Archive for the 'Celebrities' Category

Actors, Celebrities, General

Stand up and be counted: Eddie Izzard interview

The Telegraph – November 2013
Ginny Dougary

As Live at the Apollo returns tonight for a new series, read Ginny Dougary’s interview with host Eddie Izzard in which he talks about his ambitions to enter politics, learn more languages, run more marathons and start a family.

Eddie Izzard

The lights cascade down in neon green and flashing blue, the electronic music pounds to a climax as Eddie Izzard walks smartly on stage in high-heeled boots, jeans and tails, looks out at the packed Parisian audience, puts up his hand to silence the applause and breaks into… German.

This is quite a good opening joke, since his devotees – and true Izzardians are every bit as committed in their fandom as Star Trek or Dr Who fans – all know that his next goal (having conquered French) is to learn German (for performing purposes, as well as world peace), then Spanish, Russian and Arabic (ditto). Not only is he striving to be an endurance athlete – as witnessed by his recent marathons, with more to come – but he is clearly set on becoming an endurance linguist, too.

The show is Stripped – which he toured in the UK in 2009 – but with a difference: this is all in French, which is quite an achievement, particularly considering it’s a 90-minute show. He spent three months living in Paris last year, polishing his French, performing in French (the young, hip French stand-ups are all fous for Izzard) and living as a Frenchman. ‘I worked my arse off, but I was living in Montmartre, rehearsing in the Jardins des Tuileries, living the Parisian life. I had my passe Navigo [Paris’s version of our Oyster card] and I can make jokes about Le Marais,’ he tells me.

It has taken him 15 years to get to the point where he can perform at l’Olympia, where Edith Piaf once sang – ‘un rêve’ which he has had since ‘******* longtemps’ – in front of an audience of 1,800 people. It’s a (literally) vintage Izzard show, covering the ascent of man, why he doesn’t believe in God, the different mentality of the PC and the Apple Mac, the impossibility of Noah’s Ark (if it were real, for one thing, all the animals would be dead except for the lions and the tigers), a giraffe signalling lion-danger through charades and a cough, and a jazz-crowing cockerel. There are nods to the French (s’il vous plaît, no more holes in the ground for WCs, they make it hard to balance your iPad, for one thing – and how come there’s no broccoli, just endless haricots verts?), jokes in the subjunctive (for which he takes a bow), building up to a finale of a meditation on the frustrations of communicating in Latin (‘quod the ****’) with reference to Hannibal’s defeat, all woven together in a typically ingenious, surreal arc.

We had met back in London, a couple of weeks earlier, where our conversation was not unlike one of his shows; indeed, on the odd occasion, the interview was the show, albeit with an audience of one, in that he was trying out new material on me. He is far more friendly and seems happier than when I last spent time with him, 14 years ago. (This was for his first show in French, in a flea pit in the Pigalle area.) He looks quite different, too – more bearded-blokey and rugged, his skin is clear and lightly freckled; his gaze direct and very blue. Back then, Izzard was wearing a lot of make-up and slightly bondage-y leather skirts and stockings.

It has been ages since he was in girl-mode, for reasons we discuss later. Today, he is wearing a sporty fleece, jeans, boots with a three-inch heel and, the only flamboyant touch, what he calls his ‘political nails’ – plum-coloured apart from one that is the Union flag and another that is the flag of Europe. ‘That’s three statements there,’ he says, extending his fingers. ‘I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my continent and I’m proud of being a transvestite.’

Izzard is nothing if not ambitious. He is about to embark on what, he claims, ‘I feel pretty sure is the most extensive comedy tour in the history of the world, ever.’ When I exclaim that he is so competitive, with himself as much as anyone else, he replies, ‘Well, you can do the gossip columns and turn up at the opening of hats, you know, or you can go and play the Hollywood Bowl [he was the first comedian to do a solo show there, last year] or Kathmandu or do your gigs in French. So when people say, “Are you dead now?”, I go, “No, I’m not… I just never did a TV comedy show thing. I studiously avoided that.”’

Then he looks at his phone and rattles off some of the places he’s performing in: St Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Berlin (‘which is almost sold out already’), Helsinki, Oslo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Vienna, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Zurich, Geneva, Ljubljana, Tallinn and also the aforementioned Hollywood Bowl; 25 countries so far, throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and the Far East. The posters for the new Force Majeure show him looking rather Steed-like, sveltely-suited, brandishing an umbrella, and staring straight at you. They were designed by Sarah Townsend (who sings as Sarah McGuinness), an ex-girlfriend, who also directed the 2009 film Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story, and is directing and filming the new tour. Some years ago, the two formed a production company, Ella Communications, named after Eddie’s mother, Dorothy Ella, a midwife and nurse, who died of cancer in 1968 when Eddie was six and his older brother, Mark, was eight.

It’s 25 years since Eddie Izzard did his first stand-up. ‘It’s worth mentioning that the Stones have been going for 50 years and we’re catching up,’ he says. Although he is less detached now, with his new, ebullient confidence comes a certain tendency towards self-aggrandisement as though – since working in the States (which he has been doing a lot) – he is impatient with the British tendency for self-deprecation. He has achieved a great deal in a quarter of a century, he has worked hard to get here, it took him long enough and hell if he is going to pretend otherwise. At one point he draws a parallel with Nelson Mandela – ‘my most favourite politician’ – saying that by learning so many languages, he likes to think he is following the same path. ‘He is a politician – he’s not a saint and he doesn’t want to be a saint. The reality is that he did politics and he did it well, and he learnt Afrikaans and I would like to feel I’m following in his footsteps by learning French and German and Russian and Arabic…’ – which is quite a large claim to make for oneself.

After dropping out of Sheffield University, where he read accountancy (his father, Harold, to whom he is close, was an accountant with BP), Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then moved to Streatham Common in south London with some fellow performers, did street theatre in Covent Garden, and waited to be discovered. ‘I got to 20 and said, “OK, let’s go. I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh… someone’s bound to discover me.” But it just kept on not happening,’ he told me when we last met.

The first show he did on his own was at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, followed shortly by a tiny venue in central London, which was at capacity with 25 people, where he did his fly-fishing joke (‘I caught three flies’). Then came the Comedy Store and, soon after, his own sell-out show in the West End. Izzard had arrived, choosing that moment to come out as a transvestite.

He says he is very like his father. ‘We’re about 80 per cent similar. When he got into BP, he thought, “This is bullshit: I’m going to change everything [the system of filing, for instance].” When he was told he couldn’t, he said, “Well, I’ve already done it.”’

During the screenwriters’ strike in 2007-08 in America, after the second season of the TV series The Riches (in which Izzard starred as an identity-stealing Irish traveller con-artist) had aired, Izzard and his father travelled to Aden together, where Harold used to work for BP and where Eddie was born. There he was given some old photos of his mother, which he shows me on his phone: she has a sweet, sideways smile, is wearing a 1950s skirt that fans out, and is cradling her son on her lap. Another one is of his parents on their honeymoon. It’s charming and telling, I think, that Izzard keeps these black-and-white images in his pocket, close to his heart. He suddenly speaks in Arabic to me, saying, ‘My name is Eddie and I was born in the Yemen.’

Izzard has just turned 51 – how does he feel about ageing? He’s in a far better place in every way now, probably than at any time before in his life. ‘Like they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” and so can I do my 20s again please, and not have Thatcher in power?’ he says. ‘It was just hellish for me, that decade – I did get my stuff done, and I came out as a transvestite and had all my midlife crises early. At 20, nothing had happened; at 30, nothing had happened, but was starting to happen; I was OK at 40, and I’m so OK about being 50 I decided to say I was 50 a year before I was.’

In July 2009 he completed seven weeks of back-to-back marathons – 43 in 51 days – around the UK to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May he attempted a bonkers 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. Due to health complications, Izzard had to pull out after only four. But, naturally, he is not deterred. As we sit across from one another, in an eyrie above a photographic studio in central London, he occasionally rubs his eyes with fatigue. That morning, he had been running with his new trainer. He had also been to see his doctor to get checked out for another attempt in South Africa.

Part of the health problem last year was that he was on a prescription drug to cut down his cholesterol. He also seems to have realised – after that setback – that it’s foolish to undertake such challenges without being properly prepared. As a glutton for punishment, he had upped the ante by attempting the barefoot running style favoured by many Africans, in specially customised barefoot-style shoes. ‘It’s OK on concrete, but it’s really tough on broken rocks dropped into road surfaces, which is what I was running on in the Eastern Cape,’ he says. ‘The little African kids were just zipping along on it, but it would probably take me six months or a year to acclimatise and I didn’t have that time.’

He gets up to demonstrate the barefoot running style – where everything is pushed back, rather than straining forward, a bit like a Homer Simpson boogie. ‘Think about how a horse runs. When they film a horse that’s running, the legs are all moving backwards.’ He says that he was naturally doing that technique after his 43 marathons because he was so exhausted. ‘I was so tired that my body just clicked into the same sort of rhythm that the tribes and the barefoot runners are doing.’

His next attempt is scheduled for March 2014 and he has started preparing already. As well as the new trainer, he has taken on a sports nutritionist. His team will be expected to transform the comedian and actor into an endurance athlete. For the next 40 years of his life, he is planning to be a low-carb, sugar-free temple of health. Is it very Californian? ‘No, it’s Greek,’ he says, a touch defensively. ‘It’s the Olympian idea of “sound of body, sound of mind”. It’s not Hollywood – it’s feral. I’m trying to get feral because it’s natural – it’s how we used to live.

‘There’s not one wild animal that’s not perfectly fit – like 100 per cent fit,’ he adds. ‘I mean, they’re all getting up to chase the gazelles – it’s just us and domestic animals that are chucking the wrong things down our throats.’

His way of dealing with ageing is to get younger (what’s new?) by becoming slimmer and fitter than he has ever been. He was inspired – this being Izzard – by a lion he was introduced to ‘backstage’ at Boston Zoo. ‘He was about 80 – in lion years – and he came up to us and roared [Izzard roars] and made a sort of feral statement which was, “I could eat any of you if it wasn’t for these bars. I have that in me.” He was like some ancient warrior but was as fit as we would all be in our 20s. So that’s what we should all be trying to do, and I do feel that I’m going to get healthier and healthier.’

He was also inspired by the athletes he met when he was an ambassador and cheerleader for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. During his marathons, he met other marathon runners who were manning the feeding stations (as he calls them), and what impressed him was that they were people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. One couple had done 730 marathons. ‘They were both in their 60s and were lean and fit. They don’t train but they do a marathon a week, and that’s what I am aiming to do. I want to be a member of the 100 Club – people who have done more than 100 marathons.’

Izzard is also intending, of course, to live till he is 100 – which is why he isn’t panicking, yet, about having children. He has been saying for quite some time that he is determined to be a father in his 50s. In Meet the Izzards, a two-part series which had Eddie travelling from Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father lives, to Namibia, Yemen, Turkey and Denmark, using his own DNA to trace his ancestors, he said several times that he was planning to have a baby – ‘I’ll buy one in a shop,’ he quipped to two elderly sisters to whom he was very distantly related.

Izzard himself has a slightly childlike way about him which becomes even more pronounced when he talks about the practicalities of becoming a father. Will you adopt? ‘Might do.’ Do you think you need another person with whom to do this? (He never talks about his relationships, adopting the Daniel Day-Lewis approach. ‘If Danny doesn’t have to talk about it…’) ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure out the partner thing.’ Would you be happy to be a single parent? ‘Ah… yeah. Er, are you allowed to do that? Your own genetic baby, yeah, but you can’t adopt can you?’

Since he also plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020 and be an MP (he is a well-known Labour supporter) or an MEP, plus all those weekly marathons, as well as his film career, and his stand-up, I can’t quite see the logistics of fitting in fatherhood. ‘Me too,’ he says. And yet he is determined and what he sets out to get he usually achieves. ‘That is the plan. I may end up being a father at 61.’ But, I ask Izzard, you do realise how much a child eclipses everything else, especially at the beginning? ‘Eclipses and dictates things, yes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully all the really tough stuff will have been done, as I now have a certain amount of momentum. A number of people go into showbiz, have their kids and their kids go, “I didn’t see my parents,” and so…

‘I just imagine myself being kind of parenty. I mean, obviously you’ve got to take it seriously. It’s going to take up a hell of a lot of time and things will revolve around this child or children. But I don’t have the answer about the logistics because I’m also thinking I’ve got to do a lot of stuff before I pack this career up. You’re saying you can’t see how I can work it out, and I’m saying the same thing.’
For a long time, he carried a deep emotional wound from his mother dying when he was so young. His father coped by sending the two small boys away to boarding school, aged six and eight.Izzard has talked about how he cried all the time, and was bullied, and how he stopped crying altogether at the age of 11 and how he was emotionally cauterised from that point on. Was he always looking for a mother figure in his relationships with women? ‘Initially, I was in that frame of mind, but
I don’t think I’m still like that. I don’t think you ever get over your mother dying but I’m not a grown man crying into my beer. I’m doing a lot of practical things out of it. I thought she was great, I’d like her to be back, she won’t seem to come back…’

He refers me to the moment in Believe when he is questioned by Sarah Townsend about why he keeps pushing himself so hard, and he answers, ‘I keep thinking if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back,’ before bursting into tears. Now, he says, ‘It was a moment where I came up with something that I’d never thought about before – which is odd, as it was quite existential.’

Not for him the comfort of knowing that he will meet his mother again in the after-life, as he is a non-believer. ‘I think things just stop, but if I did believe, I’d go to dyslexic heaven, which is Devon.’
When we first met, we talked almost exhaustively about the psychology of transvestism or, at any rate, this transvestite. It was a rather dreamlike encounter, after a show, after midnight – he in my hotel room, wearing a fluffy dressing gown, his face in full slap, talking and smoking into the early hours. It has been five or six years since we saw him in a skirt, and I wonder if he misses his female self – or whether his desire to be famous in Hollywood is more important to him. He says, ‘I can’t get dramatic roles if I turn up at an audition wearing a lot of make-up and going around all girlie,’ which suggests it’s the latter, but in that case, doesn’t he feel repressed? ‘Perhaps it’s the opposite of repressed? Pressed? I’ve got all the boy stuff, except for drinking and vomiting. I love the action movies, wanted to be in the army, I’m football loving and football playing, I’m driven – and I have the girlie stuff, which I feel is about 15 per cent of me.’

I was wondering if it was something a bit more complicated than his desire for film roles. He had talked about the necessity of making himself into the sort of woman he found attractive when he was in girl mode. The ‘look’ he favoured was a sort of saucy punk-rock chick (bustiers, leather, PVC, dominatrix heels), which maybe isn’t such a great image as you go into your 50s. And, also, ageing – himself – could mean he is less drawn to transforming himself into an older woman? But he is having none of it. ‘I’m attracted to women of all ages, you know [the feeling is certainly mutual – my female friends, from young to old, were swooningly jealous; only interviewing George Clooney elicited a similar response], but it’s not something I check.’

But he does admit that knowing how to dress now is difficult. ‘Trying to get it right as a bloke is doubly tricky.’

Izzard really seems to believe that the world can be changed through stand-up. At the end of the show at l’Olympia, he said that the ‘******* melting pot is the way of the future. Maybe we can change some things,’ and he looked quite emotional – or perhaps that was just the standing ovation. Yacine Belhouse, a French-Algerian comedian, whom Izzard chose as the opening act, will be doing a show in English at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I was sitting next to a young French-African stand-up, Shirley Souagnon, who is coming to the Comedy Store in London next month to do her show in English, too. It’s a bit of a Chauncey Gardiner idea but Izzard seems to have started something. His version of franglais – call it Frizzard – is to make a marriage of splitting a French word and inserting a good, old Anglo-Saxon f-word, one he uses a lot, in between. This is his version of ‘détente’. As he says, ‘Vive la différence but also vive la similarité.’ Formi*******dable.

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Private Eye and on Have I Got News For You for quarter of a century. How does he fare when the focus is on him?

By Ginny Dougary
29 Nov 2012
(Daily Telegraph Magazine)


Ian Hislop is in the first-floor dining-room of the Coach and Horses, a defiantly unreconstructed pub in Soho, London, greeting his guests at the Private Eye lunch he has hosted for the past 26 years, ever since Richard Ingrams made the initially controversial decision to hand over the editorship of the satirical magazine to what the old guard considered a young upstart.

Norman Balon, the notoriously rude proprietor of the pub – who used to slap down the plates of melon followed by meat and two veg, then spotted dick and custard – has moved on, and Hislop is anxious about the new ‘midlife crisis’ menu, which is exclusively vegetarian with haute-gastronomy ambitions – the foodie equivalent, perhaps, of Pseuds Corner, all twiddles and towers and puddles of intense colour.

I have been to a number of these Wednesday lunches over the years as a guest, but on this occasion I am here to observe how our host works the room, which he does in his convivial, eye-twinkling way. The number of women around the table has increased over the decades; Hislop is sandwiched between two of the four here today: a newspaper editor and a television foreign correspondent. He is very protective of the identities of all his guests and story sources of his journalists, so no names, no pack-drill.

Hislop says that the lunches, held fortnightly, are good for making contacts – he would never use the dread word networking – and have often led to stories, although the Eye tends to get beaten to it (gallingly, because of its long lead times) by his journalist guests, rushing off to file the news for the next day’s paper. A case in point was John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, who got ‘hogwhimperingly drunk’ at one lunch, as a fellow guest described it (the wine does flow), and confessed to the assembled company that his mistress was pregnant and the story was about to be exposed in the News of the World. Cue mass exodus of hacks, clutching notebooks.

At one end of the table today is the dashing writer and journalist Francis Wheen, who was Hislop’s first recruit, and is now deputy editor (although Wheen resists the title). As Hislop recalls in last year’s book by Adam Macqueen, Private Eye: the First 50 Years, ‘Getting Francis was a very important early thing [swiftly followed by the rehiring of Paul Foot]. He was always streets ahead. You could give him stories that were difficult or controversial or tough without him thinking, “Oooh, well… I can’t really make the phone call,” or “I’m a bit worried about my anonymity…”’

At the other end of the table is the only full-time journalist on the Eye, Jane Mackenzie. The rest of the table is made up of young journalists on national newspapers who are telling disobliging stories about their bosses, which may or may not find their way into the Street of Shame column. There is also an academic who may be good for an item on a colleague who has behaved shabbily. There is a leading Conservative politician, who leaves before the main course, and various other diners. Hislop writes notes in full view. He used to be more coy about it, he says, and would scribble away with his hand under the table.

A couple of weeks earlier I had been in the studio audience for the first programme in the new series of Have I Got News For You, on which Hislop has appeared for all of its 22 years: there is nothing fly-by-night about Hislop. The host is Clare Balding on her debut HIGNFY appearance; she is intro-duced as the ‘hero of the summer’ on the back of her new post-Olympics popularity. On Hislop’s team is the Father Ted scriptwriter Graham Linehan, and on Paul Merton’s team, Ken Livingstone. There’s some amusing pre-recording chit-chat. Balding says that she is sometimes mistaken for Sue Barker, to which she usually responds, ‘F***, yeah,’ so at least she has the satisfaction of members of the public thinking the goody-goody Barker ‘has a hell of a mouth on her’. Hislop comments that when he was on a train, a woman said, ‘“Are you Ian Hislop?” And her friend said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t look anything like him.”’ Big laugh from the audience, who adore Hislop. Paul Merton tops it, with a typically surreal statement. ‘I was in Ireland and someone said to me, “Are you who you think you are?”’
The programme is dominated by Jimmy Savile/ BBC stories, and Abu Hamza and his prosthetic arm. There’s a long chat about Livingstone’s chum Hugo Chávez, whom Linehan is keen on, too, which gets cut right back in the edit that appears on television. The only hitch is at the end, when Balding has to do repeated retakes of her farewells as she keeps pronouncing Ian’s surname in the abbreviated way, as ‘Hizlp’.

After the show we all meet up in the hospitality room on the top floor of the old London Weekend Television building, where HIGNFY is filmed, close to the Southbank Centre. This is a lot more glam – with spectacular views of London lit up at night – than the usual BBC Green Room spread of sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Hislop is drinking Guinness. His wife, Victoria, is there (she is a journalist turned bestselling novelist, and they have been married for 24 years) as is Balding’s civil partner, the newsreader Alice Arnold. Paul Merton is moody, and only wants to talk shop with his director and Linehan. Livingstone is moany, and keeps saying that this is the most difficult HIGNFY he has been on because of the depressing subject matter (later, Hislop tells me that Livingstone, who has been on a dozen times, always says that). The following night, when the show goes out, it zips along with all its customary sparkle and repartee.

The afternoon after the filming, I go to Private Eye’s office, which is in an old house on Carlisle Street in Soho, to interview its editor. This has been the magazine’s home since 1984. It was built in about 1685 and, according to the journalist Tim Minogue, who writes the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, exposing corruption in local authorities, has variously been home to a hatter, a wigmaker, a lacemaker, a goldsmith, a dance academy and, directly before the magazine moved in, a firm of architects. In the dark hallway is what is apparently known as ‘the wall of death’ – photographs of departed Eye stalwarts: Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells and Paul Foot. There are two secretaries in the first room you enter, including Hilary Lowinger – who is also the office manager and joined the magazine in 1986. The designers and sub-editors work in a large, light room at the back.
Hislop is wearing a suit from Marks & Spencer, which looks rather well cut. ‘This is from that nice range, Autograph,’ he says. ‘I always wear a suit because you don’t have to think what to wear. It’s a very easy, convenient uniform.’ He flicks through a pile of typed paper with the chief sub-editor, Tristan Davies, delivering rapid-fire instructions: ‘That’s good for HP [Sauce, the parliamentary news section]’; ‘That’s a Wheen’; ‘Condense these two for the books pages’; ‘That’s his Lance Armstrong piece, we have to run that.’ Afterwards he turns to Tony Rushton, the art director, who has been with the mag for all of its 51 years. There’s a Savile and Boris lookalike photo spread, and various cartoons laid out on the pages. They have a bit of a chat about a cartoonist they like but think they are possibly using too much.

