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The Apprentice
Thursday 31st May 2007
I’m becoming increasingly intrigued by Katie Hopkins, the contestant on The Apprentice who has emerged as a national hate figure. (See Richard Curtis’s aside during his Bafta Fellowship speech.)

On last night’s show, in which the six remaining contestants had to sell merchandise on a home shopping channel, Katie was so outrageously snobbish about the channel’s typical customer — whom she dubbed “Mavis” — it seems clear that her whole appearance on the show is some kind of publicity stunt. Another reason for thinking this is that she seems too intelligent — too essentially competent — to be bothering to jump through all these hoops merely to secure a job with Alan Sugar. The question is, what kind of publicity stunt?

Option one is that she’s just a freelance publicity-seeker. This was the verdict of Heat editor Mark Frith on The Apprentice after-show yesterday. According to this theory, she isn’t aiming to win the show, but to attract as much attention to herself as possible in order to generate other job offers — probably as a professional reality show contestant — after she’s been eliminated. A kind of upmarket version of Jade Goody.

The problem with this theory is that, again, she seems too … respectable, somehow. She’s an educated, middle-class girl, not to mention a mother-of-two, and — apart from when she’s doing her Lady Muck routine — seems fairly sane. I could believe this of someone like Chantal — the winner of the penultimate series of Celebrity Big Brother — but it seems less likely in Katie’s case. (Christ, I’m beginning to sound as snobbish as “that posh bird from The Apprentice”, to use the phrase of Harrow-educated Richard Curtis.)

Option two, then, is that she’s a sponsored publicity-seeker, ie, she has the backing of some kind of media organisation which has helped her to organise her stunt. Additional evidence for this — apart from my being impressed by the cut of her jib — is that earlier this week she was papped having a romp with a married man. Now these pictures are so obviously staged that it’s clear Katie’s up to something — and I’m not convinced a freelance publicity-seeker could have pulled this off. Indeed, to my jaundiced eye, the pictures have the fingerprints of Alison Jackson all over them — which suggests that Katie is actually making an undercover documentary with Alison called something like, “How to Become a D-List Celebrity.” (For reasons of synergy — and to avoid pesky lawsuits — I wouldn’t be surprised if this documntary is being made by Talkback, the same company that makes The Apprentice.)

Option three is that she’s an undercover reporter writing a piece about sticking her nose in the D-list celebrity trough for The Guardian (or the Mail who, in spite of reporting on Katie’s escapades in a typically disapproving way, may be simply trying to throw us off the scent). In this scenario, she’ll publish a blockbuster piece to coincide with the broadcasting of the episode in which she’s eliminated and then wait for the publishing offers to come flooding in. I would have thought she’d easily get an advance of £250,000 — possibly as much as £500,000, depending on how good her article is. (More if it’s in the Guardian than the Mail, but then the Mail will pay her much more for the story.) In any event, enough to put the £100,000 salary on offer from Alan Sugar in the shade.

Of course, there’s a fourth option, which is that Katie is simply trying to win the show — incredible as it may seem, she actually does want a job with Sir Alan — and isn’t nearly as shrewd as she appears.

At the end of last night’s show it was announced that three people would be fired next week, leaving just two contestants to battle it out. I predict Katie will be one of those contestants and that in the final show — before Sir Alan makes his decision — she’ll reveal what she’s really up to.

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Jaredgate Revisited
Monday 21st May 2007
I was intrigued to see that Richard Johnson, the editor of Page Six, the New York Post’s gossip column, has been accused of accepting a $1,000 pay-off from a restaurant in return for name-checking them. This revelation backs up the defence I made of Jared Paul Stern, a Page Six reporter (and my friend) who was accused of trying to shake down Ron Burkle about 13 months ago (see below). Needless to say, the federal government has declined to press charges against Jared and he is now considering bringing a law suit against the New York Post demanding they reinstate him.

For the New York Post to excommunicate Jared following that scandal was lucrously hypocritical, but if Rupert Murdoch now gets rid of Richard Johnson — as he almost certainly will — he will seem like a caricature of a double-dealing press baron. Can there be a single person left in the world who imagines that Murdoch doesn’t use his media empire to further his business interests? Is anyone really naive enough to think there’s a strict separation of church and state at News Corps? Just who is he trying to fool?

JAREDGATE (Posted on 11th April, 2006)

Am I missing something? Why has the New York media got itself into such a tizzy about the Page Six story? For those of who who’ve been on Mars for the past 48 hours, this is the so-called scandal whereby Jared Paul Stern, a reporter for the New York Post’s most prominent gossip column, supposedly tried to shake down some seedy billionaire named Ron Burkle. According to the Daily News — the rival New York tabloid that broke the story last week — Stern attempted to extort $220,000 from the billionaire in return for “protecting” him from negative coverage in Page Six. The FBI is reported to be investigating Stern, but so far hasn’t announced whether it intends to bring any criminal charges against him.

