Wednesday 28 February 2024

Let’s do Lunch with…Georg Sapiano

This was the very first interview in the weekly series Let’s Do Lunch which ran from 2000-2005. Each week I sat down with well-known people from different spheres of Maltese society, over lunch at their favourite restaurant. This interview was first published on 19 May, 2000.

Interviewing an interviewer is not an easy task at the best of times. With a person like Georg Sapiano, it took a while for him to grasp the concept that I was going to be the one asking the questions, and not him.
We were dining at Valletta’s upmarket restaurant, The Carriage, popular with business types and those of the lawyerly persuasion. Asked why he had chosen this place, Georg’s reply was immediate: “invariably good food, I’m never disappointed – I never have to send something back.”
Would he really do that? “Huh! Try me!”

Now, I have always been fascinated by people who have the ability to complain at a restaurant, for the simple reason that I could never do it myself. As for ‘sending something back’! The sheer audacity of this takes my breath away.

“I’m my friends’ terror in restaurants” he continues, positively relishing the image. “You walk into a restaurant, and the idea is that you’ve gone some place outside your kitchen to spend a nice evening. And then you’re either ignored, or the service is late, or the waiter wishes he wasn’t – and everybody agrees, and wishes he wasn’t either! And then the food comes and it’s cold, or the pasta is just two inches away from being modelling clay…that’s when I raise my finger.”

The Carriage is one of the few places, he believes, which has a natural sense of hospitality and this is why all his business lunches are conducted here. Before meeting Georg I had asked a few people what choosing a place like The Carriage says about the person. The reply was: “he has good taste.” Did Georg agree with this description? He looked suitably embarrassed and quickly changed the subject by trying to ask me questions instead. I somehow managed to wrestle the interview back on track.

“When it comes to food, my taste is not only good, but wide!” he said laughing at the reference to his generous girth. “Some people eat to live, and I, until two days ago, lived to eat.” After countless gentle, and some not-so-gentle hints, Georg has now embarked on a serious bid at weight control. As I, too, have changed my eating habits, we were both very good and ordered an appropriately healthy lunch, starting with smoked salmon accompanied by a chick pea dip with a side of fresh asparagus from Gozo.

We decided to forego the wine, me because I would find it impossible to do any work in the afternoon, and Georg because he actually rather prefers Coke with ice and lemon. We settled on Evian still water instead.
Georg has an ingenious way of losing weight which he describes as ‘alternative eating pleasures’, in which he allows himself a few treats so that he does not deprive himself of the pleasure of eating completely. He tells me a few of his recipes – a spell of living on his own has ensured that he is not entirely helpless in the kitchen.

I thought it was time, for both our sakes, that I steered the topic away from food. Why is it, I wanted to know, that the name ‘Georg’ for many people is invariably associated with the adjective ‘arrogant’?

Unperturbed, Georg replied with his characteristic nonchalance. “If you are interviewing someone with a story to tell, and the story is public knowledge or should be, then you have to keep pressing for answers. The first show was with Archbishop Gerada, who was the designate successor to Gonzi. After that show, everyone thought I was inches away from pushing him over the cliff’s edge. But this is a guy with a story in the public interest. He accepted to come on to the programme, and there are things to be told. Now if you come into the studio you are either going to tell them, or I’m going to make it clear that you’re hedging and you don’t want to tell them.”

Georg explained that he makes it quite clear to his guest when they meet to discuss the programme that from a certain point onwards, they should not say anything which they do not want him to repeat in the studio. “I tell them ‘whatever you say in this period of time, I will use’. So when I do use it, and people see me do that, even the guest himself, feels he has received a body blow. People at home say ‘my God, he really nailed him’ and the guest says ‘you really screwed me!’ But if that is what you believe, let the truth come out!” He is quick to point out that there is a clear distinction between public figures or issues and ordinary people with a human interest story. “I hope I don’t come across as arrogant in the latter cases, because that would be grossly insensitive.”

