Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Ian McEwan duly accepted his Jerusalem Prize on Sunday. He had been widely criticised for electing to travel to Israel for the ceremony, but his decision to do so was also widely supported. As he said somewhat ruefully in his address, the argument was presented to him that “whatever I believed about literature, its nobility and reach, I couldn’t escape the politics of my decision [as to whether to accept the prize]. Reluctantly, sadly, I must concede that this is the case”.

The cleft stick within which he found himself, in accepting the award, was not one that he articulated but it amounts to this: that to disregard Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would be implicitly to condone it; to excoriate his hosts for that treatment would be disobliging – that McEwan was mindful of the proprieties cannot be doubted when he noted that the arguments against his acceptance were made “with varying degrees of civility”.

McEwan in mid-address

At any rate, McEwan elected to run with the risk that he would affront his hosts. Before the ceremony, he accompanied the Israeli writer David Grossman in the latter’s regular attendance at the Friday march against the Sheikh Jarrah settlements in east Jerusalem. McEwan had also said that he wanted to meet Palestinian writers during his visit but, reportedly, these writers refused to countenance such a meeting.

McEwan accepted his prize from President Shimon Peres and then, in a most elegant, judicious and deftly uncompromising address, laid out his position, after making a swift but masterly tour d’horizon of Eng Lit and his presumed place in it. Referring to the matsav – the “situation” in Israel/Palestine – he described the “creative struggle to address it and … not to address it”. He is clearly not unaware of his privilege as a citizen of a peaceable country – “we may have our homeless, but we have a homeland” – nor of the danger that an Englishman abroad may blunder innocently into matters far more complex than he can know. It was perhaps unavoidable, whatever he should say, that McEwan would look desperately like the two protagonists, separated by sixty years of history, of Peter Kosminsky’s finely-crafted serial currently running on Channel 4, The Promise, the one a soldier in the dying days of the British mandate, the other his granddaughter perplexed by the holy land’s failure to obey the same natural laws as those of her easy life back home. The newspaper Haaretz reported that McEwan was attended to in “polite, but tense, silence”.

McEwan meets Peres

To accept the award, to go and collect it and to make a speech broadly against the policy of the nation hosting the honour is a species of gesture politics merely. So of course is the bestowing of the award. The Mayor of Jerusalem, under whose purview the biennial Jerusalem Bookfair is held, himself makes a calculated gesture in welcoming a critic and pretending that his city welcomes discussion and dissent. The citation of the Jerusalem Prize specifies that its recipients will be writers “whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society” and, while those who determined that McEwan should be the 25th recipient will point to that perceived theme in his work, everyone knows that for a foreigner to come to Jerusalem and allow himself to be embraced by Israel’s establishment is to acknowledge that such an event cannot pass without resonance.

The only previous British recipients have been Bertrand Russell (the first ever in 1963) and Graham Greene; two further Britain-domiciled writers to be honoured were émigrés – Isaiah Berlin and VS Naipaul. Other Jerusalem laureates include Frisch, Borges, Ionesco, de Beauvoir, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller.

This is all very glamorous, very high-flown, very self-important. My own objection to McEwan accepting the prize is entirely different from those overtly political objections so far expressed. I believe that awards and honours are what the Irish call bollix. They should be refused out of hand. McEwan declared, calculatedly flattering his Jerusalem hosts, that “ultimately, the quality of any prize can only be judged by the totality of its recipients”. That consigns to the garbage can next Sunday’s glitzfest in Los Angeles, the Academy Awards, and we must assume that, should McEwan ever win a screenplay Oscar, he will turn it down on grounds of fastidious discrimination about the company he keeps.

Grossman and McEwan at Sheikh Jarrah

AMPAS, the American Academy, has an atrocious record of honouring the wrong movie or the wrong performance – often because it is done belatedly to atone for a manifest injustice committed at an earlier ceremony – and of ignoring the entire careers of many of its finest. Among the directors who never received an Oscar are Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, DW Griffith, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, Blake Edwards, Alexander Mackendrick, Cecil B De Mille, Preston Sturges, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Stanley Donen, Josef von Sternberg, Douglas Sirk, Rouben Mamoulian, Jean Renoir, Robert Altman, Sir Charles Chaplin and Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Some were given honorary awards, a spurious consolation. But many an Oscar-winning director is not fit to be spoken of in this company.