Jared Paul Stern is a friend of mine so you may regard my opinion as hopelessly tainted, but I can’t see why anyone’s getting their knickers in a twist about this. Even if Stern is guilty as charged — and he maintains he’s guilty of nothing more serious than “an error of judgment” — this is surely exactly the behaviour you’d expect of a Page Six reporter. Okay, maybe soliciting a cash bribe is a little over the top, but only the most naïve New York Post reader could possibly be under the impression that the paper’s gossip columnists are subject to the same code of ethics as New York Times reporters. For any American journalist to feign surprise that gossip columnists are occasionally bought off by the people they write about is the equivalent of Captain Renault claiming he’s “shocked — shocked!” to discover that there’s gambling going on at Rick’s Place.

In fact, it’s precisely because columns like Page Six give off such a pungent whiff of old-fashioned corruption that they’re read so avidly by media insiders. Page Six is a throwback to an earlier journalistic era — the era so seductively conjured up in ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’. I know that we’re supposed to disapprove of people like Walter Winchel, but the aura of power that surrounded him — particularly power over press agents — is almost irresistible to journalists working today. This is particularly true of men. Who amongst us wouldn’t like to conduct our business from a back table in the Stork Club, occasionally taking breaks from blackmailing the rich and famous in order to receive a blowjob from a cigarette girl in the loo?

Surely, most people who read Page Six are aware that the reporters who contribute to it operate according to their own set of rules? They know that if someone receives a flattering mention — such as Donald Trump or Ron Perelman — it’s probably because they enjoy some sort of “protection”. Being able to “read” Page Six — knowing how to interpret the coded information it contains — is an integral part of its appeal. When I see a negative item about Michael Eisner, the fact that I know that he’s an enemy of Harvey Weinstein’s, and I know that Harvey has, in effect, bought off the editor of Page Six and several of his minions, makes me feel like an insider. I’m no longer a “civilian”; I’m in the loop.

Indeed, I’ve always admired the fact that the people who compile Page Six can scarcely be bothered to conceal their corruption. I interviewed Richard Johnson, its long-standing editor, for a Tatler profile in 2001, and, far from denying that attempts were constantly being made to buy him off, he merely complained that they were usually so inept. He cited the example of Playboy setting him up on a “date” with a Playmate at a New York restaurant. He was quite excited about this until the girl in question turned up with a retinue that included her mother and two publicists. “It’s tough trying to take advantage of someone if they show up with their mother,” he laughed. (To read the profile, click here.)

In this respect, New York’s gossip columnists are very different from those higher up the professional status ladder who operate in exactly the same way, but maintain a much more “ethical” façade. I’ll give just one example here, though I could give dozens. Anthony Lane, the New Yorker’s film critic, told me of an incident in 1997 in which his unfavourable review of ‘Amistad’ was killed because of Tina Brown’s “relationship” with Steven Spielberg. From an ethical point of view, then, the editor of the New Yorker (as Tina then was) is clearly no different from Jared Paul Stern. Spielberg may not have been wiring money into Tina Brown’s bank account, but I’m sure he’d “paid” for his “protection” –by agreeing to attend Tina Brown’s dinner parties, speak at New Yorker-sponsored events, invite her and her husband to his house in the Hamptons, etc — just as surely as Ron Burkle was being asked to pay for his.

If the New York media really wants to clean up its act, it should introduce the journalistic equivalent of Section 17(b) of the 1933 Securities Act whereby it would become unlawful for reporters to receive any form of payola from the people or organisations they’re covering — whether payments in cash or in kind. (I made a proposal along these lines in a ‘Wall St Journal’ piece in 2003. Click here to read it.) But in the meantime, the sanctimonious moralists of the profession who are calling for Jared’s head should look for the beams in their own eyes. His only crime — if indeed he committed a crime — was getting caught.

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Casting News
Friday 18th May 2007
Click here to find out who has been cast as the Graydon Carter character in the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.

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Interview
Wednesday 16th May 2007
You can link to an interview with me that’s just appeared in a new magazine called Leisure Pirate here.

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Simon Pegg
Saturday 12th May 2007
There’s a good interview with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in today’s Telegraph. Filming is due to start on How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — with Pegg taking up the lead role opposite Kirsten Dunst — on June 4.

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“I’m not quite sure how Young has made an entire suit out of a piece of lint.” – Graydon Carter

Podcast of Last Night’s Debate
Friday 22nd June 2007
The Times has just made a podcast available of last night’s Intelligence Squared debate. Click here to download it.