Then we go on a quick tour of the rest of the building. Up the narrow staircase, with walls of large high-quality prints of Hogarth’s four 1754 Election paintings; a gift from Sir John Soane’s Museum, after Private Eye sponsored a show of political art – Hogarth’s Election Entertainment – in 2001. In one room on the top floor there is a female lawyer from Matrix Chambers scrutinising the contents of the next issue for libel, next door to Jane Mackenzie and the journalist Heather Mills (who has had some amusing conversations at Eye lunches, with the guests assuming, what with her long blond hair, that she is Paul McCartney’s ex).
We go back to the first floor to Hislop’s office, which he inherited from Ingrams, who is famous for his untidiness. His successor is rather orderly in comparison. Behind his desk, there’s a framed photo of Peter Cook (17.11.37 – 9.1.95, So Farewell Then), and posters of Denis Thatcher and ‘Grocer’ Heath, which have been there for ever. On a noticeboard are thank-you letters for Eye lunches including one from the MP Tom Watson, which is remarkably effusive. ‘It was a milestone in what I regard as my curious parliamentary career… if I can ever reciprocate…’ and a droll one from Kirsty Young, saying how much she enjoyed herself, ‘although my placement opposite Grayson [Perry] did leave me feeling somewhat underdressed.’

Ian Hislop was born in Mumbles, south Wales, in July 1960. His father, David, was a civil engineer who worked on projects around the world, taking his wife, Helen, as well as his two children (Ian has an older sister, Anne) with him. The Hislops moved to Nigeria, then Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. His parents revelled in the warm climate and pleasantly cushioned lifestyle. ‘Both my parents had lived through austerity… my father was from Scotland, which I imagine in the 1950s was quite bleak, and my mother was from Jersey, which had been occupied in the Second World War and had gone through austerity-plus.
‘And then they were working abroad and my dad had a speedboat and we had a bar in the living-room, with a sort of leather top and stools and I remember looking at my father and thinking, “With your DJ, you’re wearing a frilly dress shirt?” and then, “But it’s the 1970s! You can do what you like!” I also remember Burns Night and there being a lot of Scottish engineers around who were good fun. My father used to dress in shorts and long socks; my mother in sundresses with very pointy sunglasses. For them, the expat life was extraordinary and very glamorous.’

David Hislop sounds like quite a character. Ian Hislop was sent a photo of his late father – ‘one of the good things about being in the public eye is that people just write to you’ – diving into a swimming-pool that he had just opened (the arresting fact being that he was fully clothed). ‘And I thought, “You must have been the one they asked to make a speech and do something quite silly.”’ In fact, Hislop senior didn’t need to be asked to do daft things. On a trip back to Hong Kong, on a quest to discover more about his father as part of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Hislop met his father’s old secretary, who said, ‘“Have I shown you the photo of your dad leading a conga through the fountains outside the Hilton?” and I said, “No, you haven’t! Can I see it please?” It did look like a lot of fun.’

When Hislop was 12, his mother came to his school – Ardingly College in Sussex, where he had boarded since he was eight – to tell him that his father had died of stomach cancer. The family had known that David had been ill but it was only a few brief months between diagnosis and death, at the age of 45. How did his mother handle the loss? ‘She was pretty devastated; I don’t think she ever really recovered. My mother was fab and a very capable and strong woman but she was, well, you know, very much in love with my father and missed him for the rest of her life.’

Hislop is famously reserved and private. In his late 20s, his mother – still in her 60s – was dying, at the same time that his wife, Victoria, was in hospital having suffered a miscarriage, and yet no one at Private Eye had a clue. Part of the Hislop mythology is the true story about him recording an episode of Have I Got News For You while suffering from acute appendicitis. He seems to be the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, which was the title of his most recent television series, exploring how this phrase came to be seen as the defining English characteristic when we had started out as a nation of wusses and emotional incontinents. He admits that the series – a perfect example of erudition worn lightly – was a way of considering his own attitude to this fascinating subject.

Now that he has revealed something of his feelings in this series (although it’s hardly Oprah), it makes it easier to ask more sensitive questions than would normally feel appropriate. We have known one another, I should say, as friendly acquaintances for two decades, but have never talked about anything deep and meaningful. I ask him how well he felt he knew his father and what effect that early death had on him as a boy. He replies that he didn’t know him nearly well enough (something he hopes to have remedied with his two children, Emily, 22, and William, 19, neither of whom were sent to boarding school – ‘It was a selfish thing. I wanted them to be near me and around’) and as for the other matter, ‘I think losing a close relative early is a fairly hardening blow – in that my childhood sort of ended when my father died. Once that’s happened you haven’t got a huge illusion about what life may or may not hold. I think it made me increasingly independent, because I had to be.’

In Stiff Upper Lip, Hislop returns to Ardingly, where he was head boy, and tries to reconnect with what it felt like to be sent to boarding school at such a young age, saying that he wants to try and ascertain what that experience had done to him. Did he find out? ‘Well, as I said, with distance the nature of those boarding schools does begin to look like a very odd thing to do – and most people who come through it don’t do it to their own children. I mean, they’re much more parent-friendly now – everyone has a room of their own and goes home every afternoon,’ he laughs, ‘but when we were there, there was just one large Victorian room with 30 boys in it, and it didn’t have any curtains and it was cold.

‘So, yes, I was always homesick, but usually I was flying from somewhere like Hong Kong and there was quite a time-lag – which meant I did the being homesick on the plane, then I arrived and there was this world of friends and excitement and interest.’

Does he think the experience has made it harder for him to express himself emotionally? Would he say, for instance, that he has been scarred by it? ‘Er, well, I am trying to answer that honestly… I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do that programme was to have a look at that – and it ends up being a very nuanced answer, rather than, “No, no, I’m fine. It never affected me.” It obviously did affect me. It moulded a certain sort of Englishness and a certain sort of response to things. It’s that British thing – in that it’s not that we don’t feel it but we don’t think it’s appropriate to show that feeling in public, or at all times, or with people we don’t know. So I still probably behave like that – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. I am not without emotion.’

Is he able to examine himself with any depth? ‘Erm… probably being very busy suggests that I am not doing so.’
In such a rationalist age – where the prevailing culture among media types tends to be aggressively atheist – Hislop’s Anglican faith is an intriguing anomaly. The avowed raison d’être of his two main gigs – HIGNFY and Private Eye – is to knock bullies off their perch, expose idiocy, corruption and moral weakness. While I am extremely grateful for its existence (the Eye goes from strength to strength – with recent record sales figures of 267,834 for its anniversary issue, and 253,000 for the Gotcha – Murdoch Goes Down issue) it hardly fosters a warm feeling towards one’s fellow man and the human condition. I wonder how harmoniously his religious beliefs sit with his love of satire. Ingrams, before him, shared a similar duality, and there are notable antecedents, such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift. He starts by telling me about a funny phase at his Anglican school, when two old boys came back on an evangelical mission as born-again Christians, and metaphorically set the whole school on fire, swelling the membership of the Christian Union from a membership of 12 to 300.

‘It was very, very bizarre – we didn’t go to bed, and people were having prayer meetings in dormitories, and the staff were terribly worried because most of them were Anglicans and they were thinking, “What if this is the real thing?” and not knowing whether or not to stop it because it was getting completely out of hand.

‘You know, being sort of C of E, people want a very quiet and moderate faith. They don’t want hundreds of boys singing Kumbaya and getting up in the middle of chapel services and confessing that they’ve seen the light.’
What did his mother think about all of this?
‘She was marvellous. I had told her, “I have to see you because something incredibly exciting has happened – I’ve been converted! We’ve all been converted!” And my mother asked me two things. She said, “You didn’t sign anything, did you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “They didn’t ask you for any money?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear.” Because she was brilliant, my mother, she realised it was all fine and that it would probably die down and there was nothing to worry about. And after everyone went away for the summer holidays and came back, it did die down.’

I ask him about how he feels surrounded by so many Dawkinsian non-believers. He remembers going to the launch of Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, drew a picture of all the people there ‘and there was an arrow next to me in the middle of all these ultra-rationalists and it just said, “Anomalous God-botherer”.’

His faith waxes and wanes and it is going through the latter phase at the moment. Hislop sounds a tiny bit downhearted about the whole subject. He goes to church but not very often, and at the moment, not at all. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt… it’s not a great, confident, burning faith, really. I can’t do the ultra-rationalism denial of it all and all the sort of human bits that I feel come through that but then, you know, sometimes I worry that my faith is so vague as to be sort of not really there at all. I’m so lukewarm I’m about to be spat out, I think.’

What comforts him in times of sadness? He laughs. ‘I thought you were going to do the Simon and Garfunkel song… well, all the normal things.’
Like? ‘Oh – family, friends. Other human beings.’ His voice becomes a bit curt. Not nature or music or books? ‘Any of those things can, but it’s the people first.’ So not faith, in that regard? ‘Yes, it can – but faith is often shown through other people. Faith working through other people tends to be goodness working through them or sympathy even if it’s not declared as religion… it doesn’t have to be the vicar coming round.

‘But I do like the rituals of the Church and, yes, I have found them comforting.’
Hilary Lowinger and her colleague had been joking with me, while I waited for Hislop to appear, about the deranged people who sometimes insist on coming into the office, with this or that conspiracy theory. Shortly before the conclusion of our interview, a wild-haired man bursts into the office and I fear, for a moment, that the lady gatekeepers have not been able to keep the lunatics at bay. ‘So sorry to barge in like this,’ the man begins with elaborate courtesy. ‘It’s so, so rude of me. I’m ever, ever so sorry…’ and then he proceeds to tell Hislop that if the editor ever has the opportunity to commission a nice oil painting for the magazine, he’s the man.

It turns out that the interloper does draw for the Eye and is feeling the pinch; he needs more money, he needs a bigger byline, he is a man full of all-too-recognisable needs in these tricky times. Hislop listens to him, doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable or shoo him away and, actually, seems to care.

It is this sense of decency that, I think, is a strong motivating force in Hislop. He’s by no means perfect; for instance, for a Christian – even a rather half-hearted one – he seems incapable of forgiving his enemies (Piers Morgan, and the diarists Peter McKay and the late Nigel Dempster among them). But his instincts are always about picking on the powerful, not the weak. For this reason, he is pretty scathing about a lot of today’s comedians in the Ricky Gervais vein (with whom he had a well-publicised spat). ‘I do have a residual belief that, if at all possible, you should try not to mock the weak. There seems to be a slight tendency in contemporary stand-up to have a go at the weak and say you’re being edgy. You know, attacking the disabled. I think you should go for stronger targets.’

He is not a political tribalist, having voted for all the three main parties, as well as the Greens. ‘Most of your judgments are about whether people are behaving well or not in your eyes – and that doesn’t matter whether they are left or right. You know, are they corrupt or are they bent or are they trying to make things better or worse for people? That is where my bottom line is, and so that must be what drives me.’

I ask him what he is insecure about. ‘Oh, health,’ he says quickly. Is his health OK? ‘I think so, but you never know. If you have a history of your family keeling over you’re never sure how much time you’ve got left yourself. That may be another reason why I try to cram a lot in.’
We part on a more upbeat note. I ask him what he considers to be his most lowbrow tastes, and he struggles to answer. Later he calls me to say that it is Toy Story 3. ‘It’s incredibly funny, beautifully made and very good on being a boy.’ And also: ‘I’m quite big on Elvis. I went to a show in Las Vegas with three Elvis impersonators – young, middle and old – and it was one of the best nights of my life.’ Who knew?

But in his office, he says that it’s box sets of Clint Eastwood westerns and ‘sort of terrible war films’. Do you blub when watching the latter? ‘Oh, no, I’m taking my example from Brief Encounter!’ I beg to differ, saying that I have even seen him get moist-eyed on television.
‘Surely not. No. I’m going to end the interview now, and I’m going to storm out!’

Celebrities, Women

Dasha’s next move

Ginny Dougary
FT MAGAZINE
November 2012


Dasha Zhukova addressed a roomful of architecture critics at the ICA in London earlier this year, announcing the latest move in her mission to bring contemporary art and culture to Moscow. It was the first time, she tells me afterwards, that she hadn’t read from notes, and although this seemed to improve her performance – she reckoned – it was still pretty nerve-wracking for her.

There was something almost school-girlish about her demeanour as she answered questions from the audience. She wore her hair in a long pigtail on one side, a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar under an orange sweater, orange tweed Capri trousers and high-heeled white patent shoes. She speaks in perfect English with a faint Russian intonation, as well as an occasional upwards Californian lilt. She is very beautiful, as has often been noted, but her face has an open, appealing quality about it; her critics have called it blank, but there is nothing vacant at all about her steely gaze.

The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Zhukova’s initial cultural foray into her birthplace, which opened in Moscow in 2008 – housed in a vast former bus terminal designed by the constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in 1926 – was an encouraging first move on her part. It announced an approach, which now seems to be her modus operandi, of taking over ruined Soviet architectural masterpieces and working with world-class architects to create sympathetic restorations. That Garage lease has come to an end, and the exhibition space is now moving to Gorky Park.

The Garage’s first home was in the northern, semi-industrial outskirts of town and attracted about 300,000 visitors a year. The new site will accommodate 3.6 million annually, and after Gorky Park has been renovated that number is expected to rise to nine million. The job of transforming the 1960s concrete prefab building in the park, which was a popular restaurant until it was abandoned in the 1990s, has been entrusted to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Zhukova has a cold and asks her assistant to get her something to soothe it. At 31, she looks younger and has a son – Aaron Alexander, who will be three in December – by her 46-year-old partner, Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner.

She explains that she is not restricting her sights to Moscow. Zhukova and her partner have big plans for St Petersburg, too – namely, transforming New Holland, a 19-acre island and former naval yard in the heart of the city, into a creative hub.

When this is completed in 2018, she is hoping that New Holland will be part of the international must-see arts chain linking MoMA in New York, Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre. It is Zhukova and her non-profit Iris Foundation, dedicated to promoting contemporary culture, which are behind the overall design. (She has just received an award from Independent Curators International for her work.)

“Both these projects share the same backbone. What kind of drives me to do these works is to really progress contemporary culture in Russia,” she says. “I think a good term for it is ‘cultural urbanisation’. It’s entertainment as well as education. I’d like to set up a school of design, which doesn’t exist yet in Russia, and do a lot with technology there as well. The internet can give young people a fantastic platform to become financially independent and have global businesses without leaving Russia.”

I tell her how much I like the idea of keeping the original faded-but-beautiful fabric of the Gorky Park building. “I’m very proud of Soviet aesthetics,” she says. “I guess that once the Soviet system collapsed, it wasn’t a very desired design feature. I don’t know if it was because I was too young or … well, I don’t know why, but I really like that aesthetic. It’s so important for what we are doing in Russia [by “we”, she means the foundation, presumably, as well as Abramovich, but it does rather add to her arts tsarina aura] – and for Russia in general to find itself in the contemporary world. It’s good not to turn our back on such a beautiful history …”

Zhukova has a large vision of what she wants to accomplish and pulling it off cannot be easy in Russia, despite her partner’s influence and connections. “We have bureaucratic problems like everyone else – but, you know, it’s important to know how to operate within the system you are existing in,” she says pragmatically. “You can yell and complain about it all you want, but that’s not going to help you.”

Is she impatient? “I can be, but if something captures my attention, I am completely absorbed. I am very determined; I tunnel-vision straight to where I need to go. I guess that’s the thing I really know how to do.”

So does she never have hissy fits? “I don’t. I never yell or scream. I mean, definitely not at work,” she grins, and her face opens like a flower. “I never yell at anyone I work with. I get frustrated, but I have this survival instinct – whenever I have a hurdle, I figure out how to solve it.”

Zhukova is circumspect. She cannot afford to alienate those in control of the country, but she is, one suspects, naturally non-committal. This may be the ingrained suspicion of opening up to strangers that can come with being born into extreme wealth, or perhaps partly a sort of historic defensiveness in her Soviet DNA. At any rate, if you long for her to be a bit more spontaneous and less of a controlled diplomat, you long mostly in vain.

Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981 – christened Daria (Dasha is a nickname) – the only child of Elena, a molecular biologist, and Alexander, who became an oil magnate. Her family was well connected – largely scientists, writers and linguists: “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” Elena has said. She was three when her parents divorced, and her mother left the USSR in 1990, with nine-year-old Dasha, because she had been offered a good position at the Baylor College of Medicine, a leading centre of biomedical research in Houston, where she had some family.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother found it very difficult to be in this quite aggressive environment and she couldn’t really handle the abrupt changes,” Zhukova explains. “So we didn’t actually emigrate to America, we thought we were just going for a year or two and then, I guess, she decided to stay. You know, I can’t imagine what it takes to get up in your thirties, with a child, and say, ‘OK, now I’m leaving and going somewhere I don’t know.’”

Elena is Jewish and Zhukova identifies herself as Jewish, although her father is a Christian. Zhukova’s first school in the US was a Hebrew college, which she attended for three years. It must have been tough not speaking a word of English when she arrived. “I’m a quick learner,” she says. “When you’re in a situation that is foreign to you, you just have to pull yourself together and adapt.”
Elena was then offered an opportunity at UCLA – “which was a huge honour” says her daughter – and mother and daughter moved to California. By the time Elena retired, she was a professor of molecular biology there, as well as an authority on diabetes. “My mother is quite a serious person, who is more interested in substance than aesthetics. We always had very serious scientists hanging out at our house,” Zhukova says, before correcting herself. “That sounds a bit silly. What I mean is she had all these graduate students who would constantly come by the house – and I always thought that was very funny, because they were so studious and a bit geeky.” Zhukova went to a small, sporty private school – Pacific Hills – in West Hollywood (alumni include Monica Lewinsky and Drew Barrymore), which she loved and describes as “a kind of weird utopian community. I still stay in touch with some of my friends, which is one of the reasons why I’m on Facebook.”

She had a great college experience, too, she says, at UC Santa Barbara, where she considered following in her mother and grandmother’s steps in medicine but graduated in 2003, instead, in Slavic studies and literature: “Although I’m very interested in science and technology, I guess I couldn’t sit still long enough to be a doctor.”

At 22, she moved to London to study homeopathic medicine, a course she didn’t complete. She was living in one of her father’s penthouses in Kensington, dating a tennis player and generally living the kind of life that earned her the label “glamorous socialite”. It was also where she first began to take an interest in contemporary art.

In 2005, she met Abramovich – a friend of her father’s from his oil-trading days – at a dinner party in Moscow. Abramovich, who was born into poverty and orphaned at the age of four, had just sold his stake in the Russian oil giant Sibneft for $13bn and was moving into steel, gold and real estate, which he still invests in through his Millhouse company. He divorced his second wife, Irina, in 2007.

Despite the couple’s properties all over the world – three in London alone, as well as three yachts, houses in the south of France, Moscow and St Barts, where Abramovich made headlines, in January, for spending £5m on a New Year’s eve party – Zhukova has said that it is her mother’s home in Los Angeles that still feels like home to her.

It is striking that Zhukova is at her most open when talking about her family (her partner, of course, is another matter; the closest I get to that subject is to ask if she likes football; “I’m the last person you should be talking to,” she replies).

When I ask her which parent she is most like, she says probably her father – who lives in Moscow now – although as she was brought up by her mother, she figures it balances out. “My Dad is a very optimistic person,” she says. “He’s very positive, he loves people, he’s very clever and he’s very funny. He’s a great dad. Obviously I saw less of him when we were in America, but it always just felt normal when I saw him again.”

Both her parents remarried and both had twins – her mother, a boy and girl, now aged 19; her father, twin boys aged 16: “My parents have always stayed good friends and I feel like I’m part of a huge family. I don’t think of any of my siblings as half-siblings – I’m actually very close to all of them.”
Her mother is “very affectionate. She was and is very reasonable with me. I always felt like I had independence but enough structure not to fly off the deep end. I always felt that I never wanted to disappoint my parents, so that kept me on track.”

Sometimes, she admits, this involvement can be a bit annoying: “[My mother] is just involved with everything that I am doing. She will probably read this interview, for instance. I’ll speak to her just casually about a project, and she will come back the next day and say, ‘You know, honey, you should also consider this.’ Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, Mum, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but a lot of the time it stays in the back of my head.”

Does her mother have a say about her private life? “Not so much about my private life! I draw the line there!”

I ask her if she is affectionate to her son in the same way that her mother was to her? “Oh I just want to bite him and kiss him and hug him … He runs away from me when he sees me. The older he gets, the more obsessed I become because you can really communicate now.” So is it time for another one? She grins: “These controversial questions!” Zhukova’s first child is her partner’s sixth: “I would like to have a big family,” she says.

Zhukova has made some mistakes in the past when talking to journalists. On one occasion, when asked who her favourite artists were, she sounded as clueless as a valley girl, saying that she couldn’t, like, really remember any of their names. “I was new to this whole world. I thought I shouldn’t name names because it might seem like giving preferences. I was just getting started and didn’t know how to handle it. I feel a bit more confident now and feel that it’s OK to have personal preferences. I’m also less shy than I was.”

So what has been her favourite show at the Garage? “Let me think if I want to answer this.” Can she at least name one of her favourite pieces? “I will say that my favourite installation was Dan Flavin’s long, wide corridor of multicoloured light installations. That was just so beautiful …”
Although she may be associated with the monumental splash of her partner’s big buys in 2008, when Abramovich spent £43m on Francis Bacon’s 1976 “Triptych” and £17m on Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, Zhukova’s personal taste seems to be quirky and modest. “I am drawn to humorous art that is ironic,” she says.

She also has a rebellious streak and a love of the outré and extreme. One of her ambitions, she said in an interview, was “to push the boundaries of publishing”. Garage, the magazine – with Zhukova as editor-in-chief, and former Paris Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck as editorial consultant – has certainly published some firsts. The inaugural issue last year commissioned a number of big-name artists to design tattoos, which would then be grafted on to the bodies of various “living canvases”. Damien Hirst came up with a butterfly tattoo for a vagina, which was one of the covers of the magazine (even with a concealing sticker, this was still banned by WH Smith). “I was slightly hesitant, because it’s very provocative,” she says. “But I just love the image and I love the extra dimension that the sticker gave it. It’s not offensive at all, it’s quite beautiful. I’m glad we did it.”

