How to Lose Friends: the Radio Play
Tuesday 31st October 2006
Radio 4 will be broadcasting the radio dramatisation of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, starring Al Murray as me, at 2.15pm this Friday.

Murray gives an absolutely inspired performance, but don’t take my word for it. The Guardian Guide, which made it ‘Pick of the Day’, has this to say about it: “Toby Young appears to have had a very successful career announcing his own failure, which makes you wonder how long he can keep up being both a success and a failure, but his story of disaster in the big city is none the less very funny indeed. Afternoon Play–How To Lose Friends And Alienate People (2.15pm, R4) stars Al Murray as Young, who leaves London for New York to become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair only to hit one disastrous setback after another, mostly of his own making. Meanwhile the pomposity of the media elite is pricked with great wit and accuracy.”


Interview in the Scotsman
Saturday 23rd September 2006
An interview with me appears in today’s Scotsman. It begins:

PERCEPTION IS A FUNNY THING. IN HIS two autobiographical romps, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and his latest, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, Toby Young strikes me as an arrogant pillock careening from misadventure to misadventure due, in a large part, to his inability to listen, take advice, or tame his ego. For instance, he wins a coveted internship on the Times, and decides it would be utterly hilarious to hack into the editor’s personal e-mail and disseminate salary information and insulting missives. On another occasion a friend (ie: someone he likes) asks Young to be his best man. The groom cautions him to be sensitive about the bride’s German roots, so Young decides nothing would be funnier than “mentioning the war”. Repeatedly.

But when we meet at his home in Shepherd’s Bush, I discover several surprising things. First, Young, and indeed, his wife, perceive the Toby of these books radically differently: as self-deprecating to a fault. Second and perhaps more damning: he is a lovely, intelligent man with a well-reasoned, interesting world view. He will hate me for saying this. (“You’re going to ruin my career,” he complains, when I have the temerity to suggest he’s actually quite successful.)

To read more, click here.


The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thursday 31st August 2006
On Sunday, the Observer will publish an interview that Lynn Barber conducted with me a couple of weeks ago. To read my account of this experience in the current issue of the Spectator, click here.


The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Monday 21st August 2006
The Daily Telegraph published several extracts from my new memoir over the past 48 hours. To read the first set, click here. To read the seond, click here.

It’s not due to go on sale for another couple of weeks, but you can order it on Amazon.co.uk by clicking here.


How to Lose Friends: The Movie
Sunday 20th August 2006
Bob Weide, the award-winning director attached to How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, has added a page to his website about how he came to be involved with the project. To read it, click here.


Sunday 21st January 2007
Spy: The Funny Years–a book celebrating the legendary Spy magazine–hasn’t been published in this country, but for any devotees of magazine culture it’s a must-read. With its irreverent, muck-raking attitude and dazzling array of charts, boxes and diagrams, Spy was the most influential magazine of the last quarter century–and this in spite of the fact that it only lasted 12 years. Indeed, it was my obsession with Spy, which I discovered as a graduate student at Harvard in 1987, that led me to idolise Graydon Carter, its co-founder along with Kurt Andersen. Graydon may be a self-important jackass today, but back then he was a kind of Luke Skywalker figure, leading a rag tag alliance of outsiders and mavericks in a gleeful crusade against the vanity of the rich and famous.

To read my piece about Spy in today’s Sunday Telegraph, click here.


Emily Blunt
Tuesday 16th January 2007
Congratulations to Emily Blunt for winning a Golden Globe last night (Best Supporting Actress in a mini-series or TV film for Gideon’s Daughter). She’s already been nominated for a Bafta (Best Supporting Actress for The Devil Wears Prada), but I hope it boosts her chances of an Oscar nomination, too.

I pride myself on having talent-spotted her in 2002 when she appeared in Vincent in Brixton at the National. Here’s an extract from my review in the Spectator:

As I was leaving the theatre, I overheard a man say: “We’ve just witnessed the birth of a star.” He was right, but the star in question isn’t Jochum Ten Haaf. It’s Emily Blunt, the 19-year-old English actress who plays Eugenie Loyer, the landlady’s daughter. Something about her reminded me of Emma Thompson. Not only is she a gifted actress, she has that blue-stocking sex appeal that’s guaranteed to turn the knees of a certain type of Englishman to jelly. This is the second play I’ve seen her in–she played the youngest daughter in The Royal Family–and I’m already completely besotted. Mark my words, she’s the next Kate Winslett.