The list of overlooked actors is too long to contemplate but if I just mention Thelma Ritter, Marlene Dietrich, James Mason, Denholm Elliott and Cary Grant, you will have a sense of the depth of Hollywood’s disgrace. Yet Oscar Night goes on being the ultimate awards event, eclipsed by the Nobel Prize only in prestige and exclusivity, certainly not in razzamatazz and self-importance.

The Oscars carry a particular cachet, partly because a degree of habit and hoopla has grown up around them, partly because they are voted on by the membership of AMPAS. This recognition by one’s peers is thought to be the most desirable because most informed. In practice, endless finagling takes place behind the scenes, millions are spent on self-promotion and many voters simply support the ticket so that technicians are nominated not by particular prowess but because they worked on this year’s favoured movies. Black propaganda has been aimed at Sunday’s prospects for The King’s Speech on the grounds that its subject, George VI, was said to be a Nazi sympathiser. Even if that is true – and it is only irrefutably true of his elder brother Edward VIII – that has nothing whatever to do with the merits or otherwise of the movie.

The sprawling development of east Jerusalem

For the longest time, my personal intention was to accept nothing short of a Nobel Prize, Oscar or Order of Merit from the Queen (the way you do), but more recently it has seemed to me that the only decent and grown-up thing to do is to spurn all such baubles, right up to (and perhaps especially, though of course it would be hard to refuse from the grave) sanctification (not that I entertain lively expectation of being a candidate).

The charade of awards and honours is as deeply suspect as it is deeply flawed. The obsession with tokens of achievement angles the whole culture towards a form of spurious competition. Those set against each other for prizes are rarely even broadly comparable. The novels yanked together in dispute over the Booker Prize each year are plainly trying to achieve different kinds of aesthetic synthesis. Does elevating one of them have any meaning? Doubtless the publisher is thrilled at a sure hike in turnover. Indeed, the paperback editions of all the nominees will shout their nominee status for the rest of their in-print lives, even these days the ludicrous notion that they were "long-listed" for the Booker.

But their lives as works of literature have been subtly (and not so subtly) changed by this imposition of a legend on the cover. Now, the nominated or awarded piece of work will always be the artist’s marquee piece, even though other unheralded work might be considered superior by those who have actually considered the whole œuvre. The headline-writer reaches for the garlanded part of the life and pigeonholes the artist with it. And this year we have the grotesque farce of "the Beryl Booker", a posthumous competition, determined by public vote, among the novels of Dame Beryl Bainbridge to select that of her novels most deserving of the prize that none of them ever won. What insulting piffle.

Berger's way of seeing prizes

For ever after, the actor, director or writer is tagged “Oscar-winner”, even “Oscar-nominated” and this is supposed to bestow some spurious prestige. And that of course is the key to the whole melancholy business. The awards do not truly honour the recipient. They are designed to aggrandize the giver. That is why the BAFTA Awards have been known for some years as the Orange BAFTA Awards or, to state it plainly, the Marketing Opportunity Awards.

Forty years ago next year, John Berger was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel G. Unexpectedly – and thrillingly for those of us watching the live telecast – Berger turned his acceptance speech into a withering attack on the Booker Company’s exploitation of its workers in what were then called third world countries, using half of his cash prize to develop the arguments on behalf of migrant workers and the other half as a direct donation to the Black Panther movement. McEwan has said that he will donate his Jerusalem Prize money to Combatants for Peace, a bilateral union of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers who have laid down their arms to unite in promoting peaceful coexistence.

Given that awards and honours are never given without implicit strings of endorsement – promotional or political – attached, the only honourable spirit in which to accept them is that of dissent and disruption. Give the money to the nearest bunch of revolutionaries and dissenters.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


The contradictions grow more evident with every passing day. The three most damaging charges successfully levelled by oppositions against British governments over the last half-century have concerned “u-turns”, “dither” and “sleaze”. David Cameron’s government has yet to be overwhelmed by sleaze and perhaps has been sufficiently energetic to avoid attracting many accusations of dithering, but the u-turns come thick and fast.

Ken Clarke, the Lord Chancellor (aka Justice Secretary), hinted at this failure of the coalition in his interview in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend. Clarke ruminated that “I don’t think middle England has quite taken on board the scale of the problem”. He was talking about the economy, which is not of course his fiefdom since the restoration of Tory rule. Some sixteen months before the election, Cameron brought him back into front-line politics as shadow Business Secretary. Until then he had spent the better part of a decade on the backbenches, from soon after the Tories lost the 1997 election – he had served as Chancellor for the last four years of John Major’s government.