Georg has learned how to handle delicate subjects with care, discovering that he has a knack for getting people to open up. In the programme he did on cancer just this week, the father of a girl who died with cancer told him with tears in his eyes, that no-one, not even his best friends, had ever dared ask him the questions Georg had. The satisfaction for Georg was that the man gave permission for the interview to be transmitted in full. So does he think it is his relentless pressing for honest answers to his questions which is being perceived as ‘arrogance’? “Definitely.”

He went on to describe a recent episode on the radio talk show he does with Fr Joe Borg on RTK, in which a Minister was describing his childhood formation. Muzew, a working-class family, a father who worked from dawn till late in the evening, they never knew what money was, and businessmen were in another class entirely. “So I told him, ‘if anyone is listening to you describe yourself as a member of the Muzew who doesn’t know the first thing about business, and that person happens to have a dog next to him, I bet even that dog would burst out laughing!’” (The Minister in question shall remain nameless, at least in print).

Turning to his well-received, self-titled, talk show, Georg explains that he has purposely built a format with a firm eye fixed on what the competition is doing. Therefore, the first part, during which Super 1’s Simpatici is on, is dedicated to the rather ‘slow’ part of the programme. When Simpatici finishes, Georg aims to ‘inherit’ this audience as well as the audience of TVM’s F’Idejn L-Imhallef, by peaking with the best parts of the show. This formula, from the feedback being received, seems to be working.

Georg’s interviews are always conducted with a feel for what he believes people listening or watching it, are saying at home. Certainly, there will always be those who are uncomfortable with seeing their sacred cows, such as members of the clergy and politicians, being treated with Georg’s customary ‘everyone is equal under the sun’, bulldozer approach. “What most people hate is that polite answers are not going to be accepted.”

When he was interviewing Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, for example, Georg took him to task for his infamous remark that Dr Sant’s anti-EU stand means he has a ‘democratic deficit.’ With typical bluntness, Georg Sapiano told the Prime Minister that saying something like this during Prodi’s visit, was unnecessary and out of line (‘kont zejjed’). It is, perhaps, safe to say, that not many interviewers would have the gall to speak this way to the nation’s leader. And Georg readily agrees that there were those who probably exclaimed that he is a downright s**t for saying something like that. On the other hand, he asks, what kind of TV do we want?

Last year, Georg’s programme Appell Miftuh consisted of a studio discussion with 30 people all trying to have their say. He unhesitatingly says that he much prefers the current one-on-one format. “You can research properly. With 30 people you don’t even have time to explain anything you’ve researched, so eventually you stop doing research. Now I can plumb the depths of the topic.” He agrees, however, that Appell Miftuh afforded him a more dynamic, at times comic format. In one programme a man laughed so hard he fell backwards right off the platform.

While this year’s show is more demanding and time-consuming, it is obvious that it is more satisfying to Georg’s journalistic soul. He also admits that he deliberately chooses to come and go on the small screen, rather than have an ongoing series which is there season after season. “I feel that even 13 programmes is too long. To find 13 subjects, 13 stories, 13 people, is a hell of a job. It really taxes your mental resources and your creativity. It’s not easy.”

Our second course arrived at this point. Fresh, steamed local bream with a ginger, garlic and tomato dressing, and a side order of spinach cooked in garlic and olive oil, with roasted potatoes. Georg was extremely good and just had plain boiled potatoes. As he tried yet again to get me talking about my own life, I asked why he was so uncomfortable with the role reversal. “I’m much more interested in other people’s opinions than in expressing my own. That is one of the reasons I’m not interested in writing in the papers, for example, having my own column, which seems to be what everyone is doing. How’s that for not being arrogant?”

When Georg first burst on the scene with his (of course, controversial) radio programme Ghal Dawk li Mhumiex Reqdin, there was a lot of stumbling over his rather unusual name. Why not plain old George? I ask him. “My father decided that this would be a good name to have. Now I laugh when people mispronounce it, but when I started out, I laughed at it less. Now it’s irrelevant. On radio they call me all sorts of things, and it’s just too much of a hassle to say, ‘eh, sorry, my name is..!’”