Sean Langan
Thursday 11th January 2007
My best friend, the documentary-maker Sean Langan, has once again been showered with praise for making a documentary in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. To read an article in the current issue of the Spectator on my efforts to cope with this phenomenon, click here.


Exit, Stage Right
Wednesday 13th December 2006
After five years as the Spectator’s drama critic I’m retiring. To read my tearful farewell, click here.


The Snip
Monday 13th November 2006
I appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Off The Page’ recently to talk about The Snip along with Rory Clements and Anna Raeburn. Unfortunately, the BBC has now taken down its link to the programme (shock!), but you can read an article I wrote on the same subject for the Spectator by clicking here.


Murder in Shepherd’s Bush
Friday 16th March 2007
I’ve been hauled over the coals for a piece I wrote in today’s Standard by a journalist called Paul MacInnes on Comment Is Free, one of the Guardian’s blogs. The piece that appeared in the Standard — about the murder of a 16-year-old boy in Shepherd’s Bush on Wednesday afternoon — was a cut-down version of an op ed piece that I filed on Thursday evening. You can read the original piece by clicking here.

If you agree with him, you can send me an abusive email by clicking on the button to the right. But if you don’t, please go to Comment Is Free and tell him you disagree.


David Frost
Thursday 8th March 2007
Sitting in one of the green rooms at Yorkshire Television on a Saturday afternoon in Leeds, it’s difficult to reconcile the man I’m watching on the monitor with the David Frost of legend. He’s recording four back-to-back episodes of ‘Through The Keyhole’ to be broadcast on BBC2 later this year and he’s finding it difficult to muster much interest in his current guest, a former soap star called Lee Otway.

“So, Lee, is ‘Celebrity Love Island’ the biggest thing you’ve ever done?”

Click here to read the rest of my profile of David Frost in this week’s Spectator.


The Academy Awards
Monday 26th February 2007
Last night’s Oscar telecast was poor, even by the low standards set by previous telecasts — and I don’t just say that because the picture I thought was the best of 2006 — Apocalypto — won nothing. There were so many shortcomings, I don’t know where to begin. So here, in no particular order, are my complaints:

– Ellen DeGeneres was a feeble host. She was nervous, so her timing was off; she eschewed any topical jokes, which was bizarre given that Britney Spears has just shaved her head and Anna Nicole Smith has just kicked her clogs; venturing into the audience and chatting to various luminaries was a mistake since it denuded the event of any glamour and made the people she accosted seem like members of a chat show audience; she changed her outfit too many times; and she didn’t explicity refer to her own lesbianism, which made her seem cowardly. Please, let Jerry Seinfeld do it next year.

– All the presenters, with the possible exception of Seinfeld, were extaordinarily wooden. (Even the normally reliable Clint Eastwood fluffed his lines.) Why do they insist on reading from an autocue? They’re actors, for Chrissakes. Can’t they learn their lines? And who writes this garbage? Last night’s show was packed with bits of business — such as the three amigos routine carried out by Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas — that came off as laboured and under-rehearsed. Unless the presenters are bona fide comedians who are used to performing live in front of a large audience they shouldn’t be given any “comedy” to do.

– Didn’t anyone notice that Michael Mann’s tribute to America used several of the same clips that Woody Allen used in his 2002 tribute to New York? If I have to watch another clip reel I’m going to shoot myself.

– Far too many of the winners read from pieces of paper they carried in their breast pockets. Not only did this make for very boring speeches, it also made for very long speeches which meant that about 50% of the winners were “played off” by Bill Conti. After about an hour, so many people had been unceremoniously booted off stage that every time someone gave a speech I was terrified that they were going to go over their alloted time. (And any joint winner who agreed to speak second didn’t get a look in.) This didn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience. Why can’t the producer of the show give the director some discretion over who’s “played off”? Okay, give the non-English speaking tecnhicians the hook if they over-run, but someone like Jennifer Hudson should be given a little lattitude.

– Where the fuck was Sacha Baron Cohen? One of the only reasons I stayed up until 5.30am — and a big thanks to the producer for deciding to kick things off half-an-hour later than usual this year — was to see Borat raise the roof. Why did the numbskull producer — Laura Ziskin, by the way — insist that he had to appear as himself or not at all? She cheated the worldwide audience of what would have undoubtedly been the best moment of the night.