Kenneth Clarke: a personal view of civilisation not shared by all Tories

It is middle England that has been kicking up roughest just lately about government policy, especially the proposed sale of forests, the widespread closure of libraries and the evidence of a watering down, by complicated but suspicion-rousing means, of Cameron’s much-trumpeted commitment to the National Health Service. My reading is that Clarke’s remark is his way of indicating that he thinks the government is wrong on these issues because they will alienate core Tory votes. And indeed, it is in these areas, beginning with the fate of the greenwoods, that the u-turns have begun to look most likely,

Many on the Tory right (and not only on the right) loathe Ken Clarke for what they see as his unsound views – socially liberal, staunchly pro-European – and his faintly plebeian, even faintly bohemian style. He attended a direct grant rather than a public school, favours jazz, real ale and hush puppies and looks uncomfortable in evening dress. But he is a very old hand, only one MP short of being Father of the House (that is, the longest serving MP), and he has an undoubted populist touch, cutting a jovial, almost Falstaffian figure: the cover of the new issue of Private Eye makes splendid use of a funny picture of him.

Cameron: leading a government of clots

His interview with The Telegraph preceded the vote in the Commons on the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court decided that the disallowing of all those in gaol from voting in parliamentary elections – as Britain has done for centuries – is unlawful. Clarke took the view that “I do not contemplate either government or parliament suddenly deciding it’s not bound by the rule of law”. He must have known by that stage that his leader fiercely, even emotionally deprecated the Strasbourg line. In part influenced by the PM, the House, in one of its bursts of almost universal outrage and self-righteousness, voted to defy the ruling by 234 votes to 22. Two former Home Secretaries, Jack Straw and David Davis, led the assault.

I found this vote incomprehensible. Parliament is a legislative body. The rule of law is its sovereign duty. How then can it in all conscience vote to defy the ruling of a court of law? In his speech, Davis said: “If you break the law, you cannot make the law”. He was talking about those in prison. But surely the complementary observation is true of parliamentarians: if you make the law, you cannot defy the law. So I find myself with the Justice Secretary on this – a matter of principle and protocol – while Cameron and most of the rest of the Commons are playing to an imagined gallery.

Pickles: give 'er the money, Mabel

Within 48 hours, Cameron was again questioning a court ruling when Britain’s Supreme Court found that those listed on the sex offenders’ register ought to have the right to have their names expunged from it if they prove themselves to be reformed. The Prime Minister may imagine that he is shoring up his middle and not-so-middle England support in striking back at the courts, but the courts will not be on the government’s side if it leads the Commons into a situation where individuals who reckon that their rights are being denied start taking the government to law. The potential for the government having to pay out millions is high.

More errors have been committed concerning the armed forces, usually an area where Tory governments take it for granted that they are more trusted than Labour governments. The decommissioning and subsequent breaking-up of Nimrod spy planes has left many aghast, both within the military establishment and in the lay community. I cannot understand why the government did not seek to sell these extremely expensive planes to some other government. Now, pilots who have almost completed hundreds of hours of training, along with various other types of service personnel, are being informed that they are surplus to requirements and, to the fury of such military wallahs as Tory backbencher Patrick Mercer, they are being (in his words) “dumped by email” which he describes as a tactic “more appropriate to the ending of a playground romance”. More Tory support is endangered by these developments.

Meanwhile, the cuts juggernaut rolls on, some of its work adumbrated in last year’s spending review, some emerging from the backs of Treasury envelopes and then hurriedly withdrawn again. We are lately learning the extent of slashing and burning that local authorities are obliged to indulge by government fiat. Cameron is taking the line that, Pontius Pilate-like, the government is washing its hands of the specific cuts that councils make, in the hope that the opprobrium for cuts of whatever nature will attach to the hapless councils rather than to the coalition that imposed them.

Cameron and his slogan: "Big Society, Not Big Government". Catchy, eh?

Despite this avowed self-denial, however, Cameron and his attack dog, Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, are quick to decry any cuts to front-line services that councils feel they have to impose. They call instead for what they term “back-office savings”. This, the latest in a long line of political weasel phrases, is meant to convey a cut that is only painful for local authorities themselves and that somehow mysteriously does not affect the public (that is to say the voter). What this phrase means in practice, of course, is redundancies and pay cuts. These measures, devastating for individuals, are less visible and less likely to bring onto the streets members of the public (as opposed to organised demonstrators like students and union members). They are being demanded of the police, the NHS and the BBC as well as of local councils.

