‘We were living it up like Kerry Packer, just as long as he didn’t find out’

60 MINUTES has barely been out of the headlines lately, after the controversy surrounding Tara Brown’s disastrous trip to Beirut and her return to television last night.

So it’s fortuitous timing for former cameraman Nicholas Lee to release a tell-all book about his 30 years working there.

Travelling around the world with the likes of Brown, Liz Hayes, Ray Martin, George Negus and Mike Munro, Lee spills on everything from accidentally smuggling drugs, to the outrageous expense accounts kept on the down low from Kerry Packer and Alan Bond.

News.com.au has this exclusive extract.

***

60 MINUTES struggled in the ratings for most of its first year (in 1979), but by August the show was gaining respect and the ratings picked up. We were working our bums off and enjoying every minute of it.

We had an open cheque book to go wherever, whenever. Back then there were no Discovery or National Geographic channels. We were it.

Ray, George, Ian and Jana were all great reporters, and even greater talkers. It was as if words had a use-by date, and that’s tomorrow, so all words must be used immediately.

Their job was to talk, they were paid handsomely to talk, and practice makes perfect. These perfect talkers were always interesting and fun to travel with, but sometimes 30 seconds silence would have been nice.

Producer Warren McStoker preferred minutes of silence. Which was rare when travelling with George, who was always writing a script then reading it aloud to everyone.

One day while we were driving through the beautiful Redwood forests in California, George found himself suddenly lost for words, and a script. Warren had grabbed the script pages, hurled them out the window and shouted,

“George, shut the f**k up!” And, he did, for the 30 seconds we all craved, then away he went again.

Ray Martin was an even better talker. We’d all assume our listening positions, and off he’d go. There was no shutting him up. And he spoke so quickly it was impossible to keep up.

***

The best restaurants and classiest hotels became our number-one priority. We were on a Kerry Packer expense account, living as if each of us was Kerry, just as long as he didn’t find out.

Gerald Stone, the original and best executive producer, was well aware of this but turned a blind eye to most of the excess, figuring it was worth it for crews who often worked 20-hour days.

So the system worked well, we discovered some outstanding establishments that even Kerry didn’t know existed, and no one had cause to complain. Perhaps Kerry would have, but Gerald kept us all well-insulated from above.

Our hotel of choice in Paris was the Hôtel de Crillon. One simply must stay there. One can’t stay anywhere else. It was extraordinary. Total opulence, built in 1758, filled with Louis XVI furniture and amazingly delicate and colourful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tapestries.

Marie Antoinette regularly had her piano lessons at the Crillon. Woodrow Wilson and the entire US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 stayed there.

More recent luminaries who frequently dropped into their favourite home away from home were Joe Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Liz Taylor, and of course Skeet, Phil, Fang, Leso, Ralph, Bruce and me.

There was even one occasion in 1980 when all of us plus Ray Martin and a few others checked in. Two 60 Minutes crews in Paris at the same time! The poor Crillon was aghast, but our credit card was good.

After a good day’s work in Paris and a few grogs in the bar, we decided to dine in. Wandering into “Les Ambassadeurs”, the hotel’s 18th century rococo-style restaurant, the producer Bruce Stannard, dressed splendidly in coat and tie and a few metres ahead of us, was met by the gushing maitre’d.

When Bruce requested a table for eight, the gushing came to an abrupt halt. The problem? He’d set eyes on the rest of us. T-shirts and jeans were de rigueur for 60 Minutes crews whether it was Paris or The Alice.

Eyes firmly back on Bruce, the maitre’d pronounced, “Oh, non non non.”

After heated words between them, Bruce asked us to flash our room keys, all eight of them. Then we waited patiently while the maitre’d, obviously knowing he couldn’t knock back hotel guests, issued hurried orders to assorted flunkies, none of which we understood, then announced that we were to follow him.

As quickly as possible, so as not to put fellow diners off their foie gras, we were led to the very back of the huge restaurant and pointed to our table. Through gritted teeth he helped us with our seating then deftly placed a bamboo room divider around our table.

Beautifully done, we were no more to be seen, and the well-heeled would no longer be in danger of choking on their canard.

Later in our rooms we donned our stylish white robes, grabbed bottles of champagne and stepped onto our individual balconies. Overlooking the courtyard, we toasted Paris, each other, our unbelievable job, and of course Kerry, for making it all possible.

We filmed it all, just to piss off the editors. Someone said, “This is not a bad pub,” and the word stuck.

For the next 30 years, any hotel we slept in, regardless of location or price, was “the pub”.

Other great “pubs” we tried in Paris were the George V, the Bristol, the Plaza Athénée, and my favourite the Hotel Le Meurice.

Unlike the Crillon’s somewhat showbiz clientele, the Pub Meurice was classy, and boasted Queen Victoria, the Sultan of Zanzibar and Tchaikovsky as regular guests. Best of all, our 250 kilos of camera gear was “never a problem” for the porters at the Meurice; in fact, they were extremely helpful, unusual for porters or Parisians.

***

We were away so often that some hotels became our much-nicer home away from home.

One of these was the Draycott, another great pub in London. We stayed so often there were a couple of long-term relationships between 60 Minutes crews and hotel staff. There was even a marriage.

The Draycott was actually called a club, though I never figured why. Extremely beautiful, small and intimate, the hotel was nestled in the back streets of Sloane Square, a hundred metres from Kings Road, Chelsea, four blocks from Harrods.