– What was with the extended political broadcast for the Al Gore Party? His bit with Leo DiCaprio was an embarrassment, so there really was no need for Davis Guggenheim to bring him back on stage when he picked up his Best Documentary Oscar. And boy did he look fat! George Clooney’s “gag” about Gore not running was redundant. We know he’s not running because if he was going to run he’d be at least three stone lighter.

– And, finally — I really can’t hold this down — why did Apocalypto win nothing? Okay, it was unlikely that Mel would win Best Director, given his recent difficulties (though for my money he did a much better job than Scorsese), but did the Academy electorate really have to punish Kevin O’Connel, his sound mixer, who has now been nominated 19 times without winning? (Kate Winslet, you have nothing on this guy.) According to Variety’s live blogger backstage, the guys who won in that category — the mixers on Dreamgirls — started laying into O’Connel in the press room, saying it was time he took up another line of work. Since when did it become persmissable for the winners in a particular category to crow at the expense of the losers? I don’t have any sympathy with Gibson’s views — my father-in-law is Jewish and as a result my children would be taken from me and killed if I was a resident of Nazi Germany — but his politics have absolutely no relevance when it comes to assessing the artistic merit of his work. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there’s no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to art, just good and bad — and Apocalypto is good, whichever way you look at it.

– For what it’s worth, here’s my list of winners:

Best Picture: Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey, Apocalypto

Best Director: Mel Gibson, Apocalypto

Best Actor: Peter O’Toole, Venus

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, Children of Men

Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada

Best Original Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Longford

Best Adapted Screenplay: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige


Life on Mars
Wednesday 14th February 2007
I thought last night’s opener of the second season of Life on Mars was pretty poor. One of the things that irritated me about last season was that Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt’s relationship only ever developed in the course of each episode, never over the course of the season. Every episode would begin with them at loggerheads–and always over the same issue, namely, how scrupulously to follow official police procedure–and end with each of them having learnt to be a little more flexible. These lessons would always be forgotten by the beginning of the next episode and Sam and Gene would then have to re-learn them all over again. Now, it seems, their relationship isn’t going to develop over the course of two seasons, either. And it doesn’t merely apply to the relationship between Sam and Gene. Gene and his male cronies have to be convinced over and over again that Annie Cartwright isn’t just a pretty face, that forensic investigative techniques may have a role to play in solving crimes, that petty corruption leads to more serious forms of corruption, etc, etc. Not only that, but in every episode Sam blurts something out that “reveals” he’s from 30 years in the future, momentarily forgetting that none of the people in the station (apart from Annie) are supposed to be aware of this. (He then bites his tongue and furrows his brow, realising his mistake.)

It’s as though the writers, having come up with a winning formula for a single episode, have decided to stick to it religiously, ignoring the rather obvious fact that it renders the series as a whole completely implausible (unless all the characters are supposed to be suffering from some weird form of partial amnesia.)

Another example of the writers’ laziness is their cavalier treatment of the supposedly brilliant high concept that everyone seems to love about the series. In last night’s episode, for instance, Sam had to “put away” a villain in 1973 because said villain was torturing him in his hospital bed in 2007. Yet if Sam really can effect things in the present by doing something in the past, then it follows that he really has travelled back in time and isn’t just imagining that he has. In other words, last night’s episode definitively answered the question posed by Sam at the beginning of each episode, namely, has he really gone back in time or is his mind playing tricks on him? It seems odd, to put it midly, that the central riddle of the series should be solved in the first episode of the second season instead of the last. Not even the writers of Lost would make that kind of elementary error.

The reason we now expect character arcs to extend over entire seasons, and not begin and end with each episode, is because a lot of us don’t watch episodes according to the weekly television schedules. If we Sky Plus a series, the chances are we’ll watch two or more episodes back to back – and if we buy a season on DVD we’ll probably watch all the episodes over the course of a few days. This means that writers can’t get away with the degree of repetition that they once could. In other words, the bar has been raised by the changing habits of viewers.

I don’t hate Life on Mars. I think the central premise is an intriguing one and, apart from the writers, most of the people involved in the programme acquit themselves very well, particularly the cast, the costume designer, the set designer and even, in some cases, the directors. But if last night’s episode was a taste of things to come, I’m not going to bother with the rest of the season.