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Julie Burchill’s Retirement
Friday 22nd June 2007
I blogged on Comment is Free yesterday about Julie Burchill’s retirement from journalism. You can read my post — and the mainly negative responses — here.

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Lord Reith is Dead. Long Live Big Brother
Friday 22nd June 2007
I spoke in an Intelligence Squared debate yesterday, proposing the motion “Lord Reith is Dead. Long Live Big Brother”. The other speakers on my side were David Elstein and Tim Gardam. Opposing the motion were Stephen Bayley, Lloyd Evans and Howard Jacobson. The chair was Peter York. (Stephen Bayley and I rehearsed the arguments on the Today Programme yesterday morning — and for those who are interested the “disco” between Stephen and me starts about 17-and-a-half minutes in.)

Before the debate began, 216 people were for the motion, 386 against and 260 undecided; by the end, 287 were for, 567 against and only 17 undecided. So we lost pretty comprehensively.

The mistake we made on our side, I think, was in taking the motion too seriously — a mistake exacerbated by the fact that it was the last Intelligence Squared debate until the autumn and the audience have come to expect these end-of-season affairs to be funny. David Elstein made a very considered, well-thought out speech in which he argued that the BBC’s historic monopoly and the Reithian ideology that evolved to justify it were both the product of an outmoded technology, and Tim Gardam made a persuasive case that the problem with contemporary British TV is at the highbrow end, where programme makers and commissioning editors haven’t matched the energy and ingenuity displayed by the makers of shows like Big Brother (which he commissioned as Channel 4’s Director of Programmes). After the debacle of my last attempt to be funny in public, I, too, decided to play a straight bat.

All the speakers on the other side, by contrast, were very funny. Howard Jacobson, who spoke last, had them falling about in the aisles and when the audience came to vote afterwards they probably had his performance uppermost in mind. Jacobson’s best joke was his opener, which went something like this: “I was in the Groucho Club last night telling a young, Channel 4 commissiong editor that I was speaking in this debate. He said, ‘Is Lord Reith dead? That’s terrible. When did he die?'”

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How to Lose Friends: the Movie
Friday 8th June 2007
Copyright: Whyaduck Productions
“How happy do you feel at this moment?” asks Simon Pegg.

It’s my first visit to the set of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and the answer is pretty happy, as you can see from the above picture. How many authors are lucky enough to have their books turned into films? And how many of them are blessed with such an incredible cast and crew? If a genie had popped out of a bottle five years ago and said, “Tell me who you’d like to turn your book into a film and I will make it so” this is exactly the team I would have chosen.

I’m not just staying “on message” here. Who better than Simon to play the lead? Not only is he a proven box office star — Hot Fuzz has taken over $66 million to date — but there’s something irresistibly likable about him. (If he’s going to turn me into a sympathetic character, that’s an indispensable asset.) He’s also very, very funny. During my time on set, the editor shows me a rough assembly of a scene that was shot on the first day of principal photography and by far the funniest thing in it is Simon’s expression in the final few seconds. Not to diminish the achievement of Peter Straughan, the writer who’s adapted my book for the screen, but a gifted comic actor can toss something off on the spur of the moment that is much funnier than anything a screenwriter can come up with, no matter how good he or she is.

Simon also says that it must be pretty strange for an author being on set and watching an actor pretending to be them, but the truth is that the character he’s playing — Sidney Young — only bears a fleeting resemblance to me. That’s not to say he isn’t based on the central character in my book, but that person isn’t really me, either. One of Sidney’s key attributes — the thing that makes him such a “comic” character — is that he’s completely unaware of how he comes across to other people. (Simon manages to convey this effortlessly, even though it’s a big departure from the characters he played in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of whom possessed a modicum of self-awareness.) That is undoubtedly how I portrayed myself in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People — it’s why I commit one faux pas after another — but it’s not strictly accurate. Like most comic memoirists, I took one aspect of my personality and exaggerated it. In real life, I’m not quite that autistic — at least, not all the time. Watching Simon play Sidney, then, isn’t particularly weird. Rather, I feel a kind of paternal pride in seeing a character that I created on paper being so expertly brought to life.

It’s quite unusual for an author to be given this degree of access to a film set and the unspoken agreement I have with the director, Bob Weide, is that I’m not allowed to be too precious about the liberties that have being taken with my book. In truth, though, I don’t feel too proprietorial about it. Peter Straughan has clearly based Sidney on me and he’s retained some of the other key characters from the book as well as some of the comic set pieces, but within these parameters he’s created a largely fictional story. In other words, it’s an extremely loose adaptation — which is exactly as it should be since the book as written was completely unfilmable. Peter’s done what a good screenwriter should — he’s found the movie in the material.

