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American vs British Women
Tuesday 11th December 2007
There’s an amusing article in today’s Times by Tad Safran about the poor personal grooming habits of British women. I wrote a piece for the Standard in 2002 about the shortcomings of American women that works as a sort of riposte.

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Teaser for How to Lose Friends on YouTube
Monday 10th December 2007

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Why Do British Comedies Get Bad Reviews?
Saturday 1st December 2007

I recently had lunch with the writer of a British comedy that had just opened in cinemas. He had spent the past 24 hours pouring over the reviews — and the expression on his face was one of wounded bewilderment.

“Why did they hate it so much?” he asked. “I simply don’t understand.”

This was no isolated incident. British film critics are more hostile to home grown comedies than they are to any other genre. To take a few recent examples, Sixty Six, Driving Lessons, Confetti, Starter For Ten, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Mr Bean’s Holiday, Magicians , I Want Candy, Run Fat Boy Run, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution and Death at a Funeral have all been poorly reviewed. Some of these films, such as Mr Bean’s Holiday, have had large enough P & A budgets to survive this onslaught, but the majority have not. In effect, the critics have succeeded in killing them stone dead.

The obvious explanation is that the films in question aren’t any good — but that simply isn’t true. Some have deserved the mauling they received — perhaps even most — but certainly not all. Death at a Funeral, for instance, is a well-crafted, Ayckbournesque farce that has won two international awards, yet it was universally panned on its home turf. One reviewer even described it as “the most ineptly-written film of the year”. The critics have a bias against British comedies that not even this little gem could overcome.

Why should this be? One theory is that the critics watch most of the films they review in small, half-empty screening theatres at 10.30AM — hardly the sort of circumstances likely to provoke gales of hysterical laughter. Yet this doesn’t account for why they are particularly hostile to British comedies. Why not all comedies? In my experience — and I’ve been reviewing films on and off for 21 years — American comedies are much more likely to be judged on their merits.

A more convincing explanation, I think, is that many of the critics are themselves frustrated comedy writers. In their heart of hearts, they would much prefer to be writing comic films than reviewing them — as is evident from their attempt to shoehorn gags into their copy at every opportunity. The reason they hold homegrown comedies to such a high standard is to justify their choice of career. If comedy writing was any easier, they would have no excuse for not pursuing their dreams, but because it is so hard — as they prove week after week by mercilessly laying into the local talent — they convince themselves that they are just being prudent. “Where fools rush in,” they tell themselves, as the bile pours from their pens.

In some cases, the vitriol is well-deserved, but in others it is not — and the pity is that many British comedies that deserve to find an audience end up sinking without a trace.

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A Defense of Reality Television
Sunday 25th November 2007

The popularity of reality shows is often cited as evidence that British television is “dumbing down”. Typically, a highbrow critic will contrast Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation with I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here to illustrate just how far we have fallen. Lord Reith, we are told, would be spinning in his grave.

Two things can be said against this.

First, the “golden age” of broadcasting, which the BBC is believed to have embodied once upon a time, never existed. In the 1930s, when the Beeb consisted of a single radio station, it was routinely lambasted for broadcasting more light music, comedy and vaudeville than any other radio station in Europe. Indeed, Reith himself was often singled out by these critics who believed that his commitment to creating an inclusive, accessible, national broadcasting system would inevitably lead to the debasement of British culture.

Secondly, most reality shows aren’t nearly as “dumb” as they look. On the contrary, they embody the principles of classical drama as set out by Aristotle in The Poetics. In the case of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, a group of people are jolted out of their complacent existence, they are then forced to undergo a series of “trials” in which they’re pitted against the forces of nature and, while most succumb to the fates, some manage to wrest control of their destiny. The winner of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here is nearly always the person who combines strength, stamina and fortitude with a willingness to sacrifice their own interests to those of the group. In other words, a typical Greek hero.

To my mind, the question isn’t why popular entertainment has “dumbed down”, but why the public has lost faith in more conventional forms of storytelling. Why do we now look to the factual entertainment departments of national broadcasters to deliver the deep satisfaction that a well-constructed narrative can provide, rather than the drama departments? Audiences of reality shows are often criticised for being too credulous — don’t they realise it is no more “real” than a soap opera? — but the interesting question is why those same audiences are no longer willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to scripted drama?