As solid and unflappable as he appears, there is a sensitive side to the man. He acknowledges that viciousness is something which upsets him. “People like Auto Q (the TV critic in The Malta Independent on Sunday) fail on two counts. They tend to be vicious with all and sundry and then they don’t have the balls to reveal their name. If anyone really wants to slam me, that’s OK with me, I don’t get offended. If someone does that with name and surname, I can’t say I enjoy it, but at least I don’t challenge the very entitlement of that person. And if I think he’s being unfair or unjust or being an outright liar, I’ll get into some sort of debate with that person. With those who don’t have the nerve to reveal themselves, it’s really cowardly – like someone firing from the rooftops – which goes against the grain of what I do, because I go on TV and say ‘listen, this is my position. If you disagree with me fine.’ So people who express themselves in a very opinionated way and really do it from a lofty height and do it with a lot of viciousness without having the decency to say who they are…” here he shakes his head disdainfully.

Driving along Msida, I tell him, you suddenly come upon a large billboard with his face splashed across it – did he know Net TV was going to display him so prominently? “I knew about it but I didn’t know it was going to look as terrible as it does. I’ve changed my route in fact. It comes with the territory I suppose.”
But surely this kind of over-the-top publicity is not doing his reputation any favours? Georg replies dryly: “Those who think my boots are too small for me, will be comforted by the poster.” He chuckles with the air of someone who has resigned himself to being perpetually misunderstood.

At 32, Georg gives the impression of being much older, an observation which he is quite used to. He puts it down to his exposure to radio and TV at a young age where he was put into a ‘sink or swim’ situation, handling calls from the public and always trying to make the programme interesting.

Supremely self-confident, projecting an image of someone who is not easily impressed, it is easy to see why some people are so quick to label Georg as being an insufferable so-and-so. This belief in himself he puts down to the influence of his parents.

“From my mother I got what social skills I have, while from my father I suppose I got my self-assurance. I saw him go through 7 years of terminal illness, he lived in a wheelchair for three years and still managed to hold court like he was the King of Siam. At the Central Bank, he had to endure numerous official investigations, but the course he steered was always straight. I suppose I aspired to do justice to his memory, by saying I can’t buckle, my father wouldn’t have. He came to tell me the results of his medical tests one hour before my radio programme. My world was crashing down, but he told me, ‘come on, get a grip, you’ve got a programme to do.’ At that point I realised if he is taking what he has to do in the way he has, then I had to do what I had to do.”

Talk turns to the latest addition to the Sapiano household, whom Georg describes with unabashed affection as ‘the little terror’. “Before Luigi was born, I thought I was in love with everything and everyone. Now I realise that the love you felt before is a kind of love, and the love you feel for your son is the kind of love you didn’t know existed. It’s deeper, it’s wider, it’s more immediate.”
Determined to be a real presence in his son’s life despite his hectic lifestyle, Georg literally pencils in time with his son in his diary, right next to his preferred clients. “He is my most important client”.

It was time for dessert, but as the waiter reeled off the choices, we just looked at each other ruefully and sighed. I stuck to an espresso and Georg ordered fresh fruit, with specific instructions for his apple to be peeled and cut into four. Noticing my amusement, he grinned and shrugged.

My questions so far had been answered quite matter-of-factly, but my next question actually caused Georg to appear flustered and (would you believe it?) downright tongue-tied. How would you describe yourself as a husband? I inquired.

He squirmed and fidgeted and then came out with one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard a man say about his marriage: “Audrey and I got married after knowing each other just a year and a half. So I think we’re still in the boyfriend/girlfriend stage. We’re still dating. The idea of being a husband still hasn’t sunk in.”

Arrogant? The guy’s just an old softie!

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