My other reason for not feeling over-protective is that the lead producer, Stephen Woolley, has shown me each draft of Peter’s script as it has been written and Peter’s been extremely good about responding to my deluge of “notes”. Mine and Peter’s relationship is closer than it normally would be between the author of an original work and the writer adapting it for the screen, partly because Peter is exceptionally considerate and partly because the source material is so autobiographical. My main concern throughout has been that the script should keep faith with the spirit of the book rather than the letter — and in that respect Peter and I have nearly always been in agreement. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he shares my fish-out-of-water sensibility, but he certainly gets where I’m coming from.

Having said all that, I do come pretty close to breaking my compact with Bob Weide on my first day on set. He graciously allows me to sit beside him as he directs a scene — or, rather, one of the numerous shots that a single scene consists of — and I immediately abuse this privilege by giving him “notes” on how I think he should direct it. To my mind, there’s more comic mileage in this particular scene than he’s bothering to extract — and I don’t hesitate to tell him so. His response is very diplomatic — he patiently explains to one of the assistant directors that he’s forced himself to endure my “notes” because I occasionally come up with something worth listening to — but I’m clearly an irritant he could do without.

Afterwards, I realize that my interjections betrayed my ignorance of how to direct comedy. Trying to extract every last drop of humour from each scene would be the kiss of death. If the audience thinks that the filmmakers are under the impression that what’s up on screen is “funny” — if they’re beaten about the head with just how “funny” the material is — the last thing they’ll do is laugh. Rather, the humour must emerge organically from the characters and the story; it’s something the audience must be allowed to discover for themselves. A prime example of this is Curb Your Enthusiasm which, for my money, is the best contemporary sitcom on television — and Bob clearly knows what he’s doing since he’s directed about half the episodes of Curb.

If he’s kind enough to let me on the set again, I’m going to shut the fuck up.

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Katie Hopkins Update
Friday 8th June 2007
Okay, I was 80 per cent right about Katie Hopkins. On this week’s Apprentice she was told she’d made it through to the final, only to declare that she didn’t want to play any more. She made this announcement just as Sir Alan was deliberating about which of the final two contestants to fire. She claimed it was because she hadn’t discussed her “child care arrangements” with their various care-givers — which was clearly nonsense. It’s hard to say definitively, but my guess is she didn’t want to bow out after depriving one of the two remaining contestants a place in the final because that would be a bit of bad PR that even she wouldn’t be able to recover from. It now seems clear that her aim throughout has been to secure herself a media career as a kind of female Simon Cowell — and I predict a spot on a talent-show judging pannel — or her own series — in the very near future. If Ruth Badger can get her own show, Katie should have commissioning editors queuing up.

She is, as Mark Frith predicted (see below), a freelance publicity seeker, but she wasn’t acting wholly independently. She’s a client of James Herring at the PR/Management company Taylor Herring and, if I know Herring, he was behind last week’s fake paparazzi pictures. According to the Guardian she’s already sold her story to the News of the Screws for £40,000 and to a consortium of EMAP titles — including Heat — for £25,000. So that’s £65,000 so far and less than 48 hours have elapsed since she bowed out of the show. My guess is she’s on course to make approximately £500,000 by year’s end (though James will keep at least 20% of that and possibly more).

I say hat’s off to her. It’s heartening to see an individual exploiting a reality show rather than the other way round. She played a blinder and she deserves her jackpot.

Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral
Sunday 28th October 2007

The traditional British farce hasn’t been doing very well lately. The Whitehall Theatre has been re-invented as Trafalgar Studios, Alan Ayckbourn hasn’t had a new play in the West End since 2001 and Ray Cooney doesn’t even get a mention in State of the Nation, Michael Billington’s recent history of British theatre. Is the bedroom door about to slam for the last time on this well-loved comic form?

I’m happy to report that the answer is no — at least, not yet. Next week sees the release of Death at a Funeral, a dazzling example of the genre directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig. Set in a country house, the film unfolds over the course of a single day in which an extended family gather to attend the funeral of the clan’s patriarch. The tone is set in the opening scene when the undertakers turn up with the wrong corpse and it isn’t long before a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, a wheelchair-bound uncle and a homosexual dwarf are threatening to derail the proceedings.

The reason it works so well is that Craig, a 33-year-old British screenwriter, has managed to retain the essential components of the form while jettisoning some of its more out-dated aspects. For instance, at no point are any of the male characters discovered with their trousers round their ankles and there are no cases of mistaken identity. The problem with most farces, in my experience, is that they require too great a suspension of disbelief. Events unfold — and people behave — in a way that stretches an audience’s credulity to breaking point. That doesn’t matter if you’re a member of that generation who grew up with the genre — you’ll be willing to accept its bizarre conventions — but modern audiences tend to baulk at just how implausible the farcical universe is.