The 2007 Sundance Film Festival
Wednesday 31st January 2007
I’d been in Park City less than 24 hours when I spotted the man himself. I was standing on Main Street talking to one of the American television’s most distinguished comedy directors when Mr Sundance happened to walk past.

“Would you like to meet him?” asked the director.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Follow me.”

To read the rest of Toby’s piece in this week’s Spectator about visiting the Sundance Film Festival, click here.


Frank Johnson RIP
Friday 11th May 2007
I attended a memorial service this morning for Frank Johnson, the first editor of The Spectator to employ me. It was, as Matthew D’Ancona writes here, a glittering occasion, worthy of the great man.

I first encountered Frank as the Parliamentary sketch writer at The Times when I was a news trainee there in 1986. I never got up the nerve to talk to him — he was just a legendary presence that I occasionally caught a glimpse of.

I finally did speak to him in 1998 when I began writing for The Spectator. One of the first pieces I did for him was about Harold Evans’s unexpected departure from Random House — a piece which immediately prompted a furious letter from a firm of solicitors demanding a retraction, an apology, a large sum of money and, bizarrely, a written undertaking from me that I’d never write about Harry or his wife, Tina Brown, ever again in any publication anywhere in the world. If each and all of these demands weren’t met by a particular deadline, both The Spectator and I personally would be sued for libel.

Naturally, I was terrified. I was an occasional freelance contributor to the magazine with no connections to either Frank or the publisher — or, indeed, the proprietor. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for The Spectator to negotiate a settlement with Harry and leave me twisting in the wind — which is very much what Harry expected to happen, I think. I had been warned by everyone in New York not to cross Tina and Harry and it now looked as though I was going to pay the price.

But Harry hadn’t bargained on Frank. In my darkest hour — I’d just been fired by Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, to compound my misery — Frank called to tell me he that he intended to stand by my story. He was going to fight Harry all the way to the High Court if necessary — he’d already lined up George Carmen to defend our side — and make sure that whatever legal costs I incurred in the course of the battle would be met by The Spectator.

After I’d gotten over my initial shock — no editor of mine before or since has been so supportive — we started to discuss tactics. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. Frank outlined the battle plan — and I listened. For the next month or so, we waged an unremitting PR campaign against Tina and Harry on both sides of the Atlantic — Frank in London, me in New York. My efforts to make Harry look petty and vindictive were nothing compared to Frank’s. He had no hesitation in using his journalistic contacts to further our cause. It was a model of how to fight a media war. If Heather Mills had had Frank on her team, Paul McCartney would have settled months ago.

Within six weeks it was all over. The threatened libel suit never materialized and Harry agreed to drop all his claims against The Spectator in return for Frank’s agreement to publish a letter from him putting his side of the story. (Amusingly, the letter was twice as long as the original piece.) He never came after me personally.

I later found out that Frank had come under considerable internal pressure to give in to Harry’s demands — mainly from Kimberly Quinn, the magazine’s then publisher. However, Conrad Black was also anxious about it. He didn’t want to get involved in a lawsuit that might cost several hundred thousand pounds if The Spectator wasn’t going to win. In effect, Frank had to vouch for me — and see off considerable internal opposition.

Of course, none of this was prompted by any special feeling for me. Several factors were at play. I think he personally disliked Harry — with good reason, I’m sure. As a journalist-editor, he also thought he should stand by his writers. But, above all, he just relished a good fight. The notion of taking up the cudgels on behalf of a Nobody who was being threatened by a Big Cheese was irresistible. Had Harry made good on his threat and issued a libel writ, I’m sure that Frank would have been as good as his word and contested the case with all his energy. We would have won that, too — and Harry obviously realized this which is why he backed down.

Anyway, the whole experience was absolutely glorious from my point of view. When Frank called me in New York to tell me not to worry I felt as though a good angel had come to my rescue. He did everything a journalist hopes his editor will do in such circumstances — and then some. When I’d eventually conquered my initial fear, the ensuing campaign — with Frank and I kibitzing on the phone on an almost daily basis — was the most fun I’ve ever had in journalism.

My career was at such a low ebb at this point, that without his support I probably would have given up on the profession. But Frank completely restored my faith. His refusal to bow to any of the people pressurizing him to settle the case — and to side with the weaker of the two combatants, even though it was hardly in his own self-interest — demonstrated a courage and integrity that I have yet to encounter again on Fleet Street. As Peregrine Worsthorne said in his address this morning, he was the noblest Roman of them all.


