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Celebrities, Women

Rock’s Stepford wife

The Times – August 21, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

She married two Sixties legends and inspired three of the era’s greatest love songs. But Pattie Boyd’s life in the most famous love triangle in rock was far from glamorous.

The strongest feeling I had on completing Pattie Boyd’s autobiography was relief: “Thank God, I was never a super Sixties model who married two of the biggest rock heroes of the era and inspired three of the most enduring love songs of all time,” was my thought.

Boyd’s story is fascinating because it reveals the realities of rock-chick Stepford wifedom behind all those photos which made such an impression on me as a kid living off the Kings Road in the days when it swung: Pattie gorgeously gap-toothed and stylishly draped in her antique velvet coats and floppy hat, on the arm of George Harrison, then Eric Clapton who famously supplanted him.

In the flesh – she is still pretty fab at sixty-something – Boyd reminds me, with her wholesome poshness, occasional flashes of theatrical whimsy and sense of humour, of Joanna Lumley. From time to time, apart from her obvious attributes, one catches a glimpse of what it was that turned so many men’s heads. When you say something that amuses her, for instance, she throws back her chin and laughs so uproariously that you can’t help but feel flattered. Put almost any point to her and she endeavours to answer it as directly and thoughtfully as she can.

Despite her pukka but dysfunctional background, Boyd left school at 17 – before taking her A levels – and became a model at 18. She met George Harrison on the set of Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night, when she played one of a trio of the Beatles’ smitten schoolgirl fans. George and Pattie fell in love and married. Fast forward and – according to her book – Pattie got the Eastern mysticism bug first which resulted in all the Beatles, and their various spouses and girlfriends, taking off to meditate and get in touch with their inner selves in a spartan Indian retreat with the Maharishi. By the time George and Pattie returned to England Harrison had become somewhat “obsessive” about his spiritual practices.

Ensconced in the grand eccentricity of their old palatial pile of Friar Park, near Henley-on-Thames, put-upon Pattie has to deal with her husband’s periods of withdrawal – either to meditate for hours, sometimes months, on end or planning the restoration of their folly-filled grounds (her opinion is never sought) – and bursts of counteractive drug and booze-fuelled entertaining.

The latter, at least, gave her some sense of value since Boyd had – in her increasing isolation (Harrison saw no reason for his wife to continue modelling) – become a keen cook and a dinner party gave her an opportunity to show off her culinary skills. But even this pleasure is taken away from her when George decides that he would prefer to have Ravi Shankar’s nephew, a long-term guest along with an assortment of Hari Krishna families, to prepare his meals.

Eric Clapton, in the meantime, has been waiting in the wings – bombarding his friend’s wife with Baudelarian billets-doux and penning what was to become an anthem of unrequited love: “Layla. . . you’ve got me on my knees”. But Pattie does not prove so easy to conquer even when – how ridiculously this reads – he says that he will turn to heroin, showing her a plastic bag, if she continues to spurn his overtures. She resists him, he becomes a world-class junkie, and some years later – by which time Clapton has switched his addictions from heroin to alcohol – Pattie finally takes the plunge and replaces one form of glamorous-seeming imprisonment with another.

Before we talk about her years with Clapton, what interests me is the way that Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono both seemed to “manage” their husbands – and had, apparently, the most successful Beatles marriages as a result. Both of them come across as strong characters with careers of their own – Yoko as an avant-garde artist, Linda as a photographer. Those amazing songs – Something in the Way She Moves, Layla and Wonderful Tonight – were prompted by Pattie being the Object of Desire but the tributes have proved more durable than the intense feelings which inspired them.

She says that when so much is made of your looks: “It’s fantastic but it’s a double-edged sword . . . it made me really nervous because if the praise is purely about good looks, obviously there are other girls who are better-looking than me and, you know, could I be replaced?” The key thing about Linda and Yoko, Boyd says, is that they were American (Ono’s Japanese family moved to New York after the war) – and “whenever I went to America, I was amazed at how strong the American girls were with the guys. English girls were woosies in comparison.

“The English public as a whole didn’t like Yoko or Linda because they didn’t get them . . . they were looking at them physically and thinking, ‘I’m sure I look better than those two.’ But they stood up to their men, which is what was needed because they’d been fêted and courted from a very, very young age.

“Whereas I would be: ‘If the man says that he wants this, that or the other then that’s what we’re going with’ because that’s what I learnt from my mother, you see – whatever the man says is right.” While to the outside world she was a modern goddess, behind the doors of her rock-star palaces whatever power Boyd had wielded through her beauty and glow had shrunk with her diminished self-confidence. Had she become a doormat? “I think I did slide into the doormat syndrome, most definitely, and what happened one day is I thought, ‘My God, this doormat’s getting thinner and thinner and thinner and unless I do something about it soon, I’m not going to have the strength to get up and . . .’ I knew that unless I moved when I moved, I wouldn’t be able to.” Reading Boyd’s book with its swift descent into the misery of living with an extreme alcoholic, and looking at the photographs of Clapton then – with his perpetually pickled glaze – it is hard to remember what a cool figure he was.

Still, I wonder whether there wasn’t something of a guy-thing about the adoration even at the time; his virtuoso guitar-playing spawning legions of adolescent Clapton wannabes. George and Eric’s allnight guitar duel to claim “rights” to a bemused Pattie in the kitchen of Friar Park sounds more like the antics of Rock School Frat Club brinkmanship than anything truly romantic.

Boyd says: “He was like a modern-day Pete Doherty to me. Well . . . I don’t know, actually, Pete’s a bit beyond . . . But he looked sort of rascally and naughty.” Of course, one of the reasons that she’s written the book is money. Boyd is admirably up-front about this: “Well, I always need money. As I told you earlier, I love to travel and I’m not the sort of person that can back-pack, quite frankly.” There is also no sense whatsoever that Boyd was exactly an innocent when all the partying was going on. The book is filled with references to her drinking and not all of it is blamed on her attempts to keep up with her spouses. There is one reference to her being offered “uppers, downers or sideways” by Andrew Loog Oldham’s (manager of the Rolling Stones) wife, Sheila, while her hostess’s children are playing in the garden.

Mrs Loog Oldham narrowly escapes burning the house down and George is not impressed by his wife returning in such a drug-addled state. She tries the really hard stuff in the loos of the airport en route to some fabulous location where she intends to get her younger sister, Paula, off junk for the umpteenth time. And, somehow, even this is relayed in such a breezily jaunty way that it sounds like “Bunty tries Heroin!” Clapton has been more outspoken about the worst depths of his behaviour with Boyd than she has – although she does write about her feelings of dread, lying in bed at night, hearing his sozzled footfall on the stairs and not knowing how he will behave.

When I ask Boyd why she chose not to include those incidents, she says: “You know, I don’t want to twist the knife.

“Eric knows how he was when he was married to me and it’s probably not happy for him to think of me and him because he must remember how he was and his alcoholic ways and nobody wants to remember the worst time in their life. I think it’s important for people who are in a position that I was in when we were married to see what the life is really like – how one has to hang on to secrets, and it’s a very sick relationship and a very sick disease. One wants to be loyal and within that loyalty, you don’t really tell anybody else about the extent of the pain and anguish that’s involved . . . the way you fool yourself that one day the person you love will get better.” There is a sense in the book that Clapton’s desire for Boyd was always at its most intense when she was absent and beyond his control. But I wonder whether, at some level, he never quite felt that he had the upper hand.

Do you think that Clapton ever felt that he quite “owned” you? “I don’t think so. He wanted to – he did his utmost to. We’re talking on a very deep level here.” Do you think it was almost as though he wanted to break your spirit? “Yes, he did. And he said that once. There must have come a time when he realised that he couldn’t and that was when he started to back off.

“But I think people do punish each other in relationships, don’t you? Sometimes it’s very obvious and other times it’s more like a little sting every so often – a reminder, and it’s a punishment, actually – part of a punishing process.”

Her last partner, Rod Weston, a property developer, was the first man who allowed Boyd to be herself: “He was very supportive and I realised that I could actually stand up to a man and he wasn’t going to desert me – so I thank him for that.”

We talk briefly about the painful area of children – her inability to have a child, despite undergoing IVF treatment when she was married to Clapton, and his joy when his mistress bore him a son, Conor, who he then lost in tragic circumstances. In the photographs of Clapton holding his son, he looked so happy, as though some deep shadow in him had lifted. “It was the boy in him that had lifted, I think,” Boyd says. “Because he now had his own boy, he didn’t need to play that role any longer.” It’s not as though there aren’t children in her life – Boyd has 13 nephews and nieces – but she still thinks she would have been “the best” mother herself and would have liked to have had four of her own.

She doesn’t like ageing at all: “It’s to do with looks – what else could it be to do with? I just think, ‘Oh my God, are my arms good enough for this T-shirt?’ [An off-the-shoulder number, revealing cleavage and a glimpse of black lacy bra.] See, I do love clothes – and clothes look good if you don’t look too old.” I ask her whether she’s had any work done. A dentist persuaded her to fill the gap in her teeth, which was part of her charm: “Years later, I thought ‘Oh what a mistake, I rather liked my gap’ and under my eyes,” she says. “I always describe them as ‘tear bags’. After my second marriage went so wrong and I was so terribly sad, I thought I’ll have my tear bags removed.”

We are sitting in a boudoir-ish room of a mad hotel off the Portobello Road. It’s eccentrically stuffed with antiques and knick-nacks. Boyd is something of a one-off too but I don’t have the sense at all that she is a tragic Sunset Boulevard figure trapped in her past glories, partly because of her insistence that the reality behind the façade was often far from glorious.

She has her photography and travel and in November a chocolatier course: “I want to make chocolate and learn about it right from the start.” She is attractively unbitter about life even though she does point out that one of her Burne-Jones paintings is still hanging in Friar Park “but, anyway, we won’t talk about that . . .” and that her divorce settlement from Clapton was hardly in the same league of today’s goldmines: “Amazing, isn’t it? Eric did say to me that I divorced him at the wrong time, and then had a bit of a chuckle after he had taken me out to lunch and I said: ‘Thank you for bringing me back to my two-bed-room flat’.”

The big reconciliation that she has had in recent years is with her mother. “I like her a lot now,” she says. “She’s my good friend. She phoned me the other day after she’d read some of the book and she said: ‘Poor darling, you had such a miserable childhood. I’m so sorry. It made me weep a bit – I was such a dreadful mummy.’ And I said, ‘So? Maybe I needed that sort of thing to battle against, you know. I’m hardly damaged now, am I?’

“And she laughed and said: ‘No, Pattie, you’re not damaged at all’.”

Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”

Celebrities, Writers

Culture vulture

The Times – May 12 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once famous for his barbed dissection of tacky TV, Clive James all the while was living a life of the mind. Our correspondent meets a modern polymath as he unveils his 40-year cultural odyssey on Times Online

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

Australians, in my experience, however deeply transplanted, still crave the cerulean skies and bright light of their birthplace ­ which is why it is unexpected to find Clive James, on the sunniest of English spring mornings, in a curtain-drawn lair of such impenetrable gloom that the atmosphere seems to fizz with electricity from all the wattage. Or, perhaps, that’s just the effect of his personality.

His London pad is in a converted warehouse near Tower Bridge. It’s wine-bar territory rather than the sort of coffee-house bohemia that is his preferred habitat but that’s precisely why James chose it ­ all the easier for him to guard his anonymity and get on with the serious business of writing and, ah, tango dancing.

Most of the walls are covered with thousands of books: old Penguin novels with their classic orange and white design, and titles covering every subject that could conceivably prick the curiosity of their owner’s magpie mind. (This is a man who, after all, has painstakingly acquired at least six languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese, in order to read certain books in the original.) There are also paintings by his artist daughter, Claerwen, many photographs of beautiful women, including his wife, various objects from his travels and “Postcard from…” television programmes, and a loo full of Schiele-like nudes.

We sit at a dining-room table in the hall on high-backed Mackintosh chairs (only repro, James assures me) and get stuck in. His new book, Cultural Amnesia, is an 800-page whopper, which has taken him four years to write and all his life to collate. The subtitle is Notes in the Margin of My Time, and although there are many different figures in it, both well-known and obscure, the one that weaves through them all is the author himself.

This is Culture with both a large and a small C as befits the man who dubbed himself a premature post-modernist: “Hard to say, isn’t it?” he says, “Crazy name! Crazy guy!” ­ so under M, you will find Thomas Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain Mann, preceded by Michael Miami Vice, Manhunter Mann, sandwiched by Norman Mailer and Mao Zedong. American talk-show host Dick Cavett, Coco Chanel and Tony Curtis are given equal billing to Cocteau, Camus and Chesterton.

Several times in our interview ­ when we talk about lust, for instance, or sensitivity to criticism (neither of them foreign to James) ­ he directs me to one or other essay in his book. Ernesto Sábato, an Argentinian writer ­ “take this down”, James dictates, spelling out his name ­ is quoted: “Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extreme delicacy of skin”, which prompts our cultural guide to ponder how the statement might apply to himself ­ “If I had my time again, I would never react publicly to criticism, no matter how unjustified.”

A page or two on, and he’s into the tango ­ “a sad thought, dancing” (coined, not by Sábato ­ we learn ­ but by a vernacular poet, Enrique Santos Discépolo, in the Thirties; the book is full of such snippets of what James is proud to call useless knowledge) ­ and he’s off again: “Undoubtedly it was the sight of old goats with pretty young women in their arms that helped draw me into the tango world, a man in winter longing for a touch of spring”, and on through a dazzling and sometimes beautiful series of seemingly unconnected connections ­ like a jazz riff, the notes scattering and cohering ­ to his conclusion: “A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.” There is more along the lines of this Old Man Winter refrain, prompted only partially by my first question. In the introduction to the book, James suggests that such a colossal work ­ based on four decades of jottings and notes ­ was something he had planned to write towards the end of his life.

So is the publication of Cultural Amnesia accompanied by the sound of a bell ominously tolling? “I’ve been feeling towards the end of my life-ish since I was about 24,” he wheezes and laughs. “I used to have some very bad habits including drinking, and I thought I’ll never last at this rate, especially at the rate I smoked. I always feel like I’m living on borrowed time… So I do feel this is the last round-up,” his voice taking on that ironic Jamesian swoop, “but as my friend P. J. O’Rourke has already warned me, I can overdo this last-ditch stuff. You can’t spend 20 years saying this is the last gasp.”

But you’re not really all that old, are you? “No, I’m a fairly young 67,” he says, a little smugly. “I’m just wearing the internal effects of having smoked since I was nine.” He tosses aside the suggestion that this sounds as though he’s hinting at something sinister: “I’ve got the lungs that anyone would have who’s smoked since that age.” And then: “I’m not sick. I haven’t got time to be sick… I’ve no time to die.” He goes on to introduce his comments, several times, with the portentous words: “If I am granted life…” which seems to intimate a certain preoccupation with his own mortality.

England has been his home since James arrived here aged 21, but he has always been bewildered by the prevailing attitude that there is something suspect about throwing yourself into learning for learning’s sake; that it is bad form to wear your erudition as unlightly as he has been known to do.

In the old days, some of this hostility may have been attributed to a strain of anti-Australian snobbery, what James considers was “a licensed anti-semitism, particularly among the Private Eye crowd.” But there are plenty of towering English talents ­ Peter Brook and the late Anthony Burgess, to name two ­ who have also despaired of their own country’s anti-intellectualism.

Cultural Amnesia is aimed at the clever young ­ perhaps, like his whizbang, multimedia website, of which James is inordinately proud, it is another bid at longevity. “The hardest thing when you’re a young person going into university or the world is to figure out how it all ties up; the answer is that it doesn’t, and it takes a lifetime to find out why. It’s always handy to have voices somewhere up ahead of you, which I always did, and they tend to be the writers we worship ­ in my case, people like Scott Fitzgerald and Camus. Camus is one of my her-ow-ww-ws,” James says dragging out the vowels, like a dog howling at the moon. “And I wanted to write a book that would do that job for the next generation.”

The whole book ­ and I cannot pretend to have read all 856 pages ­ is like a free-form jazz piece. He assures me that “it’s designed to be dipped into ­ I hope that people when they dip, won’t be able to stop dipping”. It is also meant to be useless, he says: “It has no obvious use. Learning is not utilitarian. It should be pursued for its own sake. I wrote the book for its own sake. Although I do hope to get my money back.” Each small essay is so clotted with information and quotes and bridges between different times and people that although there is much to enjoy, it can also feel strangely airless and certainly too much to digest at one sitting. He acknowledges these challenges himself in his introduction, writing, “If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligibleÅ  I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text”.

A clue to his thinking behind the book comes when I ask him how he rates his poetry. “I rate it very highly, actually,” says James, who reserves his self-deprecation for the things that don’t matter to him. “And it’s gratifying that as the years go by, the rating gets higher. As a showbusiness name, I was crossed off the list of the serious [those Japanese game shows can’t have helped]. But that problem is going away and now I’m getting estimated somewhere near my true worth, which I think is fairly high up the second rank.” I cannot think of a living English poet who would have the gall to assess themselves in this way, with the possible exception of the deeply eccentric Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

So what poets do you rank yourself alongside? “I wouldn’t say but I know where I want to be,” he says. “I want to be with the poets who some of what they wrote is remembered and recited. My favourite poets wrote something ­a stanza, perhaps ­that you can remember.”

It is not the names in Cultural Amnesia that matter, so much as what they represent or, more crucially, the significance of what they said ­ often just a line or two (like the poet’s stanza), that may endure long after they have gone, often in this case, because they sparked something in James’s imagination.

There are occasions when Clive James disappears from his own prose, and allows an image of such shimmering, lovely economy to emerge that you catch a glimpse of that poetic soul. Describing his inability to squeeze his book into a conventional schematic straitjacket, he writes that he could only produce: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship”. But elsewhere, he cannot prevent his Clive James ventriloquist’s doll from taking centre stage ­ that glib, punny TV persona ­ as in the essay on Sophie Scholl (“You’ve really got to chill, Will,” trills Marty cutely”, part of a drawn-out explanation as to why the actress Natalie Portman should playÅ  oh, please, just read the book).

To learn about the brief, brave life of Sophie Scholl is one illustration of why Cultural Amnesia is an important book. She was a member of the White Rose student pacifists who was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich on February 22, 1943, for publishing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. She, unlike her brother Hans, was offered the chance to recant.

But she refused and died, with her whole life stretching ahead of her, at the age of 21. At her trial, Sophie said simply: “Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.” The Scholl siblings were Aryans protesting against the fate of the Jews, as James writes, “purely out of common humanity”. Humanity, and what binds us together, being the central thread of his thinking.

How do we account for such selfless courage in someone so young? James has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about such matters and, indeed, dedicates his book in memory to Scholl, along with three other fearless women, but he has no answers for me. “I can’t account for it and the book is saying that you can’t account for it,” he says.

The linking theme of the book, James says, is the reaction of the thinker or the writer to a political development, particularly to totalitarianism. In the introduction he refers to “the worst of times which has become our times” ­ and I wonder what makes him so certain that this is history’s darkest age. “I didn’t actually phrase myself well there,” he says. “I think that the time that I was growing up was the worst of times when the Soviets and the Nazis were both going full blastÅ  and things have eased off a bit. Totalitarianism hasn’t gone away entirely. It’s still there like aer–os–ol spray,” an extravagant wave of the arm, “but people are dying now in thousands not millions. That’s about as good as it gets.”

James is presumably thinking, in part, about the toxic spray of the Taleban and al-Qaeda terrorists, but he’s reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the new totalitarians. “I try to keep my counsel and reserve my opinions for articles at the very least and for books if possible,” he says. It could be said that people who have spent their lives reading and thinking have a duty to speak out about the crucial issues of our day, I say. “Yes, but I’d rather wait and find ‘the words for my bewilderment,'” he says quoting a French philosopher.

I don’t get it. There’s barely a writer I’ve interviewed ­ from Martin Amis to Norman Mailer to Salman Rushdie (naturally) ­ who hasn’t felt it necessary to engage in this subject. It seems miserly, almost ignoble, to hoard his nuggets of wisdom for some future publication date. And it’s particularly odd when the entire raison d’être of his new book ­ which we are, after all, here to discuss ­ is that democracy is worth fighting for at all costs.

After some badgering, he says, “Anti-semitism is a great enemy of the Palestinians and I state it as a paradox that’s true because they’re really saying that the Israeli state should disappear and it will only disappear in one way ­ in a great mass of heated light that will melt the entire district ­ so you do the Palestinians no service by giving a moment’s credibility to anti-semitism as a position… But that’s as far as I will go towards a sound-bite.”

Is that really it? “If I wrote a long article or a short book on the subject, I’d say that waiting until Islam secularises itself as our religions have done is too long a wait, and what we have to hope is that moderate Islam ­ which, of course, is the majority ­ will see its way clear to denouncing extremism and get out of this trap where you can’t denounce extremism without being seen to favour the West. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go, because I don’t want to be consulted as though I’m some sort of expert when I’m just a writer. If I’ve got something to contribute, I’ll contribute it as a writer, not as a public figure.”

There’s more circumspection, albeit less surprisingly, on Diana, Princess of Wales, as we gear up towards the tenth anniversary of her death. The very mention of her name prompts an urgent desire in my interviewee to retreat to the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. I tell him about the time, a few years before her fatal accident, when I was lunching with Sir Hardy Amies at Launceston Place. Towards the end of our meal, Diana walked past our table, looking radiant ­ close up, she did take your breath away ­ in a bright-yellow suit (a colour not many women could carry off with such aplomb), and ducked her head, in that nervous birdlike gesture of her early photographs, at the sight of the Queen’s couturier. “She’s a very bad princess,” Amies said loudly, as she walked out of the door, followed some minutes later by… Guess who?

“Me?!!” James shouts back. “Where were we? Oh yes, she liked that place. She liked Caprice when she wanted to hide in public ­ hahahahahaha ­ and Kensington Place and Launceston Place when she was really hiding.”

So were you in love with her? “Who wasn’t?” he responds, quick as a flash. “Most men were.” But you weren’t at a distance, were you? “I fell into the category of wicked uncle,” he says. “You’re not going to get much out of me on this one. I’ve nothing more to say. [He does tell me that he’s been approached ­ and declined ­ to contribute to various high-profile anniversary pieces.]” He still has no misgivings about Requiem ­ “I don’t regret it a bit, that’s what I felt and I’m proud of it. I adored her” ­ the piece he wrote for The New Yorker in the week of Diana’s death, where the rawness of his emotion came to the fore in such overblown lines as these: “What flowers have I to send her but my memories? They are less a wreath, not much more than a nosegay: just a deuil blanc napkin wrapping a few bloom of frangipani, the blossom of broken bread.” But he is unsympathetic to the extraordinary displays of mass emotionalism that greeted her death: “Why should anyone who was born in 1939, as I was, and grew up during the war against the Nazis, trust mass emotion? One of the reasons that I like England is that I don’t like the idea of proving that you’ve got emotions.

“I understood the grief ­ and shared it ­ but the idea that there was necessarily something sincere about showing it rung hollow. Show business. I’ve been in show business all my life and I know how it works. It all turned into a production. The main reason that I’m so unforthcoming about the subject is that I really do believe in letting her rest, I’ve written about it and I have no more wisdom to add ­ heh ­ to the subject,” and he retreats back into the kitchen.

Perhaps it is the relief of not being asked to comment on subjects in the public domain which encourages James to be less careful than usual about his private life. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise ­ after all our fencing over the things that really matter ­ to be at the receiving end of the Clive James flirtation method.

He is telling me that he’s a sceptic rather than a cynic, and a romantic (“I’m very romantic” is what he says) not a sentimentalist, so I ask him whether he falls in love easily. “Constantly,” he says, drawing a big breath. “I’m falling in love right now.” Oh, stop it. “I go for smart redheads.” Stop it ­ and, yes, of course I’m giggling. “I can’t stop,” he says. “And this goes back to the roots ­ attractive and smart women are infinitely appealing to the extent that the woman only has to be attractive and I start thinking she’s smart. That’s the flaw.” What does that go back to then? “It probably goes back to my beautiful mother whose life would have been different if history had not played such a cruel trick on her. I can’t bear to see a woman’s potential creativity thwarted.” This “cruel trick” refers to his father’s death ­ who, having survived horrific years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, died in a plane crash on his way home to Australia. James still remembers his mother falling apart when she read the fateful telegram, and early volumes of his memoirs leave the reader in no doubt about the lasting imprint this made on his life as a fatherless only child.

His mother, he wrote back in 1980, “was the only pillar of strength available. One parent is enough to spoil you but discipline takes two. I got too much of what I wanted and not enough of what was needed. The effects have stayed with me to this day, although in the last few years I have learnt to blame myself instead of circumstances.” I catch several glimpses of this spoilt only child ­ if we spent any time talking about one of the subjects of his book, particularly if they were male, James would bleat: “But, anyway, let’s get back to me!”

He, himself, acknowledges that he likes to boast: “I have a big ego but you need a big ego… because people who are going to be modest for you are lined up from here to the horizon.” I ask him how he knew that his mother, who was obliged to go out and earn a living in a menial job to support him, was thwarted creatively? “She wrote beautiful letters for one thing, and everything she touched was neat and interesting,” he says. “What little money she made on top of her war widow’s pension, she made by smocking baby frocks. She was an expert smocker and I used to watch her doing it, and the stitching provided me with one of my ideals of concentration and density and neatness, because these things get to us very early.”

Were you enthralled by what she produced? “I was enthralled that she was doing it, and somehow that stuck. If a woman wants to be a dancer or something,” he segues unexpectedly, “I give them credibility. I love dancers and singers, and of course you fall in love all the time, who doesn’t? I suppose wise men don’t but who wants to be wise?”

Did you always know you would be like that? “Eventually you have to explain to your wife and that can be awkward.” I’m sure that she must have learnt to become indulgent of you over the years, that must go without saying? “More coffee?” he says. “I tell you what does go without saying,” he continues from the refuge of his kitchen, “you have to be very careful ever to co-operate with any effort that portrays your wife as long-suffering. Nobody wants to be long-suffering.” While we are wading around in what James has called the squalor of the male mind, I press him ­ in an attempt, possibly, to outface his flirtatiousness ­ on what he finds sexy. He flays around a bit, suggesting that it might be a woman’s voice ­ “the Anna Ford phenomenon” ­ before settling for this: “A beautiful woman… are you ready to escalate?… reading one of my books!”

Naked, I suppose. “No ­ if she’s naked she’s not paying sufficient attention. It happened to me,” he continues. “It was in Sydney harbour and a girl of stunning beauty got on to a ferry carrying one of my novels, and the ferry was pulling out and I thought, Å’Here it is. All I’ve got to do is jump 16ft and a conversation is going to begin that’s going to change my life.’ So I didn’t jump.” But, alas, awkwardly, I know of at least one occasion when he has jumped.

Ten years ago, Fiona Russell-Powell, a pop star in the Eighties with the group ABC, turned journalist, angrily denounced James for grafting her life on to one of his characters in his novel Brrm!Brrrm! on the back of their five-month affair. This became a front-page splash on the News of the World, followed by a self-penned account by Powell herself in Punch. The story has resurfaced in the Australian press, and there’s not a lot James can do to make it go away.

“Yes,” he says, when I mention it. “I’m sorry about her… she was a talented young girl.” Since there is something elegiac about his tone, I ask him whether she’s still alive. “I have no idea,” he says (she is). “She had some very…” Drug problems? “Yesss. I regretted that. The occasional busy journalist, especially in Australia, likes to run an article when they hear about this, saying that Clive’s marriage is on the rocks, and I have to point out, if I get the chance, that my marriage has been on the rocks for 40 years.”

But by far the most damning portrayal of James, in my opinion, was one that he participated in ­ a Sunday Times Relative Values interview with the writer and his older daughter, Claerwen, last year. He may have agreed to do it to help his daughter’s career but she certainly did not return the favour. A more cool-eyed portrait (in that respect, not unlike her own beautiful but strangely detached paintings of children, particularly girls) of a neglectful and selfish father would be hard to find; his daughter’s efforts to engage his interest are quite painful to read. And what are we to make of James’s own comment about his daughter: “I think there is a great deal in me that she feels disappointed in, but I don’t want to know ­ life’s tough enough… There’s a great loneliness in some of her paintings, I hope I’m not responsible for that.”

When I ask him about Claerwen’s comments about him never appearing at any of her school events and her sudden realisation that it was unusual to have a father who was never home, he laughs for a long time. What on earth are you laughing about, I ask. “She knew it would wind me up, that’s why. I regret it but there it is,” he says. So no feelings of guilt on your death bed? “Well, look at her,” he says, pushing the catalogues of her art towards me. “Yeah, look at her.”

James is probably not the first man of his generation to be bored by young children, but he may be unusual in admitting it. “When they got old enough to read my books, that’s when they get interesting,” he says. You narcissistic sonofa… “It’s more than half true,” he shrugs. He admits that he is cold-hearted: “I’ve got the chip of ice Graham Greene talked about.

There’s almost nothing that I can’t shut out when I’m concentrating. When I’m working on a poem and fancying myself the most sensitive man, I’m insensitive to everything, yeahhhh,” he sighs.

His wife, Prudence, is a Dante scholar ­ profoundly allergic, one feels, to the whole showbiz nonsense ­ who James returns to for weekends in their Cambridge home. It was their daughter, again, who revealed that James “holds on tightly to us all. He rings mum three or four times a day, in an are-you-still-there? kind of way. Yet the content of his call is always that he is too busy to call.” I wonder how he would have reacted if Prue had left him?

“Ohhh, we can’t get into that. Nohhh,” he says, making a cross sign at me. And then, “Of course it is devastating when the kids say, ‘You weren’t there’ but I’m still not there. I’m an absentee ­ and I’m an absentee even when I’m there because I spend a lot of time in my head. If I had a chance to do it again, I would have been somebody else. I would have been a guy who regards his work as definitely a sideline to the importance of being a family man ­ and with me it’s the other way round and was bound to be so. “I always knew that I had no business being any way except alone. I’m very glad I’m not because it civilised me. To the extent that a man like me can be civilised, I’ve been civilised by my family.”

James talks of himself as a “partial creature” ­ who “experienced my own interior life as fragmentary and one of the consolations I got from Camus is that he said that all bright people feel that way. So I console myself by thinking that people who are complete don’t have any great impulse to complete something on the page or on the canvas or in music. But I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in the corner punishing myself for what’s missing in my personality. I just get on with it.” I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction between his propensity for falling in love and his essential coldness. “Well, there are plenty of feminists who would say there’s a connection there. You love everyone because you can’t love anyone.”

Oh, so is falling in love just lust then? “Just lust!” he says, shocked, before referring me to the second essay in his book… a Viennese coffee-house poet and bum by the name of Peter Altenberg who when challenged by his pretty young protegée, protesting that he was only interested in her body, responded, “What’s so only? But it’s so much better in the German,” James says, writing it down as he speaks “Was ist so nur? It’s a very, very deep statement. There’s nothing only about being attracted to someone.”

We finish with a tour of the newly installed sprung dance floor upstairs which, as he quite rightly says, has been overbilled as a Versailles ballroom. Still, despite the grubby white curtains ­ which James points out ­ there is a touch of the Sun King about the space. The first thing you see as you come up the stairs, for instance, next to a throne-like chair is a portrait of Clive James in the black polo-neck sweater he is wearing today ­ followed by another huge painting of a bald-headed James (back view) dancing the tango, surrounded by a giddy swirl of dancing couples. He reels off the names of the women dancers, but not the men, as he slides and shuffles on his own around the dance floor, practising the steps that he loves: the tango, his holiday from words.

At the start of our interview, he warned me that he would be a dull interviewee. Whatever else James may have been, dull is not the word.

Clive James online

For the first of three exclusive films for Times Online on the figures that have shaped our world, go to

Clive James tells the stories of:

Coco Chanel and the Nazis: “During the occupation she took the easy path. She took on a powerful German protector. It paid off in a big way in the early stages: she would not have wanted for butter or sugar.”

Albert Camus: “Though he sometimes fudged the research and often fell victim to the lure of a cadence, Camus was stuck with a congenital inability to be superficial: he could be glib, but would regret it while correcting the proofs.”

Chairman Mao: “To concentrate on Mao’s late-flowering monstrosity is surely misleading. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study.” Part two premieres on Saturday May 19: Evelyn Waugh, Tony Curtis and Margaret Thatcher. Part three premieres on May 26: Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong and Sophie Scholl

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James is published by Picador and is available from BooksFirst priced £23 (RRP £25), free p&p on 0870 1608080;

Celebrities, Writers

Educating Piers

Times Magazine – April 7, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Fired as editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan published a bestselling diary of his rollercoaster career. Now the former tabloid bad boy is back and talks to Ginny Dougary about praying, his beloved granny, and stardom in America

Piers Morgan
Photo: Mark Harrison

The Penis on Legs – aka Piers Morgan – is resiliently handling my barrage of offensive, tabloid questions. It’s just as well that’s
he’s so robust since two days after we meet he gets fired again; only this time it’s for charity, Comic Relief’s celebrity The Apprentice, where we see Morgan enjoyably insulted by the likes of Maureen Lipman (responsible for the aforementioned penis jibe), Alastair Campbell, and later, Graham Norton’s: “Piers Morgan – what an easy person to hate” is greeted by whooping cheers from the audience.

The timing of this panto-villain acclaim is highly convenient for the latest chapter in the saga of Morgan’s entertaining career – as the former “shamed” Mirror editor (to give him the treatment his old paper meted out to the likes of Peter Mandelson) prepares to become a boo-hiss judge on the British answer to Simon Cowell’s America’s Got Talent.

The latter – involving “zany” acts such as granny rappers and men who put scorpions down their trousers or kick themselves in the head – has been a huge hit Stateside (number one in the ratings game last summer for the NBC network, attracting more than 14 million viewers) and Morgan has found himself recognised in the streets of Beverly Hills and – joy of joys – “papped” frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend (gorgeous!/glamorous!/posh totty!/blonde bombshell-with-brains!) the Telegraph’s gossip columnist, Celia Walden.

Never one to suffer self-doubt, Morgan predicts that Britain’s Got Talent, unleashed this summer, will be equally huge… more weirdo acts and a more savage audience made up of strangers from the street “and it’s like a Roman ampitheatre where someone will start an act and suddenly the mob will start screaming, ‘Off, off, off’ and it’s crazy! And Cowell holds his hand over the buzzer like a Roman Emperor asking, ‘Should he live or should he die?’ and the crowd starts chanting, ‘Press it, press it, press it’ and he looks around, smirks and goes ‘boom’ and that’s it. Cowell came out of the first day of auditions and said it was the best television he’d ever been involved with – completely crazy, I mean, hilarious! And with Ant and Dec presenting and Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden and me on the judging panel…”

So would you say that it’s downmarket? “Er – it’s not upmarket. I don’t think it claims to be Newsnight in a different guise, no. But is it damn good entertainment? Yes. Is it fun to judge? Yes.” Do you feel a bit moronic doing it? “No, because I’ve never worried about being taken seriously…” It’s quite an odd move after… (Morgan’s anti-war campaigning years on the Mirror when he hired heavyweight writers such as John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens, and won the sort of awards which are usually reserved for the top end of the market). “Not really,” he says, anticipating where my question’s going. “If you’re the editor of a tabloid newspaper, you’re not really saying,‘I want to be taken seriously.’”

What he’s learnt about television is that it’s all theatre “whether you’re Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight or Simon Cowell on X-Factor – one is very intellectual, the other isn’t, but I believe they’re both thinking, ‘How can I make this work from a televisual point of view’ and I’d say that if you’re looking at quick-wittedness and sharpness of wit, they’d both go head-to head. I’ve never sought to be, you know, a serious intellectual and I don’t claim to be massively well-read, although I’m reading a lot more now and I’m enjoying it – but I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid and I’ve always tried to be open to anything and I’m interested in people and events.”

Here’s a confession: some people actually don’t find it easy to hate Morgan and I’m one of them. He was only 28 when Rupert Murdoch promoted him from Bizarre showbiz columnist on The Sun to editor of News of the World (the youngest national newspaper editor for more than half a century) and much like the boy bands he used to dish the dirt on, Boy Morgan had to do his growing up in public. He made plenty of indefensible mistakes and had his knuckles duly rapped (the photographs of Victoria Spencer leaving a detox clinic allegedly prompted his proprietor to say, “The boy went too far” hence Morgan’s enduring nickname). He continued to make them when he became editor at The Mirror ( the ACHTUNG SURRENDER headline on the eve of the England v Germany Euro ’96 semi-final; the Viglen shares scandal of 2000 which dragged on for four years with Morgan eventually cleared while his City Slicker columnists were fired; culminating in the publication of the hoax photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners which finally did for him).

Morgan’s adventures in the tabloid world were revealed in his first bestseller The Insider – a rattling good read, fascinating for its glimpse into just how much power a red-top editor can wield with the great and the good (so many visits to No 10; so many e-mails from Peter Mandelson), but also riveting for its self-penned portrait of the author as a sort of Artful Dodger happily nicking scoops off his senior colleagues, playing fast and loose with the truth, distorting celebrity photographs and so on, if it suits him.

But it’s not all harmless high jinx as Morgan discovers only when his own marriage difficulties are written about in other publications, and finds himself growing up rather abruptly. These personal complications coincided with the build-up to the Iraq war and suddenly Morgan was a man with a mission – The Mirror was to transform itself into a tabloid with a conscience, reconnecting itself with the pre-Maxwell Cudlipp era, taking on governments rather than bothering itself with the minor peccadilloes of B-list celebrities. His anti-war campaign there lasted for two years, during which time the circulation went into freefall and he was eventually sacked.

Even during his glory days Morgan was still capable of behaving unattractively, to put it mildly. There were his petty long-running feuds with Ian Hislop (against whom he launched a campaign in The Mirror, thereby making himself look both vindictive and ridiculous); ditto David Yelland, then editor of The Sun – and that strange business with Jeremy Clarkson who docked him for printing photographs of him kissing a woman other than his wife. All of it to do, rather loweringly, with either being exposed or exposing – and none of it showing anyone in a particularly good light.

So what’s there to like? Not a lot, if your only experience of Morgan is through his TV appearances. Television may be Morgan’s new career but it does not flatter him. He has certainly improved since his early excruciating performance on Have I Got News For You – but he can still seem horribly pleased with himself, bumptious, brash, arrogant, tub-thumping and generally not someone you’d want to spend any time with.

But off the screen, on the few occasions I’ve bumped into him – he is smart (as opposed to a smart-alec), funny and generous-spirited. He can be immensely charming, and his character makes a great deal more sense when I discover that he’s Irish on both sides of his family (the Pughe-Morgan double-barrel is from his Welsh stepfather who brought him up, rather than evidence of plummy landowning stock). I happen to know that he has been helpful to all sorts of organisations without reaping any personal reward or kudos and he’s naturally meritocratic, trebling or quadrupling the number of women journalists on The Mirror as well as people from ethnic minorities. This is one of things he’s proudest of in his journalistic career, alongside his editorship of the paper after 9/11.

He was to be applauded for saying “Enough!” to copy control when a transcript from a Richard and Judy interview came back littered with absurd “corrections” (he printed the two versions alongside one another and a humbled Richard Madeley phoned up to apologise). But what is perhaps most attractive about Morgan is his energy. When he’s on form – and I’m sure he can be a nightmare when he’s not – he’s one of those people who makes you feel immeasurably more alive to be around. His whole family, it seems, is the same way. He comes from one of those big extended clans of matriarchal grannies and loads of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces, “and we all tend to be the life and soul of the party”. He also gets ragged something rotten by his siblings particularly his brother Jeremy (a major in the Royal Regiment of Wales who was dispatched to Basra): “He takes no nonsense at all from me about my ridiculous, shallow, showbusiness life.”

Like most former journalists turned celebrities, Morgan is far too alert to the dangers of being wrong-footed to allow himself to be led into perilous personal territory. He refuses point blank to talk about The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde for whom he left his wife, Marion. In The Insider, he refers to Hyde in the acknowledgements only as “my best friend, most amusing companion, and unpaid but razor-sharp proof reader” (they are no longer together). Private Eye, among other publications, thought that Morgan’s private life was fair game since he had no qualms about running similar stories about other media figures (eg, Clarkson).

“You know, it’s just that I’ve never felt comfortable talking about a relationship or my private life and I always find that Hello! stuff really gut-wrenching and never understood why people wanted to do it,” he says. “Now obviously I was a rank hypocrite as an editor because I wanted people to do that… but it’s a bit like when somebody would ask me, ‘How do you feel about the snitches who ring up and offer dirt?’ And I would say, ‘Well I used to hate them but be delighted that they were doing it.’ And it’s the same with people spilling their guts out. I think they’re ridiculous but I’m quite pleased that they do it. And with this new book [Don’t You Know Who I Am? The story of how Morgan rose from the ashes to conquer America and become a celebrity himself] I was told that it would be nice to know who you’re with and what you were doing and who was sharing this adventure with you. And that’s why I put Celia in this book because I thought that, actually, not to do so would be unnecessarily – you know – standoffish.”

There’s a whiff of disenchantment with his old tabloid world in the new book, which opens with Boy Morgan – not yet 40 – suddenly feeling a bit like “a semi-retired old fart, running around Sainbury’s all day and watching DVDs because that’s what happens when you’ve come from a huge job and you’re suddenly ex-communicated from a big corporation – the reality of your life is the mundanity.” At some point, “you just start thinking, ‘God, this is really bad, you know I really need to sort myself out.’ At no stage was I depressed [although he does read as though he was], it was more a sense of listlessness and an increasing feeling of edginess and frustration about what was I going to do for the rest of my career since I was only 39.”

Not only did Morgan find it increasingly intolerable to be asked “So what are you doing ?” after years of never having to explain himself, but when he got together with his old mates at The Mirror, he felt out of the loop and simply unable to get excited about this or that scoop with him no longer in the driving seat. He says now – and this is not going to endear him to his former colleagues – that he doesn’t hang out with journalists very often these days because he finds them “really aggressive. It’s quite funny, I know. But I do find them really aggressive.”

In what way exactly? “If it’s been a really busy news day, they’re all absolutely wired with adrenalin and aggression and competitive spirit and it’s obviously the way I used to be. And I realise now why people had a view of me when they saw me at those award shows and I got so fired up, so competitive and so desperately wanted to win. And if I didn’t win, I’d just be blindly in a rage about it and feel cheated for me, my staff and everybody and now I can look back at it and laugh and think, ‘My God!’”

He makes no apologies for his editorship of the News of the World. There is a certain freedom of youth which makes the paper really exciting, you know. Did I go over the top a few times? Definitely. Do I regret some stuff? Definitely. It was only later as I got a bit older and had my own life and started getting responsibilities that I began to rethink things. And writing the book, it was quite cathartic to look back on the impact of some of those stories and the slightly carefree way that you dealt with people’s lives. ”

Most journalists, in his experience, have to be hardbitten. One of his least proud moments was being disappointed when Concorde crashed and there were no celebrities on the plane. “It was full of German pensioners on a charter and I reacted in a really offensive and ugly manner – pissed off because there was no story. But when you go home and have a drink, you think, ‘I really should not have reacted like that. A hundred people have died.’ But there’s this protective shield of “I’m a journalist… I’m above
human reaction in this.’ And when you’re a newspaper editor I think you’re so completely consumed with it that everything just becomes a story.”

It was the Mirror readers themselves, he says slightly surprisingly, who made him think more seriously about what he was doing. “I’m not talking about all of them but as a rule of thumb, I found their letters and their thought processes – the way they voted on issues on phone lines – a great insight into the type of people they were. They were just more caring and sensitive, and I think that evolved me completely.”

He believes that most newspapers misread the public’s appetite for stories which crucify celebrities. “The worst hypocrites I know are editors and senior journalists. I could tell you about the private lives of all of them and they’d fill the News of the World for weeks,” he says. (But then most members of the public would not be all that interested since they hardly expect journalists to be pure as the driven snow.)

As regards his own affair, “Without being drawn into specifics, I would say that my life experiences over the past ten years did radically alter my moral code as an editor because I realised that human frailty can be something that, you know, can pop up with everyone and your ability to be utterly censorial and moralistic about everybody else starts to look vaguely ridiculous.

“Actually, I think what all journalists should do is lose their jobs and go and live a normal life for a few years and then come back into it because they’d have a much better understanding about how real people think about things and react.” Most people who have been involved in a massive scandal, in his opinion – from Jonathan Aitken to Jeffrey Archer to Lord Levy to Jade Goody – get almost universally positive reactions from the public. “The media wants to say, ‘You are a disgusting human being and everybody thinks so.’ The public says, ‘You did something stupid but forget it – you’re actually just like the rest of us.’ They are much less judgmental and not into this media bombardment of hatred and fury and destroying people’s lives.” And, in any case, he says, everyone’s a celebrity now.

Despite his own transcendence into celebritydom, Morgan hasn’t ruled out the possibility of editing another newspaper – it’s just that no offers have been forthcoming. He keeps his hack’s hand in with a weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, a column in the national children’s tabloid First News (of which he is editorial director) and a monthly celebrity interview in GQ magazine. The questions Morgan asks his celebs in that slot are beyond belief – “I’m certainly not going to answer any of those!” he says. Oh go on, Piers, don’t be coy – are you good in bed? “No comment.”

And what position, pray, do you like? “Look, you and I would say ‘No comment’ but what is unbelievable is they [see, for example, Ulrika Johnsson and Billie Piper] seem pleased to answer them.” He’s just done Naomi Campbell (rather sporting of her to agree to be grilled by Morgan, one might think, after he exposed her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Chelsea with all the ensuing courtoom dramas.) “I found her a joy to interview,” Morgan says, because she made very little apology for her behaviour. I asked her, ‘Why are you always late?’ and she said, ‘Because I can be.’ What a great answer. There’s nothing to say to that, is there? It’s obviously reprehensible but it’s also great, I think.”

This comes on the back of me asking Morgan for his Top Five All-Time Gruesome Celebrities, and him saying that he’s quite sympathetic to the genuinely awful “pieces of work… the grand divas” who make no pretence to be anything other than they are. Top of his black list is – da-da-dahhh – Elizabeth Hurley, “the ultimate example of a talentless wannabe becoming grander than the biggest star in the world bleating about privacy and then selling her wedding for two million quid. You cannot complain about privacy and then sell your wedding – the most private event in the world – and the whole excessiveness of it, the whole celebrity thing that came with it is just ghastly, utterly ghastly.”

Hugh Grant is next: “The biggest whinger in the world, constantly saying he hates being a film star but constantly making movies when he probably doesn’t need the money. If he doesn’t like it – disappear. Hugh, you are a very annoying, miserable little man. Right? Go away.” I point out that he’s always calling people he dislikes “little”, even when they’re not. “It’s my ultimate insult,” he says. “I like people who are over 6ft, men and women. Oh and, Kate Winslet has just disappeared up her arse. Awful, awful, awful. I used to love her, such a sweet girl who’d ring me up effing and blinding and having a laugh and it’s the Catherine Zeta-Jones syndrome – they go off into Hollywood and never re-emerge.

“I saw her [Winslet] on Parkinson recently where she began sobbing when Parkie asked her what Sam Mendes thought of her new movie, and she said the reason she was sobbing was the memory of Sam having come home from watching a rough cut of the film and he was in tears saying to her, ‘You were absolutely wonderful, darling’ – and at that point she sobbed – sobbing at the memory of her husband sobbing at her being wonderful.”

Kate Moss and Pete Docherty complete his list. “Awful, skanky little Croydon girl. I don’t get it at all.” But she looks beautiful in every snap of her I’ve seen. “So she scrubs up well, like a lot of Croydon girls do. Why is she this great phenomenon?
I have no idea because when I saw her she was revolting and he was disgusting – fat, bloated heroin junkie sweating and singing tunelessly and I thought, ‘God, these people are supposed to be the hottest stars in the world.’ They’re not exactly Mick Jagger
and Marianne Faithfull, are they?”

It is perfectly possible to construct a convincing portrait of almost anyone based on a few slender facts. So with Morgan, the military family, childhood in an East Sussex village, prep-school education, early admiration for Margaret Thatcher for whom he cast his first vote. “I thought she was a great leader for most of her reign but then, like most of them, went slightly potty”, short-lived stint at Lloyds and the double-barrelled name all created a certain pukka image… but it’s not the whole story.

Of course, he’s not averse himself to hamming up the toffee-nosed Brit bit particularly for his American audience for whom he is thinking of reinstating his dropped barrel – “They want me to be a sort of James Bond charming, smiling assassin – so I posh it up in America.” Anyway, the only reason he excised it on The Sun was because it made his by-line too long and in Sussex, where he spends most weekends with his family, he’s still a Pughe-Morgan, as are his three splendidly named sons, Spencer, Stanley and Bertie.

He only discovered recently, when he went to Ireland for his aunt’s funeral, that his natural father – Vincent O’Meara – who died when Piers was one year old, was a journalist for two years on a local newspaper. “There I was in the middle of southern Ireland in a place called Bannagher and all these people came up to me who had known my father,” Morgan says. “His mother persuaded him to become a dentist because there was more money and security and all that but it was interesting to find that out that it’s obviously in the blood, you know.”

His maternal grandfather was a “proper investigative journalist” on the Sunday People back in the Seventies. Piers’s first introduction to Fleet Street was through his grandfather’s connections with friends such as Brian Hitchin, then editor of the Star.

Dublin, he says, feels like his spiritual home… “my best nights out have been there at Lily’s Bordello [which turns out to be a nightclub, rather disappointingly, not a brothel]. I do actually feel quite Irish – the blarney and the craic and all that – and I’ve got lots of Irish cousins and I like Irish people very much and feel a certain affinity with them.”

Morgan was brought up as a Catholic and went to church most Sundays. He describes his mother, Gabrielle, who is a part of the Cantopher clan as “very Irish who has remained a pretty devout Catholic whereas I’ve become less so”. He still prays when times get tough and he is a definite believer. Does he suffer from Catholic guilt? He says not although he has become more reflective “now that I’m calmer and less in that volatile cauldron of competitive tabloid nonsense”. He’s suddenly a bit worried about how this will look, saying, “You know I’m not a Sinead O’Connor in a male wig, if that’s what you’re getting at. I don’t want to overdo my devoutness because I think a proper devout Catholic would see me as pretty lapsed – it’s just that my whole family, apart from my dad, are believers and that’s the way we were brought up.” He describes getting instruction from nuns when he was a small boy “which I rather liked, actually”. Now this is a revelation. What was it that he liked? “You’d just go along and chat for an hour and I liked the purity of the nuns and their pure view of life and the world. It was nice.” Is there any way that could be seen to have a bearing on his life now, I ask somewhat doubtfully. “I don’t think that I’ve led such a pure life as those nuns, no. But I thought there was an idealistic side to them that was rather nice, you know. Always looking for the good in people is a nice trait to have.”

Talking about his natural father makes him feel uncomfortable because he’s worried that it will seem as though he is downgrading his relationship with the man who brought him up – “And, you know, he’s been absolutely incredible. He took on two young boys when he was in his twenties and did a great job for us. All four of us children [he has two younger siblings through his mother’s second marriage] had a lovely upbringing and a lot of fun. It wasn’t privileged and we didn’t have much money but we had a great time.”

Morgan is extremely close to his grandmother, Margot, known as Grande to whom he dedicates the new book: “To Grande, my
incomparable grandmother.” She was largely responsible for looking after her grandchildren when Morgan’s parents were working “unbelievably long hours, catering to maybe 200 people a day” running a pub, the Griffin Inn in Fletching, seven days a week.

When Grande had a stroke some years back, Morgan converted the garage of his half of the family house (a Grade II Georgian wreck, set in six acres, which Morgan’s parents had done up slowly over the years), so that she could be looked after. “She was living on her own in Shoreham on the beach and I thought, ‘I’ve got a big garage, why not just convert it into a lovely little cottage for her?’ And now she’s back on fighting form and it’s a bit like the Waltons. There’s my granny and mum and dad next door and then my brothers and sister all come down with their tribes and at night it’s “Goodnight, Grandma” [cheesy American accent] and I love it. And I’m totally unashamed about it because I like having a close family.”

Before we move on to the present-day Piers, there is one last incident from his childhood which is illuminating. Like all his siblings, Morgan’s education was a mixture of private and state; Jeremy and Piers went from a prep school to the local comp, while Rupert and Charlotte did it the other way round. Morgan reckons that he and his older brother got the better deal. “I think my education was, in many ways, perfect. I went to a great prep school until I was 13 and then I got my snobbish creases ironed out [at Chailey, near Lewes] where some of the kids did give me a hard time for being a posh twit. [His younger siblings suffered a lot of snobbery, he says, having come from the state sector.]”

I wonder whether he was bashed around? “Yeah, a bit,” he says, naming a boy called Gideon Short (what’s the betting he was teased?) who had an orange mohican and another kid in particular, John Surret, who had done some boxing training in Canada. Morgan can still vividly remember getting off the school bus outside his house and slugging it out in the street. “The first couple of punches when he smacked me in the face were really bad. But after that I became completely immune to the pain and didn’t feel anything else. And I think that’s not bad as a template for life, really – the first couple of blows hurt, and then after that it’s fine. And you just have to keep in there fighting.”

Years ago, I spent a riotous evening with Piers, after he had given a most unentertaining speech which went on interminably and ended up with him being jeered off the stage (even though he had funded the event). It was at the height of his tabloid madness, and a group of us piled into Mirror-chauffered limousines and went from club to club dancing into the early hours and quaffing champagne paid for presumably by Morgan’s expense account. It was enormous fun but did have a slightly excessive Scorsese-Coppola feel about it. When I mention that it’s somewhat nerve-wracking that he tends to dissect his interviews in his books, he growls with a Corleone look: “Yes, you gotta show me respect.”

Although he does remember that long night, it was clearly one of many and his life – just as well – is no longer like that. “It’s different now. I’m calmer now,” he says again, “and I don’t feel the need to get wrecked like I used to.”

In Los Angeles, where Morgan spends about two and a half months filming America’s Got Talent, he has a ferocious German trainer who feeds him dreadful purging potions and is very “big on the burrrrrrrn”. He goes to the gym a lot, and has lost almost a stone which shows more in person than on unforgiving telly where he still looks a bit jowly and puffy. So will he be getting American teeth and all that jazz? Absolutely not, Morgan is horrified by the idea. Cowell “who obviously has had all that stuff” has bet him a $100 that he will succumb to the knife or Botox at some stage… “and I have resolutely said that the day that happens, I’m out of here – because I’m quite happy with the way I look, thank you.”

But it’s a different sort of training in Morgan’s life that’s really interesting. His new girlfriend, Celia – with whom Piers is clearly very smitten indeed – has made him put ten bookshelves up in his flat to accommodate her essential reading list. It’s not that he was anti-books, he says, “it’s just that from the age of 21, I was on The Sun and rampaging around seven days a week.” What he’s learnt recently, he says, is the pleasure of quietly listening to music of an evening – be it Snow Patrol or Tschaikovsky and going to art galleries, travelling for the sake of it and “walking in parks and stuff”.

He’s just finished reading Madame Bovary and then there’s the complete works of Shakespeare – a gift from the girlfriend “a beautiful bound thing”, and lots of Dickens and Hemingway and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and “In the next five years, I’d like to have read the hundred great classics,” Morgan says. “I want to immerse myself in the great works of literature because I never had the time or the patience to do it before.”

What really draws him to Walden, Morgan says, isn’t her undeniable prettiness – “I’ve never really been attracted to people just because of the way they look” – nor her accomplishments (she speaks French, Russian and Italian fluently and has her first “beautifully written” novel coming out shortly) but the fact that she’s always roaring with laughter: “She has a lovely sunny disposition and I find that very appealing.”

It’s just as well that she has a sense of humour because she’ll certainly need one if she’s to hang in with Morgan in the years to come. I ask him how he’s going to cope if he becomes absolutely huge celebrity-wise. “What do you mean if?” he says, with mock-outrage, and then proceeds to tell me about his last Christmas in Barbados.

There’s this bloke buried up to the neck in sand who worked for an agency Morgan always used when he was at The Mirror. And our man is tipped off from someone else on the beach that the snapper has been taking photos of him and the girlfriend walking up and down the beach. “So I walk over to him and he’s stuck there with some sort of camouflage over his head, and his great big lens and looking very sheepish and I said, ‘Mate, you’re gonna have to do better than that. This is my game you’re at.’ So I tell him to show me the pictures and I said, ‘You’ll never sell these.’ And he said, ‘I already have, mate.’ And so he’d taken the pictures, sent them back to his office and sold them all in three minutes.” Well, talk about the papper papped.

Do you think, Piers, you’re ever going to have a sense of humour failure? “Of course I will,” he says. “If they get a picture of me looking fat on a beach I’m going to be absolutely incandescent at the brand damage this will cause!”

There’s no question that the papper papped is having the time of his life after the initial strangeness of being a bit lost in LA without all the familar buffers of old friends and family. But he is under no illusions about the ephemeral nature of his new fame: “It’s great fun and you’re treated brilliantly over there but it’s a very brutal world and if the ratings dip, you know the game – you’re sent back on economy. But I can cope with that very easily. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d think what a great laugh that was and come home and do something else.”

* * *

Don’t You Know Who I Am? Insider Diaries of Fame, Power and Naked Ambition by Piers Morgan is published by Ebury Press, and is available from BooksFirst

priced £16.19 (RRP £17.99), free p&p on 0870 160 8080;

Celebrities, Writers

For the sake of integrity, keep the PR meisters at bay

Times Online – February 22, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

A few weeks ago, this paper was offered an interview with the actress Uma Thurman, which, in turn, was offered to me. Actors do not generally feature high on my wish list of prospective subjects but Thurman is one of the exceptions.

I’ve liked her performances from her early role as an ingénue in Dangerous Liaisons to the druggy socialite in Pulp Fiction and the kick-ass heroine of Kill Bill. On the relatively rare occasions that she has appeared on TV chat shows, she comes across as smart and engaged. Her background is intriguing: daughter of the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (Uma is named after a Hindu deity), and Nena, an actress-turned-psychotherapist whose father, Baron Karl Von Schlebrugge, was jailed by the Nazis for refusing to betray his Jewish business partners.

Uma’s brothers also have unusual names – Ganden, Dechen and Mipam. I was wondering what they do and what it was like for her growing up with three brothers: did they gang up on her or make her feel like a princess? If she had older brothers, did she date their friends – and if so, did her siblings ever have to protect her reputa-tion? Did she feel beautiful as she was growing up or were those sort of superficial values frowned upon in her home? Did her mother try to warn her against becoming an actress or support her? Does she have anything to do with the notorious semen-and-spit-fixated New York vagabond artist Dash Snow, who is her step-nephew? Is she polit-ical? Is she spiritual? Does she read? How does she see her career unfolding once she hits 40?

It is quite possible, of course, that Uma Thurman may not have wanted to discuss some or, indeed, any of these questions. But I am confident, having been at this game for some time, that after we had discussed the particular project she was being asked to promote (something to do with Pirelli), given a reasonable slot of an hour or so – we would have moved on to more interesting territory. As it happened, the Uma interview fell in the week that I was to embark on a term of teaching postgraduate journalism students at City University – the fast track to a career on one of the national newspapers – about the craft, graft and pitfalls of the celebrity interview.

Part of my job, I felt, was to warn them about how restrictive and compromised this part of the industry had become. How would they feel about such issues as copy control (when the subject’s “people” demand to see the article prepublication as a condition of giving the go-ahead); how they would handle the situation if their subjects unburdened themselves and then announced that this was “off the record”; their willingness to go on a press junket (where the travel and accommodation – often enticingly luxurious – is paid by the promoter not the newspaper and the journalists lob their questions en masse, sometimes to an image of the subject projected on a screen, a “virtual” interview, which appears on the page as an intimate one-to-one encounter)?

Proper journalists, I wanted to tell them, refuse to go along with any of the above. But something fundamental has changed in the time since I started interviewing famous people 20-odd years ago, when it was relatively straighforward compared with the hoop-jumping rigmarole that is increasingly the norm now.

One of the problems with teaching young people about interviewing celebrities is that it is difficult to advise them what approach they should take to get on. Should I tell them what a joy it is to interview the divas of Hollywood – Shirley, say, or Liz – who will talk madly, deeply, and sometimes eloquently about their extraordinary lives, when it is Scarlett or Penelope who will make the cover regardless of how little they have to say?

I remember laughing (albeit ruefully) some years back when Graydon Carter, Editor of Vanity Fair, criticised for catering to the mad demands of Hollywood agents, retorted that he would no more think of running a warts-and-all celebrity encounter than he would consider clubbing a baby seal.

At the time, against what was then the prevailing conservative climate of America, Carter was devoting a great number of pages – between the celebrity puffs – to unglamorous in-depth pieces investigating the build-up to the war.

It is easy to think that it’s far more important to take on the Bush Administration than battle with the control freaks who rule Hollywood.

But this is not right. The quality of truth should not be strained. Any journalism worth reading, regardless of the perceived weight of the subject, should be concerned with conveying as honest an account as it is possible to tell. It may sound rather solemn but I believe, regardless of how entertaining or anodyne you wish to make your article, that an essential bond of trust exists between the writer and the reader. Any journalist who allows the public relations machine to mould and dictate what he or she writes has crossed over to the other side and thereby betrays not only the reader but also their colleagues.

Big Brother or do you actually care?

The question is whether the readers care or are supremely indifferent. Do you think you can you tell when an interview has been doctored? Is it worth us celebrity freedom fighters persisting with the good fight, or would you prefer to watch Celebrity Big Brother for your dose of reality?

Please e-mail me your views so that I can pass them on to the students who will almost certainly be doing what I do in the near future. . . if it’s worth their while.

In case you were wondering, the Uma interview did not happen. Pirelli had agreed to fly me business class (Yes!) and put me up in the proverbial five-star hotel for three nights. Videos were ordered and watched. Cuttings were compiled and read. Then the PR became increasingly elusive and the last we heard was that all the Italian journos were being flown to New York, where they would enjoy a full five-minute audience with La Uma. (“Tell us please what you have discovered about tyres?”) The Times no longer had the promised hour, but we could still bask in our exclusive bonanza of ten whole minutes. We declined.

Toxic interviews

News of the Uma debacle soon travelled around City University and my views were sought by a student working on a piece about the environmental cost of the journalist. She was particularly interested in PRs who were willing to send hacks long distances for extremely short interviews. Could the threat to the environment end production-line journalism and would this ultimately benefit the reader? Discuss.

Celebrities, Sport, Women

Game, set and in shape for more

THE TIMES – May 27, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Tennis champion Martina Navratilova is so passionate about keeping fit that she’s written a book about it. She tells Ginny Dougary about life as a bionic woman.

There’s something faintly discombobulating about coming face to face with a legend from your youth and discovering that she is almost exactly the same age (bar one day) as you are now. In 1978, when Martina Navratilova won the first of her nine Wimbledon singles titles — an unbeaten record — I was still a layabout student. Throughout the Eighties, while she was smashing her way into tennis history, others of us were travelling or having babies, or working out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives.
If people wonder at the marvel of Madonna’s physique — another contemporary, give or take a year — how much more marvellous is it that Navratilova made her comeback at 46, three years ago, in a sport that routinely spits out players who are decades younger? In January 2003 she won the Australian Open mixed doubles (with Leander Paes), making her the oldest winner, male or female, of a Grand Slam title.

That year she also won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, tieing a record 20 Wimbledon titles held by Billie Jean King.

Navratilova does not, suffice to say, suffer from self-doubt. She is an engaging and popular figure but humour is probably not her strongest suit. She does not do frivolity and appears as discombobulated, in turn, by the manner of some of my questions. At one point when she gives me a severe look, I explain that I am only being light-hearted, and she replies: “Oh good. You see, I take myself too seriously.” When I begin to say that she may be a miracle bionic person, she insists, without a trace of irony: “I am. I am.” She tells me that when she was still battling away at 35, a commentator asked Billie Jean how long Navratilova could possibly keep going like this, to which King replied: “With her body, ’til she’s 50, for sure.” “And here I am. So she was right.” Navratilova’s body, as much as that of any other superb athlete, is her livelihood. There is a way in which she defines herself by it, but it is also something oddly detached from her, like a streamlined machine that she feels she has a responsibility to service. “My body needs to move to feel good,” she says. “Just to exist. Like a racehorse, it’s got to run.” But the message of her new “self-help book” is that we, too, can have a body if not like hers, at least one that functions to the best of its ability.

We meet in her rented apartment next to the Spanish Steps in Rome, where she is playing doubles in the Italian Open Tennis Tournament. She is, as ever, focused on her game and looks nonplussed when I ask whether she’s had a chance to check out the house next door, where Keats and Shelley lived. I was expecting light and luxe and gorgeous views from the balcony overlooking the cobbled piazza below, but we sit in a dark, airless room, with unapppealing furnishings. She is in tracksuit and socks, nursing a dodgy right knee (the left one underwent surgery recently), and has none of the blonde highlights or artful make-up of recent photographs. I am the last person to expect a woman of substance to conform to this sort of glamorous stereotype, but the whole atmosphere feels a bit, well, Eastern bloc, as we sit there cradling our plastic bottles of water in the gloom.

She is direct. When I say that I am not a great reader of these sorts of books, as she can probably tell, she laughs (perfectly pleasantly) and says: “You may be happy with the weight you are, which is fine, but most people aren’t.” This probably sounds harsher than it felt because she is pragmatic about such matters rather than judgmental. Besides, when she defected to the United States from Czechoslovakia, at 19, and discovered the joys of junk food, she was branded “The Great Wide Hope”. “That wasn’t rude,” she says. “It was honest, because I was.” For years, her body has been a temple of purity and, as such, she seems to be remarkably vulnerable to any pollution.

The conundrum being that superwoman though she undoubtedly is, she may be less robust than us lesser mortals. “Dairy,” for instance, “really knocks me down big-time.” Wheat? “It’s OK, but it sends me to sleep.” If she has more than a couple of sips of red wine (which she says she loves but it doesn’t love her), she feels terrible. Smoking (cigarettes), of course, is a complete no-no. Dope? “I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say I dabbled.” (A big giggle.) She got a terrible lurgy from mould in her suitcases when they became waterlogged at Heathrow in the storms of 2004; a story she recounts, with a measure of aggravated pleasure, furnishing minute details of the dampness that had permeated layers of leather grips on her tennis rackets.

Her book, Shape Your Self (an inspirational guide to achieving your personal best), may be a daunting title, but it’s not a daunting read. Navratilova’s entirely sensible view is that “most people know what they should and should not be doing, it’s just that they don’t know how to get there”. She says: “I think it talks to people, not at them. It’s humorous; there are stories (from her own life) that people can relate to and I give people the tools with which they can make little bitty steps, without feeling deprived or stressed.” She is passionately pro organic and raw foods, and anti GM and pesticides. When she goes to people’s houses, she tells me, she always opens their refrigerators to see what they’re eating, and believes that if she can motivate people to get informed about what they’re putting into their bodies, “this might be the most important thing I have ever done”.

There is no doubting her sincerity and that her motivation to write the book was to help people: “I actually tell people not to tell their friends to buy the book; figure it out and pass it on. I really don’t care if a hundred thousand copies sell or a million, as long as it helps as many people as possible.” The tone of the book is far from hectoring, but I wonder whether she finds herself lecturing people in person: “I do have a tendency that way, but I try not to. I’m strong and to the point. I don’t bullshit around. I say ‘here’s the deal; this is what they do to these animals and if you don’t want to know so that you don’t feel guilty about eating it, then probably you shouldn’t be eating it and you probably should know.’” (This had nil effect on her friend and old rival Chris Evert, who listened politely to Navratilova’s lecture about not “eating babies” before turning to the waiter and saying: “And I’d like my lamb medium rare.”) I ask Navratilova whether she would be as forthright with someone in a position of power and influence: “I don’t know that many powerful, influential people, but I’m sure I would.” Would she, for instance, tell the Queen that “a whole bunch of homeless people could use your fur coat; I’m sure you have another option to keep warm”. (As she has been known to say to others.) “I think that’ s where you draw the line. You do not tell the Queen what to do! But I think I would tease her because she’s got a good sense of humour. The Queen is a very cool woman.”

While she enjoyed her mini-retirement, taking up woodwork, snowboarding and flying lessons, Navratilova slackened off on her fitness regimen and both she and her body rebelled: “I was pissed off that I had all this time, but I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do because I was too tired and out of shape.” So while she continued to play soccer and basketball and river swimming (she doesn’t care to do laps in a pool), she also returned to the treadmill and thence to the tennis courts. “Once I was back in shape, I thought I might as well play because I’m ready to go, and it seemed a waste of talent if I didn’t.” Does she have high self-esteem? “I have my feet on the ground, pretty firmly planted, although sometimes I float off and think I’m better than I am. I have a healthy self-esteem. I know what my strengths are and my weaknesses and I’m willing to admit them, but perhaps not in public,” she laughs.

Being in tip-top condition is no guarantee, apparently, for a trouble-free menopause. Navratilova says she’s bang in the middle of it, with hot flushes, sleepless nights and mood swings. She’s been using a hormone cream to help with the former but still suffers from the latter. “My honey says, ‘You’re over-reacting’, and I say, ‘I have a right to be pissed off, you know!’ So now I think I have to take a chill pill when I get irritable, but at least I have an excuse.”

The couple have been an item for the past six years but the tennis champion’s partner prefers to remain anonymous. She says that if she’d had her way she would have kept a Greta Garbo veil of secrecy over all her previous paramours: “But I wanted them to be with me when I was playing tennis, so they became public. You know, I wasn’t hiding anything but neither was I throwing it in anybody’s faces.”

The most public of her relationships was her seven-year stretch with Judy Nelson, a former Texan beauty queen, who left her husband for Navratilova. The break-up led to a messy palimony suit and worldwide press coverage. It may be ancient history — the couple split 15 years ago — but Navratilova still feels incredibly bitter about the fallout (see her book extract overleaf.) I wonder why she felt compelled to revisit such painful territory in what is, after all, a diet and exercise book. “I wanted to tell people because they think I’ve had this wonderful life, but I’ve had my problems. I’ve had my share of disappointments and that was a big one, “she says. “This person was not who I thought she was.” She is clearly torn between wanting to keep a discreet silence about the end of the affair and feeling compelled to explain her sense of betrayal.

“Look, let’s just say we had problems and she (Judy) said, ‘Oh, it’s all about your tennis. There’s nothing wrong with us.’ And there was something wrong with us, but because she was ten years older, I deferred to her. After we split and I started going to therapy, that’s when I realised that there had been something wrong with our relationship. When you split up and they want half of everything you made because, according to her, she did everything but hit the ball. Well, excuse me, I was hitting that ball before we got together. It’s not like she contributed to me being able to do this. She said that ‘if you leave me all I ever want are the dogs’, but when we split her philosophy changed. Her actions and her words did not match.”

So you’re clearly not exactly friendly. “No, but it’s not because of the split. We’re not friends because she totally betrayed me, and sold her story to the National Enquirer about stuff which was extremely private a year after we split up.”

Her birth father committed suicide shortly after leaving his wife when their daughter Martina was small. But she has no depressive tendencies, she says. “I’ve had dark moments, but who hasn’t? I’m not a brooder and I don’t look to the past, always to the future, perhaps to a fault.” She’s learning to be more diplomatic and better at seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
Is it inevitable that if you strive to achieve something exceptional in life that you are bound to be a bit selfish? “To a degree, yes, but I think you can do it without being a prima donna or a jerk. But you do have to say, ‘OK, for me to win Wimbledon this year, I need to be able to practise, and that means I can’t go out to dinner tonight because I’ll be too tired.’ So that’s the selfish bit.” Spiritual rather than religious — “you know, I’m not a born-again or anything like that” — Navratilova had to give up meditating when she found that it impeded rather than aided her concentration on the tennis court. “You need to keep doing it to get to that higher level of consciousness. You know, the ninjas when they fight they go into this shhhhheeeeoooough zone, where everything moves in slow motion. Well, I didn’t get to that point.

Not that I would want to hurt anybody with a ball that way. But I was, like (adopting a trippy, space-cadety voice), ‘Oh, another double fault. Well, it’s no big deal.’ So I had to stop meditating because I got too mellow.”

Finally, I ask her one of my last devil’s advocate questions; “You’re full of them,” she grins. Is it not natural to experience a certain amount of fatigue as one gets older? I mean, what’s so bad about taking a nap? “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with taking naps. I love doing that. In fact, one of my best naps ever was at Wimbledon one year. It was a Friday and it had rained all afternoon,” a dreamy expression softens her chiselled face, “and the whole house slept for a couple of hours. It was the best frigging nap probably of my whole life. I still remember it.”

See Quiet on the court, please, for an extract from Martina Navratilova’s new book, Shape Your Self

Celebrities, Music

Who wants to be good?

THE TIMES – March 9, 2006
Ginny Dougary

30 years after the birth of punk, Malcolm McLaren reveals that his gran invented it — and taught him the virtues of being bad

In the age of the soundbite, Malcolm McLaren is an anachronism. Ask him a question and he’ll tell you a long and meandering story. The stories are never ordinary since his is a life marked by improbability and melo- drama. There’s a strong whiff of theatricality about the man who spent his childhood sitting at the feet of his grandmother, Rose, while she read Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol to him again and again. As he narrates, he turns into the characters he is describing — adopting their voices and accents: a plodding northern brogue for his ex-partner-in-punk, the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood; a Warren Mitchell Jewish archetype for his grandmother, wheedling and hectoring, while she gleefully wreaks havoc through her family’s life; a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten.

Something else happens as you get drawn into his atmospheric swirl — the walk-on parts of the likes of Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney in unlikely guises; the discovery of a missing father in the mists of the Romney Marshes; the confusion of tenderness on seeing Joe Corre, McLaren and Westwood’s son, cradling the duo’s newborn granddaughter, Cora . . . You watch the 60-year-old, tweed-suited McLaren, cherubic russet curls now shorn and a shade between chestnut and grey, while the images that he is conjuring flicker cinematically in your mind’s eye, and you can’t help but think what an extraordinary movie his life story would make.
He is currently preoccupied with quite a different film — a fictionalised account of Fast Food Nation, the exposé of America’s fast-food industry. McLaren picked the book up five or six years ago, just before it started to creep up The New York Times’s bestseller list, and became convinced that it should be turned into a big Hollywood film playing in shopping malls all over the US rather than a high-intentioned documentary screened in a few arthouse cinemas.

Consequently the film he is co-producing with fellow Brit Jeremy Thomas — who he worked with years ago on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle — stars Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson and is directed by Richard “School of Rock” Linklater. The film-makers are planning to show it at Cannes in May.

For anyone buying into the McLaren mythol- ogy — he has been variously described as “the most evil man on earth” (Johnny Rotten) and “amoral” (by almost everyone else) — it is interesting that the creator of a movement associated with nihilistic anarchy should even concern himself with the conditions of animals, workers, and what goes into our bellies. But then McLaren is full of surprises, not least of which is that with a background like his, he didn’t end up a serial killer.

“Oh, those were the very words of my second major girlfriend, Lauren Hutton [the gorgeous gap-toothed model and actress] in Hollywood,” McLaren beams. “That’s exactly what she said” — presumably just before marching him off to a therapist.

McLaren is here ostensibly to discuss punk’s 30th birthday, and it is fitting that much of our conversation revolves around Rose — Malcolm’s grandmother, who is also the grandmother, it becomes clear, of punk rock itself.

Rose Corre came from a wealthy family of Portuguese-Dutch diamond dealers. She was a thwarted actress with a strongly rebellious streak who filled her home in Highbury, North London, with bohemians and gays.

Agatha Christie was one of her friends and the writer’s housekeeper used to come to stay when Christie went off on her foreign travels. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops was apparently a protégée of Malcolm’s grandmother, who paid for the young Proops to take drawing lessons at Hackney Art College and thereafter found her a job at the Daily Mirror.

All of which sounds rather generous-spirited and fun, but less so when you hear how Corre manipulated her family by keeping them distant or suffocatingly close or paying them to go away. She had married a man, a master tailor, whom she couldn’t stand, refusing to take his surname (Isaacs) and banishing him to a house down the road; she also loathed her daughter, Emily, who lived next door and who hated being a mother, in turn, and left her sons to be brought up by their grandmother: “My mother might as well have been a stranger, or a sort of strange aunt who visited once a week.”

Peter McLaren, the father of Malcolm and his older brother, Stewart, was handed a sum of money by Rose and told to disappear — which he did so effectively that it wasn’t until Malcolm was 45 that he managed to track him down.

With his curls and pale, milky skin, Malcolm was encouraged by his grandmother to dress like a girl and share her bed — not when he was little but around the age of 14. What was that about? “I’ll tell you very simply — it wasn’t anything sinister,” he says. “It was just that she didn’t want me sharing a room with my brother. She didn’t want me to have a relationship with anyone except her.” While Stewart was left to his own devices, staying out all hours, and leaving school at 15 to become a taxi driver, Rose lavished her attention on her younger grandson, moulding him to create mayhem.

“The effect of growing up in a family that never wanted to be a family is that it’s very difficult for you to behave in a normal way,” McLaren says. “To respect elders. To respect any form of authority. I think if you have clear parental figures in your life, you get to know at a very early age who to listen to and who not to listen to and how to behave.

“My grandmother used me to take out her dysfunctional upbringing on the world. She used to say, ‘You know, Malcolm, it’s very difficult to be bad. You’ve got to work at it. But then again . . . who wants to be good?’ That’s a phrase that haunted me from the age of 5 or 6 onwards.

“She was extremely possessive and forbade me to have anything to do with girls from the age of 13 but if I was the worst-behaved person at a friend’s house or causing tremendous problems at school, that was all fine. She would go to the headmistress and say, ‘Boys will be boys. What’s wrong with what he’s doing? If he drives me crazy, I just bash him with my handbag. So I don’t know what your problem is’.” He says this approach led to him being on the verge of being sent to a special-needs school but his grandmother decided to have him home-tutored for several years instead; the better to indoctrinate him in her wayward ways.

When I ask McLaren what he considers his proudest achievement, he says: “The moment when I was able to imitate my grandmother’s imagination. It was what ultimately inspired me to go to art school in the first place and discover a new way of looking at life and then putting it into practice. I would be creating what I thought she would . . .” he thinks. “You see, my grandmother really loved chaos and really loved discomfort.

When she thought everybody was uncomfortable that was always most attractive to her because that was when she thought people really revealed themselves. And I always believed in that aspect.

“What you have to understand is that as much as it seems ridiculous, if it’s all you know — then it’s everything else outside of it which seems ridiculous, which means you’re always going to be a loner.”

What kept him from going completely off the rails, he believes, was finding the wherewithall to use all his hothoused trouble-making to productive ends: “You find ways to make whatever it is causing trouble — which is the thing you constantly got rewarded for — to use it creatively . . . so my idea was to create trouble since that was how I was brought up. I was absolutely born to be a punk rocker. It was inevitable. Blood’s thicker than water, so what can you do? It’s rooted in you, baby, it’s like that’s the tree. You will go to the grave with that. You have to make sense of it, and making sense of that for me was making punk rock.”

The details of his background become more picaresque the longer McLaren talks, and more implausible, if possible. He reminds me of another freckle-faced, fanciful storyteller — Jeanette Winterson; they share the same delight in recounting the strangeness of the worlds they grew up in.

Malcolm’s father, so despised by his reluctant mother-in-law, was nevertheless hidden in Rose Corre’s cellar during the war (in which he didn’t wish to fight), became her driver and helped her to run a black market scam, stealing cars and renting them out. Fagin, after all, was her hero. Was it the money that was important to her? “Partly, but what was more important to her was to have these kind of rogueish lives. She loved it.”

Once Peter McLaren had outlived his usefulness, he was paid off to get lost: “We had never seen a photograph of him, our name had been changed to Edwards (the name of Malcolm’s mother and stepfather’s chain of clothes shops). He was rubbed out of our lives.” It was Lauren Hutton, during McLaren’s stint as court jester-cum-ideas man for Steven Spielberg, who persuaded her maverick boyfriend that it would be worthwhile for him to try to find his father.

First, Malcolm resolved to confront the mother he hadn’t seen for more than 20 years: “I said to my brother, ‘Look, if we can find our father, if he is still alive, maybe we’ll have the last piece of the jigsaw and it will help us to understand everything. Because right now, Stewart, I’m 45 and I think I should know what it is that our mother had a major problem with and then we can understand how we came to be who we were . . . these kids who were not wanted and brought up in the most dysfunctional way’.”

The reunion with the boys and their mother was not a success. It was Christmas in St Albans, at Stewart McLaren’s home, and Malcolm was so terrified at the prospect of seeing his mother that he hid in the bathroom when she arrived: “Ludicrous, I know, but there were obviously psychological problems.” Over dinner, “a sober affair”, the brothers demanded to know who their father was and where he was, saying it was time she told them the truth. But their mother became extremely upset and made up some story about him having gone off to Australia. Later, she followed Malcolm into the kitchen and started to swear at him: “She said I looked the spitting image of my grandmother, who was the most hideous woman who ever lived on the planet, and as it was getting a bit over the edge, I decided to leave.” Three weeks later, the McLarens’ mother — Emily Isaacs (she kept her father’s surname to spite her mother) — died of a heart attack.
The jigsaw was finally completed not long after when Peter McLaren’s wife, Barbara, contacted a newspaper in which Malcolm had said what he wanted more than anything was to be reunited with his father. The brothers were driven by a chauffeur in a limousine provided by CBS, with whom McLaren was signed at the time, to a remote part of Romney Marshes — Miss Havisham-land — where the fog from the ocean rolls in. They met at their father ’s greasy-spoon shack of a café, The Oasis, with its abandoned garage of old petrol pumps from the 1930s and clientele of Hell’s Angels.

Was the meeting emotional? “Of course, you would be, yes. You were curious. You were scared . . . There was this guy with a shotgun and an alsatian, wearing a pair of white Levi jeans, and an emerald-green shirt, with very flaxen-grey hair, small, with an incredibly lined face — a bit like that guy W. H. Auden, and I thought, this is a well-travelled man with a really weather-beaten sailor’s face.” But, as it turned out, Peter McLaren had never left the country and didn’t even own a passport. According to the Home Office, he didn’t exist. He led his sons up a fire escape and into the top floor of the building, where he and his wife lived, and took out a wooden box filled with photographs, one of which was of him and their mother at the age of 16. “She looked very dark and good-looking and deeply Jewish and he was moustachioed and dapper and Errol Flynn-ish,” he says. Stewart was not impressed by their whisky-drinking father and didn’t really want to see him again. Malcolm persisted half-a-dozen times more and met up with his half-brother, Ian, who was a Cambridge professor of para-psychology.

In all Malcolm McLaren’s incredible life, what I am most struck by is how much his own son, Joe Corre (owner with his wife, Serena, of the lingerie shops Agent Provocateur) longs for the warmth of a close-knit family. But McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, bumping into her only at the occasional fashion show, although her name is the one he mentions when I ask him if he’s ever really loved a woman.

“I find it hard to look at people as people that you are meant to love,” he says. “I think it’s the way our early lives began. My grandmother formed me into someone for whom the world was one you would have to create alone, your own anti-world in which you would really have your own rules so you could never really behave as if you were a parent.

“And I think I have the words ‘willing prey’ stamped on my forehead because if you don’t have strong enough connections to family, you’re always looking for connection. You are very open, and so some people get attached to you very quickly and get very possessive of you because you’re easily possessed. And then you’re also easily able to discard and people get very hurt by that, which is a problem I’ve found during my life. So it’s not that you prostitute yourself, you just don’t quite have that sense of belonging. “You don’t quite have that ability to be loyal to your friends.”

Despite how this sounds, McLaren insists that it’s Westwood who is the cold fish, not him. “Oh no, I’m quite the opposite,” he says. Passionate? “Oh yeah, I’m a cheap date.” All he can remember about Joe when he was born was that he was big and strong. “But Vivienne was astonishing. I thought she looked very beautiful and I thought the kid was adorable,” he recalls.

The 18-year-old father, who had lost his virginity to Westwood (grandmother Rose, whose view was that it was a straightforward case of entrapment, gave Malcolm the money for a termination but Vivienne bought a cashmere twinset from Bond Street instead) was also admonished by the nurse for turning up three days late: “Are you a long-distance lorry driver or something?” He was there in the hospital, however, for his granddaughter’s birth: “And it was kind of extraordinary — Joe coming out full of tears, holding this baby. He’s such a different person and he just adores family. That’s what he adores.”

So will you make an effort for his sake? “I think that is something that I’m beginning to face. It concerns me, probably more than it ever has in my entire life and times, with him and without him, and I’m attempting — I think that’s the best word to use — to try to help, if it’s not too late. You know, Joe’s heading to become 40 any minute now.” Attempting to help what, exactly? “ To make him feel appreciated. Simple as that, really. I don’t think he does for some reason.”

Oh dear, time’s up and Young Kim, McLaren’s assistant and girlfriend, a Yale-educated Korean-American, sends word that they need to catch the Eurostar back to Paris. We’ve barely covered punk, but is there really anything new to say about it? McLaren says the anniversary is a complete marketing ploy, but it’s also presumably a nice little earner for him, so he’s happy to play along.

He’s amusing about this latest celebration being held in a department store, “but then entertainment and shopping have joined to become one culture”, he supposes. “You might as well create a new word, ‘shoppertainment’, since department stores have almost taken on the role of becoming cultural temples. You know, some people will queue up to go to the Tate Modern, some of them will queue to go to the British Museum, but most will simply go shopping.” In our quick romp through the early days of punk, there are a couple of scandalous revelations. Although they were surrounded by drug-taking, neither he nor Vivienne was much interested: “We both experimented with heroin once in an apartment in Grosvenor Square. But we never touched it again.”

He describes John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) as “a bit of a buffoon who was a very good boy trying to be a bad boy”. And tells scurrilous stories about the late Nancy Spungen rolling around with Johnny and the late Sid, “who was definitely a little gay, no question about it”, in the kitchen of the Mayfair hotel suite of a hooker who was turning tricks. How Sid was the real star of the Sex Pistols, “because it’s always the great stars who look vulnerable”, and how Vivienne always thought he should have been the lead singer of the band from when she first spotted Vicious in their World’s End clothes shop, SEX, and how Sid’s lawyer recommended that his client should go jogging, “get a ****ing dog” and a new girlfriend, preferably a librarian . . . none of which McLaren was able to convince Vicious to do. And how Sid was “willing prey”, too, and John Lydon, and how all the creatures in the Sex Pistols were dysfunctional and would never have ended up in that band had they not been: “They didn’t really have anywhere else to go, you see. They needed a Fagin and a mentor.”

But what I like far more are the glimpses of domestic life far away from the fetish wear — Malcolm and Joe being dispatched at night with a torch to pick dandelions on Clapham Common for Vivienne to tranform into coffee as part of the family’s macrobiotic diet: “We all came out with boils on our backs, which made us feel extremely unattractive.” Malcolm and Vivienne, while she was still a schoolteacher, taking the city kids to the country, where he would use his skills as a former Boy Scout to light a fire and cook a sausage or two.

McLaren is feeling older and more vulnerable these days, he says, but also clearer and able to make better decisions. Which is not to suggest that he is becoming a wiser or a better person. Heaven forbid. For if he is sure of anything, it is that he is still very much his grandmother’s grandson: “To this day, I’ve never felt that anything she’s said has been wrong. It is hard to be bad. You do have to work at it. And, yes, she’s right. Who wants to be good? Tony Blair’s good, and he’s horrible.

“Whenever I’ve not listened to authority, I’ve always felt much more attractive as a person and I’ve always felt that the decisions I’ve made may have been hellish or extremely provocative or confrontational, but ultimately they’ve been pretty worthwhile.

“And so, yes, I prefer to be bad.”


The McLaren file

1946 Born in London

1972 Opens Let It Rock store on the Kings Road with Vivienne Westwood, selling 1950s clothes and memorabilia

1974 First hears the New York Dolls. Let It Rock becomes punk shop SEX

1975 Begins managing the Sex Pistols

1976 Sex Pistols signed by EMI

1978 Sex Pistols split up

1979 Restyles Adam and the Ants; forms Bow Wow Wow with 14-year-old singer Annabella Lwin

1980 The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is released

1983 Releases Duck Rock, a combination of world music and hip-hop Early 1990s Lives in Hollywood, dates model Lauren Hutton and works with Steven Spielberg

Celebrities, Women

Hostess with the mostest

THE TIMES – February 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Davina McCall may host shows at the tackier end of the television spectrum, but her appeal lies in a naughty, but oddly wholesome niceness. As she takes on BBC One’s primetime chat-show slot, Ginny Dougary meets a former wild child who has turned her bad times to spectacular good.

She’s clearly not Essexy, like Denise Van Outen or the new (literally) faux-celebrity, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Chantelle; although she does have something of their cheeky charm. Her vowels are a bit all over the place – “moind” for “mind”, for instance – and she’s much given to using phrases which are generally employed by young teenagers regardless of their background: “Ah, bless”, “Hell-o-oh” (swooping up and down), “bodacious”, along with some unequivocal East-Enderisms, such as “God love ’im”.

Boris Johnson is probably the only broadcasting personality who can get away with making a virtue of his poshness. Elsewhere, for a successful television career, a populist approach and an accessible manner are essential – and it’s Davina’s common-touch watchability as Big Brother’s Big Mother (or, perhaps, big sister) that has landed her a new primetime role as mid-week talk-show host on BBC One. Now although this is clearly something of a big deal – the last pre-watershed King of Chat on the Beeb was Terry Wogan back in 1992 – reports of a million-pound contract or, in fact, any contract at all are apparently overstated. As McCall, in ladette mode, put it to me: “I’ve never signed a contract with any TV channel because I like being a slut and working for anybody who wants me.”

For her fans, who obviously include the BBC chiefs, what is engaging about McCall’s personality is that although she works at the tacky end of television, she manages to retain a niceness while still delivering on the pushy, tasteless questions: “But did the train go into the tunnel’’ (to establish whether two former Big Brother contestants, Stuart and Michelle, had sexual intercourse). Indeed, McCall’s USP may be that while she is undeniably naughty she is also oddly wholesome. For her detractors, of course, she is the epitome of Moronic Britain; representing everything that is wrong with declining standards and cultural dumbing-down.

On telly, she is an odd mixture. As a guest on other people’s chat shows (hosted by the likes of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady – all of whom will probably end up on her show in today’s circular light-entertainment loop), she often goes in for that very English, very middle-class self-deprecation (think Emma Thompson). When she’s in charge as Big Mother – which is her main claim to fame – McCall is more obviously confident and excitable; shouty and motormouthy, talking ten-to-the-dozen in an Anneka Rice verbal gallop. Her own drink and drugs hell, and the long years of recovery, as well as her chequered childhood, may help to explain the genuine empathy she seems to have with the oddball contestants. But what makes her special, I think – which was certainly the strongest impression I had when we met – is that she is kind.

Our interview takes place in a photographers’ studio in Fulham where McCall is doing a shoot, under duress, for the BBC’s Radio Times. I assume “under duress” because it wasn’t until the 11th hour that our meeting was actually confirmed, which seemed rather more Hollywood hauteur than cosy little Britain. It later transpired that McCall hates being interviewed (which is why it took her so long to commit), and that she has the absolute heebie-jeebies about the new show partly because everyone insists on calling her the new Parky: “It strikes fear into my heart that people keep saying ‘Parky’ because it’s very hard to step into somebody else’s shoes and it’s just a nightmare because I want to be me. Even though I do partly want to be like Parky [although it’s hard to imagine him asking the train into tunnel question] because he’s bloody brilliant, but if I try to be like Parky it’s just going to seem weird, and I don’t really know how I’m going to be but it will be me.”

Unfortunately I cannot report on what sort of “me” this new “Davina” will be because – despite numerous requests – the BBC fail­ed to send a DVD of the pilot. This much we know: the guests were Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady (presumably talking about his unorthodox new slot, alternating with the wonderful Richard and Judy), an actor from EastEnders and Charlotte Church. There will be stairs: “Shall I leap down them? Oh no, I’ll be wearing heels so I’d go arse over tit, wouldn’t I?” Peals of laughter. Has she got a nice sofa? “I’m not sure… I was under the impression it’ll be two chairs but I want them close enough for touching. I need touching.” There are to be no gimmicks, just talk and music, and she’s very happy with it, although, “in a funny kind of way I don’t want to push it be­cause I don’t want people to have great expect­ations – I just want it to grow in a natural way.”

She is softer-looking and more delicate in person, oddly more reminiscent of the act­ress Dervla Kirwan than McCall’s own high-octane TV self. Glossy hair that flops in her eyes, good teeth and cheekbones, no make-up. There is something endearing about her open quality. Her gaze is so steady and attentive that I comment on it – and her explanation is that perhaps it is because she has a slightly lazy eye. Although she is 38, there is a childlike aspect to her which belies her streetwise past, and still clings to her without any suggestion that she is simple-minded.

An image remains of her sitting schoolgirlishly on her hands, although I’m pretty sure she did no such thing. This is much of a piece with other Davina conundrums – her aforementioned wholesomeness in a distinctly unwholesome show; her surprisingly old- fashioned values despite such modern packaging; the feeling she gives of offering new-best-friend intimacy while actually guarding her privacy more fiercely than the starriest A-list celebrity.

I thought of her as being a natty dresser until a number of friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and it seems that Davina’s husband, Matthew Robertson, may also be of their persuasion judging by his comments to his wife that morning. Apparently his very words were: ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of going out like that! Your trousers are far too short and your jacket looks two sizes too small.” Davina and I agree that this is a little harsh. Granted it is quite an unusual look; a sort of Hobbit meets homage to Jackie O. A forest-green retro jacket with a belt that ties under the breasts (Betty Jackson) and not quite three-quarter-length cuffs, over a mutton-sleeved black T-shirt (Jigsaw), denim gaucho culottes (French street market) and square-toed pixie boots. I am slightly startled when she shows me her devil’s horns tattoos on each hip pointing down – as she says, raising that well-exercised eyebrow – “to you know where!”

Her first attempts at experimenting with clothes and burying her Home Counties accent was at the age of 13, when she left her paternal grandmother’s house in Surrey to live with her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Gaby, in the wild streets of West London. She turned up on her first day at Godolphin & Latymer in long white socks and a proper uniform, “but Godolphin’s quite relaxed and everybody had their skirts taken in and so on, and I’m stood at the door with a pudding-bowl haircut, very, very nerdy and very square, with my doctor’s bag, and to go in at the second year of secondary school is difficult anyway because everybody’s already made their friends…”

So she abandoned the knee-length socks and went out and bought a bag from Millets with her stepmum. “I told her they were going to kill me if I didn’t”, and pretty soon she’d copied the names of bands she’d seen on other girls’ bags “because I just wanted to fit in. It was a survival technique, really.” By the same token, McCall changed the way she spoke when she got “a bit of hassle” from some kids in Shepherds Bush, on her way to school, “So I started talking ‘loik vat’ for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.” By this time, McCall’s survival skills were already pretty well-honed. Her French mother, Florence, and her English father – who comes from a long line of Wykehamists (which makes Davina’s background upper middle class, according to one of my Winchester- educated friends) and was a Debs’ Delight – had come to the decision to make their three-year-old daughter a ward of court since neither parent felt equipped to bring her up themselves.

She now knows that her parents did the best they could at the time by handing her over to her grandmother, but it has still left her with a lifelong fear of abandonment. “Being a mother myself [she has two little girls with Matthew, Holly and Tilly] has made me realise that all the things that make me want to be a great mum are all the things I missed when I was a kid,” she says. “Having got older and having been in recovery and going to meetings makes me realise that I can’t blame anybody else necessarily for all the things I’ve done in my life, but that my core insecurity is definitely going to have come from my mum not being around. “With time, I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t because my mum didn’t want me but when I was a teenager, I thought it was because my mum just had, you know, better things to do and that’s a horrible way to feel.”

Her feelings about her father seem to be less complicated than those towards her mother; in part because of the latter’s alcoholism, which certainly made its impact on Davina’s childhood, but also because her father was simply around more.

McCall would stay with her mother in Paris during the school holidays, in the chic eighth arrondissement off the Champs Elysées. At first, she says: “My mum was a very exciting wom­­an to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She’d do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, ‘Gosh, that’s like me – I’m Saffy and my mum’s Edina.’ Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.” How embarrassing was her mother? “Well, I’m thinking of an electric-blue floorlength fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil which she’d waft around in, and she’d go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work [as manager of the Yves St Laurent boutique], and she’d be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you’d be thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and she’d do citizen’s arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff but funny and fantastic… if you’re not the daughter. My friends would say, ‘Oh my GOD, she’s so cool.’ But I didn’t tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn’t tell my English family because I didn’t want to upset them or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother. And I still love my mother and I’ll always love her, and she’s not drinking now and she’s doing really, really well.”

When did she realise that her mother had a drink problem? “Quite early on, really. Four or five. You’d walk into a room and you’d have to read the atmosphere and try to fit in. There are sort of survival techniques that kids use to deal with it. Like if somebody’s in a bad mood, you just sit quietly and know not to ask for anything or be too demanding. Or if they’re in a really good mood then you’ve got to join in and be silly. Or if they’re really crying, you’ve got to go and take care of them.”

In her teens, back home in London, the young Davina – no longer a nerdy square – started hanging out with an older set and be­coming a fixture on the clubbing scene. She was a regular at Taboo and the Camden Palace and Beetroot and knew Steve Strange and the late Leigh Bowery and Pete Burns, most recently seen being nasty on Big Brother. “I’d always quite cherished his kind of brutal honesty but I have to say that Pete Burns should not drink because when he has a drink inside him, he becomes vicious and he was drunk that night,” she says, apropos of his bullying attack on Baywatch’s Traci Bingham. A couple of interesting things emerge when McCall talks about her own relationship with drugs. She says that the reason she couldn’t allow herself to have even one glass of wine – although her husband is a “wine nut who spends a lot of time doing that lovely ritual of de­canting and sniffing and swooshing and sometimes, you think, you know, it looks fun” – is that she knows that she’s not the sort of person who can do “one” of anything. “And I can’t tell you, hand on heart, that if I got drunk at a party and someone said, ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ that I wouldn’t think about doing it, and that is too frightening… I’ve got two children, and I’ve got a life.

Just how bad was it? “If I started on New Year’s Eve, I would be taking drugs nonstop for three days because when I start I just can’t stop. And when I was an addict, I just let everybody down and maybe because I did have strong morals and good manners and stuff, that made me hate myself. With a passion. And that’s eventually why I stopped.”

For a long time, McCall was able to keep her life under control, working as a booking agent for Models 1 during the day and running clubs – her energy fuelled by drugs – into the early hours. But, she says, it was the control aspect that was so exhausting: “It’s like a white-knuckle thing – you know, trying really hard not to do something you really want to do, and you’re constantly in your head thinking about the next time you can go and get some drugs.” She left a boyfriend whom she’d blamed for getting her into heroin, but while he was able to quit, her habit got even worse. “I realised, ‘Gosh, it’s not his fault, I’ve got to look at me.’ And the last thing I wanted to do was stop taking everything. I just thought, ‘Am I still going to be a fun person to be around? And aren’t I going to turn into a really boring person? And I don’t want to be totally abstinent and I definitely can’t do it for the rest of my life. You know, forget it.’ But I tried it every other way. I knew I had to cut things out, so I stopped taking heroin about two months before I got clean [at 24], but then I just had a major coke problem, so I realised I’m obviously unable to take any drugs in moderation. And now when I see friends of mine coming into the rooms [at NA], in their mid-thirties, I think, ‘Well, thank God, I didn’t have to wait that long.”

At one point in our interview, McCall declared that she’s never been ambitious in terms of her TV career. I’m not having it that you’re not ambitious! was my response. Well, she demurred, ambition’s always seemed like a swear word – and she hates swearing – but, yes, OK, she was ambitious to get on to telly in the first place. And she was really proud of herself, when she finally got an opening on MTV: “Because I’d spent three years just chewing at people’s heels and annoying people. Tenacious. Addict without the drugs. Because the minute I put down the drugs, I needed something else to get my teeth into.”

Did she become a workaholic instead? “No, just tenacious. You see, if I work at something half as hard as I used to work on scoring drugs – and addicts spend a lot of time and effort trying to maintain their habit – then I’m going to be extremely successful.”

Still, I doubt that Davina appeared on most people’s radars until Big Brother really took off. And there were a fair number of turkeys on the way: a dating show called Love on a Saturday Night; a TV race to have a millennium baby, which she disapproved of anyway. But I do remember seeing her on a travel show years ago, and being struck by the new presenter’s… what? Freshness? Jauntiness? Slightly camp appeal? It’s hard to define what she had but as her French mother might put it, McCall definitely had a certain je ne sais quoi. So now, she’s routinely talked about in hyperbolic terms as one of the highest-paid female presenters, and there’s the new BBC show over the next eight weeks, hosting the Baftas for ITV and then, presumably, back to Channel 4 for the umpteenth series of domestic squabbles in The House, of which she says: “I’ve been very, very blessed to have a corker of a show to always come back to and I don’t know where my career would be if I didn’t have Big Brother to come back to, but thank goodness I have.”

Perhaps it’s because McCall has had more cause to examine herself than most of us, but she’s rather good at assessing what makes her so popular. “One thing I had in my favour is that I’ve never been skinny and I’m not putting myself down, but although I think I’m attractive and I know what my good features are, I’ve never thought of myself as a stunning beauty. And that’s a good thing for me because sometimes if you’re really, really beautiful you’re quite alienating.

“You know, I have to admit that when Traci walked into the Big Brother house, I was – like – ‘OMIGOD, look at her!’ And there was a part of me that hated her because she’s beautiful and she’s got such a bodacious body and enormous boobs. And when I saw that she was just somebody who needs a lot of love, I sort of melted a bit but she did have to work on me. And I don’t have to do that because people aren’t threatened by the way I look.’ And the other thing in her favour? “Oh,” she says, with a whoop, “I’m silly.”

What she really loves about Big Brother is when contestants say that they’ve learnt something about themselves from the experience: “Because for some of them it is a journey, a very personal one, and being in that house makes you look at yourself; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do except think about yourself, and how your behaviour affects other people and how their behaviour affects you and how when there’s an argument you have to resolve it or else it just goes on and on. And it’s having to deal with things and deal with them in an open way and do stuff that you’d never normally do on the outside.”

Nadia, the transsexual who emerged the winner some time ago, was one of McCall’s favourites. That was the series that got me hooked, and following her over the weeks sometimes felt like watching an Almodóvar film which turned into The Elephant Man, in that extraordinary moment when she broke down in front of the camera and sobbed, “I am… not… a man…” “You see, there was real emotion there. She wasn’t in it for the money… I really believe she was in it for recognition and affection and that was an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing,” McCall says, her brown eyes blazing with sincerity.

What interests me about Davina’s own journey is how far she strayed from everything she held dear, in those lost years in her twenties. For several years after she got clean she went to church on a regular basis because, she says, “the vicar was amazing and unjudgmental, and he’s still one of my best friends”. She loves singing hymns and still prays, though “I don’t know who I’m praying to but I do believe my prayers are being heard.” When I ask her whether she has any role models, she has an instant reply: “My granny. She’s amazing. Highly emotional, highly opinionated, very fair and moral and just and incredibly thoughtful and kind to the community she lives in. She does a lot of charity work and she has a very strong faith and goes to church, and she used to say prayers to me every night. I mean, she’s really… well, she’s still the backbone of our family.”

It’s no surprise, then, that now she has a family of her own, and a husband she adores who jacked in his own mini-TV career as Pet Rescue presenter to become an Outward Bound instructor, that McCall has returned to her roots with a big house in Surrey and lunch every Sunday with family and friends. “A couple of years ago, my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny, who also lived with us, and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again, and how she had these little things in her purse, like a pixie in a black cap which she’d let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.

“That was very emotional for me… a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I’ve got it. And she’s just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family’s stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl, and our family tree from way, way before me, and it’s these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.”

It’s time for McCall to submit herself to more of the publicity hoopla she tries to avoid. She says she feels absolutely drained, stretching out on the banquette and whimpering as she kicks her legs in the air. But then a thought occurs to her: “Can I just say that’s what I’d like to have as my epitaph.” Er, what? “Whole­some but naughty. I love that. You know, I always wanted to be a little bit naughty.”

Celebrities, Women

The essence of Elle La Belle

THE TIMES – November 23 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Body has a mind all right, but it’s hard to fathom.

Wth rings on her thumbs and rings on her toes, Elle still turns heads wherever she goes. She is clearly a hippy chick at heart, particularly where accessories are concerned. The half-moons of her big toes are adorned with tiny crystals that twinkle as she wiggles them. Her bronzed forearm is covered in bits of string, ribbons and shells and each one has a story: “This one’s for breast cancer and Kylie. We’ve known each other for years. I haven’t spoken to her since she’s been ill and it’s on my mind.

“This is from a friend’s wedding that I organised by the sea and I gave everyone a bracelet in a box with sand; this is an elastic band for my hair; this one says ‘peace’; I have another one that says ‘patience’ but it’s probably in my son’s hair,” and so on.

When I enter the room where the interview is to take place, Elle Macpherson is sitting down trying to tuck into a bowl of leaves — assembled with a supermodel’s appetite in mind, but The Body says it’s too insubstantial for her — and a double espresso. She has been modelling ballgowns for a photoshoot and apologises for her charcoal-rimmed eyes. She stands up, and one almost gasps: it is like being confronted by a beautiful freak. The impression is of someone superhumanly tall, with the broadest and squarest of shoulders, tiny hips, huge hands, a narrow face and those panda eyes. Her look is fabulous but ultra-studied, in marked contrast to the effortless carelessness that is projected in the broad-grinned, outdoorsy image of her photographs. All in black, from head to toe: leather peaked cap, leather jacket, skinny poloneck and clinging trousers, a wide, wide belt resting far below her navel. Think Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle; Jane Birkin Je t’aime-ing with Serge Gainsbourg; Diana Rigg in The Avengers.

My impression of Elle La Belle from all I had seen or read about her was positive. She seemed straightforward; no bullshit; in command of herself and her assets; a bit controlling, but only because men usually call the shots in the world in which she operates. Perhaps it’s because she looks so strong and athletic that I had assumed a certain robustness of character, too. There was a little question mark when she checked into a clinic in Arizona after the birth of her son Cy, now 2; apparently she was suffering from postnatal depression. But you needn’t be intrinsically unstable to be knocked sideways by the hormonal tumult that can occur after giving birth. And in June she separated from Arpad Busson, a French financier and the father of her sons, Cy and Flynn.

Still, I had been expecting a certain directness, but found myself in less predictable territory. The first surprise was the way she spoke: with a pronounced French inflection that makes her sound more affected than I think she is. When I comment on this, she says: “I don’t know why I do today. Sometimes when I’m tired. It’s an interesting thing. I’d like to question why is that so?” Perhaps because of her early marriage and subsequent longish relationships with two Frenchmen? “From the time I was 18 I spoke French probably more than English. I speak it with my children.” So I ask her to speak French. “Pourquoi?” she asks, laughing nervously. Because I want to see if you have an Australian accent when you do. And she rattles off her response in fluent, accentless Français.

Her first and only husband — she and Busson never married, but were together for ten years — was a French photographer, Gilles Bensimon. They met on a shoot in Tahiti; she was 19, he 40. They were married for eight years and lived in Paris, where he was the head snapper for French Elle, and his Elle became the magazine’s favourite cover girl. She credits him with introducing her to the finer things of life, helping her to developing a discerning palate for wine — which seems a bit of a waste, as she gave up drinking two years ago. Had she become over-partial to her vino, I ask? She shrugs it off good humouredly. “I just decided I wasn’t going to drink any more,” she says.

I had said that of all her ex-beaux, the one I envied her most was the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. “But I haven’t been out with him!” she says, shocked, adding: “People’s looks are really not the first thing I look at.” Was Gilles a dreamboat, or more in that Gainsbourg toad-with-attitude mould? “Well, he’s 21 years older than me, not very tall, grey curly hair, glasses.” Hmm. Sexy? “Charismatic.”

Her mother, Frances, married Peter Gow when she was 17 and had Elle soon after, followed by two more children. Elle’s parents separated when she was 10, and she has talked about the awkwardness of coming from a broken home at a time when divorce was rare. When Frances remarried a lawyer, Neill Macpherson, Elle took his surname. Frances, I had read, was not all that happy about her daughter marrying so young, let alone repeating the pattern of becoming a teenage mother. I had also read that Elle wanted children early on and took no contraception. “Who said I wasn’t practising contraception?” she asks. It was in an article. “Do you think that I would have spoken to a journalist about that sort of thing?” she asks, more amazed than angry. You were young, you might have. “I may have. I just can’t imagine it. It’s not the sort of thing I would do.” Anyway, she says: “I loved having a young mother. We grew up together; in a way she was like my sister.”

When I ask whether her parents might not have been able to see some advantages in their daughter receiving a different sort of education in sophistication, Macpherson says: “I was fortunate. I was saved from a lot of the craziness of the industry because I had security and was with an older man. So when the girls went partying I’d go home to him and cook dinner.”

On the subject of partying models, I ask her view of the coverage of Kate Moss. “There’s a big difference between a fashion model and a role model, and Kate has never pretended to be the latter. She’s the same as she’s always been. But you know what? It’s absolutely none of my business.”

Given that she is increasingly drawn to exploring the connections between a healthy mind, body and spirit, I expect her not to be guarded about her postnatal depression. It is so common — I had it after the birth of my first child — that it might be helpful for someone in her position to lift the veil on the realities. But it is not a subject she wishes to be drawn on. “It’s different for every individual; painting broad brushstrokes is not recommended, especially when we’re talking about other people’s health,” she says firmly. Are you embarrassed about it? “No, no. I think the healthiest thing to do if someone has difficulties is to get help, whatever that is. That’s really healthy recovered behaviour,” she says. “I have zero shame around it all.” But nothing to contribute? “No.”

Are there areas in your life for self-improvement? You seem to be on some sort of path. “I believe it is the journey inside that is rich and interesting. In my life I’ve understood that it is stuff on the outside — clothes and people and places and acquiring things — that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. Twenty years ago I probably felt that if I had lots of money, I was important to some extent. My belief system supported that; now I’m a lot more centred.”

I wonder if you have anything to say about how you are — er — bearing up — er — under the whole — um . . . As she sees me struggling to put a question that I don’t feel comfortable asking, she laughs, but not unkindly. I must say that her composure and the grace with which she handles press intrusion into private matters is impressive. “I have nothing to say on that,” she says, knowing that I’m trying to broach the subject of her separation. “My children are well, I’m well and I’ve made a statement to the press that says it all.”

When I ask Macpherson what she thinks of Arki’s city academies to help deprived children (her ex describes himself, rather cutely, as a “venture philanthropist”), her response is so stilted it makes her sound like an automaton: “I think Ark is a very interesting charity and I think the philosophy behind it is commendable and what they’re doing is remarkable.”

She is an odd mixture of different parts. At times she comes across as a Valley Girl, every phrase swooping upwards in a dangling question mark — like, you know? The aforementioned French cadence; the occasional posh English word and — the voice I like best — down-to-earth Aussie, which is the only time she sounds really natural. This comes out when she tries to define the Australian character: “There is a sort of honesty of spirit, which is about trying to find out the truth behind a thing. ‘What are you trying to say, OK? You wanna do it or you don’t wanna do it. It’s cool by me, whatever it is’.” And explaining why she likes to accentuate the positive: “I don’t feel good when I s**t on other people.”

In the same vein, I like it when she calls me on what she perceives to be my interviewing technique: “I feel you’re much more savvy than you’re letting on. I think you are trying to play dumb to me.” A huge, gusty laugh. When I protest that I would never try to play dumb, she says: “You don’t even sound dumb so don’t try to play it.” But at odds with this bracing directness is her manner — which made me wonder whether her sun-kissed photographs captured an idealised version of herself, not in the way she looks, but conveying a freedom of spirit that she strives for but doesn’t find that easy to attain. For much of the interview she reminded me of a far more anxious, vaguely troubled individual than I had imagined. With those big blackened eyes and that serious expression, she reminded me of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Martin Bashir interview. There was very little in her body language to suggest the sense she wishes to project of her newfound “centredness”.

When we part — she is punctilious about picking up her boys from school — she is concerned that she has taken herself too seriously. “I’ve tried to be as honest and open with you as I can,” she says engagingly.

In a Sydney Morning Herald interview in 1992, the journalist noted the lack of books in her Manhattan flat. “I don’t think you should read what you haven’t written,” was the 28-year-old’s response. This could have been an ironic riposte, but she doesn’t really do irony. It could have been invented, but that also seems unlikely. What is certainly the case is that Macpherson is now a reader par excellence. She asks if I am familiar with Noam Chomsky: “He is quite a modern thinker. His Hegemony or Survival is interesting: he talks about the rise of American culture and its effect on the world.” She is very taken with William Blake, and quotes philosophers: “As Socrates said, ‘ The unexamined life is not worth living’ . . . when I was in my twenties I was interested in finding out who I was, and to some extent I didn’t like what I found.” Why? “Because I was young, I didn’t get it.” Get what? “I didn’t have self-acceptance.”

I think the area she finds most difficult to balance is her success as a businesswoman — through licensing agreements on her lingerie, Elle Macpherson Intimates, and The Body, a new range of potions and lotions — with her desire to be womanly. I’d read, with astonishment, that she used to pack Busson’s suitcases. Was this a legacy of her early wife-training in Paris? “I have always been conscious — because I was financially independent — not to emasculate men, and it was important to me to maintain contact with my femininity. That is a thread throughout my career: not to become a hard-arse ball-breaker. Alhough I’m sure that, along the way, I’ve slipped into that mode. But I didn’t want to. But there’s stuff I like to do with a guy I like to be with. You know, to please him. I also like the domesticity of life.”

Where she loses me is when she goes into Gaia-speak about the differences between men and women. “I believe in the empowerment of women in their femininity, sensuality and sexuality. I cherish women as being Earth Mother Nature, protector of the Earth and Universe and femininity and goddess energy. We have disrespected and disregarded that as a culture, especially with women going in the workforce, you know, glorifying women in the workforce.”

Are you saying women should go back into the home? “No, I’m using it in my lingerie and beauty products, saying the beauty in women should be nurtured and respected and loved, for themselves.”

Ah well. In the meantime, Elle Macpherson will be nurturing and respecting and loving herself through her daily meditation, pursuit of her creative self, muscling through the demands of single motherhood in Notting Hill, striving to quieten her “inner chatterbox” and live in the here and now. As she says: “One of my interests is to find peace and serenity. I want to feel good about myself.” And at last I see that great, broad, captivating Macpherson grin.

Actors, Celebrities

A suitable case for treatment

IRISH INDEPENDENT – November 12, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Few lives are as dramatic or traumatic or just plain strange as Kelsey Grammer’s. From the violent murder of his father and his sister, to his own drug addiction and vicious physical and mental abuse at the hands of a string of ex-lovers, the star of Frasier could well do with some therapy from his alter ego. And yet there remains a childlike innocence and genuine kindness about Grammer. Ginny Dougary went snorkelling with him

DR FRASIER Crane hands me a towel, pats the sand between us on a glorious beach in yes! Hawaii, and says in that familiar sonorous boom: “Shall we begin?”

“Oh, hello. I’m Daphne. Daphne Moon,” I say, adopting my best cod-Mancunian accent. “Frasier Crane. Won’t you come in?”

I am introduced to Frasier’s father, Martin, and Eddie the dog. Soon it is time for the psychic routine. Frasier is describing my duties around the house, when … “Wait a minute, I’m getting something on you. You’re a florist.”

“No, I’m a psychiatrist.”

“Well,” I sigh, “it comes and goes. Usually it’s … strongest … during my time of the month … ”

Oh God, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of unscripted laughter. Frasier, ever the professional, presses on.

“Well, I think we’ve learned everything we need to know about you. And a dash extra.” Owlish look. That does it, I’m off again. What a bummer. Now I’ll never be able to leave the day job for Hollywood. Or, more particularly, for that cameo appearance in my favourite programme, which might lead to an occasional walk-on role that’s not asking for much is it? so I could spend my days hanging out with Niles and Fraze and Roz and Bulldog, making witty apercus over the double-skinny lattes. I mean, Simon, Daphne’s gruesome kid brother, is soohhh not right. Now what if her long-forgotten older sister were to show up, instead, and maybe she could be a psychiatrist, too? That, of course, might be a shrink too far. Or perhaps she could be a nanny and look after Roz’s child? Well, there’s a promising new plot line … Sorry, where was I?

You see, that’s the secret of Frasier’s success. Not only is it brilliantly written (and it has got better and riskier, for the most part, since that first episode) but once hooked, you are drawn into its world because of that rare alchemy between the players and their roles.

So although you knew that it wasn’t your actual Dr Frasier Crane sprawled out in the beach chair beside me, but the actor who plays him, Kelsey Grammer, I wonder whether most Frasier fans wouldn’t be more tickled by the idea of it being the character rather than the man behind him. (The very thought of Frasier snorkelling, for instance, is intrinsically funny.)

If we are guilty of the tendency to conflate life and art, so too is the actor. During the days we spend together in Maui, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful islands, where Kelsey and his wife, Camille, have just built a new holiday home, I am struck by how much more easily we engage when we talk about this or that character from the show, and how likely or not it would be for them to take a certain line on something. As if it were real.

The only times Grammer tears up to use his American parlance are not when he’s talking about Karen, his beloved, murdered younger sister, or his murdered father, or his half-brothers eaten by a shark, or his terrible childhood, or the wives who battered him and broke glasses over his head, or his cocaine and alcohol addictions, or his spell in prison, or his court case involving a teenage babysitter … but when he recalls a particularly emotional scene from Frasier. Which happens on no fewer than three occasions. But if you’d had a life like his, I found myself thinking, you, too, might find it more comforting to believe in the reality of a television show.

We first meet in Manhattan, backstage in The Music Box theatre, where he had just completed a gruelling couple of hours playing Macbeth. Gruelling, principally, because the production had been universally trashed by the New York critics. A couple of nights after our encounter, the play closes, a mere week or so after it had opened on Broadway.

Grammer started out in the theatre, after training at Juillard, on a repertoire devoted almost exclusively to classics, so it was particularly tough on him that Frasier’s unprecedented crop of awards coupled with its popularity meant that he couldn’t be taken seriously in a Shakespearean role.

The production, in truth, was hopelessly mismatched to a Broadway audience. It was uncompromising in its austerity; with no interval, the stage plunged into darkness throughout, the actors all in black contributing to the claustrophobic gloom. It is possible that it would have gone down better in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre; certainly Grammer would have been less vulnerable to hostile comments about his overweening ambition.

There is nothing in the least bit overweening about the actor I meet backstage. He seems sanguine about the appalling reviews, although obviously pleased when I tell him that I enjoyed his performance. I say that I was particularly struck by the visceral punch of witnessing Macbeth, the great warrior, unmanned by the force of his wife, and he walks over to give me a bear hug. We arrange to discuss the play further over coffee at his hotel the next morning.

The first thing you notice about Grammer, as he appears in the foyer, is that he doesn’t have the heft of Frasier. Even allowing for television’s tendency to exaggerate people’s weight, I did not expect the actor to be quite so slim and well-toned. Neither did I expect him to be dressed like an American golfer, in fawn slacks, a short-sleeved check shirt and sporty shoes. Frasier, of course, wouldn’t be seen dead in casual leisure (“leeeesure”) wear. And there were other little things which jarred: the way he walked into the restaurant before me, then ordered a black coffee for himself (sans caramel or cinnamon) without asking what I might like. It seems mean to flag these slight oversights, particularly since Grammer was so incredibly generous both as a host and interviewee in Hawaii, but they were the first outward signs that the actor was a very different creature from his fastidious creation.

We next meet, a month later, in the summer house in Maui. Grammer comes to the door wearing shorts, a Lacoste-type shirt and a baseball cap. He looks honey-brown and relaxed. Camille is upstairs taking a nap. I am taken on a brisk tour, and clock the large open spaces including a movie room, a gym, a courtyard with a giant tub, a sheltered area where the couple work on their all-over tans, and the landscaped garden with its infinity pool and infinite views of the horizon.

Then it’s into the golf buggy and down to the golf clubhouse where we are to conduct the interview, away from the distractions of home.

DESPITE the setbacks he has had the lovers who have betrayed him, the one-night-stands who have sold their stories to the papers, the family members who have attempted blackmail, and the rest the actor has the quality of an innocent. It is not that he is naive, exactly, more that he has this childlike enthusiasm for life. Yet, and this is awkward to express, one cannot escape the feeling that what makes Grammer such a refreshing change from so many stars his accessibility, his lack of pomp and circumstance, the pleasure he derives from pleasing others also enables one to catch a glimpse of what it was about him that laid him open to being so roundly abused.

The details of this abuse are listed in his unghosted autobiography, So Far … , which was published five years ago, when he was apparently through the darkness and into the light, with his then fiancée Tammi Alexander. In it, he recalls marrying Leigh-Anne Csuhany, a stripper he had met in a bar, right after the first beating, “just as soon as my black eye was gone”. He was attracted to her because she was strong, sexy, independent, outspoken, unafraid of anything and, most importantly, because she had no respect for or need of him. She repaid him by telling him that he was “so f**king” ugly”, that he was “so f**king stupid”, that his “acting sucks”, that he was “a piece of s**t”, that he made her sick.

Then: “She’d spit in my face. Slap me. Punch me. Kick me. Break glasses over my head. Break windows. Tear up pictures of my loved ones. Threaten to kill me, kill herself. Cut my balls off. Chop me up. Put a bullet in my head.”

Grammer filed for divorce, nine months later, just as Frasier was being launched. Csuhany tried to kill herself in a Malibu motel, swallowing five bottles of Tylenol pills. She survived, but their baby she was carrying did not. How on earth do you cope with such an extreme personal disaster when your professional life is taking off?

“It was very difficult,” Grammer says. “I thought I was going slowly insane. That my mind might explode. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but it felt like I had a spike in my brain.”

I wonder whether that lack of self-esteem, which he has spent so many hours in therapy to overcome, may account for Grammer’s partiality for women who have made their living, in one way or another, by stripping off for men. I ask him, directly, if he is aware of that pattern? (Which, it hardly needs saying, is a somewhat tricky question.)

“Hmmmm,” he murmurs non-committally. Well, I wonder why that is? Have you never been attracted to women who are bright and classy and intellectually your equal, as well as being beautiful and sexy? “Certainly, they would appeal to me,” he says. “I’ve just never met them. It’s pretty rare that I would meet such people.”

Then he completely changes tack. “Maybe where you’re a little bit off-base is the assumption that a person who may have taken their clothes off for a magazine is not an intelligent, informed, compassionate human being,” he says.

“That might be an unfortunate presumption. Ahh. I’ve been with women for several months, even a year or so, that were educated who seemed to think that was more important than … being human.”

And, by the way, he says, his wife never posed nude for a girly magazine. “This is very important, because if anything was written like that, my wife would be very hurt. Deeply, deeply hurt.”

He goes on to explain rapidly, with a measure of sadness and distaste how Camille came to be filmed topless. He says she was a dancer on an MTV show, who had moved to New York in the hope of becoming an actress. Finally, she gets offered a part, only when she turns up for the shoot she’s told that it’s her breasts which are to play the major role in the movie … Oh, and, by the way, baby, if you don’t do it, you won’t get paid.

“Other than that,” Grammer says, “she hasn’t done anything I think she should be ashamed of. She has a beautiful body. She is a lovely woman. She’s also probably the most intelligent girl I’ve ever known. And she’s certainly an intellectual challenge to me.”

At some level, he seems to have forgiven Leigh-Anne, partly because she obviously had her own emotional problems, but principally because she has not sought to capitalise on their brief marriage.

Tammi, in contrast, according to Grammer, has been making a tidy sum selling titbits of their time together some real, some fabricated or exaggerated ever since their break-up. The more he talks about her, the more incensed he becomes. It is quite unnerving to witness the transformation; his easy-going mild manners replaced by a cold fury.

What about all those lovey-dovey articles you appeared in, you and Tammi at home in LA with your family of animals, proposing to her on the set of Frasier, and all the stuff you wrote in your book about how she was quite the nicest, most wholesome girl you’d ever met … ?

“Well, it was just my way ah I supported that because that’s what she needed to be in the relationship,” he says. “But she was a horrible, horrible human being.” As for her blabbing to the press including her most recent revelation that Kelsey was wearing Tammi’s knickers (a la Beckham) when he met the President “I’m disgusted with her,” he says. “I’m absolutely devastated. I find her to be one of the most reprehensible human beings that ever lived.”

Grammer finally called the engagement off when Tammi announced that she was intending to pose naked for a centrefold. “I mean, Camille wants to be a rocket scientist. She wants to be a person of substance who contributes to the world. This person just wants to be … a piece of ass! And I thought, ‘What are you … nuts?”‘

Before we move on to different terrain, we talk a little about politics (he’s conservative) and I ask Grammer what his view is on the death penalty. The question is out before I recollect that he has more than one reason to take a personal position on the issue.

“I have mixed … but that’s, of course, because my family has been murdered. I am still, however, reluctant to advocate the death penalty even though … ” he falters.

Karen Grammer was raped and stabbed to death in 1975 by three teenage boys outside the Colorado Springs restaurant where she worked in the kitchen. She was 18, two years younger than her brother and very much the kid sister. When she got into scrapes it was Kelsey who would bail her out. One doesn’t have to be a shrink to see why he would blame himself for not being there to protect her.

SO WOULD you like to see those men put to death? “Absolutely,” he says, “and I would like to pull the switch. And I’d be fine with it.” Have you ever thought about it? “I think about it almost constantly.” Would you prefer something more visceral? “I’d prefer to do it with my own hands. A gun wouldn’t be good enough. Eviscerate them. Cut them up. Yeah. That’s what they did to my sister, so … ”

All the while he is saying this, he is grinning. Which is odd until I realise that what I’m seeing isn’t a grin at all, but a terrible rictus of grief.

Is it true that they did it for kicks? “I guess. I can never get inside their minds, really. But she was the sixth or seventh person they’d murdered that night.”

It is extraordinary that all these tragedies have happened to one person, I say. I mean, no wonder there was a descent into “my cocaine and booze hell”!

“Hey,” a great release of laughter. “No, let’s not begrudge the man a drink! Please.” He says that the other deaths in his family were nothing like so deeply felt as the loss of his sister. “My father? Well, I did feel the growing impact of his death as I approached his age.”

Grammer’s parents met at a music school in New York, where his father, Allen, fell for Sally Cranmer who was training to be a singer. After leaving college and the army, Allen Grammer started a dance band with his girlfriend as the chanteuse. The couple moved to St Thomas on a kind of Dice Man whim. Allen opened a bar, played in a band, taught music to the islanders’ children and later went on, one reads with a certain measure of interest, to present his own radio show.

His wife, meanwhile, spent her days on her own with a three-month-old baby in a rat-infested home, and her nights listening to knife fights in the bar. When the marriage failed, she fled back to her family home in New Jersey where she gave birth to her baby daughter. Grammer’s father was murdered, when he was not yet in his 40s, in 1968; the killer surrounded Allen’s home with a circle of flames and then shot him.

The details of the rest of Grammer’s childhood help to provide the answer to that earlier question which had troubled him: “How did I get to the place where I felt that bad about myself?” His grandmother conjures an image of Bette Davis in one of her more terrifying roles: abandoned by her parents as a child, brought up by her aunts as an outcast, punishing her newly extended family for her own bitter legacy.

“She needed help. She needed attention,” Grammer recalls flatly. “My mum was going out to work selling men’s clothes, and I would go to school and then, from the age of about 12, I’d take care of things in the house. I’d make tea for Karen and me, and mix a drink for my grandmother, and then I’d make dinner.”

It is not a huge leap to see how a boy who was brought up in a matriarchal home to believe his role was to serve might grow into a man who was attracted to women who dominated him in whatever way they chose. He tells me that he was beaten not only by Leigh-Anne but also by his first wife, Doreen. When I ask him whether he is capable of violence himself, he says, yes, but that he has never inflicted it on women. “No, no. I’ve sat on them,” he laughs as though this is hysterically funny. “I’ve held them down. You know, asked them to stop hitting me.”

It is significant, he thinks, that his therapist for the past seven years is female, since so many of his problems stem from the difficulties he has had with women. “She’s really extraordinary but she’s also ahhhh,” a big pause, “probably the first relationship I’ve had where the person didn’t lie to me. The first person who stuck by what she said. Did what she said she would do. And that’s been an experience which is new to me.”

The Frasier shows that make his eyes well up are all to do with family loyalty, where one of the characters demonstrates the depth of his love for a sibling or parent. And it’s usually, I notice, Frasier who heals the rifts or cements the ties. He recalls a couple of episodes, his voice wavering.

I tell him that my personal favourite was the one where it emerges that it was the Crane boys’ late, saintly mother, rather than their father, as they had believed, who had had an affair with an old friend of the family. The man had just died, and Martin and his sons are looking at their old photo albums, and somehow inadvertently the truth comes out, and we see that the burnished innocence of the snaps told a lie. Oh no, you’re off again, I say. “I know. I know, that was a big one for me.” Gulp. “Because Frasier was dealing with the fact that Lillith had cheated on him, and then oooooohhhh he and Martin saw that they’d both had this experience in common.”

With all this talk of Frasier’s family, one wonders what Grammer’s relations are like, these days, with his own family: that is, what is left of it, namely his mother. He tells me that she comes to see the show every week: “She’s a fixture of appreciation. And she loved Macbeth.”

He says that she was not affectionate to him when he was growing up, but they are close now.

“She’s kind of quiet and she endures. Losing a child is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and I’ve always respected her for just surviving that.”

There’s a lot to respect in her son, too. Grammer’s been sober as they say for four years now, ever since he’s been with Camille, but he’s not about to trot out pious warnings about the perils of his former lifestyle. He used to do the odd “bump” (line of coke) when he was on Cheers, but mostly the cast would restrict their partying to after the show, and he says he had a ball. Eventually, however, he didn’t know how to have fun unless he was loaded and wired. “What started out as a small dull ache became more of a raging persistent agony, and the addiction was the only thing that tempered it.”

In the final months before he went into rehab for the second time, in 1996, he was snorting and drinking on his own, and that was no fun at all. “I hate talking about being sober,” he says ruefully, “because it’s so stoopid. But sobriety is a better trip for me. Now. I wouldn’t have liked it before. I was happily f**ked-up before.”

He has described his short spell in prison, for a drink-driving conviction, as a relief. Because you got beaten up less than at home? “Yeah, right!” he wheezes good-humouredly. “At least I wasn’t a punching-bag. Hohoho. That’s very funny.”

ON OUR last day together, Grammer took me snorkelling at his favourite beach. Flinging off his tennis shoes, he drew my attention to his buckled feet which are responsible for Frasier’s famous duck walk and said, “So there they are. Horrible, aren’t they?” And I thought, gosh, is there nothing you wouldn’t wish to conceal? And, indeed, during our long interview, the only subject he would not be drawn on was that messy business with the 15-year-old babysitter. (He was accused of having sex with the girl some years ago and although it didn’t lead to criminal charges, one can appreciate that it is not something he wishes to pick over.)

I was left with the impression that Grammer has, perhaps for the first time in his life, reached some sort of equilibrium. He plainly adores his wife and one hopes that this time he has found a woman who won’t let him down. Who does what she says, and says what she means.

Despite his fortitude, there was one comment he made which I found disturbing. Perhaps because it taps into the viewers’ strange relationship with television, where the line between what is real and what is not is increasingly losing its edge.

When he was talking about the negative reception of Macbeth, Grammer admitted that what alarmed him was the thought that, “‘Gosh! Is Frasier all I’m ever going to be allowed to do again?’ You know, that fear exists.” Which goes beyond mere typecasting. For what could be more existentially panicky than being trapped in a character whom you have played so successfully for so many years that your own personality has been somehow subsumed by your fictional self?

WE repair to the house to watch the sunset spread, like a beautiful bruise, across the skies. Camille comes out to join us by the pool. She’s a tiny-boned, pretty young woman, with an arresting brown-eyed gaze. When she’s not being animated, clapping her hands and beckoning Kelsey to watch the dog show on the TV (they are both animal nuts), she has a still, watchful quality about her.

He tells me that his wife is known by his friends as Camille The Real Deal: “She’s so brave. She’s taken so much flak, you know, for having the bad judgment to marry Kelsey Grammer, and she became the subject of a lot of tabloid nonsense. And she’s just a dear, sweet girl.”

She has certainly been brave enough to come out publicly about her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which was diagnosed three years ago. Even her husband was momentarily shocked when she announced it on the Howard Stern show. But now he goes into rather more detail than I feel I need about its explosiveness, and the public embarrassment, and the way it makes people afraid to go out, including Camille since the couple are united in their campaign on the issue.

GRAMMER already has two daughters one from his first wife, the other by an estranged friend but he’s hoping to have more children with Camille. She has retired to the movie room with her parents, warm, friendly Italian-Americans, who are staying with the couple. Wrapped up in a blanket, her blonde hair tucked in at the nape, Camille looks almost childlike herself. Grammer glances her way, and his face softens.

“You see, my whole life I’ve been chasing the dream of having a family,” he says. “A mum and a dad, and a daughter and a son, living at home and coming home from work. And, granted, life as an actor is never going to be what you might call normal or stable I mean, dad disappears for three months to do a film but it is better to be a nuclear family. I never had that. And I want it. And so I’m gonna do my best to get it.”

Actors, Celebrities, Women

One tough kookie

The Times Saturday Magazine – November 5 2005
Ginny Dougary

From honorary Rat Packer to early-adopting New Ager, Shirley MacLaine has always been an unconventional broad. In a wonderfully frank interview, she talks to Ginny Dougary about politics, sex, and brother Warren Beatty.

Shirley MacLaine is holding court on a Malibu cliff-top terrace with plunging views of the ocean far below. It is she who has picked this restaurant location – principally because of its proximity to one of her homes, and something about the setting, as well as her untrammelled personality, lends a certain cheerful anarchy to the proceedings.

She has the most penetrating stare, which could intimidate the faint-hearted – for whom she would have no time anyway. MacLaine, herself, is lion-hearted… always steering her own path, way ahead of the rest of us, or in a league of her own: a civil-rights agitator before the great swell of the civil-rights movement (she risked being lynched when she attempted to check into a motel in Mississippi with her black friends); the only female who hung out as a buddy rather than a broad with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia boss Sam Giancana; an unconventional, long-distance marriage (her late husband, Steve Parker, lived in Tokyo with their daughter, Sachi); she was open about her affairs with spoken-for men – Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, whom she shared with Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye – which, if she were anyone else, would surely have played awkwardly in hypocritical Hollywood; a Democrat campaigner, along with her brother, Warren Beatty, for George McGovern – if he had won, she would have considered going into politics herself; an intrepid solo traveller; an early and abiding New Ager, before the term was invented, who has been mocked for her beliefs in reincarnation, UFOs and other such other-worldy stuff.

To explain her directness at one point in our interview – in something which comes suspiciously close to an apology – MacLaine excuses herself on the grounds that she is old enough now to speak her mind with impunity. A wearer of purple from way back, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of her ever feeling constrained by convention or the need to bite her tongue. She has always appeared younger than her age, and that hasn’t changed. It’s something to do with the curiosity in those startling blue eyes with their spiky lashes, her freckles, “Oh, I’ve always hated them; still do. They used to call me Freckle Face”; the quick turn-of-phrase; the slightly teenage counter-culture bolshiness.

Today, as she moves between tables of expectant journalists, she still has the gait of a dancer. At the end of our rumbustious one-on-one, I ask her to give me a flash of her famous legs. “They’re very white,” she says, and then grabs the hem of her loose trousers to roll them up… and up and up. They are ridiculous, I exclaim. Very slim, seemingly never-ending, taut almost to the very top, not a trace of cellulite or blemishes of any kind. My God, you’re 71! “That’s why I don’t mind telling anyone my age,” she says. “Mind! I love it.” In this spirit of mutual Shirley-worship, she also confesses that she doesn’t have to wear a bra: “I hate wearing a bra.” Didn’t you breastfeed? “Yeah, but she didn’t eat much! Ha ha ha.”

In her new film, In Her Shoes, MacLaine is the grandmother to two motherless and very different sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) and plays a pivotal role in patching up and explaining the various estranged relationships. It is an unusually quiet performance for MacLaine – rather English in its reserve – of guilt, subdued regretfulness and long-buried emotion that gradually comes to the fore. It has no trace of the “bombastic serenity” – the apt phrase MacLaine has coined to describe her relationship with the world. As a senior care worker in a Florida residential home, her character – who dresses with tasteful restraint – in no way resembles the colourful woman in front of me, with her pinky-auburn gamine haircut, cerise Indian kurta and layers of turquoise ethnic jewellery.

We decide early on that I shall call her Empress – and it really does rather suit her. She is a powerful presence with an occasionally imperious manner: “Hey! Can I have some ice-tea?” she bellows to her elderly personal publicist, Dale, at one point, and then to the film’s publicist, Hilary. “I asked for some ice-tea. I don’t know where it is! Maybe they went to Starbucks to get it!” But she is also an absolute trouper; submitting to hour after hour of interviews, eating lobster and mussels as she speaks, with no break or discernible outbreak of ill humour.

The director of the new film, Curtis Hanson, wanted no wigs (MacLaine’s hair is thinning at the back) and no make-up, even for the close-ups – and MacLaine admits that was daunting at her age. I liked her performance, particularly for its quality of watchful distance, so subtle you find yourself sharing the character’s apprehension about opening herself up to the pain of feeling again. I’m not all that surprised to hear the actress say that she found motherhood tough; Sachi was only five when she went to Tokyo to live with her father. “It’s very hard, but I gave up the guilt,” MacLaine says.

And then a second later: “I beat myself up still.” I wonder to myself if she drew on these feelings for her role as Ella, who holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death. But she says that playing the part made her understand her own mother better: “Because she was so contained. She was Canadian, you see, so she never told you what she was frigging thinking.” Oh, I didn’t know that’s what Canadians were known for.

“I’m serious,” she says. “They live in snow. They don’t talk.” Sounds more like the English. “No, the English are more perverted. Ha ha ha. You know exactly what you’re dealing with. With Canadians you never know what you’re dealing with.”

Did MacLaine feel that she missed out on her daughter growing up? “Yes… and so did she.” Was she cross and resentful? “Little bit. Little bit. But now she’s learning, because she’s got two kids – a boy and a girl, nine and seven, and she’s seeing you can’t do anything right. She’s a little over-attentive.” MacLaine leans over to pick up an enormous wide-brimmed hat decorated with antique roses, to protect her pale face from the Californian sun.

“I look like a bag lady now,” she snorts when I compliment her on it. So does she enjoy being a grandmother? “Of course, because I can spoil them and I can say ‘You really shouldn’t do that’ or whatever and send them back to their parents in Connecticut… Oh, it’s totally liberating. And I also like being an aunty. Although everyone thinks I’m their grandmother anyway,” she grimaces.

There have been periods of estrangement between MacLaine and her younger brother. My guess is that there may have been an element of professional competition. MacLaine’s longterm ex-beau, the writer and journalist Pete Hamill, who left her for Jackie Kennedy, was uncomfortable with MacLaine’s attachment to the mystical – and I would imagine that Beatty, who is still very much concerned with the inequities in this world, would be in the same camp. And MacLaine, despite her own sexual adventurousness, was probably uncomfortable with her kid bro’s conquesting reputation.

When I ask her how they’re getting on these days, she says: “Look, I understand the workings of a family better now – brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters – I mean, come on. We’re in a very good and cordial period now… I don’t know how long it will last but we’re there now.” Is it stretching it to find anything about the difficulties between the two sisters in the new film which might correspond to the history between her and her brother? “Oh, I think there can be sibling rivalry between brothers and sisters. I was always watching the way he treated women.”

Aha, and…? “I think he was interested in women because of mother, you know; he could never hear her. Therefore, I think he’s very good with women and understands women. Maybe he didn’t have to understand as many as he did…” her voice goes up. Do you think he has a strong feminine side? “Oh, very. He does, but I think he was searching for what a woman means and needs and loves and hates and wants and is afraid of.”

I say that I had spoken to him at some length on the telephone a few years ago, in an attempt to persuade him to be interviewed. We talked about politics, mainly, but what was alluring about him, compared to most actors I’ve encountered, was his informed interest in the world about him. “He’d have loved to get you into bed,” is her bizarre response. Oh! “Are you kiddin’ me or what?” she squawks. Well, gosh, you know, I feel sort of insulted and embarrassed, and also rather flattered. “You see, he knows that he has that appeal which overcomes the sensibility that you know that he has, and it makes you forget that you know he’s doing that to you.” Hmm. How complicated. Moving on swiftly… What do you think of our new English national treasure, Madonna? “I’d like to bronze that horse.”

I take it you were not all that thrilled when your brother and she became an item? I think you said something quite rude at the time? (Asked how she would feel about having the singer as a sister-in-law, MacLaine’s response was that it would be as easy for her “as it would be for me to nail a custard pie to the wall”.) “I said it would be like hanging bubbles on a clothes line, or pissing up a rope,” she says, in case one were in any doubt about her feelings.
MacLaine is still sufficiently concerned with this life – I feared that she had completely retreated from the here and now – to care about who is holding the reins of power. I wondered whether she was still friends with Julie Christie, a famous Beatty ex, who shows no signs of political apathy. “I liked her a lot. I thought he should have married her.” Do you approve of this one? (Annette Bening.) “Love her. She’s smart; she wants to be a mother; she certainly is a brilliant actress, but if the roles don’t come along – that’s all right, too. I was just over there last night. We had a wonderful time.” I ask her whether she will intercede on my behalf to secure that interview with her brother. “I’ll do it on one condition,” she says sternly. What? (I’m thinking: copy control; I have to become a Buddhist…) A very big pause and then: “You have to go to bed with him.” Hysterical laughter on both our parts. What is she like?

It is as well to mention, perhaps, that neither MacLaine nor I have been drinking. So this drift towards bawdiness – at poor Warren’s expense – is merely his sister’s idea of natural ebullience and fun. The only occasion I have come across such ribald behaviour, in this context, was with another great celluloid diva: Elizabeth Taylor, who was equally outspoken and shameless. They make the present crop of female megastars seem colourless in comparison.

I tell MacLaine that I had been warned that she would be on her toes and quick with the verbal come-back: a legacy of her upbringing. “Nooooh,” she says. Her parents, Ira and Kathleen – the name of Warren’s oldest daughter – Beaty, had a long but difficult marriage. MacLaine once described it as a partnership of “blended neuroses”. Her childhood home was full of “disappointment and longings”. She has also compared her parents to the drunk academics in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Now she says: “They weren’t that bad and therefore not that funny.” Her father was a bad enough “cyclical” drunk – to make her wary of getting involved with any man with similar tendencies. Which is interesting, since the only man who seems to have dented her heart – Robert Mitchum – always conveyed the impression of being over-attached to the bottle.

She was born in Virginia, a southern gal but not a belle – which meant that she was never burdened with the anguish of losing her looks. One of the many astute comments MacLaine has made about herself was this: “See, I wasn’t afraid of getting old, because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol. I did, however, have great legs because I was a dancer. But I didn’t have that baggage. I wasn’t interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in great parts.”

MacLaine adopted her mother’s maiden name when she became frustrated by a director who seemed unable to pronounce her surname correctly (Bait-y not Beat-y). Warren merely chose to embellish the family name with an extra “t”. The two siblings could not look more disimilar; it must have been vexing, I think, to have a brother who was considered prettier than yourself. MacLaine says that she’s not even sure that she is the offspring of her parents. You think you were adopted? “I always felt I was so different from anyone in this family.” Different from anyone, full stop, I say… and she laughs.

There seems to have been a rapprochement between parents and daughter in later life which was partly to do with their shared interest in the unknown. “My mother’s metaphysics had to do with nature: her rose garden, for example. ‘I understand reincarnation,’ she would say, ‘because the rose’s stem is the soul which has a different rose every spring’. Dad was a serious metaphysician – which he never told anybody. His best buddy died in the Second World War, and at the moment of being shot, appeared at the bottom of my dad’s bed. And he told me about one night when he was drunk and crashed the car and had an out-of-body experience. ‘So,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’”

For those of us who remain sceptical about the beyond, it would seem more constructive for MacLaine to apply her considerable energy to addressing the problems coming out of America. Does she actually feel American? “Oh, yeah, but an American that is the result of the founding fathers’ wish. I’m very ashamed of being in this country and of what we’re doing.” Of the war specifically? “Our imperialistic attitudes, our desecration of the environment, the whole Christian crusading that the Bush administration is doing, the marketing economy… it’s a freakin’ disaster!”

So why not re-enter the political fray? (Her brother has been reported to be considering taking on Arnie.) “No, I’ll sit back and…” But why sit back? “Politics are not what it is about now. What it’s about now is really what I’ve been writing about and thinking about for most of my life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is God? We might have an apocalypse with everyone involved and armies killing each other over God.”

Has MacLaine ever fooled herself about herself? “Yeah, now this is interesting… I fooled myself that the country would wake up to Richard Nixon. I fooled myself that we would see that in the name of, quote, ‘Democracy in the Arab world’, we’re losing it at home. I thought we would be more aware than that, and we’re not. I fooled myself for a while that people would understand the nature of my metaphysics. It is now mainstream but I thought they would be ready for it sooner.”

Mainstream? Well, only up to a point. My partiality to MacLaine – an admirer of her talent, sassiness, and courage in forging her own way – meant I found myself editing out the parts of her that alienated me. From kooky to cuckoo, after all, is but a short UFO-mystic hop. I had not read her copious volumes of spiritual travels and tried to brush over the outlandish musings on her past lives: as Charlemagne’s mistress; an orphan brought up by elephants; Nefertiti’s handmaiden; a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. I was doing pretty well, but then I came to the most recent cutting in her many files and my heart sank: four pages in Hello! publicising a new book, Out on a Leash, Exploring Reality and Love, which she has “co-written” with her dog, Terry. Shirley, I read, has Terry the terrier “sign” documents for herself, and says that she talks with the dog in a “purer, more direct form of language”, which she calls “Humanimal”.

She lives alone in her main home in Santa Fe and I had been asking her, as she has become older, whether she finds herself becoming increasingly reclusive or more reliant on friendship. “I’m a phoney recluse,” MacLaine says. “Because I like being alone. My idea of being really alone – no, of being lone-ly – is never to be alone. I love my own company. How I would feel now about my own company without Terry, my dog, is another question.

“But she and I have an arrangement that when she goes, in about ten years, she’s going to come back right away again. So I will wait until I’m drawn to the right puppy. I know more about the meaning of love with her – this is important what I’m saying now – nature and animals have taught me more about love than people.”

One might be tempted to say this sounds barking – ho ho – but MacLaine is in full Empress flow and not in the mood for jests. I say, instead, that it’s quite common for older people living on their own – particularly women – to form extremely strong attachments to their pets. “I’ve noticed that, too, and I do feel very much in the ranks of older women who have their pets,” she concedes. “But maybe it’s because we are really searching for the definition of love. We know that what we’ve experienced before comes and goes – came and went. The child thing is another thing, of course, that’s love – in that you can’t help but love, but you’re always worried about whether you’re doing the right thing.” And so we keep circling back to this niggle of long-gone decisions returning to haunt MacLaine in some way.

I wonder whether she had worries at the time about sending her daughter off to Japan, or did she close them down? “No, Steve and I had arguments,” she says. But there had been kidnap threats and a drunk nanny sleeping with her boyfriend, while Sachi was left sitting outside on the doorstep, and MacLaine was concerned about the general perils of Hollywood life and, in any case, her husband – a dancer turned director turned producer – did not want to stay in a town where he was known as Mr MacLaine.

The couple finally divorced in 1987 after 27 years of marriage. MacLaine’s father had died the previous year and I wondered whether this had been the catalyst. “Oh no, it was because I found out that Steve had been stealing all my money,” she says. The marriage had been amicable till then; more of a long-distance friendship than a partnership. “Yes, that’s right. He had his affairs and I had mine. But take my money and you’re outta here! I’m far too Scotch for that. Ha ha ha.” When Parker died in 2001, MacLaine did not attend the funeral: “He didn’t want me there.”
Passion doesn’t feature in her life any more: “I think it’s the ageing process and also wisdom.” She says that she feels completely peaceful, and happier than she’s ever been. “I have zero stress. All that over-achieving has been transformed into not planning,” she says. “It’s daunting but you should try it.” Instead of going to swanky dinner parties, with place settings and fabulous wine – and where it’s all over in three hours – she prefers to have her friends stay with her for three days in Santa Fe, where they go hiking and riding, feed the chickens and talk. She says that, although she doesn’t like to socialise or go to parties, when she does go, she’s always the last to leave.

So you like to drink martinis and kick up your legs? Oooh, what kind of look is that you’re giving me? “What does having a martini and kicking up your legs mean?” I suppose it’s shorthand for asking you whether you turn into the life and soul of the party. “No. I’m over in a corner talking deeply with someone who no one else is talking to.” Did you object to the suggestion you drink, or the idea that you kick up your legs? “I just thought it was a stupid question.” Oh. “I thought it was a clichéd question.” Oh. “I hate cliché. Hate it. But I have to get over this because now everyone is speaking in cliché.”

I wonder whether, perhaps, MacLaine has turned into one of the Californian New Puritans. But she only stopped smoking last December, and she still wants a cigarette every day. Pot wasn’t for her because, like the ex-Pres, she never inhaled. And now, since her hiatus hernia, drinking’s pretty much out, too. How very boring for you. Yes, particularly since she loves a good martini, she says, especially a Dirty Gibson. This is an evil-sounding concoction: gin (it has to be Tanqueray), a tablespoon of onion juice and a great big pickled onion. “I’ll go make one for you because I make really good ones,” she says. Lovely, I say, but possibly not quite yet. (It’s 11.30 in the morning.)

A few questions on and MacLaine is fretting that she spoke too harshly to me. “You know, I had a pang of guilt when I said that was a stupid question. In my head, I didn’t think that out, and I am guilty over things like that. But I explained myself and it was all right. Still feel guilty.” It was a bit mean? “Mmm. I do that. With age and the right to tell the truth, and then people have their feelings hurt…” Do you mind that? “I do. It bothers me because I’m kind, but I’m also extremely direct and I can’t stand being a phoney diplomat.”

She may never have been a sex symbol, as she says, but that didn’t stop some pretty hunky men finding MacLaine sexy. When we go on to talk about romantic love, there is something about her that reminds me of her character, Ella, in the new film. For all her apparent transparency, there is also a sense of something buried or unacknowledged – which makes me wonder whether the actress really is as tough, deep-down, as she likes to make out. In her youth, and later, she considered herself to be a sexual person. There were liaisons with a number of politicians: the assassinated Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; Australia’s urbane Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the conservative opposition – are you still friends? “Oh, yes!”; a British Labour MP who remains anonymous. Were you attracted to their brains or their position? “I was probably slumming in power,” she says. There were also a couple of truck drivers whom she found sexy, she would like to point out, possibly in the interests of egalitarianism, “but only for one-night-stands”.

Now, she says: “It wasn’t really about sex. Never is. It never really is. What is sexual attraction anyway? When you think about it, it’s not about sex, it’s not about f******, it’s not about how big it is or anything like that. It’s about the person inside that body. It’s to do with a certain energy and values and sense of humour. And I was always attracted to a man who was basically a mystery to himself, because that kept my interest and gave me something to do.”

Were you ever romantic? “Basically not. I understand that romance will kill a relationship.” Did you ever have your heart broken? “No, but there were some periods with Robert Mitchum [they had a three-year affair] where I just wanted to kill him… does that mean I had my heart broken?” she seems to be asking herself. “No, I’d kill a man before he broke my heart.” How did you manage to insulate your heart and still be an open person? “I didn’t insulate it. But…” Then I believe you must have had your heart broken. “But I don’t see myself as a victim. I turned being hurt into action: ‘What did you do this for? Why? What is on your mind? Let’s talk.’ Yes, I am a good communicator.”

You’ve written about flying halfway around the world to meet your lover in hotels. “And he wouldn’t be there.” So what on earth did you do? “Ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ See, I was fascinated by how weak he was… this big guy. I couldn’t stay away from investigating the passivity.” I liked that beatniky phrase about Mitchum having the soul of a poet; a poet with an axe. “That was his description of himself,” she says. “I think he was lying about the axe.”

Our time is up, but MacLaine is damned if she’s not going to show off her martini-making skills, which throws Hilary the film publicist into a state of some alarm. I follow the Empress, tape recorder in hand, and watch her create havoc in the restaurant. The young staff are so far from being obsequious that their attitude is almost rude. MacLaine rolls her eyes but carries on indomitably till she has mixed me her Dirty Gibson. Oh God, I gasp, reeling from the neat alcohol, perhaps it needs a bit more onion juice. “Ha ha ha… this girl is really Dirty!” she says.

I mention Elizabeth Taylor whom I interviewed in Beverly Hills where I also interviewed Madonna, and say how much more gracious one was than the other. “Why would you even mention them in the same breath?” she asks. “Did he screw them both?” Screw? Who? What? Him? Your brother? “Did he do Elizabeth? I don’t know. I think he tried to on that picture in Paris.” Well, honestly! What is Shirley MacLaine like? I think the answer has to be: like no other.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

Celebrities, Music

Preacher man

Ginny Dougary

For 20 years, Bob Geldof has raged, hectored and charmed to get what he wants: hope for Africa. but even superheroes have their flaws, as Ginny Dougary discovers in a stormy encounter.

Just how much of a bully do you have to be to pull off something extraordinary? Does it matter if you bruise or upset people along the way and do you even care if you do, when the goal you are striving for is so important? Do you feel outraged to be challenged over issues which you consider to be trivial, unnecessary and possibly obstructive? These are the questions which nagged me after interviewing Sir Bob Geldof.

I had expected him to be a tricky customer but he far exceeded my expectations. His harshest critics, and I am not among them, would find it difficult to claim that Geldof has not been genuinely big-hearted and an effective catalyst in pushing governments in the wealthiest countries to tackle the economic plight of Africa. But even beyond his political and charitable galvanising, I had developed something of a soft spot for him over the decades.

For a man who can be almost comically disarrayed and foul-mouthed, to the extent that his anger sometimes appears out of control, Geldof was a model of dignified restraint when his late wife, Paula Yates, left him for Michael Hutchence. While she was most outspoken about how unhappy her ex-husband had made her, I was unable to find a single criticism of Yates by Geldof, and to this day, as I witnessed, he talks about her only with love and respect and regret. I was also struck by the grace and the immediacy with which he embraced the orphaned Tiger Lily, the daughter of Yates and Hutchence, into his own family.

I approved of his un-rock’n’roll parental firmness; there is an instance of this in his riveting book on Africa, published to coincide with the television series, when he is in the back of a truck in the dark, in a state of bowel-loosening terror, and one of his daughters phones on the mobile to seek permission for a sleepover. All thoughts of an imminent ambush by gun-wielding rebels on some hell-hole of a road are eclipsed by Geldof’s concern that homework has been completed and that said daughter is back home by 11 in the morning, even if it is the weekend.

His appearance has changed dramatically over the years and, again, I rather applaud his lack of vanity. He was a strikingly good-looking youth, as chief Boomtown Rat, in that sexily dishevelled Jagger-Stoppard mould. With Paula, who loved her frocks and once incurred her husband’s wrath for making a public appearance in something too revealing while he was out of the country, Geldof could be seen in three-piece tweeds sporting a strange surrealist-beatnik beard.

But, increasingly, with his drib-drab locks and hanging clothes, his pale glistening face contorted in a rictus of existential pain, he brings to mind a tramp from a Dennis Potter drama; a preacher from an early John Huston film, wide-eyed in the wilderness. He seems a man driven by his destiny, the huge mantle of Africa weighing down his bony shoulders. He talks – and how he can talk – with a lyrical, almost biblical, intensity and he has given himself the power because of the unassailable rightness of his cause to castigate, chide and cast into the darkness, anyone who stands in his way. So pity the poor wretch of an interviewer who has been dispatched to be more than a mere recorder to tape his sermonising zeal.

Why, with this well of good feeling that I had towards him, did I expect Geldof to be tricky? Partly because it has become an ingrained, and rather dominant, strand of his persona that he is grumpy. But also because the sensible-sounding book publicist had warned me, “You know, Bob is a very strong personality.”

There had been niggling criticisms of him in the press but, mostly, from the usual suspects. It became clear during our encounter that it was the disappointment felt by the more unusual suspects – about the lack of specifically African but more generally black faces in his concert line-up in London – that really bothered him. Although he affected not to know – most disingenuously – that it was the lack of blackness per se that disturbed people. These voices clamoured even louder after our interview and, at the time of writing, have clearly forced Geldof to rethink his position.

Something else hovered, a ghost of a thought, in the back of my mind. A young, twentysomething colleague – clear-headed, super-bright and unencumbered by Seventies feminist ideology – felt that there was a strong whiff of misogyny around Geldof. She said this en passant and I didn’t have time to quiz her about it. I was probably a bit uneasy about his campaigning alongside Fathers 4 Justice for aggrieved dads but also felt some sympathy for his view after rereading the articles about his painful custody battles with Yates.

Reviewing his life in the hundreds of cuttings, in the days before we met, I found myself warming to Geldof even more. He seemed gratifyingly co-operative and quite forthcoming about the likely effect on his developing personality, as a small boy left to his own devices after his mother had died and with a travelling salesman father who was often absent for long stretches of time. But as I read on, knowing the dreadful inevitability of what was to come – the utterly senseless, sad deaths of Hutchence and Yates – the research began to feel almost oppressive.

It was not as though I had felt any particular kinship with Paula Yates while she was alive. Although she was peppy and minxy, quick-witted and funny, she was also an absolute pain in her finger-wagging at working mothers mode. (And what were her In Bed with Paula interviews for her husband’s successful TV company if not work?) But even that phase, when she wore her aprons and crinolines and baked apple pies, seemed odd and slightly desperate in hindsight. After the split, she wrote her autobiography in which she described how confined she had begun to feel in her marriage: “Bob is the most controlling person in the world, which he freely and rather proudly admits. He used to tell me, ‘If I can’t exactly control the environment I’m in, I feel like I’m going mad.’” And towards the end, “I felt that I couldn’t do anything in case Bob was cross with me. I was always quite scared of him and hated him to be angry with me.”

What I found really upsetting was a piece for The Sunday Times Magazine’s Life in the Day slot which appeared after her death. Reading it was like being ambushed by her torment and distress, and all the more poignant for her occasional rallying attempts to regain her perky tilt on life.

She talks about her agoraphobia and depression, in between the jokes, and the horror she faces at three in the morning when she lies awake: “thinking ghastly thoughts about death, the transience of beauty and the squandering of talent”. And, so bleak this: “There’s a horrible dark place inside me now where nothing much matters any more.”

Geldof lopes into the room, an editing suite in an office in Soho where he is nipping and tucking the final episodes of his African TV series. I say that we have met once before and he – being polite – says that he recognises my face. When I add that it was a long time ago when he was in the Boomtown Rats, he says in that case he must be mistaken. As a student in the Seventies, I had seen the Rats in some godforsaken place near Swindon. Thinking Geldof was a bit of a love-god, I decided to pass myself off as a rock journalist in order to get backstage… whereupon I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Since the story reflects well on him, I say how patient he was and he counters, faux-darkly – although perhaps it was not all that faux – “Well, that’s certainly changed.”

He sits on the sofa and I take up a position – a bit of a mistake as the interview unravelled – on the floor near his feet. (Seating was a problem, either too cosy or too remote.) That morning’s news is that Bush has announced that the US plans to sign off its African debt and Geldof is “you know, moderately pleased.” The debt deal, on its own, is not enough and he is consumed with the importance of addressing the other two key issues at Gleneagles of doubling aid and trade reform, “which is what the Commission for Africa requires them to do”.

As he explores the financial intricacies of each of the G8 countries, his knowledge is as impressive as the precision of his words – “…so when Brown was trying to push the IFF – the International Finance Facility, which I completely endorse – I think it’s simple, elegant and admirable…” but I’m also, already, daunted by their unstoppable flow. The rules of an interview demand a certain to and fro – if there are to be answers, there must also be questions. It is a dance of sorts, if you like, and I suspect that Geldof wants to pogo on his own.

We know, full well, that having spent a year working with presidents and prime ministers on the Commission for Africa – which, it should be remembered, was his initiative – Geldof must have been quite capable of exercising diplomatic skills. Yet, the image persists of someone who shoots from the hip. It is Geldof, himself, however, as much as anyone else, who is responsible for perpetuating this legend. Here is a typical quote: “Me and Bono are known as the Laurel and Hardy of international politics. He’s the one who’s always saying, ‘That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.’ He thinks I look for fights, but I don’t.” And, in the same breath – rather contradictorily – “Bono wants to change the world by embracing it. I get angry and want to punch its lights out.”

When I manage to ask him about his own talent for diplomacy, he says: “ You know, I didn’t just sit for a year on the Commission for Africa. I mean, I’ve done this for 20 years… The anger comes from the fact that while you understand everyone’s difficulties as the leaders of sovereign states, the point that you eventually come down to is ‘Well, why not do it anyway? It costs nothing.’ And I do get to that point but I don’t shout and bang and roar and I haven’t been shouting and banging and roaring on television, you know. People are saying, ‘Calm down.’ But I’m calm. I am calm, you know. “Don’t you think that somebody might say, ‘Hold on, there’s this idea you have of the guy. How does he get to be there, if he’s this sort of cartoon figure?’”

It strikes me, more forcibly when I listen to the interview later, that this is the start of a pattern in our encounter. Geldof should know, and surely does, as a major media player himself, that it’s a journalist’s job to put questions to the subject that are being aired in the public arena. But time and time again he shoots the messenger, insistently and perversely ascribing those views to me.

I wonder – and how I wish I hadn’t – what he makes of strange bedfellows such as Janet Street-Porter and Bruce Anderson sneering at a pop-star’s attempts to change the world. Again, I make it quite clear that I don’t go along with that view.

But still, off he went: “I’m not aware of those criticisms because I don’t read it and so your entire agenda is to ask me what a columnist who is paid to be provocative…” It’s not my agenda, and it’s only one question. “You’re using their agenda and you’re another journalist and it’ll appear in a newspaper and all this is froth that consumes you people in journalism and it has no bearing on what is happening. And I’ll tell you what is happening: the political world is shifting en masse towards a resolution of the greatest political fracture in the world and certainly what I believe is the greatest moral sore and not to deal with it corrupts our soul – not that I wouldn’t be ambivalent about the existence of that entity in the first place – but none the less…”

Much more of this, then: “And, so you know, it’s pointless answering what to me what is an inconsequential thing – and it’s Janet who I love. I think she’s completely, you know, turning into one of those great bonkers old women and I love it…”

Like Germaine? “Germaine is just beyond wonderful. I’m mad for her. And I love Bruce Anderson’s writing and Frank Johnson and all those people when they write about me. Obviously I don’t read it because it would just get in the way. I’m aware of it but I just get on with doing my thing.”

I clap my hands with glee at this: the artful magnanimity, as well as the Irish charm and blarney. And it’s fair enough for him, too, to see the criticism – but, surely, not all criticism – as a distraction from his goal. But what interested me is how thin-skinned Geldof is – despite affecting nonchalance or media knowingness – since throughout the rest of the interview it was he, not me, who kept revisiting the issue of how he is perceived.

For a moment, we are all smiles… and then I ask another question. I wonder what prompted his Dunkirk flotilla manoeuvre. A number of people had mentioned this to me as another bonkers idea from Bob but, again, I rather liked the sound of it; it is often the more outlandish activities which prompt people to sit up and pay attention. Geldof feels the only way he wants to answer this is by giving me the whole background from his last visit to Africa, 18 months ago, which led to him approaching Blair to set up the Commission for Africa – drawing together “the greatest economic minds of our time” – right up to the Live 8 concerts and events.

It is fascinating – Blair’s responsiveness to Live Aid all those years ago and Geldof’s cunning plan to exploit the PM’s populist instincts and “kidnap British policy”; the drawing in of writers such as Umberto Eco for “fresh thinking seminars” so that beyond the specialists, you have brilliant minds coming at the problems from different angles; the intense level of intellectual argument, “which I found, to my dismay – since I’m not a big committee guy – hugely stimulating”; how you go about changing the structures of African society – and I understand why Geldof says you need to see his whole game plan in order for him to explain the individual moves. But as the minutes tick by, and tick by, with him brooking no interruptions or slapping me down when I do, I begin to panic.

Look, I say, this is good and I’m happy for you to continue – (after a page-long speech where he’s barely paused for breath) – but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover so will you give me more time? “No, I’ll give you an hour and that’s it.”

He has been getting steadily ruder. I mention a historian I admire who has done some work with Geldof… He’s interesting, isn’t he? “He’s not very.” John Gray (not Men Are from Mars, but the other one), on the other hand, “is a very interesting man. His book is profoundly important. I think it’s one of the first important books of the 21st century. The Africa Commission being the second first important book of the 21st century.”

Another attempt at a question and “Stay with me. Stop hopping all around the place. I’ll just tell you what happened and you keep interrupting.” You’re so controlling, I say.

Fast forward – well, forward, at least – to the concert. Geldof’s lack of enthusiasm for staging a sort of Live Aid revisited has been well-documented. When Richard Curtis and Bono approached him, his first response was “You f****** do it.” “And Bono said, ‘I’m gonna be on tour.’ And I said, ‘That’s very nice. I’d like a bit of that action, you know.’ And Richard said, ‘It’s not the sort of thing I can do.’

“My feeling was ‘What’s the point in a gig? What are we doing it for?’ And also the cost to me was too much: the physical cost, I don’t sleep, I panic, I worry – the potential for failure is enormous. Failure to achieve what we set out to do, which then betrays the people in whose name you do it. That you will create a vast generation of cynics because you mobilise a country and you seek to persuade them that this is the right way forward and in so persuading you cannot let them down. And then the personal failure that it didn’t work. So those things have an emotional toll and it has a personal toll in terms of your time: you can’t be with your family which has a toll on your relationships, and it’s got financial costs, of course. You can’t earn money. So all of that.”

In the end, after a great deal of agonising, Geldof persuaded himself that a concert and allied stunts was the most effective way of ensuring media coverage which if handled correctly – or even incorrectly – would, in turn, be a vehicle for pressurising governments in the relevant countries. “Because once you announce it, you get weeks of you guys talking about people who are on the bill – they’re old, they’re young, they’re not black, they’re not African…”

Controversy, in other words. “It’s not controversy… it’s silly stuff. You get your Bruce Andersons and your Janets going at me and then beyond that you get, ‘Well, what is this about?’”

He lists all the pages of newspaper coverage and, indeed, since we met there hasn’t been a day when Geldof hasn’t been in the news: the black debate raged on; conveniently eclipsed by the Pink Floyd reunion; the eBay ticket sales scandal; the Eden Project concert. He’s thrilled that Lorraine on her pink sofa was asking him about corruption and trade reform in Africa “at eight in the morning! That is seriously significant.” That in Berlin, where he had been the previous day, he spoke to a packed press conference, which was running live on all networks, “and this half-assed Paddy pop singer was being asked in-depth questions about Africa”.

At this point, I spill my cup of hot coffee over me but Geldof doesn’t falter; he just keeps motoring on. How could he bring in the other countries? (He is asking the questions now as well as answering them.) “We’ll make it fun. Instead of ‘Give me your f****** money’ famously, it’s ‘Give me you.’ You know, ‘Come to Britain.’ ‘How are we gonna get there?’”

So here we have arrived, 30 minutes later, with the answer to my Dunkirk question. This was all part of his long walk to justice plan, although it will be a long train or short plane ride to Edinburgh, since four days between the London concert and the G8 summit in Gleneagles is not enough time to go by foot… but no matter. So Geldof has got Air Berlin to put on free flights, and he’s already got his old gigging mate, Sir Richard Branson, to help out with Virgin, and he’s doing a sort of Dunkirk re-enactment led by solo yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur “and it’s a massive national effort”.

And when the G8 leaders fly back to their countries, “their straggling people will be returning home ragged and weary from a triumphant failure but a miserable defeat for their leaders – or a glorious triumph, it’s one or the other. They will be asked by the embedded journalists, ‘Hold on. You got on your jet, you had massive numbers of people willing you to do something for Africa, and you did nothing. You did nothing. You answer for it.’ So there is a political consequence to this one.”

We enjoy a charming but shortlived sunny interlude before the storm breaks. Will Geldof’s own four girls be bunking school to join their father in Edinburgh? “If they’re doing exams, no. They’re not bunking, anyway. I will take them out and write a letter saying I think it’s important that my children participate in the world. I don’t want them bunking. Anyway, I can’t think of anything more educational. It’s the entire curriculum – geography, history, civics, religion.”

I say that my 14-year-old son watched some of the programmes with me the previous night, and since Geldof actually seems interested in his response – “Did he like them? Did he get it?” – I do my maternal duty and ask for an autograph. He scribbles with good grace and, suddenly remembering his manners, offers me his last slither of sashimi.

But all traces of good will evaporate – and it is alarming to be at the receiving end of such a sudden and dramatic mood swing – when I ask the black question. When the London line-up was first announced on May 31 there were no black artists. The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour was added to the bill, but on the day I interview Geldof, the addition of American rap artist Snoop Dogg and British Ms Dynamite had not yet been announced.

I mention Ms Dynamite and Beyoncé as black women who could have been included: “What are you talking about? Miss Dynamite and Beyoncé are on the bill.” (I have still been unable to find any reference to Beyoncé on any of the line-ups worldwide; the only mentions of Ms Dynamite up to this point were complaints that she wasn’t appearing.)

Oh, I apologise, I must not be up to speed. There have been criticisms by Andy Kershaw and… “Get with the programme. You’re completely under-informed. Kershaw’s thing is about African bands.” I know, but also… “I mean, you are emblematic of the model at the heart of the liberal consensus.”

(Geldof has said: “I see things in black and white; I am not a liberal at all.”)

Don’t bash me up, I say. “Do you not see any difference between black people and African people?” I do, I do, and… “What have Beyoncé and Ms Dynamite got to do with Africa?” Because of the criticisms that Kershaw came up with and… “It was about African bands.” Yes (at last I get a chance to speak) – but there have also been criticisms that there aren’t enough black faces in the line-up.

“Oh, right. I didn’t know that,” he says, literally unbelievably. “If he can name people here who sell millions of records I don’t have a problem. So can you name any? Here. In London?”

If I can think of some, should I ask them to come forward? “No,” he says. “There’s no space now.”

And then, an argument that he must now be aware is increasingly unacceptable to many people: “If there’s a guy who sells – I don’t care if they’re lime green and orange. If they sell ten million albums, I’d beg them to be on the bill…

“If I have a load of African artists – great as they may be – no one’s that interested. Why? How do we know this? Because we know how much their record sales are and we know what sort of gigs they play. And the equal truth is that most Africans listen to Eminem and 50 Cent. And the truth is that if you had a load of African bands on, people would go and make tea or else they’d switch over to Wimbledon. And I can’t afford that.”

Geldof was so very belligerent, even with me asking questions in the most unconfrontational way possible, that I’m glad I didn’t come back at him on this. But, really and truly, it is the most ridiculous and offensive thing he could say. He is assuming that people in their living rooms will care enough about African people, having heard Madonna and Pink Floyd, to put pressure on their governments to affect wide-reaching and necessary change. But when one or a group of Africans come on the stage – captivating, wonderful artists such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Salif Keita – this same audience will suddenly be so uninterested they will turn off in their masses. In which case, it’s not just the African musicians who should feel patronised and insulted.

But more than this, it cannot be any good – surely – offending the very people in whose name you are acting. Two days after my interview, the Senegalese star Baaba Maal wrote about his disappointment, in admirably measured tones, in The Independent: “I do feel that it is very patronising as an African artist that more of us aren’t involved… If in a concert like Live 8, people don’t give African artists the chance to appear, how are they going to add their voice?…” And, tackling Geldof’s justification head on: “This is not about how many records African artists sell. It should be about the whole package. If African artists aren’t given a chance, how are they going to sell records and take the message back to Africa? Sometimes it seems to be about keeping artists down at a level where some people want them to stay.”

As I write, it has just been announced that there will be a separate event for African musicians – in the wake of so much criticism about the Hyde Park “too Anglo-Saxon” (Damon Albarn) concert – held at the Eden Project in Cornwall. While this strikes me as a sort of rock’n’roll apartheid, the African performer Angelique Kidjo had no problem with it: “Why are we having this controversy?” she asked. “What is important is that we all work together against poverty.”

Still, people will continue to be offended and Geldof’s defensiveness on this issue suggests that he realises his approach may not have necessarily been the best – or, perhaps, he’s too arrogant to concede he could be wrong. He should apologise, but, like a politician, being Bob means never having to say you’re sorry.

We move on to the issue of monitoring precisely where aid money goes, since there is still a widely held perception that it pours into the pockets of corrupt governments and dictators. “That doesn’t happen. That’s the first thing.” Never? Not even 20 years ago? “No, it doesn’t happen.” You can actually trace all the money?

“Now listen… if you come to interview me and you’re from The Times, please read. OK. Please do work. Go to the Charity Commission. All the accounts are there. It is all over the place, precisely what happened. I’ve written a book about it. Other people have written books about it.”

So you’re saying that no money ever gets diverted and misused by dictatorships? “Are you talking about Band Aid money?” I’m just talking about… “Don’t conflate the two! Have some mental rigour and discipline. Honestly.”

Don’t berate me like this.

“Well, don’t you start asking me stupid f****** questions after 20 years. You know, you should have a little bit of sense, you know.”

OK, but my job is to be a conduit to the public and you must know that there is some anxiety about money going to dictators. “There isn’t. There is no perception that Band Aid money went to dictators, no.” Well, I don’t think that people are… [I was going to say, that nuanced about the different accountabilities between charities and government-to-government aid.] “I don’t think you understand the difference between bilateral, multilateral aid flows and individual charities.” I probably don’t, I say. (Not being the charity correspondent of my paper, which I don’t say.) “Well, then you should. If you’re coming from The Times and you want to talk about Africa, the very least you should do is understand that or f*** off.”

OK, I say, and my voice sounds tiny.

At this point I think the interview is over and – frankly – it is a relief. It still bothers me that I felt so trapped by trying to do my job that I didn’t walk out. To have a man towering above you – it didn’t help that I was on the floor – a face implacable with cold rage, is intimidating. To be yelled and sworn at, with such force, felt like having my face kicked in. I don’t think you should ever show another human being so little respect. And I do think Geldof has a real problem with his anger.

Incredibly, his mood switches again and he launches into another three-page lecture, this time about devices to ensure the transparent flow of aid to Africa. When I had said that I thought he himself had declared that a certain amount of money was diverted, he exploded: “I did not say that at all!” Later, I found the quote which had registered in the mountain of information I had mugged up on… it was in an interview Geldof had given the previous month, where he says quite clearly and without any ring-fencing: “I’m not saying there isn’t endemic corruption in Africa. A proportion of aid goes missing.”

But like all good bullies, by this time – bludgeoned by his sustained barrage of verbal blows – he had successfully shaken my confidence. As a colleague put it, later, it was almost as though I had been caught up in a mini-abusive relationship.

Perhaps this explains why, when I do introduce the very human and emotional subject of Paula – in the final, more amicable stage of our interview (we talk about his childhood, his love of poetry and his readings of Keats – we recite the first stanza of Ode to a Nightingale together – and Yeats at the British Library, his Willy Loman dad, his purposeful and engaged 96-year-old aunt, the cuddles and kisses and affection in his family) – I find myself in tears. That is not a particuarly easy thing to write but it seems important to be as honest about my conduct as I am about Geldof’s.

I mention the harrowing piece in The Sunday Times and how sad it was to stare at a soul in such distress. “But she was,” he says simply. He’s unfazed by my evident discomfort and not unkind. “She was a great girl, a fantastic girl and then it all just flipped. If she had got through it, she would have been all right, you know. She would have stablised herself and everyone would have been fine. But I don’t think she could find her way out of the place she’d put herself into and she suddenly realised that this was a cul-de-sac…”

And, in the midst of everything, to find out that your real father was Hughie Green!

“Who I just thought was a wretched person. I mean long before anything we used to laugh about him because he was so emblematic of naff, you know. But that’s – I mean, I just don’t talk about that stuff – but she was great. I mean, she was just great. She was a fantastic girl and, f*** me, we laughed…” He looks hot-eyed now.

“And she was beautiful. But funny with that, you know, she took the piss out of that aspect. We knew each other since we were kids and I didn’t even have a record out but we just went on this mad journey together. And it was good, but then, you know… something happened to her and she just turned.”

Did you ever believe you could stop things spiralling out of control? “Well, it was nothing to do with me at that stage. Much as you would offer and suggest stuff… I mean, you just have to let it play out, you know, whichever way it was going to go. From my point of view, I just had to keep taking care of the kids. But luckily for me there was Jeanne [Marine, a French actress and his girlfriend for almost a decade] another remarkable… I’m so lucky with girls. Not only my children or my sisters but, I mean, having had my mum swiped from me maybe there was some karmic balance.”

I ask him whether he has a lot of friends. “Boyfriends or girlfriends?” Well, men and women friends, you know, both. Yeah, he says he does, and friends from the days when he and Paula were together, and then he adds, quite unprompted, “I prefer the company of men.”

We talk about the differences between the sexes which takes him on to the divorce laws and back to Paula. “I was thrown up against this thing, that my wife didn’t love me any more. And I was bereft beyond belief but I understood that she had to go now because she didn’t love me… and it was like this great joy went out of my life. But I didn’t understand why my children went. What had I done? Why did the supreme joy of my life have to go as well? What had I done that was wrong, you know?”

Which was the start of his journey to try to change the legal system: “Then people say, ‘Oh, he’s against women.’ No, I’m against a law being prejudiced towards women and against men.”

At the end of the interview, we sit and watch one of the African programmes which was still being edited. The most haunting section of his book, for me, is when he writes about the night children of Kitgum. Every evening, for the past eight years, thousands of children walk many miles from their villages in the Acholi province in northern Uganda, so they can sleep safely on the streets of Kitgum. Their parents dispatch them, not knowing if they will see them again, but in the knowledge that if they stay, they risk being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and turned into infant killer soldiers: ten-year-olds forced to kill their own parents.

The worst story was of a group of eight-year-old girls who were captured and told that if they tried to escape, they would be killed. But their bonds are loose and one child leaves. The guards capture her and force her friends to bite her to death. They are told that unless their captors can actually see the little girl’s flesh in their teeth, the same fate will befall them.

I watch these children telling their terrible stories with tears streaming down my cheeks. As Geldof watches himself on the screen he is crying, too. At the end of the sequence, he gets up and says: “So. Now do you see?” We chat a bit about other things and I say, “You know I’m not stupid, don’t you?” “Yes, I do,” he says and bends down to ruffle my hair.

People who achieve extraordinary things – and Geldof is certainly one of them – often have their less palatable sides. We may adore Picasso’s art, for instance, but deplore the way he treated his wives. Geldof himself has always loathed being called Saint Bob and told me: “I’m the least noble person you will ever encounter. It’s just that I can do the stuff, I don’t know why. I never asked for it, but I can do it.”

So let’s leave him, with his sights set on Edinburgh, at his rhapsodic, biblical best. The question, by the way, was how was he going to deal with the more violent anarchists:

“You will have some complete wankers going up but I imagine that with so many of us there, these guys would be just squashed down. But if you look at the great political mass movements – whether it’s Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela – it’s peaceful means in the face of political stubbornness. And it’s such an attractive proposition to be peaceful.

“But, more importantly, to show absolute respect for those in whose name we’re there. The weak, the mute, the powerless, the put-upon, the trodden down, the beaten up. They can’t even crawl, so we’re going to walk there. And the very least you show these people – the very least – is utter respect for their condition.

“So anyone who has the slightest misapprehension as to why they’re there, don’t come. But if you’re coming to celebrate the possibility of what we can achieve on behalf of these people, if you’ve come to celebrate their spirit and, indeed, yours… then come to the party. And if it’s a million people, so be it. If it’s a thousand people, so be it. But we will be,” he pauses. “Yes, we will be a great, peaceful pilgrimage for the poor.”

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

Celebrities, General

Better by design: how I can improve your life

THE TIMES – May 25, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Sir Terence Conran has designed a Peace Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Now he wants to do a Jamie Oliver on our “horrid” homes.

SIR TERENCE CONRAN has been intent on making his own political waves in recent months. There was his letter to The Times applauding Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school dinners and asking whether “our rather lethargic politicians” could be similarly jolted into doing something about “our appalling housing”.

He was one of three prominent Labour donors who refused to sign a letter supporting the Prime Minister — whom he refers to these days as “George W. Blair” — in the run-up to the election. And in designing the Peace Garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show — commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — he also takes the opportunity of stating his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq.

Today he seems becalmed and saddened but mainly by personal rather than political events. The sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a great friend and early mentor of Conran’s, has finally died after a lingering half-life following his collapse five years ago: “We never quite knew whether he’d become completely brain-dead. You’d go and see him and he’d sit there and you’d talk to him and talk to him and talk to him and sometimes you’d get a sort of flicker of something but . . .”

Directly after our interview in his Butler’s Wharf office, Conran and his wife, Vicki, and his son, Sebastian, are off to the funeral and “I shall be dreadful, pouring tears . . . I’ve got two large white handkerchiefs.” He pulls them out of his pocket like a mournful magician.

We started by talking about David Blunkett — Conran had come to see the showcase of the musical I’ve been involved in writing — and how he’d cried during some of the songs (Hasn’t He Done Well For a Blind Boy), despite not having had much sympathy for the new Work and Pensions Secretary before. And his eyes start to water again: “It’s very interesting that your emotions should connect to your tear ducts, isn’t it? Vicki ’s the same. If there’s a sad ending to a play or a film, we’ll both sit there and . . .” dab-dab with one of the handkerchiefs.

He seems the same old Conran behind his vast desk, reclining in one of his stylish chairs, puffing away on his cigar, in his pale blue shirt, elegant navy suit jacket to one side. There’s a loose arrangement of blue sweetpeas in a clear vase with a blast of sunshine lighting up the water; terracotta pots of lavender on the ledge outside his window.

But when I say that he looks thinner than when I last saw him a few years ago (and a bit older, at 73, which I don’t say), he tells me that he’s got a burst blood vessel in one eye which is “rather uncomfortable, especially as this is the only eye I can see out of.”

This was the first I’d heard of Conran’s semi-blindness; an arresting affliction for someone whose world revolves around the visual: “I was turning metal on a lathe at the age of 13 and a bit flew out and stuck in my eye — which got me out of National Service,” he says. “But I think an eye for two years’ National Service is a fair exchange.”

It’s probably inevitable, with the death of such a dear old friend pressing on his mind, that our conversation keeps returning to the past. There is something comforting — a form of resummoning — to recollect incidents with someone you have loved when you first knew them. Paolozzi was Conran’s teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, as it was known then, when he was just about the only male student among “33 virgins from the suburbs”.

Conran and Paolozzi lived close to one another and shared a workshop; the young student taught his tutor how to weld and, in turn, was inspired to transform junk metal into his own fledgeling innovative designs.

“Eduardo was also really the first person who got me interested in food,” says Conran, who is slightly dismayed that he’s known these days as a restaurateur rather than as a designer. “He’d cook things like squid-ink risotto which, in the 1940s and early 1950s, was unheard of. I can remember him teaching me how to slice an onion; the manual dexterity that was needed to do it properly.

“He was a most generous man. If he came to stay with you, he’d arrive with an armful of stuff: prints, pieces of cast sculpture. His pockets were always filled with every sort of little, interesting object that he would pick up. He’d sit down with my children and they’d make heads in clay together.”

As a boy, Conran was a dreamy, rather solitary child who liked nothing better than to wander through country fields with his butterfly net; collecting flowers and pressing them. His mother, Christina, was convinced that her son would grow up to be a botanist or lepidopterist. During the Second World War, his family moved for safety from London to Liphook, Hampshire, where there was a large arms dump which the Germans discovered and bombed. The young Conran was evacuated to an aunt who lived near Plymouth, and the bombs followed him.

Meanwhile, back in London, his father’s gum copal business — not far from the Butler’s Wharf area that Conran has colonised and made fashion-able — was bombed along with the family home. “Anybody who was involved in World War Two, certainly as a child, felt ‘Never again’,” he says. “So probably this is partially why I feel so strongly about Iraq. I mean, who am I to say, as George W. Blair did, that I have any sort of right to go and get rid of somebody else’s dictator?” Conran’s first “rather facetious” suggestion for the Peace Garden: “Two big green burial mounds, one with a plaque on it saying T. BLAIR, the other with GEORGE W. BUSH… Yes, it’s peace because we have got rid of two warlords.”

He feels a great deal of fury towards T. Blair, something almost akin to the cold intensity of a duped lover. “It is complicated because I had made a television film for his ’97 election and was initially very, very, very enthusiastic about what new Labour could do for this country.

“In the early days, it was rather like the young Kennedy coming to power in America. You felt an energy and a hopefulness and a freshness . . . and then it started to wane away.

“And the other thing that I was really upset about was the university top-up fees. How can you stand on a platform of education, education, education and then make it that much more difficult for people to get that education they so desperately need?”

Incidentally, he adds, this is not the first time that he has made a public stand against England’s involvement in a war: “I was very, very, very angry with Thatcher at the time of the Falklands and had been asked to some lunch at Downing Street and publicly said, ‘I’m not going’.”

The Peace Garden call from the Imperial War Museum came last year, just after he had completed another garden. The challenge for him, as someone so opposed to war, was how to use the garden as a way to provoke people to think. “How to come up with the appropriate symbolism when it’s a garden of remembrance, really, not celebration . . . quite the reverse,” he says.

Conran was sitting at the dining table of Barton Court, his Georgian country home in Kintbury, Berkshire, gazing absent-mindedly at the plate in front of him, when he realised that the symbolism he was searching for was staring straight back at him. It was his family crest, going back to his paternal grandmother “whose family was quite nobby at one time”, a dove with an olive branch in its beak standing on twisted serpents and the legend In pace ut sapiens. “From peace comes wisdom, and I thought, ‘That’s it!’” he recalls.

So his Peace Garden has an olive tree, and white ceramic doves made by a student at the Royal College of Art (where Conran is provost) emerging from an interesting triangular dovecote (“I would have loved to have live doves but you’re not allowed livestock”), a new frothy white rose called Remembrance, more white flowers with a scattering of scarlet poppies, water flowing with a pool at the centre for reflection, “about half a million pebbles to symbolise all the lives lost by the UK and Commonwealth countries during the war”; a large wall at the back with Peace carved into the stone in about 40 languages and Thinking Men’s Chairs, an early design by Jasper Morrison, who happens to be the son of the sister of Conran’s most recent ex-wife, Caroline.

Although he is famously frugal and believes in using food (at home, I presume, rather than in his restaurants) which is well past its sell-by date — another legacy of the war years — Conran is also generous with his time and his charitable foundation (the Design Museum; an Indian charity set up to protect street children and give them schooling; teaching at colleges in deprived areas such as Peckham).

One of his recent ventures is coming to the rescue of Embassy Court, a Thirties Modernist masterpiece designed by Wells Coates, which was languishing dangerously — “a complete death trap” is how Conran describes it — and disfiguring Brighton’s seafront. He was approached by an indomitable group of women who live there, known as Bluestorm, and agreed to do all the initial work (calling in surveyors, concrete specialists, meetings with Brighton council and so on) free. And, of course, where Conran lends his support, investment tends to follow.

I told him that one of the Bluestormers had mentioned some story about Conran becoming entranced by the building, years ago, when he was in Brighton on a dirty weekend. First of all, he asks: “Who told you that?” And then: “ Oh really . . . I have absolutely no memory of it. I think I’ll have another cigar.” Which may be the closest Conran gets to blushing.

What does Conran make, I wonder, of the survey that found Ikea to be Britons’ favourite shop? “Yuh, and they have fights in it as well,” he says. “I think what it says about us is that maybe the work I did in the early years of Habitat [which opened in 1964 and was sold to Ikea in 1992] — my belief that if you offered people things that were nicely designed and available at a price they could afford, that this has percolated down to the mass, mass market . . . which is where I always hoped it would.”

Conran has a nice line in gentle character assassination. I think this has more to do with an odd social ineptness arising from his shyness — he once described the most striking note of the scent on my wrist as “sweat” — as well as a slightly detached, absurdist response to the world. However his statements sound in print, in other words, I don’t believe they are meant to be snide. Of Marco Pierre White, for instance, with whom he had dined the previous evening, he says: “It was lovely. He talks and talks and talks, very enthusiastically . . . so it was quite a restful evening.”

Of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea (which Conran pronounces, correctly, one presumes, as Ick-ee-ahh), he says: “He’s an extraordinary man, quite apart from being one of the richest men in the world.” Didn’t you tell me that he was rather frugal? “I would say that was a totally insufficient description. He’s totally demented about frugality. He would never ever spend money on anything for pleasure.

“Part of his frugality is that he doesn’t believe in paying tax — which is why he lives in Lucerne. So he has this enormously complicated structure in this enormous business which is all to do with avoiding paying tax. Not in a dishonest way,” he emphasises.

He recalls taking Kamprad and his wife out to lunch a few years ago and “Ingvar came in chewing tobacco — because he’s still quite peasant stock — and he took it out and placed it on the side of the table [pulls a face] . . . and I said to his wife, ‘So, are you having a good time in London? What are you doing?’ and she said [sing-song voice], ‘Oh yes, I’m buying silver,’ and Ingvar said, [crossly] ‘No you ’re not! You’re buying silver plate.”

When I tell him that I own a Conran Burnham sofa [the dimensions of a ship] and now an Ikea sofa of more or less the same size and shape but at a fraction of the price, Conran sounds genuinely amazed and impressed. “Really! Really! Ikea’s doing one the same size! Well, you know, I keep saying to Ingvar, ‘For God’s sake, Ingvar, put another 5 per cent on the price and give service.’ Because the service is so bad.”

Jamie Oliver’s success with his school dinner campaign has fuelled Conran’s long-term concern about transforming the way in which people live. It’s not nearly enough for him that the swollen ranks of the middle classes — or even Ikea’s “mass mass market” — are able to assemble “plain, simple and useful” furniture (his William Morris mantra) to fill their houses, if those houses are so woefully ugly and inadequate for most people’s needs.
“We should have a public debate about why the average developer’s houses are such appalling, ticky-tacky little boxes.”

For many years Conran has wanted to make a film, taking the average family on a low income and looking at how they live: “The horrid visit to their bathroom first thing in the morning, down the stairs to this terrible kitchen, going on terrible public transport, taking their children to this terrible school . . . how it is, actually, for most people in this country,” he says.

“And then showing how it could be if thoughtful, intelligent design was used in every way. What public transport could be like, what a local school can be like, what an office can be like. To show the contrast. This is how it is for most people . . . and this is how it could be at the same sort of price level.”

It is hard to think of anyone who would not wish Conran well in this campaign, but it is — of course — an expensive one to fund. He is in talks, as they say, with the BBC, with one particularly enthusiastic producer keen to create a BBC model house. Architects, such as Norman Foster, have been contacted. And he has been trying to persuade James Dyson to design an all-purpose domestic unit that produces hot water, cool air, refrigeration, all the services you need for a house which would then significantly reduce the cost of building it. “We’ve been talking to a company in Japan about it,” Conran says. “But the investment to make it happen is enormous.”

I get the feeling that if T. Blair could rise to this challenge, Conran might even be able to forgive him. “We know in our gut how much we are all affec- ted by our surroundings. How we feel on sunny day, for instance, and when it’s grey and gloomy out.

“If you’re constantly frustrated by the way things work, then it obviously has an effect on you mentally and physically. We know this but I don’t think it’s ever been said to Government, ‘Look! You are responsible for the welfare of the nation. Why don’t you pay more attention to this subject?’

“This is what I’ve been trying to do all my life: to put things in front of people that are a thoughtful alternative.”

Conran once said that he loathed the expression “lifestyle”, which is interesting since he may well be considered the inventor of it.

I wonder what he thinks of Martha Stewart: the antithesis, I would have thought, of the most successful (in her own career) of his three ex-wives, Shirley Superwoman Conran. While her most famous line was “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, Martha’s reply would surely be that life is all about the stuffing of a mushroom. “Actually, they’re very similar,” Conran says. “I know Martha a little bit. Both of them are deeply ambitious. Basically Martha fuels her ambition by stuffing mushrooms. But what she’s really interested in is ‘Martha Stewart: the powerful, influential woman with her own television station and magazines and money’.”

So would you be appalled to be called the Martha Stewart of England? “Oh, I have been,” he says. “Don’t worry, and it doesn’t please me in the slightest. But where she has made teaching the American middle classes something which I suppose she believes in, I’ve never seen it as my role in life to be an educationalist. I’ve just done the things I enjoy doing.”

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