by Larry Michie
Perhaps they should have been called Variety Operatives rather than reporters or salesmen. The overseas staffers of the Silverman era had a special character and toughness and gusto all their own, and to juggle journalism and commerce, as many did, required full employment of all their skills and judgment.
Roger Watkins certainly was the classic example, and if you entered him in any competition heíd wind up Best of Show.
The overseas workings of Variety barely caught my notice when I was a correspondent in Washington during the 1960s. After I moved to New York as television editor in 1973, I became aware of the formidable ability of staffers Across the Pond to generate advertising and endless, sometimes impenetrable, reams of copy.
But it was only after I left New York and began to travel overseas as a freelancer for Syd’s SWAT team that I began to understand the true scope and accomplishments of that cheerful, ruthless, hyper-competitive and charming band of adventurers. And Roger came to symbolize for me the best of what the foreign bureaus could do, leveraging news sources for advertising and advertising contacts for news, contributing mightily to the financial stability of Variety while maintaining an independent spirit of journalism.
Roger told me once, with considerable glee, that as a young staffer in London covering the music industry, he’d ask a record company exec for an ad, and if he refused, pleading a lack of funds, Roger would say, ‘That’s all right, mate,’ then haul out his notebook and say, ‘Tell me about your financial problems, I’ll write a story for Variety.’ Often enough, the fellow whose bluff had been called would buy an ad instead. All’s fair in love and sales.
Jaunty and energetic, with a boyish grin and a wicked wit, Roger was the engine that pulled the train along – sometimes with a lot of boxcars crashing together and occasionally jumping the track, but always managing to reach the next station on time.
Part of the SWAT team concept was that I could tag along with the Variety Ops and do the bulk of the reporting, freeing them to concentrate on ad sales. My first assignment was to invade Germany with Roger and John Willis. Later on, we did Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen in about 45 minutes, or so it seemed to my over-cooked brain. Those two trips – although many and varied were to follow – introduced me to the true vitality of the foreign crew. A reporter who works first in D.C. and then in New York may think those cities are two different countries, but overseas the differences when you cross borders are striking, not just in languages – mercifully, English is almost universal in the business world – but in culture, prejudices, perceptions and politics. The latter point is crucial, since all entertainment businesses tend to be highly regulated and subject to tremendous pressures and even – gasp! – political corruption.
Enter Watkins, Roger. He never met anyone who wasn’t his friend, even if it was their first meeting. Roger was quick and fearless with his banter and his humor, and somehow even grim bureaucrats tended to relax when Watkins unloosed the force of his personality. He told bawdy jokes at times, and his listeners were always thrilled to have their stiff upper lips jolted into a smile. He cheerfully called everyone ‘mate’ in the best informal British manner, but he also knew that when he encountered someone bloated with self-importance or crippled by insecurity that he had to use a more formal and deferential approach. It seemed to me that no one ever said ‘no’ to Roger, and it was apparent that people instinctively liked and trusted him. There was good reason for that. Roger wasn’t malicious or two-faced, he protected his news sources and his business clients, and he was a cheerleader for the people who worked for him.
There was a full platoon – or maybe a regiment – of hardworking Variety Ops overseas, and they all did work that was crucial to keeping Variety afloat and vital at the rapidly changing intersection of news and commerce that developed as the twentieth century wound down. No one played a more important role than Roger Watkins. And no one had more fun doing it. As Pat and their children surely know, there is a legion who join them in mourning.