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Sunday, 13 January 2008

Yes, it's his real name

Richard Quest works for CNN. He fronts two shows - The self-titled and gloriously vague "Quest", in which he travels somewhere to meet someone and to them. Seriously, I've tried to find a deeper thematic element to the series and come up blank. His other show - and the one that, many years ago, brought him to my attention, is the risible "Business Traveller", which is kind of porn for travelling salesmen without being, you know, actually porn for travelling salesmen. It concerns itself with how best to be a high-flying, globe-trotting, modern-world-bestriding business titan. Once a month, Richard advises us on which Japanese airports serve the best sushi in massage chairs, which brand new platinum plated ultra-portable laptop computer is the most essential for slicked-suited office mavericks like you to play minesweeper on, and what you should do to unwind once you've closed that huge deal in Macau. It is, in other words, 98% fantasy for fantasists, and I think it knows it.

Richard Quest is tall, bespectacled, English, very English, and enthusiastic to the point of spontaneous human combustion. He leans towards the camera and shouts at you as though no electronic technology were required for you to hear his urgent report from a Tokyo mobile phone superstore. He does that thing with his hand that Tony Blair started doing when his advisers noticed that Bill Clinton started doing it. You know, that gesture where you make a little fist and then point with the first knuckle of your forefinger, jutting out slightly. I remember reading about this a few years ago. Image consultants had decided that it was a way to emphasise a point without actually pointing your finger, which could, apparently, be taken as overly aggressive. I think that may have been the moment that believeable party politics actually keeled over and died. Anyway, back to dear old Richard. He puts all THE emphasis ON all THE wrong words. Best of all he concludes each episode of "Business Traveller" with the frankly lucifer-summoning catch-phrase "Wherever your travels take you - I hope it's profitable". All these are reasons to hate him. All good reasons for me to fill the next few paragraphs with anger. But I won't. For the truth is I love this man deeply.

Having researched his career a little I know that he worked his way through the ranks of the BBC over the course of many years, and has ended up at that bastion of bluster and manufactured panic, CNN. A long career in that famously cynical industry could make even the most idealistic man jaded. But not Richard. His genius is in his enthusiasm. It's real. When he reports about artificially intelligent toilets at Tokyo's Narita airport (as he recently did), he's genuinely as interested as when he talked about not leaving your laptop turned on and unattended in a cheap hotel room when you go out (as he also did). He virtually glows and shakes as he revels in the simple joy of telling you stuff. His appearance helps, undeniably. Appearance-wise, he is half the Muppets' Guy Smiley made flesh, and half the kid that Boris Johnson would have paid a gardener in toffees and copies of Razzle to beat up and lock in the shed at prep school. He is still that kid, except that now he is paid what I'm assuming is a generous salary to fly around the world, business class, to tell you where to find wifi in Brussels, or how nice it is to spend an afternoon on a boat in the Seychelles.

Like any great clown, the joy isn't so much in what he's going to do, but simply what circumstance his producer has decided to put him in today. And like any great clown, he always wears the same motley. Tailored suit - usually dark blue - from Hong Kong, white shirt, cheap tie from an airport, glasses, shiny shoes. The opening shot of the show will have him walking towards camera, gesturing wildly with an unhinged grin on his face - same every episode. Only the background changes- one month it's Dubai airport, the next he's in the desert with pyramids behind him, or in Paris trying to look casual sitting outside a cafe, or in the USA walking around the world's biggest lost luggage warehouse. I once saw him doing a piece to camera while striding down the middle of a 747, in flight, halfway through a long-haul flight, talking in HIS characteristic WAY much too LOUDLY. The great part was that as he bounced down the plane, gesticulating wildly and bellowing at the camera, the poor passengers, one by one - almost without exception - jerked awake with a start as he passed them . In the centre of the frame was his grinning, happy face, blissfully unaware that he's framed each side by exhausted passengers glaring at him with thoughts of presentercide in their minds.

But to hell with them. They should have realised that they were in the presence of greatness and bought the man a drink. For Richard Quest may be the last non-ironic, non-self-effacing, non-post modern presenter on television. I saw him on two consecutive days last month. On the first day he was interviewing Santa Claus at the South Pole. The following night he was chairing an industry summit on global warming. "That", my wife offered, "Isn't right". And if it were anyone else, she'd be dead right. Anyone else caught doing a stupid Christmas fluff piece would be laughed at if they then tried to do a heavyweight global warming thing the next day. But for Richard it works, because he gives the exact same amount of gravitas to Father Christmas as he does to global warming, either that or he treats them with the same amount of passive-aggressive contempt. I'm not sure. Either way it works.

Wherever I am in the World, there's usually CNN, and I always - always - flick it on in the hope of finding Richard bouncing around some far-flung city scaring the locals. I've been in the depths of depression and loneliness, only to be giggled out of it by the vision of Richard walking towards the camera, all elbows and knees akimbo, proudly saying where he is in the world, and what he's going to tell us about. Still need a reason to love him? Consider this: A couple of years ago Al Jazeera TV were pouring lots of money into setting up an American version of their channel and were poaching some big names with some even bigger pay cheques (all of which, hilariously, two years later, have started bouncing). They approached Richard and asked him if he'd like to work for them, and his reply, reportedly, was that he was "a little too Jewish and a little too gay".

I mean, someday, to buy the man dinner.

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