In the same issue, there is a profile of her maternal grandmother, “Soviet Scientist, Maria Rudnitskaya”, written by her granddaughter. Zhukova’s granny, who moved to the US in 1992 to help her daughter with her family, looks brilliant – small and plump, with a lovely smile – wearing an animal-print kaftan, massive earrings and leaning on her walking stick. She remembers the war, spending shifts on the roof, picking up the hissing balls from the firebombs dropped by the German planes. Then the evacuation to Tashkent, working in the military plant during the day and in the evening working for her chemistry degree. Back in Moscow, she worked as a clerk in the naval ministry, then as a technician at the Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion, completing her PhD. During her career she developed therapies for infertility and gangrene, for haemophiliacs and diabetics. In trying to understand what motivates Zhukova, with her pioneering zeal to make a difference to her old country, I don’t think one can underestimate the influence her mother and grandmother must have had on her growing up.

Zhukova’s looks and her relationship with such a wealthy man make it easy for her critics to dismiss her. For instance, when she first appeared on the London scene, she was always described as a model. But when I couldn’t find any modelling stints in her CV, I asked her about this. She sent back an email, saying: “When I was 14 I tried modelling, but my career lasted exactly one month. I was more interested in playing volleyball!”

Not long after we met, the news from Russia was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. I did try to get Zhukova to comment on the unfolding story of Pussy Riot but she declined. However, one of the two issues of the Garage magazines she had sent me was a celebration of gay marriage: “With same-sex marriage now enshrined in state law [in New York], Garage celebrated by inviting designers and artists to collaborate on special wedding outfits and cast real life couples to wear them.”

At the end of our conversation, I read back something she had once said: “I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country.” How did she feel about a country that bans Gay Pride demonstrations on the grounds that gays are satanic? “You know, I’m very bothered by any kind of intolerance, and I think that comes from ignorance and from being part of a very closed-off society. It is something we are definitely fighting, indirectly, at the Garage. But there’s no point just sitting and criticising Russia; what we are doing is the opposite of complaining about what’s wrong. We are trying to give choices, to educate people and make a positive change.”

Dasha Zhukova is only 31. If she wants to change the world, she has plenty of time ahead of her.

Dasha Zhukova is expanding her Garage arts centre in Moscow, and now has designs on St Petersburg. Her critics in the art world may still not take her seriously, but they can’t ignore her.

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Ginny Dougary
August 2012
FT MAGAZINE

The man who was one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, as well as its editor for 23 years, had arranged to meet me ostensibly to discuss the 20th anniversary of his “new” magazine The Oldie and my journey to Aldworth, where he lives, on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, was suitably old-world. The approach to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, is a heart-gladdening sight of rolling, rural loveliness.

It is a beautiful summer’s day and Ingrams takes pleasure in showing me around his garden, with its bursts of wild colour and sense of nature being barely tamed, secateurs in hand, deadheading as we go. Sara joins us before retreating to organise lunch, and the three of us eat outside on a pair of old wrought iron benches under trailing fragrant flowers with the restful sound of birdsong.

Gardening and nature, along with music and friendship, would be at the top of Ingrams’ list of consolations in life – and there have certainly been periods in his life when he has needed to be distracted from grief. As his biographer and friend, Harry Thompson (the late producer and writer of Have I Got News for You) noted, Ingrams has a strong melancholic streak – surely not helped by the early passing of his father, marriage breakdown, the death of two of his three brothers and two of his three children – that sits alongside his anarchic sense of humour and love of satire.

He has always been religious, brought up by a fiercely Anglican father, Leonard, and equally fervent Catholic mother, Victoria – he converted to Catholicism in his seventies – but his faith seems more of a spiritual tussle for him than a cosy support system.

“One of the things that people think about religion is that it must be very nice to sort of sit in an armchair and think about God. People also assume that you have these certainties, but in my case, they’re not certainties at all.”

Leonard St Clair Ingrams, OBE, came from a long line of clergymen and was a dashing figure, a bit of a philanderer and a brilliant financier. Victoria Reid came from the Baring family – her father had been Queen Victoria’s personal doctor and her mother had been a royal maid of honour. The family’s London home was in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Two of the four boys, including Richard, were brought up Protestant, the other two as Catholics. Richard was sent off to prep school at the age of seven, which he detested, thence to Shrewsbury and Oxford, where he read Classics.

Since Oxford, Ingrams has kept notebooks in which he has jotted down quotes that have appealed to him. He only has four or five of them because he doesn’t read a great deal, he says – “I tend to read writers that I like and a lot of them are people I’ve known.” But what he does read, he reads deeply, returning to the lines – as others would turn to poetry, a favourite cookbook or, indeed, the Bible – when he needs cheering up.

His favourite sayings have now been compiled in a book, Quips and Quotes: A Journalist’s Commonplace Book, conveniently assembled by Oldie Publications, “and that’s a lovely thing to be able to do – your own book in your own office”. Will this be seen as a vanity publishing exercise? “Probably, yes.” Do you care? “Not really. James [Pembroke, The Oldie’s latest saviour and publisher] wanted to have it so he can use it as a giveaway to subscribers.” A great wheeze of laughter.

When Ingrams came up with the idea of The Oldie, he was still quite a youngie, at 54: “I know,” he laughs, “but I felt pretty old.” It was the original creation of a group of writer friends – Auberon Waugh, Stephen Glover and Alexander Chancellor – after a pub lunch and a prolonged moan about the need to create an antidote to youth culture. The initial reaction to both the idea of the magazine and its title, was disbelief … and worse, especially when Naim Attallah announced he was going to fund it.

Ingrams wanted to produce a sort of “Private Eye for grown-ups”. His first columnists signed up were Germaine Greer and the late Beryl Bainbridge, the latter as theatre critic, who described her new gig as “a Zimmer frame for the mind.” Other contributors included William Trevor, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Eric Newby, Harry Enfield and, rather marvellously, Barbara Cartland.

Twenty years on, after various ups and downs, the magazine is in rude health, owned by a consortium headed by Pembroke, with a circulation of 41,000, and is full of good writing by well-known Fleet Street names, as well as contributions from readers who write in. It helps, of course, that amateur writers aren’t too fussy about what they get paid.

“It wasn’t an ageing thing,” Ingrams tells me, “it was more the fact that – which I still feel – I’m not at home in the modern world. Oldies at all times probably have that feeling anyway. But I think that particularly now, with so much having changed in the last 20 to 30 years, that it’s quite natural that people of my age should be feeling a sort of bafflement.” This is a man, after all, who doesn’t own a mobile phone or use email.

Ingrams may dislike the more idiotic extremes of youth culture, but he’s quite partial to youth itself. Around the time of The Oldie’s launch, his behaviour seemed to some to have become deeply odd and distinctly out of character. He had agreed to pose in tight-fitting leather bikers’ gear for The Observer magazine in order to publicise The Oldie – a sight which was, indeed, startling. He also seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time at The Groucho Club, where he was photographed surrounded by admiring young women. “It was very nice,” he admits. His wife of 30 years, Mary, stuck at home in the country, was less impressed: “He’s bonking girlies! He’s bonking girlies!” was her response.

Now, when I tease him about his Groucho days, Ingrams gets quite hoity-toity with me: “I think it’s a silly point to raise and it’s not right to suggest The Groucho Club is a trendy place frequented by lots of hippy [surely shome mistake – presumably “hip”] young people. When I went there, it was full of old bores like me,” he says, rattling off a rollcall of reprobates who are no longer with us: Jeffrey Bernard, Simon Gray, Keith Waterhouse and Dan Farson.

But then he remembers something which makes us both laugh. “It’s my favourite story of The Groucho Club … Dan Farson [the writer and broadcaster] was having lunch with either Gilbert or George and he was trying to introduce me to this man and he couldn’t remember whether it was Gilbert or George … so he just ground to a halt! It was so funny, particularly as those aren’t their real names anyway.”

It was at The Groucho Club that Richard met Deborah Bosley, then in her late twenties (and 27 years younger than Ingrams) who was one of the receptionists there – although they only became an item after his wife had left him. There was no doubt that the Ingramses had loved one another, but as Mary grew older she suffered increasingly from manic depression, her erratic behaviour compounded by alcoholism. Ingrams maintains he would have fought to save the marriage, but Mary moved out of their house and into their tiny cottage in Rye and insisted on a divorce (despite being a Catholic), which came through in 1993, a year after Debbie had moved in with Richard. (Mary died in 2007.)
Debbie soon became lonely and isolated living in the country. She left Ingrams, had a fling, became pregnant with Louis and Richard took her back, helping to bring up her little boy. Louis is now in his teens and his mother has remarried; Ingrams played the organ at the wedding and is still actively involved in Louis’ life.

I first met Richard Ingrams, almost 20 years ago, at a Private Eye lunch. Every few years, I would get reinvited and would always be seated next to him. For a long time this seemed like a bit of a punishment, as he made no effort to make conversation and was quite frightening. It took about a decade for him to thaw, and for me to look forward to and appreciate his sense of humour and bright blue-eyed tilt at the world.

At a certain point in my career, I ran into difficulties over a story and turned to him for advice. I trusted him not to betray my confidence and he didn’t let me down. From that point on, we became friendly and would meet for lunch in his favourite restaurant, Elena’s L’Etoile, in Soho, round the corner from his office. This coincided with a difficult time in his personal life; Debbie had left him a second time and Ingrams was obviously feeling lonely and a bit blue.

We talked about life, the universe and everything, and when remembering friends and family who had died (there have, after all, been so many – Peter Cook at 57, Paul Foot at 66, Auberon Waugh at 61, Willie Rushton at 59, and, saddest of all, his daughter, Jubby, at 39, who died alone in a bedsit in Brighton of a heroin overdose, leaving behind three children and her husband) his eyes would fill with tears.

Then one day he phoned to say he had some interesting news, and that we should meet at L’Etoile to discuss. He seemed very perky and announced that he had someone in his life (I don’t think he said anything as heady as “I’ve fallen in love”), and that she was his god-daughter, Sara Soudain, whom he had last seen when she was 14 and she was now 43. Her mother, Annie, inadvertently brought them together when she contacted Ingrams to ask if he would accompany her daughter to a court hearing. Sara, a medical researcher, was fighting a case involving a neurologist, which had been a solitary battle over seven years. The neurologist, who had been falsifying the research, was eventually suspended for 12 months, but only after Sara had lost her job and her relationship with her partner, the father of their two small boys, had broken down.

We talk about courage à propos Sara’s solitary stand and Ingrams tells me that he doesn’t regard himself as a brave person at all. “I was often told that I was brave during that business with [James] Goldsmith [Goldenballs] in Private Eye, but it wasn’t really brave because I always had a lot of mates with whom I could go into the – ah – jungle. But Sara was a whistle-blower, too, and she was on her own throughout; there was no one supporting her. Well, that is brave.”

Looking back, does he think that it was Sara’s courage that made him fall in love with her? Pause. “I was very impressed by her and love came into it.” Did you fall in love with her instantly? “Pretty well, yes.”

Were you thinking about this in relation to Ian, that he might feel that way towards you? “Not towards me, but towards anyone … because I think people who are younger than us don’t have the same attitude towards the past. It’s partly because we were brought up just after the war, so that there was the history of the war, and what had gone on was very, very important. And men like Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Foot, A.J.P. Taylor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh … were kind of heroes to Christopher Booker and Paul Foot and myself. We wanted to read all their books and know all about them. We were sort of fascinated by them.”

So, by the same token, does he think that forming relationships with women, after his marriage breakdown, who were from the same generation as his daughter, was a way of reclaiming her? “Er, I never thought of that … Mmmm … I would say that was amateur psychology. Aren’t those swallows lovely, sweeping down …? I don’t want to change the subject but …” Then he says: “I suppose as you get older, you are very much more attracted to young, vivacious people because they cheer you up. It might not have to do with sex, so much.”

When it comes to matters of sex and morality, Ingrams has deeply ingrained views: “People, of whom I know quite a lot, who have casual affairs all over the place, are generally quite shallow types of people. And I have never been tempted by the idea of having casual love affairs. I couldn’t cope with it – it’s all or nothing for me. I think it would all be very unsatisfactory and it would end unhappily and there’s no point in doing it.”

He is also dead against the idea of a no-fault divorce. He thinks it is quite wrong that when someone leaves the marriage, regardless of the provocation or unhappiness, that they should be entitled to half the couple’s assets. “I think someone who does that is worthy of attack,” he says. “People always say ‘Well, in a married situation, I’m sure there were faults on both sides …’”

But that’s because it’s usually true. “Well, it is true in some cases. But I don’t think you can say that morality doesn’t come into it … You’ve got to judge each case on its merits – and what I object to is that in the eyes of the law now, if a couple split up no one is to blame.

“Let’s be honest about this, we all approach this question from our own personal experiences. Undoubtedly, as someone who’s divorced – who was left by my wife who then turned round and demanded lots of money from me – and the law supported her – that caused me a lot of resentment and anger.”

But why, since Ingrams is well-off, supported from an early age by a sizeable private income? “Because she just walked out of the whole thing and said, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore, I’m living on my own.’” But she believed you’d had at least one affair? “She might have done, yes – but, you know, she wasn’t just walking out on me, she was walking out on the children, too.”

It’s true, as he says, that we are all informed by our own experiences to this question. Mary sounded a nightmare to live with. But it must have been tough on her, with a husband who seemed to be leading such a jolly, exciting life in London, but was decidedly non-communicative and anti-social at home. It took a certain amount of courage, particularly for a woman of her faith, age and background, to leave an unhappy marriage and go it alone. Equally, I can see that it takes a different sort of courage to stick out a marriage, however unappealing the prospect.

Mary’s occasional mood swings became far more pronounced after the traumatic birth of the Ingrams’ third child, Arthur, who was born with cerebral palsy. He died of pneumonia in 1977 at the age of seven. I wonder whether this experience made Ingrams sympathise with David Cameron and his family, when their son Ivan – who was born with the same condition complicated by Ohtahara syndrome, a very rare form of epilepsy – died aged six. “The trouble was I felt that Cameron was going to make political capital out of it, which he did,” Ingrams says. “He was always talking about the National Health Service and actually suggested that because of Ivan, it was safe in his hands and he wasn’t going to reform it. And that was a big lie. Bad. And from an Old Etonian, too!” he jokes. “Well, letting down the old school, you know.”

He is starkly honest about his feelings towards Arthur: “The difficulty I had about Arthur was that as far as Mary was concerned, I think she felt about him the same way that she felt about her other children – she loved them all the same. But I couldn’t feel like that about Arthur because he couldn’t talk to you, he wasn’t aware… all the things that you hope for with children he didn’t do – so you had no relationship with him.”

He is equally candid about his vivacious daughter, Jubby, to whom he had been so close. He thinks that she was in a circle of friends who snorted coke at dinner parties and then she became hooked because, like her father, she had an addictive personality. “I’m scared of all drugs,” he told me, when I asked whether he had tried any. “I’m scared of becoming addicted to them.”

When Jubby died in 2004, it was after she had been on a retreat in Scotland to deal with her drug and alcohol problems, which clearly hadn’t worked. So she had left her family home in Lewes to move to nearby Brighton, to try to sort herself out. “When someone becomes a drug addict … it’s a kind of living death because the person you knew and loved has gone,” her father says. “And your relationship changes because you can’t have a stable – or any kind of proper relationship with the person.”

Does your heart harden in order to protect yourself? “No, I don’t think so. It’s very, very depressing obviously, but all I am trying to say is that a certain death has already occurred in a way. Does that make sense?”

At the end of the interview, Mr and Mrs Ingrams want to show me their vegetable patch and, in particular, their crop of crazily giant-headed garlic. I step outside to see the couple walking, hand in hand, up the slope. Sara, in her black leggings, and her long, black hair with its distinctive Susan Sontag streak, is so funny and warm, with her slanting humour, and she teases her husband, fairly mercilessly, from a position of clearly adoring him. They seem really happy and it’s good to be around them.

There are lots of quotes in Ingrams’ book that I like – “Everyone I know is either married or dotty” (from the unmarried Germaine Greer); “I believe in getting in hot water. I think it keeps you clean” (G.K. Chesterton); “There is of course no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano” (Rebecca West).

But there is one that I like that isn’t there. I had asked Ingrams if he feared death – and he said that he did not. “Death is necessary and part of the circle of life,” he says. And so he won’t mind if I ask him what would be the perfect inscription on Richard Ingrams’ tombstone? Pause: “He made a nuisance of himself.”

Richard Ingrams has spent four decades poking fun at the powerful and, now, at modern life. But he has also endured more than his share of private grief.

Richard Ingrams wanders out of the house he has lived in for the past 30-odd years to greet me, wearing a faded shirt, baggy shorts and a pair of slippers, with his hair sticking out at wayward angles. He is even scruffier in the country than the town but, improbably, despite his genteel tramp demeanour and advanced years – he has just celebrated his 75th birthday – there is still something very attractive about him.

It takes the taxi ages to find the house in Aldworth, partly because we are given a bum steer – whether intentional or not – by a pair of drinkers in the local pub. Ingrams, teetotal since 1967, was banned from it in 2000, along with his former partner, Deborah Bosley – aka Big Debbie – after she wrote a negative article about living in the country, including the line that someone at the pub “disapproves of the coupling of black and white human beings on the grounds that it is unnatural”. [Debbie’s son, Louis, is mixed-race.]

One person in six in the UK is now over 65, which should be good news for The Oldie’s future but, as Harry Thompson pointed out, the magazine was never intended as special-interest reading for pensioners – it was to celebrate old age as a point of view.<

We had been talking earlier about Ingrams’ admiration for and attachment to older men such as Malcolm Muggeridge, whose biography he wrote. Since his father died when Ingrams was 16, and was pretty absent before that, I wondered whether he was always looking for a replacement father figure? “Possibly, yes,” he says. “I was thinking about this the other day, because I think one of the differences between my generation and say Ian’s [Hislop, who Ingrams personally appointed as his successor on Private Eye, at the age of 26, to much initial opposition; he describes it as the best thing he has ever done] is that all of us were aware of various men, particularly men who were older than us, whom we sort of revered.”

There has been a lot of loss in his life, but so many gains, too. At 75, one of his great pleasures in life is his involvement in the lives of his many grandchildren and the children of his ex-partner and wife. I had read in an old interview with Otis, the son of Ingrams’ son, Fred, about how brilliant his grandfather was at doing impersonations, particularly of the Muppets. Ingrams is actually a bit of a luvvie manqué – and, in fact, his Dr Bunsen Honeydew is fabulous – “Here at Muppets Laboratories, we are bubbling with excitement … Beaker, there’s no need to be nervous …”

Celebrities, Fashion, Music, Opinion

The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)

Ginny Dougary
The Times
september 2010

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.

“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”

She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.

“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”

Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.

Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”

The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”

“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”

As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.

When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.

After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.

“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”

I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.

She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.

“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”

The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.

After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?

Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.

“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.

“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.

She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.

“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”

Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.

“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”

So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”

Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”

What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.

“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”

Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.

“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.

“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”

Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.

Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”

What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”

It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”

She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”

I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”

Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”

The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.

“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”

I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.

Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.

“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”

There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.

Celebrities, Comedians

Ricky Gervais in his most ‘postmodern’ interview ever

Ginny Dougary
The Times
April 2010

The comedian talks about everything from relationships to body image

It started pretty badly. At one point, Ricky Gervais said it was the most difficult interview he’d ever done – and he was using “difficult” in the same way that someone says a dress is “interesting” when they mean “horrible”.

The feeling, it must be said, was mutual but, fortunately, this encounter in his anonymous-looking office, above an estate agency in Hampstead – despite 60 hellish minutes which veered between awkwardness and outright bloody-mindedness – does have a happy, if somewhat unorthodox, ending.

To be frank, I had half-expected it to be tricky. It was the control thing that worried me. I’d heard stories, possibly apocryphal, about Gervais, dissatisfied with the way a photoshoot was going, simply taking over and directing himself himself. There was in addition something about the look in his eyes – cussedness tinged with anger, a lack of trust, maybe – underneath the hectic bravado that could spell trouble.

We chitchat about the pronunciation of his name – which is French-Canadian on his father’s side – “Gervaaayze” (as in haze), although his mother, from Reading, rolled it out with a rural burr: “Gerrrrrvayze.”

He remembers only fully understanding that his dad came from another, far-off country when various uncles and aunts came to visit and “of course, they were real Canadians and had check jackets on”. He’s been to Canada but not to visit his relatives: “Obviously, I’m interested in my immediate family [he has three much older siblings] but, no, I’ve never worried about where I came from. I don’t see the point, really.”

So you won’t be doing that Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy show any time soon? “No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

He is close to his two brothers, Larry and Bob, and his sister, Marsha: “I like them and I get on with them. We’ve shared a life together. So that’s why I care about them, because they’re nice and loyal and, you know, if they were all adopted I’d feel the same. That’s what caring about someone is, not someone saying, ‘By the way, you share 99 per cent genetic material.’ Do I? Oh that makes it different, then.”

We’ve barely started and already we’re into the heavy sarcasm and belligerence. I happen to agree with Gervais that those shows featuring an endless parade of weeping celebrities are a bit suspect, but there’s also something absurd about his toxic snideness. It would probably be funny on the stage, but close up it’s faintly alarming; a bit like being trapped in the back of a cab with an irate driver who’s sounding off.

My next mistake is to comment (innocuously, I think) on why he always puts his feet on his desk – does he have a lower-back problem?

“It feels comfortable,” he says, looking faintly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t do it in your house. I do it because it feels nice and relaxed.”

Later, when we sort of kiss and make up, it transpires that this was a turning point for him – ie, when things really started to go wrong – and his reasons reveal a lot about his rather complicated personality, as well as his uneasy accommodation with fame.

His comedy – and writing, in general – works because it is true to life, and full of acute observation. There’s no lumbering exposition and he follows the good writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell.” His creation and portrayal of David Brent, The Office’s boss, resonates because his character is totally recognisable, whether the audience lives in Slough or Poughkeepsie. We all have a little bit of Brent inside us – an executive friend of mine confessed she feels herself to be cringingly like him whenever she tries to chum up to her staff.

There are discernible overlaps between Gervais himself and his most famous character, particularly his mannerisms. After our interview, I talked to half-a-dozen people about the feet-on-table business, and most of them said either that it was something Brent actually did or, at the very least, it was a quintessentially Brentian thing to do. What is intriguing is that Gervais intuited my discomfort with him sticking his trainers under my nose before I was even really aware of it. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Well, what if I were an elderly, genteel lady – would he still think it was OK to do that?” It also struck me how much it was a distancing device; with his body stretched out in an L-shape, his face could not have been further away from mine.

I ask him if he is sentimental, and he says that he is. So, I wonder, what is the stronger element in him: sentiment or ironic detachment. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand the question because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think you can break it down to a percentage, because there’s lots of overlap as well. I’m 100 per cent human so I’m a logical person with all the attributes of being human…”

Perhaps you find me asking for a percentage a bit off-putting but… “I’ll take every question you ask very seriously.” OK, let’s try it another way: some people are completely sentimental without a trace of cruel wit in them and… “I never lose one when the other one’s happening. I don’t understand the question. You’ve gotta start again.”

Well, you have answered the question in a way… “I couldn’t have. If I did, I did it by mistake because I don’t understand the question.”

Oh dear, I sigh. The reason I’m asking the question, partly, is because your new film, Cemetery Junction – which you’ve said is very autobiographical (a coming-of-age story of three lads trapped in Nowheresville, plotting their escape) – has got a lot of warmth and heart, and feels quite different in tone to, say, The Office (or, certainly, from the one episode I saw, Extras).

Now we’re talking about “the work”, Gervais is back in his comfort zone; he knows where he’s going, he has control and there is a momentary ceasefire in hostilities. “[The new film] is more an out-and-out drama so there’s no veil of irony in it, like some of the other works. In The Office, we were laughing at the people who were delusional and un-cool, and now we’ve found people who are cool and, you know, we’re going, ‘This bloke is cool and his feathers are going to fall out one day but not this summer, and isn’t it excitin’?’

“I suppose it was quite dangerous in The Office to expect people to go from laughing at a bit of slapstick with a middle-aged man having a breakdown and then going, ‘But, really, no, he’s a real person and he’s got real emotions.’”

That’s what made it so interesting. “Of course and I think we’ve always done that.

As long as your characters are real and they resonate and there’s some sort of basis in reality and empathy to the piece, as opposed to just crazy slapstick, then I think you can shift gears.

“But it’s all in how you set up your wares, you know. We drip-fed the boy-meets-girl thing, which sometimes doesn’t work in sitcoms because they’re either plonked in or they’re cynical or they forget the jokes, so it’s quite hard to have it all.”

His accent weaves in and out of the Reading burr and a more sloppy urban-teenager-speak – “re-uh” for real; “resonaigh” for resonate; “re-a-li-ee” for reality.

When Tim, the world-weary sales rep, finally gets his girl, Dawn, the gorgeous blonde receptionist, I tell him that I felt like cheering. There had been more misunderstandings, missed opportunities and silent yearning than in a Jane Austen novel. “As soon as you realise that Tim and Dawn can’t say what they want to say because the cameras are watching them…” He snaps his fingers in a very Brent way, “…takes on a whole new level… It’s like, seething and Victorian. So all Tim had to do was look at Dawn and for her not to be looking back or look at Dawn and then get caught. It was all body language because people don’t blow up what they’re thinking anyway.”

It’s time for some more questions and, feeling flushed and anxious, I fan myself with some papers on his desk and then totally freak him out by mentioning the menopause. Do you think people are frightened of you? “Erm – um – in what way?” Frightened of your brightness or that you will lampoon them or put them down?

“Er, I think that, yes, some people are intimidated by a famous person and if they knew how, you know, how idiotic… Well, I think it’s the same percentage of idiots that are famous as not, probably more, I would have thought. So… er… I hope I’m not intimidating in a bad way. I mean, taking this example – um – you know, it’s not nice when it’s combative.”

At this point, I almost fall off my chair as it swings backwards alarmingly – practically to the ground – and I gasp, “Is this a joke seat?” (to dispatch pesky interviewers, I’m thinking.) “No, it’s Stephen Merchant’s – so it’s got a very long back.”

Well, I’m leading up to a question that I’m worried is going to make you angry but, anyway, let’s go. “I won’t be angry,” he says. “I won’t answer it if I don’t like it.” So I want to talk to you about your looks. When you were a pop star (in an Eighties Spandau Ballet-ish duo, all cheekbones, dusky eye make-up and earrings, called Seona Dancing) – “Failed pop star,” he interjects – you were an incredibly pretty boy. Do you ever look at those old videos or pictures of yourself? “No, they’re too depressing.”

Why this interests me is that, in practically every single interview he’s ever done, Gervais refers to himself, in some way, as “fat” or “ugly” or both (as in “ugly, fat git”). Is that really the way you see yourself?

“Well, I don’t think I am a fat git, looking at the national average… and certainly the world average. But I’m a fat git compared to what I was, I suppose. I went from 9 stone to, you know – and then you hit 30 and those were my eating years…” (He’s now 48.)

Do you feel any nostalgia for that pretty boy you once were? “No, of course not.” Do you not care about your looks? “Er… I don’t know. I’m not vain in that way. I don’t preen. I’ve started working out for other reasons.” Health? “Yeah, health – and because I don’t want to get fatter.

“You know. It went far enough. And it was laziness because no one gets fat behind their back. If you burn off less calories than you eat, you put on weight – it’s not a shock to anyone. The people who eat too much must be happy with that or they’d do something about it.

“And I’m eating as much as I ever did because I enjoy it, but I’ve decided to work out more. I run over the Heath and I’ve got a gym at the house, so no excuses at all – not that there was an excuse before… The only reason to live longer is to drink more wine and eat more cheese.”

He and his TV producer partner, Jane Fallon (This Life, Teachers) – the couple have been together since they met at University College London in 1982 – live in a big pile in Hampstead but have also bought a flat in New York. They don’t have children, so no schools to worry about, and what with Gervais’s burgeoning Hollywood career (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying), it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they spend more time in the States. If so, will he feel pressurised to submit to the American beautification process?

“I think you mean, Los Angeles. New Yorkers are more…” Normal?

“Absolutely.” They’re still far more high-maintenance in the looks department in Manhattan than we are. “It’s probably more to do with what you do… The Hollywood pressure is that you do have to be of a certain standard or a certain type. I see everyone doing it, even good character actors. I think, ‘Why are you starving yourself?’ The pressure is there to have white, straight teeth…”

Would you ever do your teeth? “No, they’re clean and they’re real – it’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think I would. If I haven’t done them now, why would I do them?”

And, boom, off he goes… “What is in America? Who gives a f*** what anyone thinks? I don’t give a f*** what they think and if I don’t get a film role because my teeth are crooked, then f*** them, I don’t want it. I just go, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And if I don’t get a film role because I’m not thin enough, then, ‘F*** you.Why would I f****** do that, you f****** shallow c****!’ I hate them, and I hate that people think that I would. It makes me angry. I remember when a newspaper said, ‘He’s lost three stone for Hollywood.’ I went, ‘No [his voice veers upwards], I haven’t lost three stone and I would never f****** do it for Hollywood. I did it ’cos I work out and I wanna be fit.’ And that annoys me. Someone said, ‘I saw him in The Ivy and he was having a salad.’ ‘Yeah, I had a salad. I also had f****** deep-fried scampi and followed it with ravioli, you lying f****** c***!’ So the answer is, ‘No.’”

This is a splendid rant and hugely entertaining, although Gervais is genuinely angry and not performing it for laughs. But even in Hollywood, he is now calling the shots. The Invention of Lying – in which he plays an unsuccessful film writer who is told by everyone that he’s a fat loser and, guess what, he still gets the girl – was written, directed, produced, narrated by and stars Ricky Gervais. As he says, “I create my own labour. I write my own roles and I write fat little putz roles, and now I write slightly less fat little putz roles. I don’t go for roles which demand a 28-year-old model. Why would I do that?”

The reason, I think, that he is quite often misunderstood is because his humour hinges on playing with taboos. The danger being that while the audience accepts when is on stage, his offensiveness is a parody of other people’s prejudices (made more piquant by our worry that, at some level, we battle with equally unattractive knee-jerk reactions), that comic tension doesn’t always come across in interviews. So something that he intends to be humorous – even though it may be, as Gervais says in another context (calling his friend, Stephen Fry, “a f****** bent c***”), possibly “a joke that went wrong” or “ironic humour that fell flat” – it can be reported as what he really believes.

A case in point, are his recent remarks – asked for the umpteenth time about why he and Jane haven’t had children – when he went off on a sort of sub-Loaded riff that fat chain-smoking impoverished slags in leggings should be compulsorily sterilised. As he says, coming from his background (his father, Jerry, was a labourer, and his mother, Eva, a housewife with a salty tongue; they were not well off), “it’s fundamentally the opposite of what I believe”. The thing is, he should have known better. He should have been sufficiently media-savvy to realise how bad that would look in print and, actually, if anything qualifies as “a joke that went wrong”, that hits the jackpot.

Gervais has said, in the past, that he shouldn’t need to wear a “Billy Bigot” T-shirt in order to flag up to people that he’s only joking. But when I try to get him to talk about the way we all have thoughts that pop in our head that we’re ashamed of, don’t we, he comes over all arsey again.

First of all, he says that this is a subject he talks about on his latest tour. “I love to examine it. I look at middle-class angst all the time.

“When David Brent goes up to the black guy in the office and says, ‘I love Sidney Poitier’, that was him trying to tell him he’s not a racist. I love looking at those taboo subjects that make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re brought up in an environment where people are saying, ‘Black people are lazy’, for instance, you hit an age, if you’re an intelligent person, when you go, ‘That’s just not true.’ It’s like why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Until that point I’d never questioned it and when I did, it was, ‘Of course, it’s bulls***’, because the evidence – just like the evidence of racism – is overwhelmingly wrong.”

Still, I wonder, are there any thoughts he has now that occasionally make him ashamed of himself? “That doesn’t make sense. How can you go, ‘I know that’s wrong but I like it’?” And then, “You can’t help what pops into your head. It’s how you act on those things, rationally.” Are you sometimes shocked by the things that pop into your head? “No.”

You’re frowning at me as though I’m saying something very stupid. “No, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. I think you’ve made a category mistake in what the mind is, is my high-falutin’ answer. You can’t be ashamed of…” Yes, you can. “No, you can’t.” More wrangling ensues… At one point, he insists that my suggestion that there is a gap between an unbidden thought leaping into your head, and the way you believe you should think and behave, is schizophrenia. No, it’s not, I say, pretty cross and exasperated myself by now. “I dabble with those things in comedy…” Precisely. “I dabble with the worst thing to say and then I deal with it – but I haven’t got this strange sort of man with two brains sort of syndrome.” Oh God! “I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable, but I think you’ve got to realise that this is important to me. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I don’t want you to be unclear. This is as much for you as it is for me. So if you mean, ‘Have I ever had a belief that I’m ashamed of?’, the answer’s, ‘Yes.’”

I wonder if this verbal torture is something to do with Gervais having studied philosophy for three years; perhaps he took courses in semantics and semiology while he was at it. “It’s difficult because we can’t even get our interpersonal frames of reference correct to answer the question,” he says. “But also what’s good about it is that it seems to be about how you portray yourself and how you perceive yourself. Are you worried about your press persona; are you worried about the press, in general?”

Actually, it wasn’t really about that in my mind but it clearly was in his… As I’m considering this, we have a breakthrough. He mentions a recent, not altogether friendly, interview and tells me that, despite it giving the impression that the two had met face to face (details about his body language and facial expression and so on), they had only spoken on the phone. When he sees that I am shocked and disappointed, the whole mood changes dramatically.

He goes to the next room for a glass of water, I follow him and when we resume our conversation, it’s like talking to a different person. All the aggro has dissipated and everything about him has changed: his feet are nowhere to be seen, he leans across the desk to engage more fully; even his face opens up, his eyes widen and one catches a glimpse of that younger, unhardened self.

Bizarrely, we start to discuss why the interview has been so difficult to that point. He says that the reason he does interviews is that there’s a responsibility to the backers of his various projects. Was it the directness of my questions that bothered you? “No, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she thinks I’m such a horrible, nasty power freak… She thinks I’m intimidating, she thinks I’m combative.’

“Because on the face of it, that’s how I was being. And what I should have done is sat you down and said, ‘Listen, once bitten twice shy, and I’m really worried about things being taken out of context.’” But maybe I did irritate you, anyway? “No, the situation does. Straightaway I go, ‘Why am I swimming with sharks again?’ And I’m so conscious that anything can be… So when you said, ‘You like putting your feet up’, I suppose I was on the defensive. And straightaway we got off on the wrong foot.” He’s so earnestly in the moment, he doesn’t hear what he’s just said. “I thought, ‘F***, she could think that’s an affectation or that I’m rude; she could think I’m doing a power play, like I’ve read that in a book, you know.’ And so I tried to make it clear in a weird, like honesty-type Tourette’s-type of way that I just felt comfortable because it was my place – and I said in such a weird way, ‘I wouldn’t do it in your house.’

“I feel really bad now. It must have been like walking into someone who’d just come from a harrowing experience in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it!” This, in case there is any doubt about it, is a joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? “I’ve never done an interview when in the interview you analyse the interview. This is the most postmodern, deconstructed interview I’ve ever done. I wish we could do the post mortem.

“Of course, you do that in your head. I’ll go home to Jane and go, ‘Oh my God, I said this… and I know the headline.’ But you can’t get a headline out of this.”

Earlier, before our détente, I had wondered whether Gervais fell into the Englishman’s retreat of making a joke in order to avoid talking in an honest way about his feelings. He gives an answer to a different question – one that has been on his mind, not mine – about the perils of being famous. “I suppose I came to fame a bit cynically. I wanted people to know fame was an upshot of what I did, as opposed to the driving force because, fundamentally, I probably do want to be considered above the people who do anything to be famous and live their life like an open wound.”

I ask him if he’s self-analytical; again, his thoughts wander back to fame, and at first he becomes spectacularly tongue-tied. “Er, probably no more than I ever was… I mean fame makes you – um – more… um, self-analytical I suppose because… now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.

“I’m more conscious in public than I ever was. I’m probably less of an extrovert than I was. Fame has made me a bit more of a recluse.

“I go to restaurants but they’re safe environments. People don’t bat any eyelid in the Ivy but I probably wouldn’t go to Nando’s on a Friday night in Birmingham, and I don’t go to pubs. I’ve had no bad experiences, everyone’s very polite, but you can get phobic. It’s about feeling trapped. If you walk into a shop and you see someone go [he whispers behind his hand], then you walk out again. Walking down the street with someone going, ‘Love the show’ – nothing wrong with that at all. But being plonked somewhere where there’s loads of people who you don’t know but think they know you – that’s a bit weird. We’re not really meant to be famous.”

He was walking down the street once and there were a couple of kids, about 12 or 13, and one went: “‘Hey, man, it’s you, innit? Office man.’ I went, ‘Yeah’, and I kept walking. And heard them going, ‘Who is it?’ And I kept walking and I was about 20 yards away and this kid shouted, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to shout, ‘I’m Ricky Gervais.’”

The idea of him doing this, it must be said, is snortingly funny. “’Cos I don’t want to be impolite. They don’t know. And I never want to be that bloke – you know, when they go, ‘I asked for his autograph when I was 14 and he told me to f*** off.’ I hate that.”

It’s at times like this that you catch a glimpse of the nicer side of Gervais, and understand why his friendships are long, and why a smart-sounding woman like Fallon would still be at his side, 25-plus years on. He’s unforthcoming, which is unsurprising, on the secret of sustaining a relationship over three decades: “There is no secret.

It’s all the obvious things. Things in common. Respect. I suppose – um – you’re soul mates. You see eye to eye on everything.”

But his romanticism comes out when we talk about his idea of the perfect endings to films. When I say that Cemetery Junction has the same sort of grit-with-a-heart feeling as British films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, Gervais says he hasn’t seen them. He only catches new films – about three a year – when he’s on the plane. At home, he watches the same DVDs again and again and rattles off a list: The Godfather, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Play It Again, Sam, Tootsie, Raging Bull. “It’s like taking a drug because it gives me the same emotion as it did the first time, and some things are made better the second time round. I’m better the second time round.”

With his new film, “We wanted to do Hollywood does gritty. It had to be glorious and glamorous in its blue-collar degradation, like Saturday Night Fever. When you watch that – he’s walking down the street, he’s looking good but he works in a paint shop and he lives for Saturday night. But most people who watched that weren’t going, ‘How sad, this fellow’s gonna fall’; they’re going, ‘Oh, look at that! He’s f****** cool.’”

The Apartment (directed by Billy Wilder) has had the biggest influence on his and Merchant’s work. When I say that two of the young guys (Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes) in Cemetery Junction are pretty gorgeous, he says “Who wants to see fat ugly people?” Oh no, don’t start that again. “No, Billy Wilder said that when he cast Marilyn Monroe alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis [in Some Like It Hot], and he said, ‘No one wants to look at ugly people.’”

He says Cemetery Junction is autobiographical in that “all the women in that film are women from my family – my mum and my nan – and all the men are the men in my family and different friends growing up. There’s a line in it that my Mum actually said to me. [Gervais plays the character based on his father, in a white vest, always being undermined by his crabby mother-in-law.] When I was 18, I said, ‘I’m going to France’, and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you ain’t seen.’ Which is very sweet.”

It was the death of his mother, nine years ago, in particular, which made a profound impact on her son: “It’s devastating when you see someone dying of lung cancer – it’s f****** horrible, dreadful. My dad died a couple of years after. He was pottering around the garden with a few cans and sort of went, just like that. When your parents die, you’re sad because you miss someone who bore you and shaped you and cared for you, and it does make you think about other things, like your health. I went to the doctor, and dragged Steve along once, and said, ‘I’ve found a lump – I’ve got cancer.’ It happened twice.”

We move away from intimations of mortality to those romantic endings.While his humour is graphic, his romances are oblique. “It’s so much more powerful when they don’t kiss. ’Cos in Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”

There is one especially moving moment in Cemetery Junction, when the father and son reconcile, in a tiny gesture, and Gervais – who co-wrote it with Merchant, their first feature film together – would burst into tears every time he shot it. “Yeah, it was, like, ‘Wheew’ [blows his nose], ‘That was brilliant’ [another honk], ‘Ok, let’s go again’ [clears his throat with emotion].’’

By now I am emboldened to ask him directly if he’s a romantic.

“Of course,” he says. “As an atheist, that’s all that matters. You don’t get rewarded for being nice in Heaven, you get rewarded for it on earth. So be nice to people. Make a connection – because, you know, what else is there except making a connection with someone?”

It was lucky for both of us that there were two parts to this interview and, I would agree with him – Gervais is definitely better the second time round.

* * *

Cemetery Junction is released on April 14

Celebrities, Music

Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better

Photo – Phil Fisk

mitch winehouse

So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”

You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”

It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.

For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”

When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.

Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.

“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”

Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”

Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”

This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.

There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”

Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”

One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”

Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.

“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”

I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”

What about his own experience of drugs?

“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”

I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.

“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”

So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)

Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”

Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”

No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”

It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)

When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”

He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.

“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”

When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”

Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.

Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”

He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”

He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”

They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.

“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”

What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”

Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”

What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”

Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”

* * *

My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday

Celebrities, Comedians, Women

Sandi Toksvig on her Christmas cracker

The Times December 05, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The self-confessed ‘show-off’ talks about her Christmas cabaret show, politics and a crush on Cheryl Cole

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig has a habit of being picked up by strange women in public conveniences, which sounds like a cheap gag but happens to be true (although not in a George Michael way, obviously). Only the other day, she was sitting in one of those cubicles where you have to push your foot against the door to keep it closed — a challenge in itself if, like her, you’re under 5ft tall — when a woman burst in, mid-flow, apologised profusely, retreated, and then reappeared, saying: “I think you’re Sandi Toksvig — can I have your autograph?”

Just before we meet another woman had approached her in the loos at the Royal Festival Hall, followed her into the room we’re now sitting in, plonked herself down and is chatting merrily away, oblivious to the tape recorder on the table. “Merrily”, it transpires, is the wrong word. The toilet stalker is saying that her boss at the Koestler Trust — whose current exhibition at the Southbank of art by prisoners has been the subject of controversy — was so moved by Toksvig’s appearance at a recent candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square that they were wondering if she could be persuaded to do some work for their charity.

The vigil, on October 30, attended by 10,000 people, was organised as a protest against hate crimes, after the murder in September of Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man, who had been out on the town celebrating a new job and was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square by two 17-year-old girls and a 19-year-old boy.

“It’s too awful, and the point about it is not that it was a homophobic crime, it is that it was a hate crime,” Toksvig says quietly. “I don’t care what colour you are, what your sexuality is, or what your religion is . . . I care that anybody who wants to go across Trafalgar Square is entitled to do so.

“Anyway, we had an extraordinary evening, with two minutes’ silence and then Sue Perkins read out the names of all the people who had died in the past ten years because of hate crimes. It’s shocking and it won’t do. It just won’t do.”

It is also shocking to hear, particularly from someone who has achieved national-treasure status, that she, too, has been the victim of hate crimes. It is almost 16 years since Toksvig, then 36, decided to go public on her private life — to pre-empt being done over by a homophobic newspaper — that she and her female partner at the time, Peta, lived happily together as a family with three small children, fathered through artificial insemination by Chris Lloyd Pack, a close married friend, with Peta as the birth mother. In the ensuing furore, the Save the Children charity dropped Toksvig as the compere of its 75th-anniversary celebrations, later apologising after demonstrations by lesbian activists.

More dismaying behaviour followed as Lloyd Pack’s former mother-in-law denounced all participants (Toksvig, Peta, Lloyd Pack and, presumably, her own daughter) as the spawn of Satan, prompting the real loonies to come out of the shadows: “I’ve probably had about three serious death threats in my career, all from Christian fundamentalists — very stressful, where we’ve had to go into hiding,” Toksvig says. The family was protected by “the very nice boys in the police hate-crime squad” but it’s not surprising to hear that Toksvig suffered from depression: “If I’ve been dealing with somebody who wants to kill me and that’s scary, to put it mildly, then I have been depressed. But having had some degree of therapy [she is vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and her civil partner, Debbie, is also a psychotherapist], I realise that depression is fair enough in the circumstances. ”

All of this is a long time ago and it’s annoying when a person amounts to so much more than his or her sexuality that — with the rise of gay bashing, on the streets and in certain newspapers — the subject of gayness is still so topical.