Of course, as I pointed out in a letter published in The Guardian last week, the government has yet to demand “back-office savings” of those banks that are now partly in public ownership or indeed of any other institutions staffed by what used to be called “the Tories’ friends in the City”. Even in middle England, resentment of the kid-gloves treatment of the banks and their greedy employees is detectable. People have wearied of the government being sucker-punched by the banks with their "warnings" that "the best people" will go abroad or that whole businesses will relocate if the managers don't receive shedloads of money. Call their bluff, tell them to fuck off if they'd prefer to live in any other country that will have them (if indeed any other will). Redraw the tax laws so that earnings made in Britain cannot be sheltered in tax havens. Let those who live and work elsewhere but keep a home here and send their kids to schools in Britain pay a big levy for the privilege.

In any case, what about all those scientists whose resarch funding is being cut? Doesn't the government fret about them moving abroad in a new brain drain? What about other important talents and skills: academics, teachers, doctors, nurses, surgeons, law enforcement officers, writers, directors, actors, technicians of all kinds? Why should greedy bankers be the only people Britain wants to keep?

As for local authorities, I advocate that councils play on this restiveness in the Tory heartlands. The government is taking an avowedly partisan line in palming the choice of cuts onto councils while distancing itself from the choices that those councils make. Is there any reason why the councils should not respond in kind – for instance, by withdrawing services (refuse collection, road repairs) specifically from those wards that returned Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, on the argument that those residents will be looked after by the Big Society?

Cameron continues to believe that he can distract the electorate from their increasing pain by his talk of creating a Big Society (or his BS as it is widely called in Westminster and Whitehall). Defending the concept in The Observer, Cameron tried to pre-empt his critics: “the first objection [to the Big Society] is that it is too vague” but the rest of his article was unspecified, unargued waffle. For instance, he reckons that “if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them” but he ignores the obvious objection that there are well-established regulations, drawn up to protect both people and institutions, which cannot simply be “taken over”. Cameron airily says that he’s going to sweep away all those checks and balances that prevent untested people from working with children, a curious stance in the light of his subsequent rant against the Supreme Court.

Stay out of my garden, Maude

Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and another bête noire of the Tory right, has been obliged by Cameron to speak for the BS concept – it is noticeable that no other cabinet member ever mentions it – and he has been complaining that Labour have been spreading the myth that the BS is just a cover for the cuts. This is pretty rich when you consider how repeatedly (and evidently successfully) the government has put onto the last Labour government the whole blame for what, at the time, we all understood to be a global recession. Now that inflation is the latest statistic to be soaring on his watch, the Chancellor George Osborne announces that it is an “international problem”. How does that work, then?

Ministers need a diversionary tactic because they have begun to comprehend that the cuts will grow steadily more unpopular and that the government that the voters will seek to punish is their own. Blaming Labour will pay diminishing returns. Ministers are now talking in terms of "unpopular but necessary measures" rather than simply "necessary measures". Forecasts of "choppy water" and "difficult months" pop up almost routinely, as if to soften the blows that the government knows it will receive in by- and local elections this year. "We're in for a long haul to get back to normality" Clarke told The Telegraph.

What is so distasteful about this kind of talk is that it is all about the government's own fortunes and nothing about the people's deprivations. "When we get through this." the assumption is, "the nation will thank us". But for people who lose their jobs, their homes, their services, their support, their businesses, maybe their health and in some cases even their lives, there will be no recovery. The damage that the government is doing now will, for many people, be irrevocable.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


For a quarter of a century, I interviewed writers, directors, actors and comedians for newspaper and magazine articles. My first victim was the dramatist Christopher Hampton, my last the director Robert Altman. Among many others in between were Henry Fonda, Max Wall, Beryl Reid, Hal Prince, Trevor Griffiths, Paul Scofield, George Burns, Alan Simpson & Ray Galton, Edward Bond, Sue Pollard, Mervyn LeRoy, Stanley Baxter, Donald Sinden, Betty Marsden, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Berkoff, Ursula Andress, Ken Dodd, Joel Grey and Patricia Routledge.

I learned one golden rule very quickly: that an interview is only as good as the interviewer, not the interviewee. Whether for print, screen or radio, a well-prepared, imaginative interviewer who listens can make the dullest subject – Cameron Diaz, say – come across as interesting. A cloth-eared, self-centred interviewer can disrupt the timing of even a Peter Ustinov.