Spectator Coffee House
Thursday 3rd May 2007
The Spectator has launched its version of Comment Is Free today called ‘Spectator Coffee House’ — and jolly good it looks too. You can link to it by clicking here.

The cover story of this week’s Spectator is by Anne McElvoy who takes both the main political parties to task for not doing more to promote meritocracy.

Without wishing to sound too partisan — I’m the son of Michael Young who coined the word ‘meritocracy’ and whom McElvoy takes to task in her piece — I was disappointed that McElvoy didn’t deal with the two main arguments against meritocracy.

The first is that the only way to guarantee that each person’s socio-economic status is entirely dictated by some combination of ability and effort — and nothing else — is to ensure that everyone starts out on a level playing field. Among other things, this would mean removing children from their parents at birth, imposing 100 per cent inheritance tax, sending all children to identical schools (at least initially) and regulating their early reading and viewing habits. In other words, a society could only be genuinely meritocratic if it was an out-and-out dictatorship — a far more draconian dictatorship than any we’ve witnessed so far.

This points to the second objection — the one Rawls makes in A Theory of Justice. Suppose McElvoy’s response to this is: So what? Meritocracy is so desirable, I’m willing to sacrifice liberty for the sake of it. Then the question becomes: Why is it so desirable? Why is a society in which each person’s status is entirely dictated by their talents any more just than a society in which their status is dictated by the hereditary principle? Assuming people’s talents are given to them at birth — and I include the propensity to work hard among these endowments — they no more deserve their abilities than members of the lucky sperm club deserve their fortunes. Like inhereted wealth, abilities are distributed in a way which is entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view. It follows that a society in which status is dictated by people’s abilities is no more just than one in which it’s dictated by inherited wealth.

Like Anne McElvoy, I was educated entirely in the state sector and then went up to Oxford — and, like her, I would probably do better in a completely meritocratic society than the one we currently live in. (Or perhaps not.) But that doesn’t mean it would be any fairer. Indeed, from a moral point of view, a meritocratic society would be no more just than one in which status was dictated by the throw of a dice.


Family and Kinship in East London
Wednesday 25th April 2007
‘Family and Kinship in East London’ — the book my father, Michael Young, co-authored with Peter Willmott — has just been reissued by Penguin to commemorate its 50th anniversary. You can link to a piece about the book — and its impact on a generation of social workers, sociologists and local government officials — in today’s Guardian here.

My father’s two best-known books — ‘Family and Kinship’ (1957) and ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ (1958) — are linked in a way that few people will be aware of: the main thesis of each book was contained in a paper he wrote for the Labour Party Research Department in 1951 called ‘For Richer, For Poorer’.

“How extraordinary this is, such good stuff,” wrote Edith Summerskill, the then Minister of National Insurance who was one of the few people who bothered to read it. “What on earth are you going to do with it? It’s not right, is it, for the Labour Party?”

According to my father’s biographer, Asa Briggs, “‘For Richer, For Poorer’ is the most interesting and revealing of all Michael’s writings, seminal for himself as much as for the historian.”

The ideas contained in this paper represent the most sustained burst of intellectual creativity in Michael’s career, a phenomenon he attributed to the benefits of Freudian psychoanalysis. He suffered from depression all his life, but the most acute episode occurred after his first child was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1940s. One of the symptoms of this particular bout was that the world appeared to him in black and white — literally, not metaphorically — and it was only when his depression began to lift that he was able to perceive colours again. It was during this period, in which the world suddenly took on a new vibrancy, that the ideas for the two books began to tumble out of him.

My father continued to suffer episodes of extreme melancholy, but, in a way, he was lucky that his most acute bout occurred before the discovery of anti-depressants. Had he treated his mental illness by taking a pill, as opposed to undergoing psychoanalysis, he never would have written his two most important books.


Cathy Seipp
Wednesday 28th March 2007
My friend Cathy Seipp died last week. She was a Los Angeles-based journalist who was incredibly kind to me, helping to organise parties in LA for the launch of both my books. She was also very nice to me when I lived in LA for a few months in 2004, introducing me to lots of her journalist friends. Indeed, my whole attitude to LA — which I’m extremely fond of — would be completely different if I hadn’t known Cathy. Not only did she open up the city for me, but she showed me, by her example, that the cliched view of LA, which is that it’s full of kooks and cut-throats, is wrong. There are also people there who are like Cathy — down to earth, honest, level-headed, unimpressed by power, and, above all, beholden to no one. Her only guide when it came to how to behave was her inner code.