Toksvig dislikes, of course, being referred to as “the lesbian comedienne” and says: “When I see comedian — and ‘comedienne’, of course I hate it — I think ‘Oh, really?’ because I think of myself as a writer and broadcaster. Sometimes it’s funny but I’ve just done a piece for Radio 3 all about Mary Wollstonecraft [the 18th-century philosopher and feminist] and there’s not a joke in it.”

There will be jokes aplenty, however, as well as gaiety of the old-fashioned sort at Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker cabaret show, starring Ronnie Corbett. Toksvig has written her own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and each night the roles of Scrooge and Mrs Cratchit will be played by different well-known personalities, Denise van Outen, Maria Friedman and John Humphrys among them.

And what of her new chum? “Ronnie makes me laugh every time I’m in the room with him. He’s got that wonderful ability to make you laugh just with ‘the look’. It helps that we are roughly the same height. He refers to us as The Condiment Set of Comedy, which I quite like.”

There were a few surprises for me on meeting Toksvig. The first was the slightly singsong lilt to her voice, in person, when I’m accustomed to her frightfully British clipped accent as a broadcaster. She says that she sounds more Scandinavian when she’s tired. “Also when you’re performing you’re a different person. I think I’m much duller in real life.” (Not true.) When she’s stressed, she confesses, she dreams in her native tongue. At one point, when we are talking about romance, she breathes in such a husky, accented voice: “Isn’t loff the most fontastic thing?” that, if you closed your eyes, it could be Ingrid Bergman talking.

Her late adored father, Claus, was a foreign correspondent posted to the United States who took along his wife and young family. Toksvig, like her older brother, Nick, who works as a journalist for al-Jazeera in Qatar, and her much younger London-based sister, Jenifer, who writes musicals, was encouraged from an early age to read newspapers (The New York Times from the age of 7, in her case) and be politically engaged. Claus Toksvig wrote for Jyllands-Posten (of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons debacle) and broadcast for Danish radio and television. His elder daughter inherited his passion for current affairs, handily for her role as chair for the BBC Radio 4 The News Quiz.

Claus Toksvig was also a Danish MEP and Sandi, like him, is passionately proEuropean Union. She is also a big Liberal Democrat supporter and does not rule out the possibility of a political career when she retires from “showing off”, as she puts it. “It’s been 30 years now as a career. I’m 51. I enjoy it but I don’t need it.”

There has been some speculation that, with David Howarth departing as MP from the safe Liberal Democrat seat of Cambridge, Toksvig may stand: “Sadly, that’s nonsense,” she says. “But had it been in five years’ time, it might well be that I would have said, ‘Yes’. I want to retire from showing off but I don’t want to retire from doing something useful with my life. So I’m not saying it’s out of the question that I may have a political career in the future. Or I might work full-time for a charity.”

I wonder whether there are any politicians she dislikes intensely. “Yes!” — a big roar of laughter — “I’ve never met the man but I worry deeply that Peter Mandelson has been given so much power in this country but has not been elected to office. I worry that he seems to be the deputy prime minister, he wants to be minister of information, he wants to be foreign secretary . . . the last time I looked, the Labour Party was in favour of democratically electing those people who hold power. It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Conservative government but I am deeply shocked by Mandelson’s pre-eminence.”

I ask Toksvig if she fancied anyone in public life. “Cheryl Cole,” she says, without missing a beat. “I have a crush on Cheryl Cole.” Why? She actually blushes and giggles: “I think she’s really pretty! I should be more cynical but I hope she’s as nice as she looks. I don’t really do crushes but my children do tease me about Cheryl Cole.”

Another politician comes up in a rather different context. We talk about Hillary Clinton’s crush on “vibrant, vital, attractive … so young” David Miliband. “Yes! And about David Miliband!” … a funny look.

“Actually I met her husband once — Bill — and I did have a Monica Lewinsky moment. I thought, ‘Ooooohhhhhh, I get that! Mmmmmmm, very, very sexy’. I was in a room full of people and I was the only woman in the room at that moment. He held me for quite a long time and I would have done anything for him . . . maybe not the full cigar, but, you know . . . sorry!” suddenly remembering herself.

Back in the real world, Toksvig says she adores her partner, Debbie, but does believe that it’s possible to love more than one person: “You need different things from different people. Sometimes you don’t live well together. You can adore someone and be mildly exasperated by them at the same time.” How can you live with someone and not be exasperated by them?

“Debbie and I have a very smooth waltz through life at the moment,” she says. “I’m older now and less inclined to change somebody. We’re married in a civil partnership, which I battled long and hard for, and I hope that’s it. That’s certainly my intention.”

Was Debbie your shrink? “Don’t be so silly,” she cracks up. “ That would be immoral! She would be struck off. Hahahahaha. No, no — she’s terribly boundaried. She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients. I don’t know anything about any of them,” she complains.

This Christmas there will be a full house chez Toksvig (Debbie has taken her surname), but no bigger than their usual Sunday lunch of 14 to 20 people. “Chris [her children’s father] won’t be there because he lives in Portugal in a Buddhist retreat, so he sits around with his foot behind his ear mostly and Christmas is not a big thing for them. But my mum will be there and my brother and my brother’s kids and my sister, my kids and their various partners who now seem to be appearing, and Peta of course, who is my best friend, and quite possibly her mother, who’s still my mother-in-law, it doesn’t make any difference.

“It’s Christmas Eve we celebrate, and it’s very formal — black tie — and we have roast duck and red cabbage, and the boys light the candles on the tree, it’s very sexist, and then we all hold hands and we sing special Danish Christmas songs.”

Toksvig was surprised to discover from her two older children — daughters of 21 and 19, and a son of 15, all delivered by her (is there no end to her talents?) — that their friends think it’s “cool” that they have two mums.

“Who knew it would be cool? It would never have occurred to me. What I do think is that it is an odd team to be on.” What do you mean? “I sometimes feel like I’m the captain of the national lesbian team. But I am who I am. I am myself.

“Would I have chosen to be gay? Probably not. But I didn’t choose, it’s who I am. Am I glad? Absolutely. In fact I suspect that being gay has been the saving of me because it has kept at bay the hideous middle-class woman I would have been. It’s made me much more tolerant, much more accepting and much less likely to assume things about other people. I challenge myself to confront all my prejudices because I have been the victim of prejudice myself.”

Having experienced that pain, would she not wish it upon her children? “So far I think I’ve produced three heterosexual children. But I think life has changed and I wish that they find love wherever they find it. I hope they get giddy with it, and grin!But I would wish them not to have a public life. Today, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, actually.”

* * *

Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker starring Ronnie Corbett and special guests runs from Dec 15 to Dec 24.

southbankcentre.co.uk

Early years

Sandi Toksvig was born in 1958 in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Her father, Claus (whom she once cited as a literary influence), was a foreign correspondent for a Danish television channel. She spent most of her youth in America, a childhood that she retraced for her 2003 travel biography Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey.

Showbiz

Intent on being a lawyer, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, to study law, archaeology and anthropology, but admits “showbusiness got in the way”. She launched her comedy career at Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson as well as graduating with a first-class degree and two awards for outstanding achievement.

She moved via children’s television into broadcasting and then on to the comedy circuit.

She has appeared as a panellist and presenter on shows including Call My Bluff and Have I Got News for You. She presents the BBC Radio 4 travel programme Excess Baggage and replaced Simon Hoggart as chairman of The News Quiz in 2006.

Other strings

In 1995 she sailed around Britain on a yachting adventure with the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy. She has also canoed across Africa, written books and in 2007 was named Political Humourist of the Year at the Channel 4 Political Awards and Radio Broadcaster of the Year by the Broadcasting Press Guild.

On Ronnie Corbett

We’re just two tiny little people. We’re doing something in the show together — a very small song and dance, with just the two of us on the stage. Hopefully it will go well.

On her father, a journalist

In those days, long before 24-hour rolling news, we used to go to the airport, quite often, with a roll of film and my dad would go up to somebody who was taking a flight to Copenhagen and say: “Would you mind taking this back?” And it would be the news but it wouldn’t be the news for 24 or 36 hours.

On childhood

I have strong memories of the death of Martin Luther King. My father insisted on speaking to us about it and, most of all, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, since they had spent so much time together on the election trail.

On hobbies

I fantasise about being a recluse because I am quite hermit-like — I like carpentry, and weaving and embroidery, and jam-making. I’d like to learn how to make cider.

On her partner, Debbie, a psychotherapist

She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients, nothing at all. I’d be so fascinated. Other people’s problems are fascinating.

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Endometriosis, tapeworm, and an on-off love affair — the bad girl of Brit Art says she has had a tough time, but is now bouncing back

Emin

Tracey Emin is serene. That is not a sentence that comes naturally. She has emerged from her year of living dangerously — nothing to do with wild antics and everything to do with ill health — purged of both her demons and a giant, Gothic-sounding tapeworm.

We meet in Spitalfields, East London, where Emin lives and works. She was a little bit late for our interview and so I had a chance to potter around her studio. This is where her embroidery and appliqué pieces are created and the room resembles a well-stocked children’s day centre. There is a row of orange washing baskets brimming with brightly coloured fabric and a wall of plastic boxes filled with all manner of things, neatly labelled: “Bits and bobs”, “Postcards and diaries” and “Voodoo dolls”.

At the far end of the room is a trio of antique French chairs and a circular table, a glass top protecting an Emin oeuvre/tablecloth of appliquéd letters of the alphabet, and a ridiculously large bean bag on which Emin and her team of seamstresses sprawl, a (literally) laid-back sewing bee, to protect their spines and necks while they work.

A glass door opens on to a small courtyard just large enough to contain a wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs. In the corner, next to several bicycles, is an impressively full rack of wine bottles which, on closer inspection, all bear the same label: Château de Tracy (sic).

The chatelaine arrives, wet hair, gleaming tan, shorts and a fitted pale-blue mannish shirt, revealing a glimpse of a cerise balcony Agent Provocateur bra. An assistant has brought a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a quaint flower-motif cup and saucer, and La Trace decides that she will risk the caffeine — she has become, perforce, a non-wheat, non-dairy purist — to join me in a cuppa as we sit outside.

In her street there are two blue plaques dedicated to Miriam Moses, the first woman mayor of Stepney, and Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer of Spitalfields Silks. There will, surely, be a third plaque celebrating a woman after Emin has passed on. “Do you think I’m blue plaqueable?” she asks. Well, yes, actually.

In 2007 she was not only chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale (the second woman to have a solo show, after Rachel Whiteread, ten years earlier) but also joined the hallowed ranks of David Hockney, Peter Blake and Anthony Caro when she was made a Royal Academician. She is a patron of the Terence Higgins Trust, regularly donates work for charities such as the Elton John Aids Foundation, and founded her own library for schoolchildren in Uganda last year. Senior politicians on both sides are competing for her support. Forget the blue plaque, can a damehood be far behind?

Emin had been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party until her recent defection, when she voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London: “I knew that Boris would make a really good mayor. He’s dynamic, he’s interesting, he’s educated, he likes partying, he likes the creative arts … Ken should have been the ideal Mayor of London, because he loves it, but somehow he sold out, and that’s what disappointed me.” (Emin was a vociferous opponent of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for high-rise development, particularly in her own historic neighbourhood.) Gordon Brown, she says, “was fantastic about the Titians. He didn’t muck around with that, he just understood that it was important that those paintings remain here. So obviously he understands that art is important but it doesn’t mean to say that his Cabinet understands that.

“I think Sarah Brown is very interested in the arts, too. In fact, I wish she was Prime Minister!”

Emin was particularly unimpressed by the former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham: “He doesn’t know anything about art. I went to 11 Downing Street and Burnham made a speech and I said, ‘You can’t give us a glass of red wine and a patronising speech like that and think that everything’s gonna be all right! What are you going to give us? Tax breaks? Are you going to change the law for people donating works? Tell me what you are going to do!’ But he didn’t have a clue.”

This was in marked contrast, she says, to the arts dinner hosted by the Tories in the spring. What was that like? “Brilliant,” she beams, “because there were people like me who don’t vote Tory who were actually being listened to.”

A journalist recently asked her what she thought of David Cameron, to which she replied: “What do you mean? Do I fancy him? Which I thought was really funny.” (We assume, then, that the answer is “No”.) The Tories, it seems, shouldn’t count on Emin joining. “I’m too independent,” she says. “But in some countries people are having their hands cut off because they want to vote, so you do have to choose.”

We last met five years ago in Istanbul, where Emin had a show supported by the British Council, and I notice that she is still wearing the clunky gold necklace that her half-brother, George, gave her, with her grandmother’s wedding ring and the ring that Emin would give her daughter if she had one (now, at 46, she admits, unlikely): “I like the invisible worlds coming together around my neck.”

Her late grandmother, May Dodge, was like a surrogate mother since Emin’s own mother — a single parent after Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot husband, took off — was often absent working various jobs to support Tracey and her twin brother.

Later, crippled by arthritis, her grandmother became bedridden and Emin would visit her in Margate where they would lie on the bed together holding hands — or crocheting — and listen to the radio.

“My nan really liked one particular DJ on Radio Kent. So I went to the trouble to get a photo of him and get him to sign it and of course as soon as I gave her the photo she said: ‘I never thought he’d look like that. That’s not at all what I imagined.’ So that was the end of that.”

I had read that Emin never spent Christmas with her family and wondered why: “Because I’ve got my own house, my own life, and I left home when I was 15, you know. That answers your question.” Well, not really.

Christmas, it transpires, was the most unhappy time for her mother and the children. “We’d be sitting on our own waiting for our Mum to come home because she was always working like the clappers and we were incredibly poor. One Christmas the Salvation Army had to come and give us presents.

“So I always dread it. When Boxing Day comes I think, ‘Yes! I did it again. I managed to get through another Christmas and eat baked beans on toast. Fantastic!’ What’s funny is that I’ve started to invite people round on Christmas Eve. You’d think that everyone would say ‘No’ but it’s weird, from Bianca Jagger to Vivienne [Westwood], a fantastic, eclectic collection of people come and we all go to church for Midnight Mass, and then it’s back to my house, where I’ve got all the fires burning and made soup, and it’s really cosy and nice.”

One year, however, it wasn’t so nice. Her guests were about to arrive when Emin developed the most appalling stomach pains. A few people noted that she wasn’t drinking but their hostess kept on smiling, collapsed the next day and was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had endometriosis: “I couldn’t walk because of the terrible pain in my hip from all the swelling.”

This was on the back of tapeworm saga, which is a fascinating tale but not for the fainthearted. Her condition was eventually detected when she was detoxing at an Austrian clinic and the worm was dispatched with the aid of massive and prolonged doses of antibiotics.

During the period that the tapeworm took residency, Emin’s skin deteriorated, her hair fell out and she was permanently bloated. Her parasite also had a sweet tooth, and she found herself — inexplicably — eating pots and pots of jam. When she was in Australia, Emin spent four hours exercising every day in an attempt to get rid of her belly, unaware that it was caused by her tapeworm. That failed, so she gave up drinking for eight months. My God! “Yes, it was horrible. It made me much more quiet and subdued because I was so miserable.”

As soon as the worm was expelled, Emin, being Emin, went out partying every night: “I was on such a high, I was so happy — ‘worm free’,” she sings out to the tune of Born Free. And then — bang — she developed a quadruple whammy of lung, kidney, vaginal and urinary tract infections and was back in hospital. All in all her life was subsumed by illness for six months. As she says, “I had a bit of a year of it last year”.

When we were in Istanbul, Emin talked mysteriously about a man she referred to as her “Roman husband”. “Well, it didn’t work out because he’s gay,” she says, laughing her head off. For the past three and a half years she has been in a relationship with a Scottish portrait photographer, called Scott, whom she met at her favourite pub, the Golden Heart. Scott is one of the reasons why she is so happy, these days, along with her newfound respectability. Last year, however, when Emin took off travelling for four months, her boyfriend went off with someone else.

“He just presumed, ‘Well, if you want to go travelling around the world, you know, you’re obviously not interested in me.’ Which is a fair point.

“That’s what’s persuaded me to buy a place in France. So we’ve got a place together because he lives in Scotland.” (Where his five-year-old son lives with his mother. ) How does that work? “It suits me when I’m busy and it really doesn’t suit me when I’m not. When I haven’t seen him for a long time and he’s really missed me and comes to me, I’m always a bit kind of nonchalant at first — ‘You’re here, are you? Oh . . .’ But it doesn’t take long because it’s a good relationship.”

In the future she is hoping to spend most weekends in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. Her house, which is “like a Moroccan castle”, is on 32 acres of land, with views of the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Our Trace is a keen gardener and will be tackling the greenhouses next year. The property also has vines, which have been neglected, but Emin intends to bring them back to life.

Her first crate of Château de Tracy was a gift from her friend, the Belgravia art dealer Ivor Braka. It’s a delicious Pouilly-Fumé but Emin can, perhaps, do even better. Except that next time, as Emin — a notoriously bad speller — points out, it will be Château de Tracey with an “e”.

* * *

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin has just been published by Rizzoli at £40. To buy it for £36, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134

My perfect weekend

Town or country?

City.

Friend or lover?

Lover.

Owl or lark?

I’m more of a lark than I am an owl, but owls are really cute and fluffy.

Rembrandt or Rothko?

Rothko.

Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

Theatre. I last saw an art play at the Victoria Miro gallery in North London.

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

Redbush tea, without milk. I hardly every drink caffeine and never drink coffee.

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .

My telephone. It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Celebrities, Women

Kay Saatchi on life after Charles Saatchi

The Times, July 26, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Now the dust has settled on her divorce, Kay Saatchi has returned to her first love: modern art. With her pick of Britain’s best new talent on show in London, she tells Ginny Dougary about her future plans – and past mistakes

Kay Saatchi

There’s a certain ironic sting that in order to be her own person again, Kay Hartenstein felt the need to re-adopt the surname of her ex-husband, the art collector and spouse of Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi. For a while, in the difficult aftermath of that very public decoupling, the American art dealer turned collector and now curator reverted to her maiden name: “But really no one knows me as Kay Hartenstein here; nobody knows that I did that gallery with Charles all those years. It would be like starting out all over again. Even in LA, I’m known as Kay Saatchi in the art world, which means I have something to bring to the dinner table,” she says. “Charles would rather I had gone back to my maiden name but it’s part of me – and part of something I did for a long, long time, and it’s very good for getting tables at the Wolseley.”

It’s only in the last three years, since the couple’s divorce in 2001, that Kay has come out of the shadows and had the confidence to return to the art world, which had been her world, too, before she joined forces with Charles. For the first four years, she was “licking her wounds and lying very low”, dealing with multiple losses; apart from the end of a marriage which had been in trouble but which she had thought was salvageable, her mother and her brother died, as well as both Charles’s parents to whom she had remained close, and the 75-year-old nanny who had looked after the couple’s young daughter, Phoebe, also died of cancer. There had been the loss of her Chelsea home, which she was responsible for selling as part of the divorce settlement, and all the adjustments that diminution entailed: “It was a really hard time – physically and emotionally very draining, compounded by a lot of other loss in my life and a lot of disruption, and I was trying to take care of this little girl who was living in a tiny rented flat which she was unhappy about.”

Meanwhile Nigella, of course, had her own bereavement to deal with – living with and watching the decline of her husband, the journalist John Diamond, who died of cancer. But while only the most mean-spirited would begrudge her the chance to find happiness again, anyone can see that it must have been tough on the supplanted wife to be endlessly confronted with images of such a glamorous successor – in La Lawson’s dramatic trajectory as a domestic, then transatlantic goddess – splashed over billboards from the UK to the USA.

Our first meeting for this piece was in Selfridges’ “art gallery” Ultralounge, at Anticipation – an exhibition of work by some of the most outstanding London art school graduates, co-curated by Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren. This is a most exciting venture, where a shortlist of 21 blossoming artists show their work and receive 100 per cent of the proceeds of their sales. The public benefits from the collective eye of two aficionados who have done all the hard work visiting the major London art colleges and liaising with the tutors to find young artists who combine talent with the commitment and creative heft to produce distinctive work for the long haul.

Saatchi had already seen the Conrad Shawcross sculptures in that space, as well as Sam Taylor-Wood’s banners elsewhere in Selfridges and various other shows, such as the one on surrealism and urban art. Nonetheless, she admits to having some initial concerns about whether a department store, however stylish, was an appropriate context for the students’ work.

“But people know how hard it is to put on these shows – even the Tate sometimes has problems getting sponsors – and it all depends on how serious the show is when it gets hung,” Kay says. “I said that we needed to run it more like a museum than a commercial art gallery so you can look at the paintings and read what’s written about them on the wall. The artists also need to be there to talk to people and get them to engage because these kids aren’t used to talking about their art that much.

“It’s also to teach people about contemporary art and let them know that buying art doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you’ve ever walked into somewhere like the Gagosian Gallery, it felt like if you asked the price of something they’d laugh at you.”

I happen to be a fan of the first wave of YBAs and, while writing a profile of Damien Hirst, years ago, visited the home Kay then shared with Charles in Chelsea to see Away from the Flock, Hirst’s sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, which had pride of place in the reception. (Kay was amusing on the subject of the importance of hanging works in a way that you can live with them. She found it challenging, for instance, to eat her breakfast gazing at the crotch of one of Jenny Saville’s monumental women – and had the nude moved to somewhere that was not so, quite literally, in her face.)

This Anticipation show, following the success of last year’s, is less about the shock of the new and more about a mining and refining of traditional ideas – there’s an emphasis on painting for instance, and photographs that recall the Grand Masters – married to what could be described as a sort of mind-screw.

Kay is rather maternal in the way that she champions her artists, coaxing the more reserved ones to speak out but with the tact of a diplomat rather than the thrust of a pushy parent, as she click-clacks around the show in her high heels. There’s an amusing moment when we hover in front of Philip Caramazza’s jewel-like work and she says, “Saatchi has expressed interest” – which is striking for all sorts of reasons. She then adds that Charles “and Nigella” have been to the show, which suggests a level of equanimity as well as support from Saatchi but also, perhaps, an appreciation of what his ex-wife and Warren have pulled off.

We next meet in Kay’s home which has a gracious, double-fronted exterior and a tangle of vines, jasmine and clematis leading down to the basement, which is what she has for a garden these days. Inside, everything looks a little over-size – apart from the owner, who is petite – as though the paintings and vases and sculptures started life in a much larger space, which is, of course, the case.

In the living room, where we sit perched at the end of a table dominated by a huge vase of blue delphiniums, one wall is filled with an impressive Paula Rego, which I think I recognise from the Chelsea home. Half the room is occupied by a grand piano which gleams in the semi-darkness; astride it is a massive naked baby by Ron Mueck, the Australian sculptor and Rego’s son-in-law. There’s a collection of Picasso ceramics and a table covered in ancient Egyptian translucent bowls, as well as pieces by lesser known artists which have caught Kay’s eye.

There is still a touch of Southern belle girlishness to Kay even in her mid-fifties. She is slim, wearing fitted black trousers, a nipped-in black cardigan, a bow hangs in folds from a cornflower blue blouse, and more of those click-clacky heels. Her hair is loosely coiffed and blonde, make-up is sparse, and she has puppy-brown eyes which crinkle attractively at the edges when she smiles. There is nothing brash about her style; in fact, she is self-effacing and occasionally tremulous.

She says that she hates her voice but it’s only on the tape that you notice how distinctively odd it is – think Loyd Grossman’s strangulated vowels and Madonna’s version of posh English, with an occasional Southern twist. Tenderness, for instance, becomes “tindirness”; Charles is “Chols”; naughty is “norty”; Picasso’s erotic show “Picawsow’s eh-rot-eeeek” (as in the French).

She slips out to the kitchen, with its lino floor of customised spots in homage to Hirst, whose work she didn’t get in the division of spoils, for regular refills of water and asks me fairly early on if I mind if she smokes. An American who still smokes! How revolutionary! “You know, I had my first cigarette when I was 50 years old,” she says. “Well, going through divorce makes you do strange things.”

Kay Hartenstein was born on Valentine’s Day 1953 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton became governor after she’d left and she says: “I’m kinda glad I didn’t meet him when I was young – I would have been just his type!” Her high-school boyfriend for six years – who she later says was one of the only Jewish people in Little Rock – ended up working as a lawyer at the same Rose Law Firm as Hillary and had an office next to hers: “He knows them both so I know all the scoop!” Kay glints.

As a side note, Charles Saatchi’s first wife, Doris, who was his boss and responsible for turning him on to art, came from Memphis, an hour away from Little Rock. “He had a thing about Southern blondes,” Kay says. “Well, Chols had a real love affair with America as a young man.”

Kay says that Little Rock (she slurs the words so it sounds like a whisper… liddlerahrk) became much more sophisticated after Bill came on the scene, but when she was growing up it was a “wonderful” hick town. Her father was an elevator contractor and her mother was a mom to four children. There was a new car every other year, country club membership and Hattie May – “a big black lady who was a darling, like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, who would hug us when we cried”.

When she was four, Little Rock made news headlines for all the wrong reasons. In September 1957, nine African-American pupils had been bussed in to join the Little Rock Central High School but were prevented from attending the racially segregated school by a line of National Guard soldiers, who had been deployed by the Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in support of the segregationist protesters, many of whom were parents of pupils. It wasn’t until 1959, school closures and the intervention of President Eisenhower that Little Rock public school reopened as an integrated school.

Kay says that although she grew up in a non-racist family, she was naturally aware that Little Rock was segregated and absorbed people’s comments on the street: “Builders would use the N-word and there were great financial divides between the blacks and the whites.” Still, she was appalled when the partner of a leading member of the liberal intelligentsia in London asked her whether her father was in the Klu Klux Klan: “I said, ‘Do you really think that every single person in the South is a member? No, of course, my father wasn’t in the Klu Klux Klan.’

“I was so shocked by that. There are some deeply racist people in the South but there are some deeply racist people here, too. I’ve seen a lot of anti-Semitism, as well. Even before I went out with Charles, I used to hear the most extraordinary comments. It would be normal dinner party conversation for people to talk about ‘yids’. And Charles was aware of it. Absolutely. We’ve had lots of conversations about it.” Did it get to him? “Of course. Whenever you see him described, it’s always ‘Charles Saatchi, British Jew’ – they always say his religion. Why mention it?”

She is the only member of her family to have moved away – and keep moving – which she attributes to being the third child: “It made me more independent because I was left to my own resources a lot.” She loved reading and was always interested in art, regularly daubing the walls of her school with murals. “Look, I’m a typical American story of opportunity. Little town. Regular parents. I have never been extravagant. I like nice things but I’ve had to make my own money in my life and my own way. The way I was brought up, and I was very lovingly brought up, is that I could do anything I wanted to and it had to do with my energy and how hard I worked. You really believed that and I think that is the great thing about America.”

At university in Memphis on a full scholastic scholarship, she still had to get a job – working nights in the campus infirmary, doling out Darvon [a stronger version of aspirin, “maybe with morphine in it”] as a hangover cure to drunk kids, while her friends were out enjoying their sorority parties.

Somewhere at this point, Kay got married. It is interesting that she did not offer this detail herself since we were going through her life with what seemed to be a degree of thoroughness. Later on, I suddenly remember reading a throwaway reference about a previous marriage and ask her about it. “I was married once for six months when I was a student,” she says, looking a bit uncomfortable. She had already said that she’d lived with a boyfriend, which was a mistake, but this was another one: “Yes, well, they’re all mistakes until you find the right one. It’s just a question of how long you stay with the mistake.” So tell me about this mistake. “He was an artist – very bohemian; the exact opposite of my high-school boyfriend – and I fell for the myth of the sensitive artist. The only thing it did was make me decide that I didn’t want to get married again for a long time.”

Next stop was New Orleans where she worked on a newspaper called The Times-Picayune, wearing little flowered sundresses and reporting on fires and robberies in the French Quarter. It was here that she learnt to cook – she had a boyfriend who owned a restaurant and knew all the chefs – and came of age.

Kay ended up selling space for New Orleans Magazine, a “little hick version” of New York magazine, which sounds fun: long lunches on her expense account with colourful people in a town where lunch is an institution. She describes herself then as “Melanie Griffith in Working Girl trying to buy a nice suit on sale, you know”. This is when she first started acquiring art. There was one gallery she particularly liked and if she had enough money left at the end of the month, she’d buy something for her rented flat. She still has an Ida Kohlmeyer – “sort of like a colourful Twombly” – but for now it’s residing in her sister’s home.

By 1980, Kay felt she had outgrown New Orleans and was ready to move on to New York. After a year, she became the cosmetic and fragrance marketing manager for one of the Condé Nast magazines. Her big trick was to get into work at 7am – “I used to see Si Newhouse at that time” – and phone the presidents of the various cosmetic companies direct. “I would call, like, Ron Perelman who owned Revlon – I knew his secretary wouldn’t be in at that time – and make a lunch date with him at a fabulous restaurant like Le Cirque. On the way to the lunch, I’d drop in to Saks and ask the girls at the sales counter what was selling well. They’d say, ‘Oh, this new mascara, which does this, that or the other,’ and so at lunch I’d say, ‘God, that new mascara is amazing – how’s it selling?” in-between asking them about their kids. You know, you’d just be clever.”

It can’t have harmed her career that she was, as she says, “kinda cute then – so I got lots of dinner invites. I was always being asked out by older, very wealthy, powerful men.” Were you attracted to that? “I must have been but they were certainly attracted to me.”

Her career was on the up – the new publisher of GQ magazine, which had been bought by Condé Nast, had just poached her for a bigger, better job. But Kay started to look at all her fortysomething women friends in their Chanel suits, with their swanky apartments – by this time she had one of her own – and noticed there was something missing: “They worked like dogs and had no personal lives.” As always, Kay had saved a nice little nest egg and decided that what she needed was to change direction.

I ask her baldly whether she came to London to find herself a husband. She says no – it was the possibility that she could do something in the art world. “When I decided not to be a doctor, I thought very seriously about a gallery but I couldn’t do it because you don’t get paid anything in the art world. It’s mostly rich kids,” she says. “If I could have afforded it, that’s what I would have done in New York.” It was Leo Castelli, the Manhattan art dealer, who suggested that she set up in London, where there were hardly any contemporary galleries, and show New York artists.

In 1986, Kay packed her bags and set off for another adventure. She was involved in setting up a short-lived gallery but was unwilling to invest in its future so left to work for Waddington’s. She met Charles not long after at a show when they were both gazing at a painting by Michael Andrews: “This dealer – who will remain unnamed – was always too grand to talk to me on Cork Street and all of a sudden he’s my new best friend, standing beside me and saying: ‘I want you to meet someone,’ and that’s how I met Chols.”

I read that he was instantly smitten; “that he changed the placecards at the dinner we were going to”, Kay adds. What was your first impression of him? “I thought he was amazing. I loved talking to him about art from the word go. He is very charismatic.” Did you fall for him instantly? “I did kind of fall in love with him, yes. And, you know, I’d moved here completely on my own and only made a few friends.” I thought she had a boyfriend at the time? “I had lots of boyfriends. I always had men after me. I don’t know what’s happening now – it’s all dried up.”

There’s seems to have been some confusion about how long Saatchi and Doris had been separated when he met Kay: “I soon found out that he and Doris hadn’t been separated for six months, it had been more like six days when I met him. [The couple had opened the Saatchi Gallery the previous year.] So I thought, ‘This is not a good relationship for me to be in because he’s still married.’ They may be living separately but I thought I can’t move to London to start an art career and have a love affair with this guy.”

Nine months later, when Kay was satisfied that the split was genuine, she and Charles started dating. Three years later, in 1990, they married. She has said that with each new step of their relationship – as she became a wife and then a mother – Charles’s feelings for her seemed to diminish. In the last years, he was more interested spending the evenings go-kart racing than with his wife. “I became very lonely at that time,” Kay says. “But there are a lot of women who are lonely.”

Why do you think he didn’t want to have children? “He likes to be the centre of attention. He’s probably watched all his friends have children and watched their lives become filled with toys and having to go on holidays. He’s very Urban Man. He likes to get in his car and go look at art. He’s not the type to potter in the back garden. And children do force you to grow up, that’s for sure.

“But then I had this darling angel of a girl and, of course, the person who didn’t want a child was absolutely besotted. There’s not a more besotted father on this planet. So you know, it’s hard to guess how it’s going to affect you.”

She still sounds regretful about the end of the marriage as though – despite their problems – it could have been saved. For a start, she says, she doesn’t know any couples who haven’t had their ups and downs. “But it was difficult. He is a powerful, difficult man. He just does what he wants to do. So it wasn’t an easy marriage. I worked my hardest at keeping it together.”

I wonder how she feels about Nigella now. “Oh, she’s a nice woman – I mean, you know…” (A shrug and an expression that suggests “Heyeeeewhaddyagonnado?”) The blending of families is working a little smoother now, six or seven years down the line. Her daughter, Phoebe, gets on well with her step-siblings, which is what all the adults would have hoped for: “And the truth is that if Phoebe wasn’t as happy spending time there and everything, I wouldn’t have had the time or energy to do Anticipation because I was functioning as a full-time taxi driver/nanny.” (I know what she means as a part-time single parent but, still, it’s an odd way of putting it because that’s just what a lot of parenting is about.)

So it must be great in a way that Nigella has been able to provide a homely home in a way that Charles may not have been able to on his own? “Maybe,” she says. “I just try to let them be.” They have had the odd meal together recently and Kay tries to sound philosophical with all the old clichés – “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and time is a great healer” – but then she can’t help a little dig: “…and she’s with him and he’s 65 now and probably really grumpy!” A big laugh. “And I’m free – so there’s a certain karma about that. I had him in his forties!”

While Kay is talking about the past and how difficult it was for her “having to read about Nigella all the time”, she is reminded of something rather telling: “Charles and I spent one summer in the Hamptons when Phoebe was tiny, and we went to Martha Stewart’s house and I remember Charles saying to me, ‘You know, you should do a Martha Stewart because you love to cook and do flowers and so on.’ He always wanted me to do something where I was famous and out there.” That is fascinating; what was your reaction? “I said, ‘I do it anyway – I don’t really have to be a brand.’ So maybe in the back of his mind… well, I think Charles likes fame and celebrity.

“But he also likes being private, too, because he likes to do whatever the hell he wants to do and if he’s ‘private’ he doesn’t have to show up to children’s bar mitzvahs and all the little things in life that we all do. I think that’s what it is because he’s not shy. He’s not shy at all. It’s actually not a bad way to be because if you say, ‘I’m too terribly shy to come to the opening of your show,’ you can get out of it if you don’t want to go!”

What is noticeable is that Kay vacillates between bitterness and loyalty about her ex. Any suggestion of him not having a genuine understanding and appreciation of art is smartly corrected. When I suggest that it was Doris who taught him everything he knows, she says: “And himself because he’s a very keen learner.” I wonder whether this learning curve continued in their marriage; whether they were enriched by each other’s “eye”. “Of course,” she says. “We went and looked at art almost continuously – that’s what we did every weekend. I was the unofficial co-curator with him. We saw every show; we travelled to look at art; we went to New York for the auctions. It was fabulous. What an opportunity.

“He was much more knowledgeable about art because he had been collecting it, and the best way to know about art is to have some money in your pocket and go see a dealer. All of a sudden the dealer shows you everything and tells you why this one is better than that one. Your eye develops as you immerse yourself in it, and if I hadn’t been with someone like Charles there wouldn’t have been this Saatchi Collection because I don’t have that acquisitive collector gene in the same dose that he has. I might buy one drawing from a show where he will go in and buy everything.” In other words, he wouldn’t love every work? “No, he would! But I’m the quieter, more conservative person in that way – and he’s bigger.”

A while back there was a flurry of tabloid interest when Kay was seen out and about with a much younger man who was reported to be her builder: “Oh God!” she says. “I met him in the park with my dog… it’s a great way to meet someone.”

But there’s been no one on the scene for some time now. She forces herself to go to parties and usually tries to take a girlfriend so she isn’t walking in on her own, and she worries about getting lazy: “And one shouldn’t because you’ll end up being a little lonely, miserable person sitting in your house all the time. You’ve got to embrace life, I think.”

Is she actively looking for a beau? “Everyone always wants someone to love. I quite like living on my own and I’m not lying about this, but I do get lonely. My ideal would be to have someone like a violinist who lives in Paris and is sophisticated and cool – to have a romantic life with him, and have someone to travel with. That’s when I miss it. You know, it’s nice to have a conversation with a man over dinner.”

Part of the problem, she thinks, is that she doesn’t find English men that attractive so perhaps she doesn’t put out the vibes: “Or maybe it’s because I was with such a charismatic, interesting man that most of the other men I meet are a little… vanilla.”

We’re almost done. Kay says that she’s found talking about her whole life in this way rather emotional and exhausting; a bit like going to a shrink. It is an odd process. When a person’s story is shrunk, patterns emerge that seem illuminating but may be equally distorting. In the retelling she comes across as a bit of a Becky Sharp operator, cutting a swath through all those rich and powerful men on her journey from Little Rock to London. But she is more likeable than that would suggest, and it’s plucky and admirable that she’s no longer fazed by Saatchi being “the big gun” in the art world, and has gone back to doing what she loves.

Before I leave, I have to ask her about a strange piece she did for Tatler not long after the split, when she was persuaded – or so I had assumed – to dress up as a maid. “Oh, that was my idea,” she laughs. “I was a bit nuts then! I was trying to be cheeky and funny because I had felt that I’d been like a housekeeper.”

Did she get much of a reaction? “Some people saw it in the light that was intended but some said, ‘Hey, that was so embarrassing. How could you do it?’ I did regret it. But who cares? If you worried about everything all the time, you’d never do anything.”

* * *

Anticipation runs until August 3 at Ultralounge, on the lower ground floor of Selfridges, London W1 (020-7318 3204)

Celebrities, Radio

Is John Humphrys really the pussycat of Radio 4?

The Times, June 14, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

John Humphrys has a reputation as the rottweiler of Today. But interrogating the interrogator, Ginny Dougary discovers a self-critical soul who talks of life, death, fear and fatherhood

John Humphrys

John Humphrys, the so-called rottweiler of Radio 4, is in fact a pussycat. This would have been more of a surprise if I were one of the six million-odd regular listeners of the Today programme, where Humphrys has honed his interrupting skills with filibustering politicians over the past 21 years, but since I can think of nothing less soothing than starting my day with the soundtrack of argumentative discourse on governmental policy, this is not the case.

Journalists tend to be the most unrewarding interviewees and in some respects Humphrys is no exception. He is more careful than the most circumspect politician, super-alert to the possibility that he might be tripped up by a trick question into revealing more than is good for him. I had no idea, for instance, that his job would make him quite so paranoid about discussing politics in any shape or form – which is a bit like interviewing Peter Hall and discovering that he will not comment on the future of theatre.

This means that we cannot talk about the rise of the New Tories other than in the blandest terms: “It’s exactly what happened in 1997, isn’t it? It’s the political wheel turning. It’s what happens. Whether it will continue…” Do you think it will? “Well, I wouldn’t like to offer a judgment about that. I can’t because I’m making a political judgment. I can’t. I really can’t. Do you see? I know it’s silly of me. It isn’t silly of me. No, it’s sensible.” Not for the first time, I have the sense that he is arguing with himself. “I know it’s boring.” It is a bit boring. “I’m sorry, but I can’t honestly say to you, ‘Yes, I think David Cameron is going to smash Gordon Brown at the next election.’” What he will say is: “We’ve had 13 years effectively of New Labour ascendancy – only 11 years in power, admittedly [he includes the last two years of Major’s reign] – but it will be 15 years by the time, if Brown is thrown out at the next election.” Which will be? “My guess is May 2010 but…” Are you good at such predictions? “Hopeless. Almost always get it wrong – hopeless.”

This “I’m hopeless” refrain is another surprise. I’ve never come across a man who puts himself down so frequently in a series of pre-emptive strikes against himself, and I had rather thought, but this was before our meeting, that Humphrys might suffer from a certain smug self-regard.

Referring to a live interview he did with Tracey Emin – who apparently told him that he was the rudest man she had ever met – he said, “I – with brilliant, startling originality – suggested to her that maybe she hadn’t won [the Turner prize] because it was an unmade bed and, you know, with the vast depth and knowledge that I have of art, was this hard?” They met again on Have I Got News for You when Humphrys was presenter – “I wasn’t very good. Well, they didn’t ask me back which proved I wasn’t very good. It was good fun but I was nervous. I was all right but I don’t have that… I don’t have the Boris [magic?]…” Another unfinished sentence. He doesn’t get to see the programme very often, he says, because (with his 3.30am wake-up call for Today) it’s too late for him.

We have a long verbal ramble around the tricky task of interviewing politicians. Why Humphrys continues to be essential listening for many journalists – and the reason why he is so popular with listeners generally – is that he simply will not allow politicians to waffle on without answering his questions. The alternative to not interrupting them would be to allow them to use their alloted slot to get their point across unchallenged. What is interesting is that Humphrys himself is a bit of a waffler.

His conversation is peppered with “Here’s another little digression” and “I’ll answer your question in a minute”. At one point I’m exasperated enough to interrupt The Great Interrupter himself: “Where is this going, John?” And several minutes later (bewildered): “I’m getting a bit… I don’t know where we’re going with this…” “I know. I know,” he says, then, “That’s not my fault, that’s your fault – you’re the interviewer,” which is a fair point, but then my rottweiler skills are clearly no match for his.

The point Humphrys seems to want to get across is that he has been unfairly cast as an aggressive interviewer. When he started out he admits that this was true: “I suppose I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a name for myself and prove that I’m tougher than anybody else.’” He still winces when I mention an interview with John Hume, then leader of SDLP, in 1993, which commentators described as particularly bullying. “It’s hard to bully John Hume because he’s a very tough guy and bright but, yeah, that was bad. I was trying to make a name for myself and I was showing off. The audience has an immense sense of fairness, spotted it instantly and quite rightly ripped me apart.”

He goes on to say: “There is a great myth, I think, about interviewing – and you’d expect me to say this, I know, and it’s a bit self-serving and the rest of it, given the kind of interviewer that I am seen to be – which is that if you were only a bit nicer to politicians and treat them with, give them…They will tell you all kinds of things they didn’t intend to say. That I think is absolute tosh because the kind of people that are likely to be interviewed, the ones in Cabinet or whatever, are very, very bright by and large, and know when they come on exactly what it is they want to say.

“And if you looked at every serious political interview I’d done over the past 21 years, a handful of those would have been pretty devastating for the politician, a handful will have resulted in utter demolition of the interviewer, and most of them will have been neither – which is a very ungrabby answer from your point of view, but it’s honestly the way it is.”

He says that learning about policies is secondary and that his primary mission is to leave the listener with a bit more insight into the character of the politician. There are plenty of political commentators who know far more than he does about what’s going on in Westminster. Humphrys has always maintained an outsider’s distance from those particular corridors but, “even if I do an interview that is information-light – where you don’t learn anything that will make a front-page splash on your newspaper the following morning – if I’ve done my job properly you will still have learnt something because what I try to do is get under the skin of the politician.”

In a chatty telephone conversation we had before meeting up, Humphrys mentioned a smart party he’d once attended with a girlfriend he was trying to impress. The host was David Frost, who welcomed him like a long-lost friend – although they had never met – asking about his two grown-up children by name. This was useful for gaining kudos points with his date, but what intrigued Humphrys was that Frost had been similarly briefed to greet every guest as he worked the room. Part of him was clearly impressed by such conscientious schmoozing but, I suspect, a greater part of him rather despised it. Certainly, he seems to have a bit of a thing about Frost since he has beefed about the man’s interviewing technique many times over the years.

He has no problem, he says – this is clearly, to use his own word, “tosh” – with the sort of interviewing that takes the form of “an agreeable conversation” where the Prime Minister or Chancellor is allowed to say whatever he likes: “Although I used to find it incredibly frustrating when I did On the Record and Frost came on before that and they got the biggest interviews, almost always.” You think it was an extension of public relations? “Well, that’s being a bit unkind, but it is, sort of.”

The most common complaint about the Today programme, he says, is that politicians never answer the question, so what is the point in having them on. Humphrys’ view is that a politician’s very inability to respond to a reasonable question reveals something about his or her character. He mentions a particular woman politician – “I’m not going to use names because I can’t, but everybody knows the particular minister – you only have to say her name and every editor and presenter would say ‘Oh God’ because of the way she handled interviews.

“It’s not only women, but this particular one treats the interviewer like an idiot and by extension treats the audience like an idiot, and the effect on her is immensely damaging. Patronising. ‘Look, I really have answered the question’ – ‘No you haven’t, so let me ask it again.’ What they’re doing is deliberately not answering the question and they’re fighting off every attempt on your part to learn a bit more about them and their approach – in a way that somebody like Thatcher, for instance, never did.”

Before we get on to Baroness Thatcher, I try my damndest to get Humphrys to reveal the name. My guess is Harriet Harman because of the interview she did as Social Security Secretary (1997-1998) when she refused at least 13 times to answer questions put to her by Humphrys after a leaked government document revealed plans for sweeping cuts in disability benefits. But when I ask him directly he says: “I’m not giving you a name – no, no, I’m really not – but, actually, no, I wasn’t thinking of Harriet Harman.”

He has had a number of journalistic heroes over the years. Brian Redhead, whom he joined on the Today programme, was a “superb interviewer” – he rolls out the word “sooopurb” sounding very Welsh – “the best all-round broadcaster the BBC’s ever had. At his peak, he was my role model. And to be sitting next to Brian Redhead! My God, I couldn’t get over it. Brian Walden was another kind of hero, quite different, but also superb.” Charles Wheeler, the BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent (whose barrister daughter, Marina, is married to Boris Johnson), is up there, too.

Wheeler’s name comes up in the context of Mrs T – “I don’t know whether Charles will thank me for telling this story…” Do go on. “It was when she was doing her Iron Lady thing and made that extraordinary trip to Moscow. A British prime minister going to the heart of the communist enemy’s camp – you know – and they came out in their thousands. She’d left London at four in the morning, flown here and there, meetings, doing all those walkabouts. She was making history and Charles and I were both waiting to interview her at the British Embassy.

“It must have been about midnight when she came into the room, walked straight up to Charles – ignored me totally – and you could see the electricity flowing. Charles is a man who holds a certain appeal to women – always has done anyway – and you could see the sparks bouncing between them. They might almost have been making love. It was wonderful and I just sat there going, ‘Wow!’” Did you say anything to him afterwards? “God no! He was one of my heroes. I was intimidated by him.”

He was also intimidated by the lady herself. This was pre-Today, in the years when he was a foreign correspondent and he was keenly aware that there were big gaps in his political knowledge: “I’d never worked in Westminster, I wasn’t part of that scene… She had a fearsome reputation obviously and she was, indeed, terrifying. She really did have that aura of power around her.”

Can you convey that to me? “The way she looked at you was interesting, because once you started the interview, she would not look into your eyes but at a point in the middle of your forehead and she would talk to you like this [gazing at my forehead] ‘I really think, Mr Humphrys, that was a very foolish question.’ Oh…” he almost shudders, “she was just terrifying and took me apart. Oh yes, absolutely. It doesn’t help if you begin the interview scared of the person you’re interviewing because you will blow it.”

All these references to Humphrys being terrified and intimidated go along with his anxiety to prove that he is not as aggressive as his reputation. Being a clever chap, he is probably aware that humanising himself by displaying his own vulnerabilities might make for a more sympathetic portrait. There is something else going on here, too. One of his more interesting questions to me was whether I thought he was still a bully, and I pointed out his first words when I arrived at the Hammersmith home he shares with his partner, Valerie Sanderson – a News 24 presenter – and their eight-year-old son Owen. He had asked me how I was and I said “Good, thanks.” “Oh,” he said. “You’ve obviously not read my books [on the abuses of the English language]. I hate that Americanism.” I retorted that this response was, in fact, an Australianism and a good-natured wrangle ensued. But if I were a different sort of personality might this “welcome”, at the very least, not have been almost guaranteed to put one off one’s stride? He says that as a reader of my pieces (another adroit ego-massaging touch), and having spoken on the phone, he knew that I was not the timid type. But the longer we spoke around the table of his Country Living kitchen, the more biddable he became. At one point, when he had got up to answer his phone for the third time, I said crossly: “Could you please turn it off, you naughty boy,” and he meekly replied: “I will.”

Bob Humphrys, one of John’s three siblings (the youngest, Christine, died when he was four), gave a joint interview back in 1995 and talked about how they had recently spent a couple of weekends together, “talking about how our background has made us what we are today. Occasionally I become very morose and introverted, and John revealed he feels the same way.”

When I asked him what his brother meant by this, Humphrys said he had no idea. But, as he admits, he has a shockingly bad memory. On the telephone, he confessed that he had recently forgotten the name of one of his guests on the Today programme and had an awkward moment trying to cover it up. “I do not have a very good memory,” he said, “which is one of the reasons why I try not to tell lies.”

There is nothing remotely morose or introverted about the Humphrys I meet. On the contrary, he is immensely likeable – warm, engaged, with a ready smile and great bursts of laughter. He does have a sense of humour, although his own attempts at jokes are a bit awkward, something I remember from his hosting the press awards one year. In our interview, he launches into a bizarre riff about his radio personality: “Everybody knows that I am a sunny, eternally optimistic, switched on, ‘down there with the hoods’ or whatever the expression is, so I don’t attempt to conceal it. Frankly the difference between Evan Davis [the openly gay presenter of the Today programme] and me, well you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between us. Me and Evan, we’re out clubbing every night, we go to the same kind of clubs, we enjoy the same kind of music…” What is this very long joke? “Yes, all right,” he says. “It’s not very funny, is it?”

But it is only when we move away from the politics to the personal that he really opens up and, in particular, about that background which cannot help but have formed him. He was born and brought up in the unlovely-sounding Splott, a working-class area of Cardiff. His mother, Winifred, was a hairdresser and his father, Edward, was a self-employed French polisher who voted Tory until Thatcher. Despite both of his parents working long hours, there were times of real hardship when the children went to bed hungry. He has said that the priority was always to make sure the breadwinner – his father – was fed before anyone else. He grew up to the sound of his parents arguing (nearly always about money), and he never remembers them once addressing each other by name. There was one particularly dreadful night when his father wept, which Humphrys now assumes was the start of a nervous breakdown.

John was the bright one of the family who got into the local grammar school, where he was miserable (one of the reasons he left at 15 to become a reporter) and keenly aware of being the only boy in his class to have an outside loo, as he probably did not call it then. In his street there was never a question of going into each other’s houses for the luxury of afternoon tea, so when he was invited to a classmate’s house – he even remembers the boy’s name, Bolton; it was the sort of school where pupils addressed each other by their surnames – the experience made quite an impression. “It was a beautiful place with a lovely back garden and I remember a stream. From the point of view of somebody who’d been brought up the way I was, it was indescribably comfortable. There was sugar in a bowl and milk in a jug and jam, jam in a nice thing, and different sorts of jam and… It was wonderful. I was enormously jealous, of course.”

He describes his father as always being “a hard man. There was no sense of being loving – I mean he never hugged me.” Are you huggy with Owen? “Oh yeah, all the time. He probably gets fed up with it. No, actually, I don’t think he does. He likes it. Well, anyway…” Whenever Humphrys talks about his boy, his face creases with tenderness. He admits to being completely besotted.

Back to his father whose ghastly final years have prompted Humphrys to write a new book on dying. Although alcoholism runs in the family – both his grandfather and uncle died of it, and he reckons he was in danger of becoming one himself back in the double-martini-lunchtime of journalism – Humphrys’ father was never a big drinker. But after his wife died, Edward’s personality changed and he started drinking a bottle and a half of Scotch every day. It took a while for the family to realise that he was descending into dementia. He wasn’t forgetful or walking into the street half-naked, but “he was incredibly cruel to my sister, who cared for him and was a wonderful, fabulous woman”.

Did you ever feel like punching him? “Yes.” Did you? “Good God, no. Towards the end, I disliked him intensely at times but because he was so incredibly strong physically we didn’t recognise what was happening to his brain, and his last years – and it was ten long years – were awful, absolutely bloody awful.”

Towards the end, he refused to live with anyone, refused to go into a home, tried to drink himself to death, collapsed and was rushed into hospital where he stopped eating in his desperation to end his misery. But, of course, this was not an option so in went the drips and his father carried on surviving. He lasted six weeks in a home before being transferred to a mental hospital “which was hideous. He spent most of the day shouting, just shouting. It was hell.

“In the end, we did find him a home where they were good and humane and decent but still… It shouldn’t have happened. He was a man who prized… he went blind when he was young and all those things, and dignity mattered to him more than anything. They used to call him The Count.” Was he aware that he’d lost his dignity? “Absolutely. It was the ultimate torture, in some ways, utter helplessness and I know that if I’d been able to give him a glass of something…”, a sentence that doesn’t need an ending.

He remained friendly with his wife, Edna, after their split in the late Eighties (some years after he first met Val) and he says: “I will always feel guilty because it wasn’t all that long after we divorced that she got cancer.” He was in the room with her when she died. “I couldn’t talk to her because by the time I arrived she was unconscious but they are so bloody brilliant in these hospices. It was a big room that she was in and it was nine o’clock at night. They hadn’t turned on the lights and there was this soft light coming in from the corridor. I was sitting at the window in the corner and the nurse who came in didn’t see me. She bent over to her and stroked her forehead and talked to her and obviously my wife couldn’t hear her but she just said something and, you know, it felt like… love. If I could have done, I would have gone over and hugged the nurse. Every so often there was that sighing noise that dying people make, fairly steady and then ‘ahhhhh’ and then…”

Do you fear death yourself? “Yeah. I think most people do. It’s a cliché but you fear what’s going to come afterwards, even though I don’t think anything will come afterwards. Fear is probably the wrong word but I don’t want to die.” Humphrys will be 65 in August. He still runs regularly, plays tennis – there are courts opposite his home – and with second dadhood he seems to have shrugged off much of his grumpy old man persona. He bounces around the kitchen in his black jeans and trainers like a super-energised Tigger. His present contract with the Today programme ends in February 2009 but he sees no reason why he shouldn’t continue doing what he’s doing until he’s 80: “Assuming I could contain the dribbling.”

He admits that he was nervous about starting a family all over again, “whether I might resent this little kid for buggering up my life as it were.” But this time round, he was there for the birth and “it was a wonderful, yes, wonderful thing to see and to be handed this little bundle.” It’s Owen, he says, who has reversed the inflexibility that tends to come with the onset of later years. “The opposite has happened to me because of him. He’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

* * *

John Humphrys speaks at the Althorp Literary Festival on June 14; for further information, call 01604 770107. In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist, Hodder, £7.99

Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he's closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.'” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean's Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.'”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11

Celebrities

Maxim publisher Felix Dennis: ‘I’ve killed a man’

The Times April 2, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

The Oz trial defendant who is now a billionaire publisher with an empire that includes Maxim and The Week talks about poetry, whores, his past addiction to crack cocaine and the time he killed a man – a confession he later retracts

Felix Dennis is brilliant, aggressive, generous, ruthless, and quite possibly a bit mad. I don’t mean mad as in “crazeeeee”, eccentric, “zany”, although all these apply, but in the other sense of not being possessed of an entirely sound mind.

How this squares with him being one of the most successful self-made entrepreneurs in the world – worth between $400 and $900 million net (£750 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List); five homes; three estates in Mustique (where he spends half the year), Connecticut and Warwickshire; fancy cars; private jets; thousands of acres of land, including his vast, ever-expanding Forest of Dennis; a legendary wine cellar; a personal retinue of more than 50 staff; libraries stuffed with first editions, all specifics helpfully passed on to the readers of his own bestselling (of course) book How to Get Rich – is another matter.

But what sane person – a magazine publisher, no less, even if he were on medication, would tell a journalist (of all people) on the record, even after drinking a number of bottles of excellent wine, that he has killed a man? Dennis is such good company and a wonderful host that it feels bad- mannered to repeat his astonishing claim, but if this was a strange flight of fantasy – and in vino it’s not always a case of veritas – to pretend that you have killed someone, is a very questionable form of either humour or braggadocio.

This bombshell came towards the end of a long interview in the conservatory of his Warwickshire home – almost five hours of taped conversation – at a point when I did not think it possible to be shocked by anything Dennis could say. We had covered: publishing in this country and the US, religion, marriage, hookers, wine, trees, politics, bonobo monkeys, his sex and crack cocaine addiction, the environment, poetry, the Oz trial, prison, his mother, his late estranged father, childhood and death, to name but a few of the topics. Before even the first bottle had been drained – a lovely 1996 Chablis – it was clear that there was almost no detail that Dennis felt shy about sharing.

He told a story about how he spent three years attempting and failing to save the life of a young prostitute “who could walk around naked as easily as if she was dressed to the hilt and had that insouciance which only comes from tremendous beauty with a kind of rabid intelligence… I could not bear that this orchid was going to be flushed down the lavatory with the dead chrysanthemums.” But flushed down she was: “Heroin. I was enraged. You know, I. Do. Not. Fail. I was absolutely determined because rich men can do anything. We rule the world and we can do anything. There is nothing beyond us. But this turned out to be well beyond me.”

This business of rich men feeling that they are gods is something of a running narrative. Dennis says that he has been scarred and damaged by his crack years – although he doesn’t say how – “but, you know, when you get too much money and you’ve never had money before, where does the training come from? Well, you’ve got none. So it’s the usual dreary afflictions of people who suddenly get too much money.”

Before we met, I watched Dennis in a number of television interviews. Even as he was clearly having a ball with Melvyn Bragg there were moments when his ricochet of laughter, coupled with a strange glint in his eye, went on for just a fraction too long for comfort. More than that, there was something haunted about him, which may sound melodramatic but was even more striking in person. Perhaps it has something to do with the scars he refers to. Possibly you can’t experience the excesses of 14 naked hookers catering to your every whim – however enjoyable that might have been at the time, and Dennis said it was very much so – without being spoilt in some deep way. He also drove himself mad with the amount of crack cocaine he consumed in those days.

One of the arresting aspects of the crack years is that Dennis was able to restrict his addiction to the weekends. “It was only ever two or three days at a time,” he says. “A long weekend, then straight back to work and nothing for five days.”

Just as he will drink only the finest wine and has all manner of oenophile paraphernalia, Dennis was punctilious about the quality of his supplies and kit. “My equipment was of the absolute finest, and I got to the point where guys were blowing glass vessels for me because I discovered that it worked better with different types of glass vessels,” he says. “I was literally a crack connoisseur.”

When he talks with a measure of domestic pride about how his 20-odd pipes would emerge scoured and sparkling from the dishwasher, I burst out laughing – and Dennis looks a bit hurt. “Well, it is domestic, sorry,” he says. “Because that’s where it becomes disgusting, when it looks all dirty, and there was none of that.”

He took up crack cocaine in earnest in 1995, the same year he launched Maxim, his hugely successful men’s magazine. Two years later, while still deep in his addiction, Dennis took the high-risk decision to unleash his older lad mag (average age of readership is 29) on the American market – cocking a snook at more toney competitors such as Esquire and GQ, with the latter’s editor responding loftily that Maxim appealed to men who “not only move their lips when they read, they drool”. If so, it transpired that there are legions of drooling men around the world. Maxim swiftly established itself as the market leader in America, outstripping the sales of GQ, Esquire and Details combined.

Whatever throne Dennis believed he sat upon, he is certainly the king of this particular strand of publishing – with Maxim’s claim to be the largest men’s magazine brand in the world (35 editions in 45 countries, an international readership of more than 17 million, etc).

Last year, he sold his US magazine operation, including Maxim, for a reported $240 million – but hung on to his American edition of The Week, launched with plaudits from Tom Wolfe and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of all the magazines in his empire – Dennis Publishing owns more than 50 titles, mainly bloke-ish: cars, computers, gadgets, men’s lifestyle, and Viz – the one closest to his heart is The Week, a sharply edited distillation of current affairs and good writing from the British and foreign press.

Dennis says that perhaps the reason why he’s never taken the decision to have children is that he would have been an appalling thrusting father and given his offspring Napoleon complexes: “You’re going to conquer the world whether you like it or not.” With so many sexual conquests, can he be sure that he has not unwittingly fathered any Dennis juniors? “One or two,” he says. “There are several claimed.” Wouldn’t he want to see them? “That’s never really been a part of it. All they [the mothers] ever really want is money to bring them up, which is fine.”

Still, I ask him whether he ever feels sad that he didn’t have children that he could claim as his own. “When you lack courage, that’s what you get,” he says. “In the end, you get what you deserve… you know. But I do have 22 godchildren and I’m delighted with all of them.”

I spent a great deal of the interview trying to get Dennis to talk about his mother, who lives on the Warwickshire estate. She sounds a formidable and impressive woman and if anyone has the power to frighten her son, my guess is that it’s her. He says this is nonsense: “I’ve never been frightened of my mother – from the age of 7, I was the alpha male in the house, taking the spiders out of the bath.” In his book, he jokes (but it’s a revealing joke): “My mother will not be pleased to read about herself in this book. But hey! I’m 59 years old. A man has to stand up to his mother sooner or later. Right?”

He tells me, when we’re discussing his imminent death (he believes he will die before he reaches 70) that “I sometimes think the only reason I’m hanging on is so my mother goes first.” In 1999, nearly two years after quitting his crack habit, Dennis almost died when his thyroid packed up “and everything else seemed to pack up working at the same time”. This is when he took up writing poetry, from his hospital bed, which he believes saved his life. He swears he hasn’t got a terminal illness, when I ask him how he can be so sure that he won’t be around for much longer, and says the reason he knows is that “although this sounds tremendously like boasting, I live at two or three times the speed of ordinary mortals. And I will die young, my dear.”

The reason he adores women, he says, is because he was brought up by a very unusual woman. “I adore my mother because she had the courage in the 1950s to walk away from a man, and to divorce him.” When I say that I thought it was his father who had left the family when Felix was 2, he says: “Well, he went to Australia to create a life and I don’t know what happened and I don’t want to know because I’m totally loyal to my mother and I don’t wish to know the other side.”

Dennis’s mother – whom he doesn’t mention by name other than to call her Mrs Sawyer, from her second marriage to David Sawyer, an engineer on Concorde – brought up her two small boys on her own in an era when divorce was frowned upon. He remembers a poor childhood – although he didn’t know it at the time – but a happy one, all living in his grandmother’s two-up, two-down terraced house. And then, seemingly overnight, his family became middle-class and Dennis can still recall showing his younger brother, Julian, the new-found joys of the light switch.

His father did try to get in touch with him but Dennis refused to respond. When I ask him if he would have gone had his father asked for him on his death bed, he says he would “because what I did was wrong in the first place. Nevertheless, if you knew the sacrifices my mother made to bring up my brother and me, the difficulties she had to overcome to become a chartered accountant by going to night school, and the appalling things she had to face, you too would have been tempted to become partisan.

“But I had even been thinking that I ought to go over – when my aunty, his sister, called me up and said, ‘Your father has died.’ It was the first time I’d heard anybody use the words, ‘Your father’.”

I wondered how important his wealth was to him. Had he never married, for instance, because he was worried about his millions being taken away from him? “No, that’s never been the consideration,” he says. “I could always make more money. There’s one very simple reason I’ve never married and that’s because I’m not monogamous. I just don’t get it.”

Does he believe that women are as non-monogamous as men? “The short answer to that is ‘yes’ – I don’t think it’s true. I know it’s true.” And you don’t mind if your principal partner has other partners? “Good God, no. I’ve occasionally been discommoded because somebody I was seeing maybe at that time was busy seeing someone else, but the correct word is ‘discommoded’. So, well, I just wasn’t seeing her that night.”

One moment we’re talking in a relaxed way about the whys and wherefores of sexual fidelity and the next… Felix Dennis is telling me he’s killed someone. Listening to the tape, it was as though he had suddenly flipped into being another person. His voice changes, grows darker and deeper and cockney – but there’d been a bit of that before, prompting me to tell him to stop staring at me as though I were the enemy.

So I am wittering on about the spirit of the Sixties, and Dennis interrupts with a growl: “Except for one thing. That if they’re in trouble [his women], if they’re harmed or threatened… God help the person who’s threatening them.” God help them, he keeps repeating. What follows are excerpts from a transcribed tape of our interview.

He looks so intense that I ask him whether he’s ever fought with a man over a woman. “I’ve killed a man,” he says. What? “I’ve killed a man.” What do you mean, you’ve killed a man? “I killed him.” Does everyone know you’ve killed a man? “No, and they’ll never find out, either.” Are you kidding me? Are you winding me up? Where? In what country? “I killed him. That’s all you need to know. I killed him.”

Oh Felix, you’re having me on. “No.” Promise me. Swear to God… “He hurt her and I told him to stop and he kept on.” What did it feel like, then? “He hurt her.” What did you do? “Pushed him over the edge of a cliff.” In the Caribbean? “Don’t matter where it was. He wouldn’t let her alone. She told him to stop. I told him to stop. Many people told him to stop. Wouldn’t stop. Kept on and on and on. Made her life a living misery: beat her up, beat up her kids, wouldn’t let her alone, kept on, kept on – weren’t even his kids, so in the end, I had a little meeting with him, pushed him over the edge of a cliff. Weren’t ‘ard.”

Are you sure you want to be telling me this? “Don’t care. Anybody harms one of mine… if they harm one of mine, they’d better know what they’re doing. And they’d always be warned. I wouldn’t attack anybody without reason. I’ll attack nobody without reason. Without trying again and again to bring this thing to a much more satisfactory and sensible, more rational conclusion. But if they keep harming one of mine, then I have no option.”