The interview as a television form has been making something of a comeback, largely because it is one of the cheapest ways of filling a BBC hour or a commercial half-hour. Mark Lawson, who falls into the cloth-eared camp as far as I am concerned, gets regular hour-length slots to fill on BBC4 and, I guess, has a lot of say in whom he gets to interview even though, in recent times at least, his interviews have been apt to be slotted into themed runs: thus tonight his interview complements the opener of a short series on British sculpture. I might be more likely to watch if the programme were entitled Anthony Caro Talks to ... Mark Lawson but it follows the usual formula of Mark Lawson Talks to ... Anthony Caro and who the hell wants to watch that? But, having caught the end credits of a lot of his interviews while awaiting the start of something less irritating, I notice that he rarely enjoys the services of the same producer and/or director twice, so I cannot help wondering if this suggests that he is impossible to work with.

Mark Lawson Doesn't Listen to ...

Sky Arts have been bankrolling two interview series: In Confidence has Laurie Taylor quizzing a variety of accomplished individuals, mostly not from among the usual suspects; In Conversation has Derek Malcolm taking on a range of movie directors and actors. Taylor’s approach is the nearest in recent years to that of the granddaddy of serious cultural interview series, Hugh Burnett’s Face to Face, which was presented by John Freeman. Though it ran only from 1959 to 1962, that series still casts a long shadow, particularly among those who mourn the dumbing-down of television. The format was that the interview was broadcast live and hence uncut and the focus didn't leave the subject’s face (shown from two or three angles) – Freeman was never seen. The range of guests was huge, from Bertrand Russell to Danny Blanchflower, Hastings Banda to Cecil Beaton, Edith Sitwell to Nubar Gulbenkian, Carl Jung to Adam Faith. Of all the interviewees, only Bernardo Bertolucci and Albert Finney survive, but Freeman himself, splendidly, turns 96 this month.

The great John Freeman

The present granddaddy of interview series pretends to be a seminar. Inside the Actors Studio sits a professional before an audience (supposedly) of students of Pace University in New York (rather than the actual Actors Studio itself). The guest is interviewed according to a well-worked format by the dean of the Pace Actors School, James Lipton, and has been recorded for transmission since 1994 (a total of sixteen seasons). In Britain, the individual programmes are shown in any old order and have been shunted around the satellite, housed variously by the Biography Channel, Performance, Sky Arts and now Sky Atlantic (both the latter two channels screened the Hilary Swank edition last Sunday).

Episodes from the first three seasons, many of which did not get onto air at the time, can be considered as collectors’ items: Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Shelley Winters, Dennis Hopper, Arthur Penn, Carol Burnett, Christopher Walken, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Reeve. Mike Nichols. How enticing to be able to see those – why has no broadcaster snapped up the rights?

Le vrai Lipton at work

Of course, the sessions are cut to ribbons for transmission. The ellipses are very apparent, none more so than in the interview with Peter Falk. Every continuity person in the movies will tell you that the biggest headache for editing is cigarettes. Falk chain-smoked through his interview – you still could on public platforms in New York City in 1999 – and the respective lengths of his cigarettes shot back and forth like Roadrunner.

This being an American show, much time that could be accorded to matters of substance is wasted on applause, in particular the applause that denotes recognition (a much feted movie, say, or the name of a great star dropped). Naturally, the audiences are generally enthusistic, though poor Ellen Barkin could barely half-fill the hall. Other precious minutes are taken up by establishing the guest’s credentials. In his introduction, James Lipton always gives a comprehensive run-down of the award nominations that the guest has received, however fatuous they might seem, and then, as each movie comes up for discussion, reiterates the nominations that the particular performance has garnered. “All right, already” you shout at the screen, “it’s still a pretty crappy movie”. What’s more, Lipton modulates his welcome according to the awards. He is “proud” to welcome a guest who has never won an Oscar, “very proud” to welcome an Oscar-winner and “very, very proud” when it’s a two-time Oscar-winner (like Swank). But people who hand out awards are not the sole judges of merit. The arbitrary and destructive nature of awards (and of honours) may perhaps furnish the subject for another posting as the prize-giving season gets into its stride.

The main problem with Inside the Actors Studio is that it is such a missed opportunity. Talking seriously about the craft of film-making is a perfectly useful exercise. Several years ago, before Lipton cornered the market, my old pal Beth Porter and I took a notion to The Guardian when it was in the process of investigating how it should join the on-line market. Our proposal was to build a bank of formatted interviews with actors, all answering an identical, comprehensive list of questions, upon which television programmes could draw for illustrative material. Our title was Lights, Camera, Acting! We thought we had hit on a winner. We got to pitch it to a guy who looked like a school-leaver and whose surname, rather worryingly, was Murdoch. We never heard back from him.