Fortunately, Dean Craig has injected a much-needed dose of realism into the genre. There’s nothing too theatrical or over-the-top in Death at a Funeral; the big comic set-pieces seem to emerge, organically, from the situation. Far from being comic stereotypes, the characters are people we are familiar with from our own lives and they behave in recognisable ways. In this regard, Craig and his director are helped considerably by an extremely talented British cast, particularly Matthew Macfadyen as the put-upon male lead, Andy Nyman as his hypochondriac cousin and Daisy Donavan as the closest thing Death at a Funeral has to a sexpot.

It is particularly heart-warming to see a British farce work so well on the big screen. In recent years, the most successful celluloid farces have all been the work of a Frenchman named Francis Verber, the writer and director of La Doublure, Le Placard and Le Diner de cons. In Dean Craig — who has already directed two shorts and is about to direct his first feature — we could have found the British equivalent.

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Abigail’s 30th Birthday Party
Saturday 20th October 2007

Next week sees the 30th anniversary of a significant cultural event in Britain’s post-war history: the television broadcast of Abigail’s Party. At the time, the BBC had little idea of just how iconic this one-off comedy would turn out to be. It was running as a stage play at the Hampstead Theatre and, rather than commission Mike Leigh to adapt it for television, Margaret Matheson, the producer of Play For Today, decided to transplant the stage production into a television studio and shoot it over four days. The production values were low — Leigh says he can’t watch it without wincing with pain — but Matheson succeeded in capturing lightening in a bottle. In the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Abigail’s Party was ranked number 11.

Why should this 90-minute play have become such a classic? Well, for one thing, the comedy is played out against the backdrop of the English class system and that is a feature of British life that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years ago. The central character, Beverly, is still a recognizable national stereotype: the petit bourgeois social climber whose constant stream of snobbish remarks inadvertently reveals his or her lack of sophistication. There are echoes of Beverly in David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office, and, indeed, Mike Leigh more or less invented the comic genre that The Office falls into: the comedy of embarrassment. (For my 2003 tribute to The Office, click here.)

Then there’s the fact that Abigail’s Party is so controversial. A few days after it was broadcast, Dennis Potter condemned it as “a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” and, to this day, people are bitterly divided as to whether Abigail’s Party is an instance of the snobbery it purports to condemn. Are we being invited to sympathise with Beverly as someone whose life has been blighted by class consciousness — or merely laugh at her because she gets everything so hopelessly wrong? Leigh is adamant that it is the former, claiming that Abigail’s Party “is not a play about them, it’s about us.” Whichever side you come down on, the fact that the reaction to the play is so polarized — and can provide the fuel for endless dinner party discussions — is a guarantor of its longevity.

Finally, there’s something monstrous about Beverly that strikes a chord with people the world over, not merely in Britain. (There’s currently a production of Abigail’s Party running in San Paulo.) She’s the Lady Macbeth of the suburbs, a castrating bitch-goddess of the type that has transfixed audiences since the beginning of theatre itself. In Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh and his collaborators succeeded in creating a Medea for our times.

*BBC4 is devoting an entire night to Abigail’s Party on October 28.*

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The New York Times Reports on the Making of How to Lose Friends
Sunday 14th October 2007
There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.

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The Baby Wars
Sunday 14th October 2007
If you don’t have a child under ten, you’re unlikely to appreciate the significance of Gina Ford’s attack on Claire Verity last week. Verity is the 41-year-old “supernanny” who is currently appearing on a Channel 4 series called Bringing Up Baby in which she advocates a return to the Spartan child-rearing philosophy of Truby King. King was a Victorian health reformer who believed it is in a baby’s best interest to be kept on a strict routine when it comes to feeding, sleeping and bowel movements — an attitude that was passionately argued against by Dr Spock, the American pediatrician who advocated a much more flexible approach, including feeding-on-demand.

Ford’s attack came in the form of a letter to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in which she accused Verity of “child abuse” and the reason it was such a surprise is that most people think of Ford as being in the anti-Spock camp. Ford’s main claim to fame is The Contended Little Baby Book, a child-rearing manual based on her own experiences as a maternity nurse in which she argues for a return to routine. The crucial distinction between her and Verity — the reason Ford has “gone nuclear” in the Baby Wars, so to speak — is that Verity believes parents should feed small babies every four hours, whereas Ford believes they should be fed every two or three hours, depending on their size and weight. In addition, while both are passionately opposed to feeding-on-demand, Verity recommends ignoring babies who cry in between feeds, whereas Ford believes in trying to “settle” them.

To those of us with small children, it is not surprising that such infinitesimally small differences should provoke such a ferocious dispute. Among my peers, no topic is more likely to polarize dinner-party conversation than child-rearing techniques. The War in Iraq pales into insignificance by comparison. I imagine that it is now one of those subjects that ambassadors are trained not to bring up at state dinners, alongside religion and politics.

Why should this be so? My theory is that childrearing has become the new battleground in which the ideological disputes that divide Generation X are being fought out. The main fault line is between those who were brought up in liberal households and have reacted by becoming more conservative and those who were brought up in more conventional circumstances and now embrace a hedonistic libertarianism. The former subscribe to the childrearing philosophy of Gina Ford, while the latter adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, often presented as a more “natural” approach. The irony, of course, is that the Fordists are the products of Dr Spock’s teachings — Spock was very popular with liberal parents — while the parents of the Back-to-Nature brigade are more likely to have been influenced by Truby King.

The conclusion would appear to be that no member of my generation wants their children to turn out like them. (For a different take, see this piece by Frank Furedi, the author of Paranoid Parenting.)

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The Muhammad Ali of British Politics
Wednesday 10th October 2007

Has David Cameron rope-a-doped Gordon Brown? “Rope-a-dope” was the phrase coined by Muhammad Ali to describe the strategy he used to achieve his famous victory over George Foreman in the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. In essence, it involved lying back against the ropes during the first six rounds of the fight and allowing Foreman to punch himself out before launching a ruthless counter-attack in the eighth round that culminated in a knock-out punch.

There’s certainly a striking similarity between the Rumble in the Jungle and the battle between Brown and Cameron. Foreman was an old-fashioned heavyweight, relying on his punching power and methodical cunning to win his fights, while Ali was much more agile and light on his feet. During the bout, Foreman looked much stronger than Ali in the first five rounds, just as Brown completely dominated Cameron during the first three months of his premiership. By the sixth round, however, Foreman was clearly exhausted and his punches became increasingly wild, just as Brown’s have done in the past 48 hours.

In this context, Cameron’s performance in the House of Commons today was the verbal equivalent of the devastating combination of punches that Ali used to finish off Foreman in the last 20 seconds of the eighth round. Ali preceded his onslaught by taunting Foreman — “Fight hard. I thought you had some punches?” — just as Cameron has urged Brown to call a General Election. Then, Ali unleashed his barrage. Here is Norman Mailer’s description of it in *The Fight*:

Now Ali struck him a combination of punches fast as the punches of the first round, but harder and more consecutive, three capital rights in a row struck Foreman, then a left, and for an instant on Foreman’s face appeared the knowledge that he was in danger and must start to look to his last protection. His opponent was attacking, and there were no ropes behind the opponent. What a dislocation: the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring.

Of course, the analogy’s hardly perfect. There was no moment of fatal hesitation on Foreman’s part just before Ali turned the tables on him — on the contrary, he was going after him, hell for leather, from the very beginning — and Brown clearly isn’t about to fall to the canvas. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities for Cameron to have earned the right to be called the Muhammad Ali of British politics, particularly after today’s performance at the dispatch box.

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The Rise and Rise of Tragicomedy
Sunday 3rd February 2008

There’s a moment towards the end of Uncle Vanya, Peter Hall’s production of Chekhov’s masterpiece at the newly restored Rose Theatre, when the title character announces that he’s “depressed”. This is hardly surprising, given that his detested brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, has just departed with Yelena, the love of his life. What is surprising is that this moment is greeted with laughter — or, at least, it was on press night. This is partly due to the delivery of Nicholas Le Provost, who gives such an entertaining performance in the central role that you can’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure whenever he opens his mouth, but it is also because the play itself manages to combine humour and pathos in equal measure.

Ever since Uncle Vanya was first performed in 1900, tragicomedy has generally been considered the highest of all the theatrical genres. As a member of the audience, there is something profoundly satisfying about not knowing whether to laugh or cry at any given moment — much more satisfying than if the play in question is either straightforwardly funny or straightforwardly sad. Deep down, laughter and tears seem to originate in the same place and a piece of work that penetrates to that inner core makes a stronger impression than one that merely makes us feel happy or sad.

The same is true of film and television. When it comes to cinema, the best comedies are those that constantly threaten to spill over into tragedy, such as The Apartment, Life Is Beautiful and Sideways — and the most engaging thrillers are those that are shot through with black humour, such as No Country For Old Men, this year’s likely winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. As a general rule, the more carefully a film straddles this line, the more grown up it feels.

In the case of television, tragicomedy has spawned a bastard son known as “dramedy”. Nearly all the most critically-acclaimed American series fall into this category, including Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and Entourage, as does the best homegrown drama — Life on Mars, Cranford and virtually every literary adaptation by Andrew Davies.

From a dramatist’s point of view, tragicomedies are always very appealing because they’re not as hard to write as the layman might imagine. They involve combining two genres that appear to be poles apart, but, in fact, have a good deal in common.