No doubt contemporary novelists and playwrights would claim that the declining interest in their work is, in itself, a form of “dumbing down”. But they only have themselves to blame. The practitioners of high culture in this country took a disastrous wrong-turning when they embraced modernism at the beginning of the last century. This involved abandoning the universal principles on which all great narratives are based in favour of turgid little exercises in formal experimentation. The result has been a vacuum at the heart of our culture that the producers of reality shows are more than happy to fill.

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Hollywood’s Two Cultures
Sunday 18th November 2007

In 1959, C. P. Snow delivered a lecture called ‘The Two Cultures’ in which he lamented the fact that educated people in modern society were divided into two camps: those with a background in the sciences and those with a background in the humanities. Reading between the lines, it was clear that he thought the former were more intelligent than the latter.

This same division exists in Hollywood where, if anything, the intellectual gulf between the “two cultures” is even more pronounced. In the past 50 years, the science and technology of filmmaking has advanced in leaps and bounds and has now reached a point where literally anything dreamt up by a person’s imagination can be reproduced on screen. The more “artistic” aspects of the profession, by contrast, have hardly changed — and when it comes to the most important “creative” component of all, namely, the script, we’re actually worse off now than we were in the 1930s.

A case in point is Beowulf, the new film by Robert Zemeckis. From a purely technical point of view, *Beowulf* is breathtaking. It utilises the “motion capture” technique that Zemeckis and his team of computer nerds pioneered in his previous film, The Polar Express, and combines it with the very latest 3-D technology to create an entirely new cinematic experience. It is hard to know how to categorize it, since, to look at, it sits somewhere between digital animation and live action, but you’re left in no doubt that this is where the future lies. Indeed, some of the special effects are so dazzling you get an inkling of what it must have been like for an audience that grew up in the silent era to watch a “talkie” for the very first time.

As a piece of writing, however, Beowulf is woeful. “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf,” Woody Allen said to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — and the same applies to students on screenwriting courses. A joint effort by Neil Gaman and Roger Avary, Beowulf reduces the epic poem about a Norse legend to a finger-wagging parable about the risks of infidelity. They even make the elementary mistake of not providing the hero with a fatal weakness — he’s Superman without the Kryptonite. The fact that he’s completely invulnerable means that there’s no suspense when he takes on a succession of demons and monsters. Gaman and Avary achieve something I would not have thought possible: they make a fight between a lone warrior and a fire-breathing dragon seem boring.

The Hollywood writers’ union is currently out on strike, aggrieved that they aren’t receiving their due when it comes to dividing up the spoils generated by New Media. But if Beowulf is anything to go by, it is the techies who work behind-the-scenes that should be paid more, not the screenwriters.

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Movie Poster
Wednesday 2nd January 2008

Here’s the first poster for the forthcoming film. Strangely, my name doesn’t appear to be on it. Click here for the official website.

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Why is A Christmas Carol still so popular?
Sunday 23rd December 2007

George Orwell said that the best test of literary merit is survival and, by that standard, A Christmas Carol must rank as one of the greatest works of literature ever produced. Scarcely a December has gone by since it first appeared in 1843 in which a stage adaptation hasn’t been performed somewhere in London — there’s currently a production at The Young Vic by a South African company — and it has been made into countless films, the latest being Robert Zemeckis’s which is due for release in 2009. If Dickens had written just this one story and no other, his immortality would still be guaranteed.

Yet set against his body of work, A Christmas Carol seems like pretty thin gruel. For one thing, it runs to only 74 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Contrast this with the same publisher’s edition of Bleak House which runs to 914 pages.

Nor was it written in circumstances likely to produce great art. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens’s latest novel, were beginning to fall off in the autumn of 1843 and his wife, Catherine, had just become pregnant with a fifth child. A Christmas Carol was conceived as a quick money maker. He wrote it in just over six weeks, making sure it was ready in time for the Christmas market, and published it himself, calculating that his share of the profits would be greater than any fees he might get from a publisher. Admittedly, as Dr Johnson pointed out, only a fool doesn’t write for money, but few authors can have been as mercenary as Dickens when he sat down to compose A Christmas Carol.

Of course, these facts alone don’t mean it isn’t any good, but even his most generous critics wouldn’t rank it in the first tier of Dickens’s work. It embodies the same sledgehammer sentimentality that Oscar Wilde complained of in The Old Curiosity Shop. Tiny Tim, who bore “a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame”, is a character unworthy of the novelist who created Mr Micawber and Mrs Havisham. As Margaret Oliphant put it, A Christmas Carol is the “apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding”.