Lipton is a really terrible interviewer. His self-regard is such that he can never resist telling his guests how much he and they have in common, from which continuous reinforcement of public detail the regular viewer knows well that Lipton comes from the mid-west, that his parents divorced when he was a child, that he shares a birthday with Jeremy Irons (how utterly fascinating, Jim), that he is the proud holder of a pilot’s licence and a regular horse-rider, that he would have a tattoo if his wife would only allow it, that he was spoofed by Will Ferrall on Saturday Night Live and is determinedly genial about it, that he once arranged a gala in London at which the guest of honour was the Duke of Edinburgh, that he has acted in and written soap operas, acted on Broadway and in Hollywood, written book and lyrics for a musical and produced television specials including for Bob Hope. He is also a Francophile and a proud Chevalier. And of course he is a teacher of drama and, though there is comparatively little talk about technique, at least until the students get to ask questions, he is always keen to signal that he knows or knew every acting teacher to be mentioned. One of the most legendary of all American acting teachers, Nina Foch, is perhaps known to the widest public for her role as the “older woman” chasing Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. Lipton was married to her for a few years in the 1950s.

The programme logo

Lipton is also a sucker for a party turn, especially a (snatch of) song or dance and, that arsehole of show business, an impersonation. “Oh god” he is apt to laugh suddenly, the kind of laugh that sounds utterly phoney. This stuff is mere playing to the gallery, nothing whatever to do with the study of acting or movie-making, but of course the guests love to be called upon to show off. Only Barbra Streisand, who anyway resisted the show’s invitation for a long time, made it clear that she wasn’t doing any singing from cold. Quite right too.

Before throwing it to the floor, Lipton ends with a questionnaire. He used to characterise this document as being “invented by Marcel Proust”, perhaps misled by the magazine Vanity Fair, which has long run its own variation on the exercise, calling it ‘The Proust Questionnaire’. Someone has evidently set Lipton right. In reality, Proust was the most famous person to have submitted himself to a similar questionnaire – on two occasions, the first as an adolescent – and to have given the most precocious and high-falutin answers.

Lipton always attributes the questions he employs to Bernard Pivot, smug in the knowledge that his (Lipton’s) audience will never encounter this person, though we did get to see him when Lipton and the production team took a trip to Paris to record interviews with Jeanne Moreau and Juliet Binoche. The French broadcaster is clearly as dopey as Lipton. The questions are:

– What is your favourite word?
– What is your least favourite word?
– What turns you on?
– What turns you off?
– What sound or noise do you love?
– What sound or noise do you hate?
– What is your favourite curse word?
– What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
– What profession would you not like to attempt?
– If heaven exists, what would you like to hear god say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

"The Great Bernard Pivot"

How can anyone have a favourite or a least favourite word? Virtually all Lipton’s victims cite an attractive or repellent concept – energy or truth or negativity and so on. Few offer a sequence of sounds they find especially euphonious or horrisonant – imbroglio, say, or montbretia or thew. My response to this question would be that I am a writer, all words are my friends, though those upon the spelling or exact nuance of which I forever trip are treacherous friends. Again, many things turn one on and off, many sounds likewise. Some guests are so keen to ingratiate that they give as a sound their children laughing or saying ‘Daddy’. Eeeuuuuwwww!

The curse is often bleeped for transmission, rather defeating the purpose. Anyone routinely deploying an expletive is anyway in danger of becoming a prize bore. As for professions, why would anyone working in a state of perpetual ego-massaging for millions of dollars on the world’s most envied racket think of another profession? Ah, but they want to be rock stars, write children’s books and give their names to wines and perfumes as well.

Finally, heaven doesn’t exist. Anyway (it’s hardly my place to correct the interpretation of other people’s superstitions, but) it isn’t god who greets you at the pearly gates: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” Christ says to Peter [St Matthew’s Gospel 16:18-19]. I would want St Peter to say: “Don’t worry, there’s no questionnaire”. I never saw any form that made a fit with my circumstances or asked questions I cared to answer as framed; and questionnaires are the most perverse form of forms.

Over the years, it’s not to be wondered at that Lipton has become a parody of himself. Now (perhaps surprisingly) 84, he may be the only man on television whose hair and beard are dyed different colours. He clings to his prompt cards as to a life saver and rarely veers from his standard set of questions, beginning with: “Where were you born?” (hurrah if it was in the mid-west). These are the questions of an attorney, questions to which the questioner already knows the answers. (Were it me being asked who was my co-star in such-and-such a movie, I’d be sorely tempted to reply: “I don’t know, I haven’t seen it”). A proper interviewer, seeking new knowledge, asks questions to which he doesn’t know the answers.

