    Among the graceful and lithe professional dancers, he stood out like
    a sore thumb. So what drove this chubby, retired political pundit -
    who last captured the public's imagination when he was 'handbagged'
    by Margaret Thatcher as she lost her grip on power in 1990 - to
    venture into the world of reality television?

    Maybe the answer lies in a complicated childhood during which his
    father Ernest, a Church of England curate, had an affair with an
    Armenian nurse.

    When it ended, Sergeant's parents reached an agreement to stay together
    for ten years for the sake of their three children, after which they
    would be free to remarry.

    The family settled in the idyllic Oxfordshire village of Great Tew,
    where the errant reverend was made vicar.

    At the age of 11, John was sent to a minor public school. He
    recalled: 'I did not like its rather rough combination of bullying
    and homosexuality.' Two years later, his parents' ten-year agreement
    ran out and they separated. Young John was sent to England's most
    expensive school, Millfield in Somerset.

    Once more an outsider, he says: 'At my first evening meal I was
    surprised to find that I was the only person on my table capable of
    cutting slices from a loaf of bread.

    'I was sitting between a boy worth a million pounds in his own right
    and another worth half a million pounds more. I had 30 shillings, or
    £1.50, to spend each term.' He once met the young heiress Christina
    Onassis, a prospective student, touring the grounds.

    He remembers his mother parking the family's battered Ford Popular
    next to the lines of Bentleys and Jaguars, and recalled: 'I wanted
    to curl up and die.' After winning a place at Oxford, John threw
    himself into the student comedy scene alongside Michael Palin (later
    of Monty Python fame).

    He was spotted by an unlikely talent scout: a young Jeffrey Archer,
    who offered to be his agent. Sergeant - probably wisely - declined.

    After university, he met the playwright Alan Bennett, who gave him
    a part on his BBC comedy series.

    When he suffered a nose-bleed during one skit, he learned a lesson
    he employed to great effect in his television career - not least on
    Strictly Come Dancing.

    He says: 'Not for the first time, I realised that an audience likes
    nothing better than to see something go wrong.'

    After his comedy career fizzled out, Sergeant got a job as a trainee
    on the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo. There he met his future wife,
    Mary, whom he describes as 'the rock of my life'.

    It was at this time that Sergeant began to develop his rather
    buffoonish persona, making a career of appearing bewildered.

    He says: 'The reporter as victim may not seem a credible role, but it
    used to produce dividends. It was surprising how people were prepared
    to help if they thought you were completely out of your depth.'
    Handbagged by Mrs T: John Sergeant has gone from war correspondent
    to a publicly-adored character on Strictly Come Dancing

    The couple moved to London, where Sergeant got a job at the BBC, and
    Mary began teaching. During a 30-year career with the corporation,
    he covered conflicts including Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

    In Cyprus, after being taken hostage for 33 hours at gunpoint in 1974,
    Sergeant lost his nerve. A fellow-BBC reporter, later noticing his
    reluctance to place his life in danger, harangued him in front of
    colleagues saying: 'This man is a coward'.

    Sergeant realised his war correspondent career was over, saying:
    'I was extremely frightened', and he became a political reporter for
    the BBC at Westminster.

    In 1984, he managed to sleep through the Brighton bomb at the
    Conservative Party conference, and was scooped by a rival. In 1990,
    he was on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris when news
    came through of a disastrous setback for Mrs Thatcher in the Tory
    leadership contest.

    He insisted that the Premier would remain ensconced in the building -
    unaware that she was bearing down on him at speed, to the delight of
    13million viewers and the horror of BBC technicians.

    Back in the studio, newsreader Peter Sissons shouted: 'John, she's
    behind you' - but his earpiece had failed.

    Mrs Thatcher grabbed the microphone and announced that she would
    fight on, giving the hapless Sergeant an unexpected exclusive.

    After leaving the BBC for ITN, he embarked on a late career in comedy,
    appearing to great plaudits on Have I Got News For You.

    And so his unlikely love affair with celebrity began - propelling
    him eventually to take centre stage on Strictly Come Dancing.


    From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress