The heroic career of an unserious man
04 October 2009
Someone surely should commission a biopic based on the bizarre life of Gyles Brandreth, that Zelig in the world of contemporary celebrity. For more than 50 years, Brandreth has played the fool in one way or another, modifying and varying his act and career as the culture around him changed.
When he was at Oxford, during the dying days of the satire boom, he was poised to be the new David Frost. In the 1970s, he was a busy pioneer of a genre which today dominates the publishing industry: the ghost-written celebrity volume. When television took a dive into silliness during the 1980s, Brandreth was on hand with a teddy bear, or a zany jersey or a concept for a new panel show.
Showbusiness lurched towards politics: Gyles Brandreth, Tory MP for the City of Chester, took his seat in 1992. When that game was over five years later, the inevitable gossip-diaries were quickly published, after which their author became an interviewer of the famous, a royal biographer, and a regular on TV and radio comedy quizzes.
So our movie The Joy Of Gyles would present more than the life of a cheerful show-off. As the publication this month of his diaries, irritatingly entitled Something Sensational To Read On The Train, have confirmed, he offers, almost uniquely, a sort of Rorschach test of contemporary attitudes towards success in the entertainment world. A few reviewers have celebrated Brandreth’s talent for cheering people up, but most have allowed themselves to become terribly cross about the way he has led his life.
His problem, it seems, is closely connected to his respectability, middle-class charm and intelligence. In spite of having all those things, the argument goes, he has behaved like some kind of light entertainment hack. “Limitless energy and a desire to show off can take a man only so far,” wrote Robert Harris in a haughty review. There had been a weird failure to develop professionally or emotionally, he thought. Another critic, Nicholas Shakespeare, took the psychoanalysis further. Brandreth lacked tragic awareness, he said; he had “no interior life to fall back on”. The diaries offered the poignant spectacle of an intelligent, talented man who had throughout his life set his sights deliberately low.
Brandreth can be irritating, but not nearly as irritating as this kind of literary and intellectual snobbery. These grandees of the critical establishment are unable to understand how a bright, Oxford-educated chap – one of them, for heaven’s sake – can be quite content to amuse people for a living. He has dared not to become a novelist, nor a career politician, nor a self-important opinion-maker and, in their little world, that equates to a lack of ambition. Because he elects not to publish the full mess of his emotional life, he is deemed to be unforgivably shallow.
In fact, there is something strong and heroic about the career Brandreth has fashioned for himself. His wit has not curdled into bitterness. He has not been snooty or embarrassed about the work he has done. He has not felt obliged, at the age of 40, 50 or 60, to become serious.
Our film will show a man who recognizes the essential triviality of the age, and prefers to join in rather than maundering on greyly from the sidelines.
The steady retreat to the infantile
Nick Hornby has said that, until researching for the screenplay of An Education, which he adapted from Lynn Barber’s autobiography, he had not realised how long the Second World War lasted. The film captures how the Britain of the early 1960s was suffering from a bad case of arrested development, and the central character, a schoolgirl who is seduced by an older man with the help of her parents, ends up seeming to be more grown-up in her attitudes than most of the adults around her.
We look back in a spirit of self-congratulation to those days of emotional immaturity, but the stories of today’s news suggest we have simply become childish in a different way. When a successful comedian like Frankie Boyle takes advantage of his position of power to mock the looks of Olympic star Rebecca Adlington, and to speculate on her private life, he is a playground bully inviting others to laugh at weakness.
Elsewhere in the playground, the revered sixth-former Stephen Fry is threatening to take his ball and go home after one of the younger boys suggested he might be boring. Other senior boys pile in, there is a general scragging of the boy who spoke out of turn before the sixth-former breaks it up. Nearby a crowd is watching rehearsals for the current school play Strictly Come Dancing. The grown-ups are nowhere to be seen.
It’s hard to grasp what’s normal in Norfolk
The Conservatives of Swaffham have just suffered a memorable “normal for Norfolk” moment which threatens to embarrass the entire county. Local party worthies had been described a touch harshly as “Neanderthal” and “sexist” after they deselected Elizabeth Truss on the grounds that she had not declared an ancient and well-publicised affair. Their defence against criticism has been something of a disaster.
“How does somebody from London understand the Norfolk way of life?” asked John Mortimer, a member of Swaffham Conservative Club. “They make out we are stupid, saying details of her affair were on Google, but no one in Norfolk knows how to use Google.”
How the rest of Britain laughed as that own goal bulged the back of the net. Already this view of non-Googling Norfolk-dwellers threatens to be a new by-word for stupidity, a contemporary version of Lyndon Johnson’s joke about Gerald Ford being so dumb that he couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time. Such moments of unworldliness caused doctors, when making notes about a patient of limited intellectual capacity, to use the shorthand “NFN”, or “normal for Norfolk”.
It is just possible Mr Mortimer was being playfully ironic. This is the county, after all, which recently hit on “Normal for Norfolk” as a new slogan to bring tourists to the region. In one sense, at least, the Swaffham Conservatives are right: it can sometimes be very, very difficult for outsiders to understand the Norfolk way of life.