How to account for its longevity, then? The answer is simple: it has become inextricably bound up with Christmas in the public imagination. It has survived for the same reason that ‘Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer’ and ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ have survived — not because they’re any good, but because they’re guaranteed to get an airing every December. I’m not saying that there’s something about Christmas in particular that robs people of their judgment, only that if a piece of work can attach itself to an annual festival, it’s place in the canon is guaranteed.

Orwell was wrong. Survival, by itself, isn’t proof of literary merit. Provided a piece of work can become a seasonal staple, it can stand the test of time and still be second rate.

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Movie News
Friday 21st December 2007

Channel 4 Film has just posted a piece about the forthcoming adaptation of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People and you can read an interview with the director, Bob Weide, here. Scheduled release date in the UK is October 3, 2008.

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Is it curtains for Alan Ayckbourn?
Sunday 16th December 2007

Is Alan Ayckbourn still capable of putting bums on seats? Last Tuesday saw the West End opening of Absurd Person Singular, his 1972 comedy about three couples whose marriages are in varying states of disarray. It has an excellent cast (Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Jenny Seagrove, David Bamber, Lia Williams and David Horovitch), but will that be enough to guarantee commercial success? Or is Ayckbourn’s 40-year-run as Britain’s most performed living playwright finally coming to an end?

There’s no doubt that Absurd Person Singular is extremely dated. In one scene, the character played by John Gordon Sinclair tells his wife that he’s leaving her for another woman, but expresses the hope that they can still have sex from time to time. She doesn’t say anything in response and he becomes so infuriated by this that he threatens to “take a swing” at her. In a contemporary play, such behaviour would put this character completely beyond the pale — it would be a way for the dramatist to convey that he’s an out-and-out monster — but Ayckbourn stops short of this. The husband is not supposed to be sympathetic, exactly, but Ayckbourn expects us to be pleased for his wife when, in the following scene, they’re reconciled. So much for discouraging women from remaining in abusive relationships.

To get around problems like this, the director has decided to set the play in the decade in which it was written, but that is only a partial solution. There’s a more fundamental issue, which is that Ayckbourn’s style of comedy seems out of date, too. Absurd Person Singular is no door-slamming farce, but a large percentage of the gags are of the slapstick variety, with the characters suffering a wide variety of accidents. The problem isn’t that physical comedy has ceased to be funny — just look at the opening scene of There’s Something About Mary — but that it no longer works on stage. It is simply too unrealistic.

For instance, there’s a scene in which the character played by David Horovitch gets electrocuted while trying to fix a broken light fitting. He does his best to fizz and pop authentically, but no amount of artistry on his part can make it look convincing. Back in the 70s, when Absurd Person Singular ran on Broadway for 591 performances, audiences were willing to suspend disbelief. They were accustomed to things not looking real on stage and they were willing to accept it. Today, audiences have higher standards. The widespread use of special effects in film and television has raised their expectations. Unless an illusion is completely seamless, they’ll be too busy noticing its shortcomings for the scene to achieve its dramatic effect.

I enjoyed Absurd Person Singular and I hope it’s a hit. But I suspect that Ayckbourn’s time has passed.

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How to Lose Friends: The Radio Play
Saturday 15th December 2007
Last year, Al Murray appeared as me in the radio adaptation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. You can download this by clicking here.

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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.

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The Cold War Revisited
Saturday 12th January 2008
With five Golden Globe nominations and seven nominations on the Bafta long list, Charlie Wilson’s War looks set to be one of the big winners of the awards season. This is partly thanks to the star turns delivered by Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also because it harkens back to a period in America’s post-war history when its foreign policy commanded much more support. It is the first example of what may become a new cultural trend: Cold War nostalgia.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a lighthearted romp — based on a true story — about the part played by a renegade Congressman in kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson was a hard-partying member of the House of Representatives who, in addition to being implicated in a number of scandals, was instrumental in increasing the budget for the CIA’s covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen. If any single individual can be credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, Charlie Wilson is that man.

What is fascinating about the film is its completely revisionist attitude towards the Cold War. The conventional view of this conflict, as propagated by novelists like John Le Carre, is that it was characterized by deep psychological unease and moral uncertainty in which both the Soviet Union and its Western opponents were fatally compromised. Not so, according to Charlie Wilson’s War, which depicts the 1980s as a period of almost carefree innocence. Back then, we knew who are enemies were, we knew where they were and, most importantly, we knew how to defeat them. Contrast this with the geopolitical quagmire we find ourselves in today.

