Saturday, 6 April 2019

Brexit Britain, anxious and fearful of the future, is no longer a country for an old, American radio broadcaster called Bill Heine, who once put a shark in his roof and a smile on its face

Thirty-three years ago Bill Heine, who has died at the age of 74, generated widespread amusement when he installed a 25ft-long fibreglass shark at 2, New High Street, Headington, an eastern suburb of Oxford, in August 1986, in a very different Britain to the Brexit Britain of today.

Mrs Thatcher, who ranks alongside Lloyd George and Winston Churchill as a 'great' 20th century Prime Minister, was at the helm. In January Britain and France announced plans to construct the Channel Tunnel, which they hoped to open by the early 1990s and in February Mrs Thatcher presided over the signing the Franco-British Channel Fixed Link Treaty at Canterbury in the presence of President Mitterrand, she said in French :

"This treaty is an important event, not only for relations between our two countries, but also for the whole of Europe, and will open up a new chapter in industrial cooperation between France and Great Britain, based on private enterprise and the competence of our heads of industry and businesses, and this will also give a unique opportunity to our businessmen and finance in order to show what they can do." 

In his speech the President said :
"You are deeply attached to Europe too and there is no going back on this, and this is the first stone perhaps. It is a French expression. The first stone has been laid. I do not know if it is a stone, but there will come a time soon when the cross-Channel Fixed Link will be part of the geological scenery of our planet and I personally think that this is very important and I want to thank you, Madam Prime Minister, for the efforts that you have made in order to bring this project to fruition." 

Fast forward 33 years to Brexit Britain, led by Mrs May, Prime Minister in name only and a 'Britain Thinks' poll of more than 2,000 people, the results of which were released this week, which found that 83% of those surveyed were sick of hearing about Brexit, while 64% thought it was damaging their mental health. The poll found that the dominant words people use in relation to Brexit have changed: in 2017, it was “confusing” or “uncertain”; now, it is “broken” and “chaos”.

The most important findings from the research indicated that the public :

* is totally fed up with hearing about Brexit and worry about the impact on their mental health.

* blames the whole political class for the mess and both main parties are now sustaining major reputations damage.

* struggles to see a route out of the chaos.

* consists of 'remain' voters who feel disconsolate and disenfranchised by Brexit.

* consists of 'leave' voters who find their optimism has turned to desperation.

Who was Bill Heine who brought a smile to the nation's face in 1986 ?

The answer is that he was, in fact, an American, born in 1945, the last year of his country's war against Germany and Japan, in the Second World War, in a catholic family, in the small farming community of Batavia, Illinois. Where, when her family moved to Batavia when she was 12, he befriended Jackie de Shannon, who later recorded 'What the world needs now is love.'

In his teens he attended a military academy, a high school that placed a high emphasis on military preparation, academic rigour, and physical fitness where he learned how to use pistols, rifles and even howitzers. He then read 'American Diplomatic History' at the Jesuit University of Georgetown, 
Washington DC. He then worked in the United States Senate and the Executive Office of the White House before embarking on a Law degree at Balliol College, Oxford, but had to postpone his studies when he was sent home when drafted for service in the Armed Forces in the war in Vietnam. Bill avoided military service by volunteering for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Peru before returning to Oxford.

Having completed his studies at Oxford he decided to stay in Britain and did so for the next 50 years and explained his reasons in 2009 : He later said that the “clincher” behind his decision to stay had been the National Health Service and said : “This is a country where the ideals of the people have been enshrined in the way the country organises itself and that, to me, is incredible.”

After graduation and considering his future, he noticed that, though there were three cinemas in Oxford, they only showed films “like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or porn”. As a result,  the 1970s he bought a redundant cinema off Cowley Road and in 1976 with a friend reopened it as the 'Penultimate Picture Palace' or 'PPP', because his bank manager told him that if it was not the ultimate reckless enterprise it was 'the penultimate' or next worst thing. He revitalised the frontage by installing a sculpture by John Buckley, depicting Al Jolson in minstrel make-up reaching out his white-gloved hands in a scene from his 1927 'The Jazz Singer.'

For the next 15 years, under Bill, the 'PPP', which was run as a 'members’ club', built its reputation on art house films and films that had been denied a certificate by the censor, often attracting the ire of the City Council. Bill went on to open the 'Moulin Rouge Cinema', which he later renamed 'Not The Moulin Rouge' in Headington, for which John designed a giant pair of legs.  

His shark, designed by John, which appeared to have fallen headfirst from the sky and plunged straight through the roof slates up to its pectoral fins, was erected, without planning permission, on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. It was also intended as a protest against the American bombing of Libya and as a statement about nuclear weapons. Installed in the midst of the Cold War the shark apparently depicted how even suburban quietism was at threat from atomic holocaust. As in Jaws, nowhere was safe and Bill suggested : "It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."

It provoked a storm of outrage in Oxford and brought repeated calls from Oxford City Council to remove it. Bill fought a six-year battle with the Council which ended in 1992 when the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine intervened and he was granted retrospective planning permission with the decision that : 'Any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the down right quirky.'

The shark also heralded the start of Bill's media career. He began writing a column for the 'Oxford Star' and in 1988 'BBC Radio Oxford' asked him to host a lunchtime phone-in programme, his interviewer assuring him : “This is the beginning of something big. This is why we’re going to pay you peanuts.” Over the next 30 years, he became known as an opinionated and fearless interviewer willing to tackle anyone, from senior politicians to criminals. His campaigns included an investigation into a paedophile running a child model agency which, he claimed, resulted in an attempt on his life.

Bill, who died on 2nd April, knew that his shark had become a popular landmark, drawing thousands of tourists to an otherwise unremarkable suburb of Oxford and that the council had become reconciled to its existence. As a result, last year council members were reported to have backed a project to protect it as a permanent part of the city’s skyline and Bill was presented with a 'Special Certificate of Merit' in recognition of his contribution to the city.

While working at BBC Radio Oxford he interviewed David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Ricky Gervais, Alan Bennett and Gordon Brown of whom he asked : 
"Prime Minister, are there times when you feel impotent?" 

P.S. Bill's BBC interview with Nelson Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe :

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