Lipton and guest Liza Minnelli

Another infuriating tic is the question that begins “when [for instance] Robert De Niro and Marty Scorsese occupied that chair, they told us about the experience of making Goodfellas. What was your experience?” I would want to reply: “Well, funnily enough, when Larry King interviewed me, he asked about Goodfellas too”. I mean, what has it got to do with the present guest that his predecessors have talked about a movie that he was in?

After the dreaded questionnaire, Lipton blessedly departs the stage, handing the guest over to “your class” and the students pitch their own concerns, usually a lot more probing than Lipton’s and yielding more interesting responses but of course the television cut allows only a couple of these. After all, there are the credits to be got through. You can be sure that Lipton’s three end-credits (count ‘em) are perfectly legible, along with the one he had at the top of the show, but what Leona Helmsley famously called “the little people” whizz by in a blur. At least Lipton’s “tailored clothes” no longer get a credit that would have been the reward for dressing him at no cost (and you bet he got to take them clothes home).

How much longer will television draw from this well? Anthony Hopkins was the first Brit to guest on Actors Studio but not before the fourth season. John Hurt followed him the next year and then, as the list of willing Yanks was whittled down, more and more of them were invited, even some, like Vanessa Redgrave, who only really wanted to talk about the theatre. In recent years, Hopkins has been among those who have returned for a second session. Moreover, the net has been thrown wider and wider, now embracing stars of television comedy, rock musicians and even ensemble casts.
Adam Godley as Elliott

On the subject of British actors in America, I was amazed to see Adam Godley turn up in the episode of Breaking Bad most recently broadcast in Britain on the FX channel. Godley is a surpassingly English actor – among his triumphs was his performance as Kenneth Williams in Terry Johnson’s comedy Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National Theatre over a decade ago – yet here he was playing a wholly American character (the hero’s oldest friend) in an American teledrama. When you think of the numberless native actors in their mid-40s who could have played the role, it does seem extraordinary that a Brit should land it. But then all the comic superheroes currently being regurgitated for the movies are being played by Brits. I suppose the secret must be that they come cheaper than Americans.

Incidentally, I like Breaking Bad very much. It’s a noirish tale about a chemistry teacher going spectacularly off the rails after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. The spiral he plunges into, through a mixture of circumstance and impulse, develops enticingly and with the right level of mordant humour. Bryan Cranston’s gritted-teeth portrayal of the anti-hero, never remotely tempted to try for the ingratiating, gets it pinpoint right. His reward has been an Emmy for “outstanding lead actor in a drama series” for each year that it has played. Vince Gilligan, who cut his teeth on The X Files, is the instigator and director.

Breaking Bad: the poster

But why has it taken three years to reach Britain? In the States, it will begin its fourth season in the summer and I cannot imagine how it will have sustained its premise through more than thirty episodes. How long must we wait to find out?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


The great Margaret Whiting died on January 10th and I became exasperated waiting for The Guardian to notice this major loss so I submitted an unsolicited obituary last night. This was not quite as presumptuous as it might seem. I have written several obits for the paper in the past, both at their and at my own instigation. I was particularly stung into action yesterday morning when the paper carried a sizeable vale to Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes. Whiting, I proposed, deserves at least the equivalent consideration.

The obits editor demurred. “She didn’t have an original hit, and didn’t make much impression in Britain” he wrote. “At a time when we’ve got 50 obits waiting to appear, we can’t, sadly, feature every figure that readers would like us to, and we reckon that more readers are interested in Motown artists”. Rather than smother this response with the contempt that it so richly deserves, I propose instead to immortalise my notice herebelow, where I know it will be appreciated by my discriminating readers.


Margaret Whiting, who has died at 86, was one of the finest of the singers who led American popular music through most of the four middle decades of the twentieth century, performing songs that overlapped Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood and that were apt to be known as “the standard repertoire”. Her style – a light but firm, clear but creamy mezzo, not as sensual as most of the black women vocalists of the period, nor indeed as the likes of Lee Wiley, Peggy Lee or Julie London – rather bracketed her with such variously serviceable performers as Jo Stafford, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith, Abbe Lane and Barbara Cook, all of whom laboured in the long shadow of their senior, Ella Fitzgerald, whose racially neutral timbre set the benchmark.