As Ray Cooney, the author of 17 West End comedies, puts it: “Most tragedies have as their basic theme the struggle of the individual against forces which are overwhelming, and the individual’s efforts to combat these forces as the tide runs stronger against him. In addition, the individual is usually tortured because of his own character flaws and his inability to control these flaws under stress. Well, that seems to me to sum up most of my farces!”

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Curb Your Enthusiasm
Monday 21st January 2008

Season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm debuts on More4 this evening at 10.35pm. Click here for a good piece about Curb in Saturday’s Guardian or here for my fawning Larry David tribute that appeared in the Independent on Sunday in 2006.

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Should Theatre be Subsidised?
Monday 21st January 2008

Britain’s luvvies are currently up in arms about the Arts Council’s proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies — such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut. (For a summary of the proposal and its likely impact on six performing arts centres, see this piece by Laura Barnett in last week’s Guardian.)

I’m skeptical about this. Surely, the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public’s imagination. It is only because they don’t sell enough tickets that they’re forced to depend on state handouts. If the artistic directors responsible for programming these venues were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatregoers, their survival wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a safe, commercial approach would inevitably lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality. In this light, subsidized theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera, which began life at the heavily-subsidized Battersea Arts Centre. (For a version of this argument, see this piece by Richard Morrison in Saturday’s Times.)

I’m not convinced. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the two or three most successful fringe theatres in the UK and yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer’s Choice that is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George that is about to open on Broadway. It’s latest production — a revival of La Cage aux Folles — has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.

While the Menier’s success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its two founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento (who run a 60-seat restaurant alongside the theatre), it also finds space for new work in its repertoire. In 2005, for instance, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was short-listed for the Evening Standard’s “Most Promising Playwright” award. It is doubtful that the Menier would have been so artistically successful if its directors had the safety net of an Arts Council grant.

The real dispute here isn’t between commercially-minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The success of the Menier chocolate Factory implies it is the former.

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The Culture Show
Thursday 17th January 2008

This Saturday’s episode of The Culture Show, the BBC arts programme, contained a 10-minute film about the making of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. For those who are interested in seeing it, click here and fast forward to the 22 minutes, 20 seconds mark.

The Vanity Fair Oscar Party

You can tell it’s Oscar season at Vanity Fair’s offices because you begin to overhear members of staff having the following telephone conversation as you wander down the main corridor:

“Who? Oh my God! How the hell are you? I haven’t heard from you in, like, 10 years, man.”

Pause.

“Gee, I’d love to help but there’s really nothing I can do. I’m not even invited myself. Sorry.”

Click. Dial tone.

One of the burdens of working for the magazine–and I was a contributing editor for two-and-a-half years–is that for the month of February you do virtually nothing other than field telephone calls from your most distant acquaintances fishing for invitations to the Oscar party. Each year, 15,000 people call editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s office begging to be invited. It’s not an exaggeration to say that an invitation to the Vanity Fair Oscar party is more coveted than an invitation to the Academy Awards.

People go to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a place on the guest-list. Someone once called up a member of the magazine’s staff and offered them a bribe of $300,000 (£215,000) for an invitation. “Give them my cellphone number,” Graydon joked when he heard about this. “I have four children to educate.”

To date, the only non-celebrity successfully to gatecrash the party was a hack from the Star supermarket tabloid who turned up in 1996 with a pig on a leash. Claiming it was the pig from Babe, which was a Best Picture nominee that year, the reporter sailed past the clipboard Nazis who were apparently unaware that over a dozen pigs took turns to play the title role.

Since then the party has been made gatecrasher-proof. These days, in order to get anywhere near the entrance you have to get past a series of checkpoints manned by Los Angeles County Sheriffs. If you’re in a car, you have to display a colour-coded parking pass on the dashboard. At the third checkpoint, assuming you make it that far, you’ll be greeted by what one journalist described as “a surgically modified brunette with a headset” who’ll check your name against her “master-list”. Even if you’re on the list, that’s no guarantee you’ll get in. Invitations are staggered according to whether you’re A-list, B-list, C-list or D-list, with those at the bottom of the celebrity food chain only being allowed to come at the tail end of the evening. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, for instance, was turned back in 1998 when she arrived at 9.30pm. She’d been told not to get there any earlier than 11.30pm.

Rather surprisingly for such an exclusive party, the total number of guests has been growing steadily each year. At the very first Vanity Fair Oscar Party, held in 1994, less than 750 people were invited. Today, that number has more than doubled and Graydon has to employ his architect, Basil Walter, to pull down the back wall of Mortons and build a marquee in the garden to accommodate the overspill. Glass bricks are imported from London; Dutch tulips are flown in from the Netherlands. The upshot is that a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that usually seats 190 is transformed into an 11,000-square-foot fantasy backdrop. The finishing touches are supplied by lighting designer Patrick Woodrooffe.