What decade are we talking about? “About 25 years ago.” Crikey, I say, I’ve never met somebody who’s killed someone before. I pushed and pushed Dennis to retract this story – saying how much less awkward it would be for both of us if he did – but the stubborn man refused to budge. So in the end, we carried on with the interview for a bit, and warbled a few duets – we were particularly proud of our version of Little Feat’s Willing, so much so we sang it three or four times, and all thoughts of pushing people off cliffs evaporated in the revelries. When I eventually got home – after shepherd’s pie in his rather cosy 16th-century home, cooked by his lovely and forbearing Marie France, whom he describes as his “beloved” and “the companion of my heart” – I was touched to see that Dennis had secreted the Little Feat CD in my bag.

The next day, he sent a note by e-mail thanking me for a really enjoyable afternoon and evening but suggesting “you should forget one particular episode I recounted to you after the third or fourth bottle in the conservatory”.

The rest of the note was about Keats and his attempts to concentrate his poetry now on “mining feeling and experience” rather than focusing on form. His trees were also mentioned – he told me the attraction was watching small things grow – which he felt we hadn’t covered: “I’ll be planting 280 new acres of native broadleaf trees this winter in my Heart of England forest project. Next to writing poetry, trees and the planting of them ranks alongside the thrill of the chase in making money in business for me.”

What can be made of this? I have puzzled over it a great deal. Dennis quit crack cocaine, in November 1997, on his own (and has never, he says, slipped back into drug abuse since). “I went cold turkey because when I want to I have quite exceptional will power.” Can you remember what you went through? “No, I suspect I block things out. I know it was difficult,” another manic laugh.

He has no time for Narcotics Anonymous because of its religious affiliations and, in his case, he says that his liking of wine has not led him back down the slippery path. Is it possible, I wonder, that drinking heavily – even if it is no longer a bottle of Rémy Martin a day – can somehow flip the mind back into the sort of delusional state Dennis experienced on crack cocaine? Could this explain his outburst and the way he seemed to transmogrify into another character?

Another explanation for his aberrant behaviour is set out in a letter to the Editor which arrives months after the interview. In this he explains that his doctor has only just reminded him that at the time of the interview he was suffering from a form of anaemia and thyroid imbalance. His doctor had prescribed him Prednisolone and Carbimazole which, with generous lashings of wine, can cause mood swings, severe exaggeration and a kind of manic or psychotic behaviour.

So what is the correct way to behave when the subject of an interview is on medication but still tells his interviewer something about his life or exaggerates an episode that he is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for this newspaper for the past 18 years, and there have been a number of occasions when certain revelations have become newsworthy: Lord Lamont of Lerwick’s bitterness towards John Major, Michael Portillo’s admission of homosexual encounters as a young man, Jeanette Winterson’s recollections of being paid in Le Creuset saucepans for saucy encounters with ladies from the Home Counties, Martin Amis’s comments about Muslims which have been construed in some quarters as racist, Lord Tebbit’s mischief-making observations about David Cameron and Gordon Brown (as Thatcher’s heir), the late Benazir Bhutto’s thoughts about death.

But the interview with Felix Dennis is of a completely different order, and, indeed, probably unprecedented. There was no killer question to put to him, let alone any question of killing. I had absolutely no idea about an episode, however exaggerated, in his life when he may or may not have pushed a man over a cliff. So it came to me as a complete shock when he imparted the information.

One of the attractive aspects of the man is that he commands huge loyalty from his staff and former employees. Gill Hudson, who edits the Radio Times and was the launch editor of Maxim, had nothing but praise for her former boss but did say (not knowing what he had told me) that he would say anything to shock.

Most revealing interviews, in my experience, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief – at some level – to vent or unburden themselves. But I didn’t really get that impression with Dennis, although I certainly did feel that he was haunted by something. He is not keen on armchair psychology but did say at one point, when we were talking about addiction, that “I suppose everything is to do with psychology and psychiatry in the end.”

Could it be possible that the unpleasant man that Dennis talked about did exist, and that the publisher would have dearly liked to expunge the individual – maybe even threatened to do so, and had a fight with him, but the medication he was taking caused him to believe that what he would have liked to have done actually took place? Is it simply a case of him confusing fact with fiction? In the interview, in a different context (communing with a whale) he refers to being in America at that time (25-odd years ago) and being “out of my box – God knows what I had been taking, I can’t even remember – but everyone else had collapsed.” This was long before his crack cocaine habit – when he admits to becoming delusional – but it’s safe to assume that he was indulging in some pretty wild recreational drug use even then and who knows what this might have led him to believe occurred.

While it is hardly exceptional for journalists to interview their subjects over a bottle of wine, the encounter with Dennis involved rather more bottles of fabulous vintage wine than is customary. He is, after all, famous for his excellent cellar and many journalists, as well as members of the public (his poetry tour was called “And Did I Mention the Free Wine?”) have sampled his generosity. In one of his recent notes to the Editor, he referred in a friendly way to “both of us behaving like schoolchildren who have got at the sherry cupboard, singing and carrying on”.

Felix may think it exceptional to sing with an interviewee. But I have to say that, as a self-professed singing nut, I often encourage my subjects, where at all possible, to burst into song. My duet with Imelda Marcos doing My Imeldific Way was a stunner. And as for the sherry cupboard, only Dennis was in charge of the keys.

In the circumstances, perhaps it would be too much of a loss of face for a multimillionaire with a Master-of-the-Universe complex to retract the story but when I told Dennis on the phone, prior to publication, that we would be including the section about him killing a man, ultimately that is exactly what happened. “It’s a load of hogwash – I was drunk,” he said. “I withdraw it unconditionally.”

Dennis is probably still best known for something that happened to him in 1971: the school kids issue of the counter-culture magazine Oz, which led to the legendary obscenity trial at the Old Bailey when all three defendants were jailed, despite the best efforts of a young defence lawyer called John Mortimer. Dennis was given a shorter jail sentence than Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, on the ground, according to the judge, that he was “very much less intelligent than the others”.

If there are scars from his crack addiction, the memory of his fortnight in prison has also never left him. He was in Wormwood Scrubs banged up with murderers and rapists whose initial thought was that the Oz trio had been “interfering with kiddies”. There was a National Front “geezer” – Dennis is in hard-man cockney mode – who kept saying “I can’t f***ing stand guys that mess with kiddies and that.” They were rescued by an Irishman who slung across his copy of a tabloid and said: “These ain’t fucking perves, you arse, these are political prisoners. Read that, you c***.” Their in-cell reprieve was granted when the news filtered through that John Lennon, the working-class hero, was marching in the streets to free The Oz Three.

But until that moment, it was “really really nasty,” not least to find himself befriended by genuine paedophiles who claimed him as a fellow soulmate. He learnt how to make a lethal weapon out of a packet of cigarettes, some Swan Vesta matches and a bar of soft soap, and in the psychiatric hospital rented a telescope concealed in the wooden leg of an inmate to ogle a woman – five minutes for a cigarette – taking her clothes off in the tower block opposite.

When I ask Dennis, towards the end of the interview, whether he thinks his mother is proud of him in this new calm era of his life, he looks shocked: “I have absolutely no idea because my mother and I do not have the kind of relationship where I would ever dare ask her and she would never tell me if she was,” he says. “And I would be disappointed if she did.”

I never did get to see his Garden of Heroes, an avenue lined with lifesize bronze statues of various different figures: Charles Darwin on a Galapagos tortoise, Bob Dylan with Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry and – between Stephen Hawking and Oscar Wilde – a young Felix Dennis circa Oz, which suggests that even he thinks this is how he should be remembered. I did have a walk around his ritzy leisure centre, a cross between Disneyland and Hugh Hefner’s playmates den: lots of wood and buccaneering pirate accoutrements. Dennis himself rarely goes there but he built it for his guests and friends, just as he regularly offers his Mustique residence, formerly owned by David Bowie, for free holidays to his employees.

He told me that for years he wanted the epitaph on his gravestone to read “Everything. Full stop. All the time. Full stop.” So what has it been changed to now: everything in moderation? “No, no, no, it won’t be that either because I’m not a hypocrite. I think the bottom line is that I’ve always known that I had no time and that I wanted many strands to my life. I could not bear just being a publisher or a planter of trees or just being a mad hedonist. I’m immensely greedy and I want it all. I’m just trying to have a bloody good time filling in the gap between being born and dying. So – you can accuse me of anything else but if you call me a hypocrite, I shall get cross.”

Celebrities, Comedians

Omid Djalili, seriously funny

The Times – March 22, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From terrorism to spirituality, no topic is off limits for Britain’s hairiest comedian

Omid Djalili, as a British-born Iranian comedian, offers many illuminating insights into disparate strands of different cultures. Did you know, for instance, that the BBC took a view on the hirsuteness tolerance of its audience? This emerged when Omid – it surely won’t be long before he becomes a one-name brand like Oprah, Delia, Madonna – was advised to move a flesh-revealing shot from the first episode of his television series to the last.

“Listen,” he says in defence of the Beeb, “they knew it was a huge, huge risk for me to be on BBC1 on a Saturday night because to have an Iranian guy for a lot of people is too much, and, ‘A hairy chest is pushing it,’ they said. ‘But a hairy back for a primetime audience is so obviously Middle Eastern…’ They felt this would be a ‘switch-off moment’ for the Christians and the over-fifties.”

The hairy back is something of a running theme – indeed, it prompted him kindly to present me with an opening line for this piece: “At one moment, I thought the talent had his hand up his backside, but he was scratching his rather hirsute back, which has given him a lot of trouble, especially after the sleep apnoea machine didn’t work.” Although as a performer he is fidgety, this is nothing compared to him off stage. Sitting on the sofa of the living room of his home in East Sheen, “the talent” is either massaging his wrist (a tennis injury), twisted awkwardly with his arm agitating behind his back, or yawning every few minutes after his sleepless night – which makes it quite hard to concentrate on what he has to say.

The first time I caught sight of Djalili was last November, when guffaws from my living room drew me in, and it was instant beguilement. His show is the old Dave Allen format of stand-up and sketches, and has the cross-generational edginess of Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais, with the more comforting, nostalgic appeal of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies. He is funny on so many different levels: the way he moves his body (his belly dance, with his mic transformed into a swinging dick, has become a cultish physical gag), his acute observations of Britishness versus Iranian manners, and best of all – since he is almost uniquely placed to do this – is his terrorism humour.

It is Djalili’s wholly serious belief that, as an entertainer, the most effective response to the extremist bullies is to diminish their power to threaten and haunt us by laughing at them. And what could be more British? (“Hitler has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall…”) It is tricky terrain, of course, because the subject is so sensitive – which is what makes it courageous, in many different ways (not least his own safety), of him to wade in.

There’s a long list of the potentially offended: Brits who think he’s being disrespectful of the victims of the suicide bombers; members of the left who are wary of any negative comments about Muslims, even if they are only aimed at those who seek to destroy us; Muslim fundamentalists; the terrorists themselves and their supporters.

But even the terrorist jokes are leavened by their gently absurdist delivery. Djalili refers to this as his “warm and fluffy” quality, but I think it’s more that the sharpness of his jokes is shot through with a very humanist understanding. So his routine on the 7/7 bombers was to point out how strange it was that of all the places the terrorists could have picked, they went for Edgware Road Tube station, “which, after Mecca, is probably the most Islamic place on the planet. And these were British-born Muslims, which made it a very bizarre choice and showed that there’s still a cultural dislocation with certain people.

“I’m a British-born Iranian [but not a Muslim] and I may have been brought up between Ayatollah Khomeini and Dickie Davies but at the same time I know who and what I am. What is it about these people to have completely dismissed Britain, and how stupid were they to hit an Islamic spot anyway? What point were they trying to make?”

His humour also mines his own occasional sense of “otherness” – the disbelief that accompanied his realisation that, in this climate, Djalili can be viewed by his fellow Brits as “the enemy”. In the aftermath of one of the terrorist threats, he was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow and felt rather anxious about two “suspiciously” bearded and muttering men, looked around to make reassuring eye contact with the other passengers, only to find they were staring at him.

“That actually happened and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I shouted at people and said, ‘What are you looking at me for? Can’t you see those blokes over there?’ I had a real go at them, which made things worse. People just got upset and averted their eyes and I ended up muttering to myself.” One slight problem with this is that his bearded brethren were doubtless just as innocent as Djalili. But it’s still a relief to hear a comedian having the guts to examine prejudice from his own perspective, only to demonstrate how he is also the victim of the same nervy thought poison.

Of the four million people who watched the post-Heathrow episode, Djalili says the BBC received only 26 complaints, along the lines that the viewers couldn’t believe that the corporation had allowed “a well-known Muslim fanatic” – “I don’t know where they got that,” he says – “to make jokes when people have lost their lives”. His point, as we talk in the middle of a national tour, is that he addresses this new taboo through humour because: “If you laugh and make jokes about the suicide bombers, it helps to remove the fear. I like to think that the hundreds of people who are coming to the show and laughing a lot take away less fear about the Middle East.”

In 1957, his parents moved to London – Omid was born eight years later – where his father worked as a photographer and correspondent for Kayhan, a newspaper read by Iranian expatriates. This career came to an abrupt end with the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the new regime’s official campaign of persecution against followers of the Baha’i faith, which include Omid and his family.

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Kensington – where Omid was born and brought up – was not as chi-chi as it is now, and the Djalilis were able to buy two flats. After his father lost his job, the family home was transformed into a sort of pension for Iranians who travelled to Harley Street for their medical treatment: “My parents would put them up, feed and nurse them, drive them to their appointments and act as translators.”

When I hear that Djalili was sent to Holland Park School – the trendy comprehensive at the time (known as the socialist Eton; all Tony Benn’s four children went there) – I am imagining a sort of arty, bookish household. “No, no, it was the absolute antithesis of that,” he says. “My friends lived like that, but we were a very traditional Iranian family and there were no books.” But your father was a journalist; what do you mean, there were no books? “He wasn’t really into books. He was a pretty crap journalist, I’d say.”

Since his father is still very much alive and well and living in Kensington, I rather wonder how he’ll take that. “He was a crap journalist but he is good with words. I only discovered this about 10 or 15 years ago, but I come from a long line of poets. I was saying to my dad that it’s quite funny how I’ve ended up in stand-up comedy and he said, ‘It’s quite natural,’ because my grandparents and great-grandparents were kind of poet laureate types – very high-level, very well-known travelling poets of Iran. There were five of them who used to pitch up in different towns – like stand-up comedians – and thousands of people would turn up for an evening of poetry. There were two brothers in particular, Nayyir and Sina, who were like travelling troubadours. I haven’t seen the poems myself but they’re printed in Farsi and people say they’re brilliant.”

Both his parents were naturally funny people and great storytellers, traits inherited by their younger son. His mother, a dressmaker, died in 1995: “She was a very sweet lady,” Djalili says. “Very outgoing and bubbly. People are always telling me, ‘It’s no wonder you’re a comedian because your mother was so entertaining,’ that kind of stuff.”

There is something slightly wistful about Djalili when he talks about Iran, which he has visited only once, when he was six: “It’s one of the most amazing countries on the planet – it’s seasonal, it’s mountainous, it has everything.”

A few years ago, he appeared on Channel 4 as part of its Iranian film season and was asked to go back to Iran: “I said, ‘Well, what have you done for security?’ and they said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ So I said, ‘Then I can’t really go.’ But I know through the internet that they’re very aware of me over there and like the show.”

He has not, however, had any contact with the Iranian government and is unlikely, he thinks, to be invited by President Ahmadinejad to be the new friendly face of Iran (the country could hardly do worse) – although he has had messages and letters from the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar (as well as Prince Charles), saying “great show” and “loving it”.

One of the details I recall from the avalanche of coverage following the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly was that he was of the Baha’i faith. This surprised Djalili at the time: “I understand that he was a declared Baha’i but it’s very strict in the faith that you do not take your own life so he must have been really…”

Baha’ism was founded in Iran in the 19th century by Baha’u’llah, a Persian nobleman from Tehran, and seems to be a universalist, all-encompassing spirituality: “One god, one human race – the Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

Djalili, who embraced the faith of his parents in his early twenties, says that, “It grew out of Islam in the way that Christianity grew out of Judaism. We believe that there is an unknowable essence who cares for us and sends enlightened teachers – people like Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Krishna, and basically that all religions are different chapters of the same book.

“The first two people to become Baha’is in our family were the famous poets, who then became ostracised and beaten by the Muslims in the same way that Christ and Christians were persecuted. Even moderate Muslims today, when I say I’m Baha’i, go, ‘Oh God, I should leave the house.’

“I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to convert people or proselytise, but I do espouse it and talk about it in the new show. The main thing that attracted me is that it’s a faith that says we are all one. But because it’s a community, you’re sometimes forced to socialise with people you can’t stand because there are some brilliant Baha’is but also some weirdos. It is very demanding.”

It’s entirely in keeping with Djalili’s desire to tackle taboo subjects that he would even consider examining spiritual matters in a comedy routine. What interests him is why spirituality is such a lowly, almost embarrassing word in Britain. “People say to me, ‘I’m an intellectual, why must you use words like spiritual? Why can’t you say, ‘The Baha’i nature is striving to achieve more of our humanity’? Why must it connect with God?'”

Despite all Djalili’s new-found success – the BBC has commissioned the all-important second series, to add to his port-folio of films and awards; the new stand-up show has pretty much sold out everywhere – it has been quite a slog to get here. As a teenager, his future did not look promising at all. He even managed to get kicked out of Holland Park School, which must have been quite a feat. What on earth did he do? “I was a bit naughty,” he says. “I kept running into the staff room and playing the piano just to upset the teachers. I also used to chase first years on my moped and in my last year I just caused havoc.”

He went off to live with his grandfather in California with a grand design of enrolling at UCLA, but he was miserable and bored hanging out with the old folks in Orange County so came back with his tail between his legs. Any chance of rejoining his old school in the sixth form was scuppered when the headmaster told him in no uncertain terms that, “We certainly do not want you back!” He attempted to take three A levels in one year and failed them all; a dismal record which was repeated the following year. “It had a very bad effect on me, actually. In the end, I got some scrappy grades and ended up somewhere that no one wanted to go to – the University of Ulster in Coleraine, reading theatre studies and English.”

It was as a student there in 1988 that Djalili had his own taste of sectarian violence. He was throwing stones in the sea one night and heard some locals shouting at him. “I said, ‘Did you call me something?’ and they said, ‘Do you want your kneecaps blown off?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’m the one with the stones; I’m the one with the power here.’ Then they came out with rifles and took three shots at me and I ran and hid. It was the same week that those two soldiers were pulled out of a car at a funeral and beaten to death. It was a very tense time and my professor said, “I wouldn’t recommend reporting this because the RUC will probably know the people – they’re probably all inter-related and it won’t achieve anything. So just keep your head down and consider yourself lucky.’ So I did.

“I was the most shit scared I’ve ever been. What I remember is that they kept calling me Seamus because if you’re dark, you look like you’re a gypsy from southern Ireland.”

After leaving university, Djalili was rejected by no fewer than 16 drama schools. His response was to take off to Berlin, ending up in the former Czechoslovakia in productions of Ionesco and Brecht and spending four or five years in Eastern Europe. In 1992, he married Annabel Knight, a Scottish actress and fellow Baha’i, to whom we must be grateful, for it was she who persuaded her husband to have a crack at stand-up comedy. In 1994, she took him to the Comedy Store to see Lee Hurst, which inspired him to write his own stand-up act for the Edinburgh Festival. By the end of the Nineties, while still performing stand-up, he was also in demand for films: The Mummy, Notting Hill, The World is not Enough in 1999. Then Gladiator, Casanova and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It may sound unpalatable, but Djalili’s career really took off after 9/11 – as more people seem to crave a friendly face from the Middle East than wish to demonise that region. But none of this would work if “the talent” was not seriously talented. Whoopi Goldberg approached him to appear as one of the four principals, a handyman, in her NBC hotel sitcom, Whoopi, which ran from 2003 to 2004. She became aggravated with the kind of lines the scriptwriter was coming up with for Djalili’s character: “She told the scriptwriter, ‘We have someone who’s a Perrier-nominated comedian and all you can write for him are Ayatollah jokes. Is that all he’s good for? It’s my show. Write him some proper shit.'”

David Baddiel has written a film with Djalili at the centre of it, in the role of a Muslim man who finds out late in life that he’s adopted and of Jewish parentage. Baddiel first noticed him in Gladiator and was subsequently surprised to see him perform at the Comedy Store, but was really struck by him at the Palladium. “He’s intrinsically funny-boned – like Eric Morecambe. He’s short and squat and yet very graceful, married to this very modern, multi-ethnic thing. It’s a potent combination. He’s a really good actor, which is unusual for a comedian. He responds very well to collaboration and if he works with the right people, he’ll be a really big star. “He does sail quite close to the wind. In his last BBC series, there was a sketch with Osama Bin Laden with a slight suggestion that he is gay. So my primary hope is that he won’t get a fatwa on him and that he’ll still be here in 20 years’ time.”

In his next BBC series, Djalili will be sailing even closer to the wind if the new material at the show I saw is any indication. At times, it seems that he’s almost inviting some fundamentalist madman to have a pop at him. These guys, he says, refer to the Samaritans as their recruitment centre: “You say that you want to kill yourself? Very good, the bus will be there in five minutes.”

He covers many other topics – including the sketches he did for Prince Charles (both he and his sons are big Djalili fans) and, too much for my taste, football (he supports Chelsea) – but then he says, “I’d like to lighten things up a bit and talk about suicide bombing.” At which point he talks about someone shooting him on stage and his blood spluttering “ironically” in the shape of the star of David. “It’s not that I’m anti-Muslim,” he says. “I’m just anti-nutter.”

He told me that his wife is always worrying that he’ll make himself a target but that he feels that it’s imperative to stick his neck out. “Current affairs and everyday issues interest me intensely,” he says, “and I do think that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. Even me doing stand-up is a political act because I’m about the only person from my background doing it.”

He admits that he sometimes shares his wife’s fears. “But I’ve had Muslim fundamentalists come to my show and laugh. They’ve sat there stone-faced for 30 minutes and then I do something silly like a Godzilla impression which gets them going. So if you’re wondering about killing Omid Djalili, you might think, ‘Actually, he’s quite funny,’ and think again.”

* * *

Omid Djalili’s UK tour culminates at the Hammersmith Apollo on April 19. For more information, go to www.omidnoagenda.com

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”

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Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9

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