Whiting's first LP

Whiting’s understated, deftly wry delivery was especially suited to the dreamy, beguiling sort of number that married a caressing melody to intelligent lyrics: Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’ ‘Make the Man Love Me’, Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s ‘But Beautiful’, Ted Shapiro, Jimmy Campbell and Reginald Connelly’s ‘If I Had You’, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf’s ‘Moonlight in Vermont’, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ or ‘Guilty’ by Harry Akst, Gus Kahn and her father. Lyricists must have greatly appreciated the Fred Astaire-like respect with which she always treated their work.

She was born in 1924 in Detroit, the elder daughter of a pianist and jobbing songwriter. With the coming of the talkies, new songs were suddenly required in industrial quantities and the Whitings promptly moved west. Richard A. Whiting had a particular gift for jolly, rousing numbers and he was soon well-known for penning ‘Ain’t We Got Fun?’, ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ and ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ among many others. Margaret was only 13 when he died but she was already a Hollywood kid and her vocal talent was known. Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern were among those who took her under their wings. At 17, she was signed to Capitol Records by her father’s great pal and frequent collaborator, lyricist and sometime singer-cum-executive Johnny Mercer.

As was usual for young vocalists in the early 1940s, her first sessions were anonymous, fronting big bands. But in 1947, she cut a long-player of her own, a selection from the songbook of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Though she could not quite be said to have pioneered the ‘songbook’ format (Lee Wiley was doing it in the ‘30s), Whiting was certainly in the van of such collections. Thirteen years later, she made a memorable double-album selection from the Jerome Kern songbook.

Mercer and Whiting record 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'

The Rodgers and Hart repertoire was always grateful to the thoughtful performer and it was subsequently raided for dedicated albums by, among others, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Barbara Cook, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra and, some time later, the Supremes and Dawn Upshaw. Nine years after Whiting’s LP, Ella Fitzgerald began her Songbook series with Cole Porter, closely followed by Rodgers and Hart, a series that is probably the most valued of all Fitzgerald’s work.

Whiting was soon recording regularly under her own name and quickly became a radio favourite. In 1948, she cut a cover version of a British hit for Dorothy Squires, Billy Reid’s ‘A Tree in the Meadow’, and it topped the American charts. Soon after this, she took an unexpected but lucrative detour into country music and the single she made with Jimmy Wakely, ‘Slippin’ Around’, also got to number 1. In 1949, she recorded a duet with her mentor Johnny Mercer of Frank Loesser’s larky ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ which became a Christmas chart fixture for several years.

In the ‘50s, she was a regular guest on the kind of television variety shows that lasted well into the ‘60s. For three mid-‘50s seasons, she and her kid sister Barbara were showcased as college co-eds in Those Whiting Girls, a summer sitcom seat-warmer for the production company Desilu’s banker, I Love Lucy.

Never one to allow changing times to deny her any chance to work, Whiting gladly joined the 1970s touring circuit in the best roles for those mature singing women who could act – Pal Joey, Call Me Madam, Gypsy. In later years, she made her home in New York and often performed in Manhattan supper clubs to lifelong fans and new enthusiasts alike. Her delicious version of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s ‘Time After Time’ enjoyed a new lease of life when used in the 2009 movie Julie & Julia.

Mr & Mrs Wrangler

After a long and significant affair with the movie star John Garfield, Whiting’s first three marriages – to producer Hubbell Robinson, pianist Lou Busch and cinematographer Richard Moore – ended in divorce. In 1976, she met John Stillman in a nightclub. He was 30, she 52. He was enthralled by her glamour, she by his looks. He told her frankly that he was gay and that he worked as a gay porn star under the name Jack Wrangler. Nevertheless, they figured out an accommodation, based on Stillman/Wrangler’s contention that he felt “less competitive” with a woman than with a man. But the relationship was punctuated by public slanging matches, one involving an exchange that became legend: “I’m gay, damn it!” “Only around the edges, dear”.

Bogglingly, they married in 1994 and remained so until Wrangler’s death fifteen years later. There surely must be a BBC4 drama to be carved out of their story.

Whiting in later years

Margaret Whiting’s only appearance on Broadway was in a 1997 tribute to Johnny Mercer, produced by Jack Wrangler. She died in the actors’ home in New Jersey to which she moved last March. Her daughter by Lou Busch, Deborah, survives her.

Margaret Eleanor Whiting, singer; born 22 July 1924; died 10 January 2011