The reason for all this hoopla is simple: the harder the party is to get into, the more people will clamour to be invited. By branding the event “the most exclusive party in the world”, Graydon has succeeded in making it the hottest ticket of Oscar week.

“It’s not who you say ‘yes’ to,” Graydon confided to me as the party was winding to a close one year, “it’s who you say ‘no’ to.”

Of course, not all the guests have to beg to be allowed in. Believe it or not, some of them actually receive invitations out of the blue. For instance, all the Oscar nominees in each of the major categories are invited because that’s the only way Graydon can ensure that the winners will have the necessary documentation–parking pass, stiffy, etc–to get past the various checkpoints.

The most important guests at the party are those who comprise the Hollywood A-list and no stone is left unturned in persuading them to attend. These include past Academy Award winners like Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow and Martin Scorsese, moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Edgar Bronfman Jr and Sumner Redstone and “blue-haired California matrons” like Nancy Reagan, Barbara Davis and Betsy Bloomingdale.

Yet even these people are unlikely to receive “plus ones” on their invitations. In 2002, Halle Berry made the mistake of bringing along a train of followers in addition to the Academy Award she’d just won for Best Actress. Even though the guests at the party had given her a standing ovation as she made her acceptance speech on television–Oprah Winfrey was the first on her feet–she wasn’t allowed in.

More resources are devoted to planning the Oscar party than to putting together the Hollywood issue of the magazine, which is saying something. (The annual cost of throwing the party is in excess of $1 million.) To describe the degree of preparation that goes into organising the event as “military” is an insult to Sara Marks, Vanity Fair ‘s British party planner who also oversees the magazines bashes in London and Cannes each year. In 1999, she scoured Cuba looking for a 16-piece band to play in a marquee that Graydon had got his architect to put up in Mortons’ car-park. If Sara Marks had been in charge of the Bay of Pigs, it might not have been such a fiasco.

“It’s the turbine behind the scenes that makes the party work smoothly on the night,” Graydon recently told the Los Angeles Times. “The trick is to make it look easy.”

Graydon takes it all very, very seriously. When I spoke to him in the course of writing a piece about the party for the New York Post, he said: “Don’t make it fucking snarky or I’ll come and carve your heart out with a pencil. If you say anything other than it’s the number one party I’ll fucking kill ya.” Every year, a crack team of 15-20 Vanity Fair staffers flies down to LA at least two weeks beforehand to set up a “war room” at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They command a team that, at its height, comprises several hundred people: construction and video companies, florists, on-site seamstresses, the restaurant staff, private security personnel…the list is endless. Graydon arrives a week before D-Day to take command of the operation personally.

Why does he lavish such attention on the party? In part, it’s for solid business reasons. The Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair is so fat with advertising it could do with some liposuction. The magazine has advertising revenues in excess of $100 million a year and the March issue forms the cornerstone of its annual advertising strategy. The reason advertisers want to be in that issue is because, thanks to the party, it receives more publicity than any other. It’s an “event issue”, the publishing equivalent of an “event movie”.

The party also serves to brand the magazine as a sexy, glamorous product; it links it in the public’s mind with everything that’s desirable about Hollywood. Of course, it helps if something scandalous happens at the party and there are usually one or two celebs happy to oblige. In 2001 Elizabeth Hurley and Pamela Anderson started making out in full view of the other guests. Rather surprisingly, neither was invited the following year.

“Two kinds of people read Vanity Fair,” Graydon once told me. “Trailer- park white trash and everyone who matters.” The reason the former read it, at least in part, is because they see the coverage the Oscar party gets in papers like the National Enquirer. The reason everyone who matters read it is because they’re invited to the party. This goes to the heart of why Graydon attaches such importance to the event. It gives him leverage over some of the biggest players in the media-industrial complex. Graydon hasn’t created this annual institution to make the job of editing the magazine easier; he edits the magazine so he can throw parties like this.

For the Royal Canadian Airforce brat and former railway worker, the Oscar party is an annual reminder of just how far he’s come. During the run-up to the event, he’s feted by all the biggest names in town, culminating in a lunch party in his honour hosted by Barry Diller. This lunch is attended by, among others, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Ronald Perelman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sandy Gallin, Diane von Furstenberg, Fran Lebowitz and Edgar Bronfman Jr. One VF staffer who spotted him immediately afterwards in 1998, cruising back to the Beverly Hills Hotel in his Mercedes, described him as looking “as happy as a pasha”. At moments like this, Graydon isn’t simply the cat that got the cream. He’s the python that swallowed the panther that ate the cat that got the cream.