All these qualities shone through in her journalism — though what made her so readable was that she could also be wonderfully irrascible and abrasive. She belonged to that class of writers you feel an instant bond with because they are irritated by exactly the same things you are. I often didn’t know anything about the subjects she was writing about, but I instinctively felt that the line she was taking was the right one. I trusted her judgment implicitly.

She was so generous to me — she befriended me after reading How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — that I’ve always felt bad about not doing enough to repay her — and, of course, I’ll be forever in her debt now. LA is going to be a much less friendly place without her.

To read Cathy’s obituary in the New York Times, click here.


Blast from the past …
Tuesday 27th March 2007
10 years ago I wrote a piece for Spy magazine arguing that canabis shouldn’t be legalised. It was essentially a humour piece, but, weirdly, I seem to have been on the right side of the argument. It was called ‘Ban the Bong’.

To read it, click here.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


“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.


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.


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?'”


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.


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.


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.*


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.


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.)


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.


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!”


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.


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.


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.”


“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.

Find the Best Vacation Rentals in Boston


For people who travel to the North Shore of Massachusetts every year, there are a few things that they need to know. In this article, we’ll cover some of the key issues that you need to consider when choosing a House Wash North Shore Vacation rental. We’ll discuss the types of rentals available and how you can find them.

When you start your search, one of the first places you should look is the website of House Wash North Shore, a Boston-based chain of hotels that are known for their cleanliness. They are known for offering the highest standards in cleanliness and sanitation. This is the best place to start your search.

They also offer a variety of rentals including condos, luxury homes, and villas. You may want to choose one of their condos since it allows you to be closer to the water. Some of their villas even have private gardens. The luxury homes are the most expensive, but offer the same cleanliness as their condo counterparts.

One of the things you might want to do is visit some of the many restaurants located along the waterfront in Boston. Many of these restaurants have outdoor patios where you can relax while eating your lunch or dinner. You can also grab a drink on the deck and watch the different activities occurring on the waterfront. You can watch the swimmers or boaters enjoying the water or just relaxing by the fire.

If you’re planning to stay at one of their Boston-area properties, you’ll find that you can get great value for your money in the various House Wash North Shore vacation rentals. The prices for these homes vary depending on what you want to use them for. Some of them are perfect for an extended stay while others will work well for only a short period of time.

Since this is a popular vacation destination, you’ll find that many of the House Wash North Shore vacation rentals are located near the famous Boston Common. The Common is considered one of the top attractions in Boston and has a lot of things to do. It’s also considered one of the top tourist destinations in America.

The Common offers a wide range of attractions including the Museum of Fine Arts and The Children’s Hospital. You can also enjoy a walk along the Freedom Trail to see the monuments in Boston’s Back Bay area, the historic Charles River, or the Boston Public Garden. You can also take the ferry over to Rhode Island and experience the city’s culture. While you’re there, you can also visit the historic Old South Station House, which is the oldest building in Boston.

If you decide to stay at one of their rental houses while you’re on vacation in the North Shore, you’ll want to look into their policies for late-night visitors. Most of these homes have rules about leaving your pets inside while you’re away. You might want to bring them with you. Be sure to ask about these policies before signing the rental agreement.

A lot of the House Wash North Shore rentals have onsite laundry facilities, so you can wash up and leave the house in a relaxed way. You can also get to know the neighbors better when you are there during your stay. One of the benefits of staying at one of the rentals is that it is close to the local shops and attractions that can give you plenty to do while you’re on vacation. Many of the stores along the waterfront include a large selection of restaurants, nightspots, and pubs that provide great entertainment.

If you like to swim, there is a large number of beaches that can be accessed by driving down to the House Wash North Shore. from Boston. Some of these beaches are open year round while others are only open during certain months of the year.

You’ll also find that House Wash North Shore homes come with some very appealing features like private beaches. You can choose from private or shared beaches depending on what you’d like. You also have the option of renting a condo if you’d like, but there are condos that are open to the public as well.

You can easily take advantage of the amenities at the various locations of the House Wash North Shore by getting a membership at one of their various vacation resorts. These vacation clubs offer a lot of activities, such as swimming, hiking and other forms of recreation for their members. When you belong to one of these vacation clubs, you’ll have access to restaurants, pools and more. All you have to do is get registered.