This story of meeting ground-breaking TV presenter Sankha Guha was written for the London edition of Point Three, a Mercedes-Benz customer magazine.
SANKHA GUHA – MY LONDON
As a presenter for BBC TV’s Holiday programme and the ground-breaking series Rough Guide To The World, Sankha Guha has visited more exotic regions and cities than most of us have heard of. But it is his home town, London, which is his favourite, even when it rains.
“I’m just back from the Arctic,” he says, hurrying in from a street overlooking Wandsworth Common, “but it’s colder here!”
He’s walked to the restaurant in the same furry Russian hat he wore last week in Lapland, clamped down tight over both ears even though it’s spring. His black leather shoes are wet, his coat made shiny by driving rain. The absurdity of the British weather makes him smile. It’s the same, slightly mischievous smile you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s the voice you know too, endearingly soft and pleasantly well-spoken with a hint of a London accent.
Hat and coat removed, he runs his hand through his jet-black hair, the reflex action of a man accustomed to working in front of cameras. The first impression – and you don’t always get this with TV personalities – is that the real-life Sankha Guha is the same person you’ve got to know on screen.
We’ve met at Chez Bruce, the restaurant overlooking Wandsworth Common that Sankha describes as his local. “It’s actually my favourite restaurant in England,” he says. “A Michelin star, but in the most unpretentious way.” He lives just a few streets away in one of a long line of substantial Edwardian houses, a three-storey home with an ultra-modern interior and a study in the attic.
Sankha’s handshake is gentle but this, like his voice, deceives. When he gets going on a subject close to his heart, his opinions are strong. His inquisitive appreciation of ‘the edginess’ of parts of London probably isn’t shared by his middle-class neighbours: he marvels at how the guns ‘n’ drugs culture produced the controversial, chart-topping garage collective So Solid Crew. And though he drives around town seated behind a long bonnet and a three-pointed star, it’s not the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Mercedes-Benz M-Class favoured by his neighbours: his is a 24-year-old Mercedes-Benz 280CE with 72,000 miles on the clock.
“I’ve owned the car for ten years now,” he says. “It belonged to somebody titled who didn’t use it much through the Eighties. I was looking for a stylish, comfortable automatic, and I suggested to my mechanic that I might buy a Jaguar. He said, ‘Buy a Jaguar and you won’t have me as a mechanic!’”
If this choice of elderly transport seems somehow a little eccentric, it’s in character. The BBC2 series in which Sankha made his name was notable for doing things differently. Broadcast from the late 1980’s through to the 1990’s, Rough Guide dared to take an honest and streetwise look at cities, veering from serious reportage to irreverent trivia. Sankha says, “I viewed it very much as a rolling current affairs programme, and some of the items we did were very edgy.”
Sankha and co-presenter Magenta De Vine both moved to Rough Guide as protégés of Janet Street-Porter, who was hired away from Channel 4 by Alan Yentob to invigorate BBC2’s youth programming. Street-Porter gave Sankha and Magenta their career breaks on Channel 4’s Network 7, the bold and brash programme for 16 to 24 year-olds.
Network 7 was later accused of nudging British television’s intellectual standards into a downwards-spiral, but Sankha points out: “It’s true there were some trashy moments, but the programme also had its share of serious journalism – stories such as cloning cash cards and bullying in the army – and it did win a BAFTA Award for its innovations. Personally, I’ve always thought it’s important not to underestimate the intelligence of the audience. I think, as a whole, with all the dumbed-down rubbish today, television’s just thrown in the towel.”
Sankha came to television via a post-graduate course in radio journalism, after studying English at University College, London. He chuckles at the memory: “I hijacked the college magazine. The two issues I did are still known as the anarchists’ issues.” Before going to university he auditioned for a place with punk band The Sex Pistols, and he began his working life in the music industry. This was, he says, “a reaction to my mum’s immigrant mentality. She wanted me to go into a more stable career.”
Sankha, his sister and his Hungarian mother moved from India to Britain when he was eleven years old, three years after the death of his Indian father. “My earliest memories of going to different places,” he says, “are of travelling around India as a child, of going up to Kashmir during the summer to escape the intolerable temperatures of Delhi. I was brought up with this immense heat and bright white sunlight and dust, so to me the idea of a holiday was to get out of that and go somewhere cooler and greyer. When I first arrived in London I didn’t mind the dullness at all; I found the wet and grey quite enticing.”