The heavies from the music and movie worlds loved staying there; the staff didn’t treat them as if they were famous and the luminaries loved it. The decor was magnificent. Huge vases of freshly cut flowers everywhere, their beautiful aroma permeating the whole building. Everything was perfect.

The service was outstanding for everyone ... except us. We got none. Instead, we became such great friends with the staff that it was as if we were just bunking down on their floor at home except we — well, Kerry — was being charged three hundred quid a night per room for the privilege.

The bar worked on an honesty system. I don’t know how honest it was, nothing was ever written down, but at the end of our stay a gigantic amount of money owed would appear on one of our accounts, preferably someone else’s and not mine.

Whoever scored the bill was always in shock, but then again we drank nothing but champagne or cognac except when pangs of conscience about the budget hit and we’d have a beer or twelve, but you can bet the Draycott was never out of pocket.

Ludwig (Ludy) the barman was a 5 feet tall Frenchman who spoke at lightning speed. His English was not too bon and nor was his service. In fact, come to think of it, his English was much more bon than his service.

We would go behind the bar and help ourselves as Ludy, lying on the chaise longue, would shout, “Une gin and tonic pour moi while you’re there!”

I’m sure the G and T ended up on our bill, but it was the mixing with fascinating, eccentric people, both guests and staff, that made the Draycott our abode of choice in London for many years.

***

Another beauty was the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto in Rome. A great pub. All class. With an astute porter who, on seeing Channel 9 logos plastered all over our gear, said, “Hey, you just missed your boss, that’s his car pulling out now.”

“Boss? What boss?”

“That boss, that’s Alan Bond.”

We ducked behind our cars in case that boss suddenly remembered he’d forgotten something.

Bond had just bought the network from Kerry Packer for a billion dollars, and obviously realising he’d paid too much, tried to save a few bucks by releasing his “Nine Manifesto”.

It was a ripper. It proclaimed that a few heavies, such as Ray Martin and Jana Wendt, could travel first class. Lesser stars and producers, who were actually working on the flight, could travel business class, and the rest — i.e. film crews — would be at the back of the bus.

And hotel rooms? Well, though not proclaimed, he would have assumed we’d be sharing motel rooms or, even better, camping out.

If he’d seen us walking into the Excelsior, he would have hit the roof, and probably us. After all, this hotel was for media tycoons and millionaires, which a few years later he wouldn’t be. Bond was later bankrupted and convicted of fraud, swapping a suite at the Excelsior for his own room in a West Australian prison for more than three years.

I don’t think it was our week at the Excelsior that bankrupted him (though the grog was expensive), I think it was the fact he paid $54 million (which he didn’t have) for the van Gogh masterpiece Irises. And possibly the fact we all continued to travel business class and stay in the most expensive hotels.

***

Establishments such as the Hotel Le Meurice, the Draycott or the Excelsior don’t exist in Gaza, most of Africa or places like, say, the Thai border.

On a story about an overcrowded Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border, we needed accommodation. Easier said than done.

There was a small village not far from the camp with not a drop of accommodation to be found, but like every good village, it had a brothel. So we bought it. Girls and all.

Our daily budget was the same as if we were in Paris, so we paid the girls, gave them four days off, and moved in.

It was no Meurice but there was a roof over our head, and beds. The beds, normally rented by the hour, weren’t super comfortable, obviously planned that way, but they were luxury compared to the toilet and shower, which came in the form of two buckets.

The bucket with the ladle was to wash with, the one without a ladle was to shit in.

The single 40-watt globe hanging over the uncomfortable rent-a-bed meant not a lot of reading was done, and the deep dent in the bed meant not a lot of sleep. But we kept the place neat and tidy, not wishing to incur the wrath of the girls who had obviously done their best to keep their workplace as comfortable as possible.

And we were grateful. At least we had electricity, beds, privacy and a roof.

The camp refugees had none of the above. When tropical storms hit, there was slight relief from the heat, and that’s all.

Sitting in mud under small pieces of plastic were mum, dad and four or five kids with vacant looks in their eyes, staring, waiting and hoping, hoping that some day they’d be accepted for a new life in the US, or preferably Australia. Some had lived like this for years, grateful to be alive, they told us.

The food drop was heartbreaking. Once a day a truckload of rice was tipped into a great mound on the dirt, and it was every man for himself. The women and children had no chance. There’d be a desperate fight to grab as much rice as possible.

It was a horror show, and there was nothing we could do to help these people. Watching felt so wrong. Filming even more so. Some stared down the lens, challenging me. But I did film it all and I did get amongst it, and I did feel guilty.

I could only hope that once these images were shown at home they might prick a few consciences and get something done.

Yet there was a sense of hope in parts of the camp. You can’t hold back drive and determination. A few entrepreneurial individuals had somehow got hold of sewing machines and set up tailor shops. Others ran small “stores”. Cardboard boxes piled on top of each other for a counter, selling Coke, ice and sweets. Very few had money to buy any of this but there was no holding down good capitalists.

It was truly inspiring, and I found myself trying to imagine just how I would have coped under such circumstances, unfortunately I knew the answer.

Witnessing the refugees’ wretched conditions day after day made us appreciate our brothel and two buckets. But in a few days’ time, we knew we’d be appreciating a gin and tonic by the pool at the Bangkok Hilton before we’d retire to our air-conditioned suites, all paid for by someone else.

We sure were lucky and I never forgot just how lucky we were.

This is an edited extract from All This in 60 Minutes by Nicholas Lee, published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99, available July 27 2016.

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