The serious lessons in a trivial matter
23 January 2009
What, at the end of one of the most momentous weeks in modern history, will dominate the news this weekend? The progress of the first black president of the United States? The meltdown in our banking system? Almost certainly both stories will give way to coverage of another event – the return to work of a light entertainment TV presenter. Tonight, a nation will hold its breath as Jonathan Ross tells Tom Cruise that it’s really great to have him back on the show.
The Ross/Brand affair, caused by two broadcasters leaving vulgar messages on the answering-machine of the veteran actor Andrew Sachs, was a one-size-fits-all scandal with something to offend everyone. For some, it exemplified a new tone of boorishness in public discourse. For others, it was about a growing disrespect of the young for the old. The irresponsible behaviour of celebrities was given a good outing, as was a perceived decline in standards at the BBC and a loss of control over its wildly overpaid stars.
Nothing excites the British public as much as its own sense of outrage, and many would say that far too much time and occasionally thought, was expended on an undignified but trivial episode. Yet, as it reaches a sort of conclusion, the whole silly business can be seen to have been rather revealing.
It has, for example, reminded us that a real anger about a decline of manners burns in the heart of middle England. Once it was alternative comedians who raged against the Establishment; now they are the Establishment and the rage has been turned on them.
Will anything change as, at last, the storm dies down? Probably not. Those who have predicted that Ross will have difficulty resuming his career have failed to appreciate the rhythms and rituals of 21st century fame. It is precisely the public figures who have been through crises – who have “been to hell and back” in tabloid-speak – who are most loved. Those who have ascended efficiently and painlessly are less interesting. We like vulnerability in our celebrities.
Jonathan Ross’s career has been given a lift. His public persona has become more complex and unpredictable. At any moment, he could go too far and throw away his success, or so it is believed. Who could honestly prefer the dreary, not-a-foot-wrong professionalism of a Parkinson or Wogan?
More surprisingly, we have also learnt that the BBC can now and then handle these crises rather well. It was probably an over-reaction to allow the controller of Radio 2 to depart but three months in the wilderness for the offender himself was about right. The line-up of guests for Ross’s comeback show is also cunningly judged: a Hollywood star, a giggly-but-safe comedian Lee Evans and hell-and-back celebrity Stephen Fry, who may even be permitted to make an apparently daring reference to Ross’s troubles.
The BBC has probably benefited, too. The corporation has been reminded of the power of middle England when moved to outrage. With luck, it will realise it should not get rid of its more risqué presenters, but ensure producers control them better.
Above all else, as money is draining from quality broadcasting, the BBC should realise that the days are gone when it can hand out obscene salaries and fees to a few high-profile presenters. If that lesson has been learnt, Andrew Sachs will not have been insulted in vain.
Authors beware if she brings a notebook to bed
It has long been an established, if undeclared, part of the creative writing business that non-literary overnight tuition can sometimes be available from the writer taking the course. For the lucky student, sleeping with the teacher can provide an invigorating bohemian edge to the often dull business of learning how to write.
It can also eventually be rather profitable. Should the teacher happen to be, or become, famous, there will eventually be a candid account of the affair to be written. The mistress’s memoir has become something of a booming literary genre. One was written for J D Salinger, another for Norman Mailer; now it is the turn of Kurt Vonnegut, left.
Back in 1965, Loree Rackstraw, one of Vonnegut’s students at a writers’ workshop at Iowa University, had an affair with him. They kept in touch for what became, in the words of one report, “a rare long-distance love”. Loree’s “intimate memoir” will shortly be published.
Today, any self-respecting creative course should be offering its students the chance to study the art of the intimate memoir. Lesson one: find yourself a famous writer. Lesson two: remember to take notes.
If you want us to hear what you say – pay
Was there ever a neater example of the problems and divisions within rural Britain than the row between the fishermen and second-home owners of Helford, Cornwall? The fishermen want a jetty on which to land their fish; the summer visitors claim it will spoil the seafront.
They may well be right – tourism is as much a business as fishing – but the fact that they are non-residents undermines their case. If the owners of second homes paid a council tax surcharge, to be paid to the village where their house is, their argument about how it should be run would have rather more force.