Of course, one of the main reasons we can now look back on the Cold War era as the Good Old Days is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation — and winning it — seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than if you contrast the record of the West’s intelligence services in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the record of their armed services in the same region twenty years later. How could a few well-placed operatives mastermind a successful war against the Soviet Union, while the combined might of our armed forces be humbled by a handful of Islamists? No wonder we feel nostalgic about the recent past.

The other appealing thing about Charlie Wilson’s War is that it conjures up a period when the public did not require its leaders to be quite so virtuous. Wilson’s scandalous personal life didn’t stop the voters of Texas’s 2nd Congressional District re-electing him (and nor should it have done). Perhaps the lesson is that if we want to win the War Against Terror we’ll have to replace men like George W Bush and Tony Blair with men more like Charlie Wilson.

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Things to Look Forward to in 2008
Monday 7th January 2008
Only a fool would recommend something he hasn’t seen or heard yet, but hope springs eternal. So here are the things I’m most looking forward to in 2008:

1. Charlie Wilson’s War. A political comedy in which a corrupt congressman finds redemption by helping the Mujahideen kick the Russians out of Afghanistan. With Tom Hanks as the hard-partying Congressman, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a renegade CIA officer and Julia Roberts as a rich widow. Opens Jan 11.

2. The Vertical Hour. I prefer David Hare when he’s got his reporter’s notebook in hand than when he’s inventing things out of whole cloth and The Vertical Hour falls into the latter camp. To make matters worse, a production has already been staged on Broadway where it opened to lukewarm reviews two years ago. Nevertheless, it will still be worth a look. Opens Jan 17.

3. Uncle Vanya. Peter Hall directs a new translation of Chekhov’s masterpiece at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. With Nicholas Le Prevost in the central role, this promises to be the theatrical event of the year. Opens Jan 25.

4. Juno. After the success of Knocked Up, you’d have to be a very confident director indeed to attempt another romantic comedy revolving around an unwanted pregnancy. Luckily, Jason Reitman is that man. Released February 8.

5. Major Barbara. Nicholas Hytner directs Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Hayley Atwell in a revival of Shaw’s provocative attack on high-minded do-goodery. Opens March 4.

6. Something to Tell You. More middle-aged angst from Hanif Kureishi, this time in the form of a novel set in Shepherd’s Bush about a successful psychoanalyst struggling to come to terms with the sins of his youth. Published March 6.

7. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Anthony Minghella directs this one-off BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel from a script by Richard Curtis. March.

8. The Second Plane. Martin Amis’s fiction may not be what it once was, but, as a critic and polemicist, he is as strong as ever. The centerpiece of this collection is ‘Terror and Boredom’, a long essay on the West’s inability to respond to the challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism. April.

9. The Dark Knight. British director Christopher Nolan just gets better and better and this follow-up to Batman Returns looks set to be the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Opens July 25.

10. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It’s shameless, I know, but the thing I’m most looking forward to in 2008 is the big-screen adaptation of my own best-selling memoir about working for Vanity Fair in New York. Starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Jeff Bridges. Opens October 3.

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“Toby’s like a piece of gum that got stuck to the bottom of my shoe.” – Graydon Carter

The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Saturday 19th August 2006
The Daily Telegraph published part one of its serialisation of my new book today. To read it, click here.

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Review in The Hollywood Reporter
Friday 11th August 2006
The Hollywood Reporter published a nice review of The Sound of No Hands Clapping this morning. To read it, click here.

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Clip from A Right Royal Farce
Friday 11th August 2006
Here’s a series of clips from a Right Royal Farce, mine and Lloyd’s new play at the King’s Head. If you want to view them in chronological order, start at the bottom and then work your way back up. To put them in context, it might help to read the press release, too (see button to the left).

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Clip from A Right Royal Farce
Friday 11th August 2006

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New York Times Review
Wednesday 19th July 2006
The New York Times carried a good review of The Sound of No Hands Clapping today. Here it is in full:

BOOKS OF THE TIMES | ‘THE SOUND OF NO HANDS CLAPPING’

Learning to Succeed as a Loser, on Two Continents

By WILLIAM GRIMES

When last spotted, at the end of his memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” Toby Young was slinking out of Manhattan, a ruined man. Fired as an editor at Vanity Fair and banished from the Eden of American celebrity culture, he threw in the towel and returned to London.