A pause in conversation. Sankha’s studying the restaurant’s menu and taking the task seriously. For his main course he chooses pot roast belly of pork with glazed root vegetables and aligot, but when his two table companions order the same dish, he is compelled to change his mind and switches to sauté of calf’s offal and veal. “I really enjoy cooking,” he says, “but I’m not very good at offal myself. I care about food, so if there’s good food to be had when I’m travelling and I’m eating in a duff place, I get a bit tetchy.”
If this gives the impression that travelling has spoiled Sankha Guha, you’re wrong. He says, “All the superficial stuff, staying in posh hotels and resorts and going to beautiful beaches, yes it’s nice, but it’s not what makes me tick. To me, the glamour of travelling is really more to do with discovering a place or something about a place that hasn’t been discovered before. Going to Cuba before others and helping to put it on the map as a travel destination, that’s the kind of thing that really excites me.”
He leans back in his chair, thrusting a hand into his trouser pocket. “Look, here’s my key ring. Look at the graphics on that!” A chunky bronze fob, it’s inscribed in ‘Fifties deco graphics with the name of the Habana Riviera hotel.
Sankha explains: “We stayed there when we visited Cuba in ’89. It’s real Miami Beach-style deco. It was built in 1958 and was meant to be a gambling hotel. Havana was run by the mafia, Meyer Lansky and the Chicago mobsters in cahoots with the dictator Batista, and Lansky owned the Riviera. It was going to be the largest casino-hotel in the world outside Las Vegas, but he didn’t get his investment back because within a year the Cuban revolution happened and Castro nationalised the place. It became a venue for various dull communist congresses.
“I was staying on the 19th floor of the hotel and quite frequently the lift wouldn’t work so I’d have to walk all the way up there, and the air conditioning wouldn’t work, so you’d have to have the window open. But because there wasn’t the money to tart it up, the building was absolutely authentic, exactly the way they’d found it in 1959. It didn’t even look like they’d painted it. Even though it was falling to bits, I thought it was the most glamorous place in the world. That’s what excites me about a place, when the experience is a little bit raw, with a sense of adventure and discovery.”
That belief holds true when Sankha shows off London to foreign visitors. “It’s not about doing the obvious,” he says. He recently hosted a photographer he met in the Estonian capital city, Tallinn, when making pilot TV programme 24 Hours In The City (a title he’s also applied to a beautifully produced magazine-format travel guide). “She’d been to London a few times before,” says Sankha, “but she said her weekend with us gave her a much better understanding of the people of London rather than just the place.
“We took a family walk on Wandsworth Common, which I think is lovely even if it isn’t a tourist attraction. We went to Greenwich Park and did the tourist thing of standing on the meridian line. We met up with some friends of mine in Notting Hill and took her to this grungy, noisy pub. She liked the feeling of it being kind of bohemian and cosmopolitan. Most of the accents in there weren’t of London; they were South African, they were Australian, they were European, and that’s what makes London. What I like about London is that it brings the world to us.”
Ask if there are any mainstream tourist attractions he would show visitors, and Sankha says, “Tate Modern. I think some Britart is overrated and trashy, Tracey Emin you can put in a deep hole, but much of the stuff at the Tate is great. It’s possibly London’s most spectacular success in recent years. And the fact that entrance is free is the biggest propaganda boost for London, the latest, greatest, coolest cultural icon, free of charge.”
Sankha admits his globe-trotting has also made him more aware of the city’s “deficiencies”. He rails against the fact that “too many cafés and restaurants get away with selling poor food and poisonous coffee,” he doesn’t understand “why we put up with the imposed curfew of such early closing hours, leaving nothing to do other than suffer the expense of a nightclub,” and he says “I hate coming back to Heathrow. Arrive at Terminal One or Terminal Three and you think, ‘Oh my God, this is what foreigners are faced with when they first come to England! It’s a shocker. Your first impressions are of a third-world, developing country.”
And when he walks out of those airport doors? “There’s always a sense of excitement, yes, no matter where I’ve just been. London offers the best of everything. There’s so much going on, no matter what your tastes or interests. Londoners are such a cosmopolitan mix and the place has so much character and so many layers, old and modern. Yes, it probably is the greatest city in the world.”