Mr. Young, I am happy to report, learned virtually nothing from his American misadventures. “The Sound of No Hands Clapping” finds him once again madly pursuing fame and riches, worshiping the same false celebrity gods, and in general making an absolute fool of himself. For readers, this is very good news. Mr. Young’s pain is their gain.

This time around Mr. Young fails on two continents. He flails away in London, where he just might be Fleet Street’s most-fired journalist, and then, seduced by Hollywood dreams, takes a wild stab at starting a screenwriting career in Los Angeles.

Humiliation beckons at every turn. He writes a biweekly magazine column for The Spectator called “No Life.” The editor kills it. On assignment for a women’s magazine, he pays a hugely embarrassing visit to a penis-enlargement specialist. In a sweaty bid for media exposure, he agrees to be interviewed on the BBC about his collection of X-rated videos. It does not go well. “You’ve turned into Paris Hilton,” his wife tells him. “Is there nothing you won’t stoop to?”

The answer is no. Mr. Young craves attention, and he will do anything to get it. He adores celebrities and wants to be near them. When he moves from Greenwich Village, the sense of loss tears him apart. His apartment is across the street from Gwyneth Paltrow’s.

He is entirely unashamed about this. “Why wouldn’t a person want to be famous?” he asks. “Celebrities are at the top of our society’s food chain. They live in the grandest houses, dictate the latest fashions, and enjoy unlimited sexual opportunities.” So there it is, the Young worldview, a source of wonderment even to Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, who could never quite believe that Mr. Young was actually English.

Failure is Mr. Young’s calling card. It works for him. “How to Lose Friends” attracts the attention of a big-shot Hollywood producer who decides that Mr. Young is just the man to write a screenplay about a famous but repellent record producer of the 1970’s. “Mr. Hollywood” remains anonymous — Mr. Young fears reprisals — and the film is never made, but in a single magic moment Mr. Young plunges right back into his element, and the usual round of missteps and miscalculations.

Mr. Young savors his humiliations like fine dinners. There’s the time he forgets his passport and tries to board an airplane using a Blockbuster Video card, and the stag weekend before his wedding that his best friends do not bother to attend. Most writers try to forget bad reviews; Mr. Young clips out the really painful bits for rereading. “Toby Young is a balding, bug-eyed opportunist with the looks of a punctured beach ball, the charisma of a glove-puppet, and an ego the size of a Hercules supply plane,” he quotes one British critic as writing. “And I speak as a friend.”

Most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Half drunk, he tries to corner the film producer Harvey Weinstein at a party to deliver a pitch. A beefy security guard deposits him on the sidewalk outside. Experiencing a brief midlife crisis, he embarks on a solo camping trip in the Welsh mountains in the middle of a snowstorm. During the night he steps away from his campsite to urinate and gets lost. Only the ringing of his cellphone back in the tent saves him. It’s his wife, calling to see how he’s getting along.

“I couldn’t really understand why you kept doing such dumb stuff,” Mr. Hollywood’s assistant tells him after reading his first book. “I mean, you just kept on doing it, over and over and over. What’s with that? It’s like you had Tourette’s or something.” Yes. It is very much like that.

There are, however, disturbing signs of growth. Mr. Young still wants to be famous, but he has decided that he would like to be famous for doing something artistically worthwhile. In London, scene of so many reverses, a one-man play based on “How to Lose Friends” makes a small splash and transfers to the West End, where Mr. Young replaces the original actor and plays himself. He’s no Olivier, but he holds his own, and so does the play.

Mr. Young tries mightily to disguise his achievements, but fortune insists on smiling. He collaborates on another play, which does well. He marries and fathers two children. The domestic chapters, interwoven with the Hollywood material, present a softer, almost endearing version of the author, who searches for but does not find flip comic material in his children. Instead he discovers new sources of love, commitment and satisfaction. This is wonderful for Mr. Young, but death to the comic persona he has created.

True, he agrees to pose naked to promote his book. But by the end of “The Sound of No Hands Clapping,” twin specters loom: success and happiness, with no celebrities attached. Mr. Young loses interest in Mr. Hollywood, and in Hollywood. He likes staying at home with his kids. The franchise is finished.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spy
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Untitled

“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.