David Lister: Artists could ditch the flattery and be more honest occasionally


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The Independent Culture

Sir Elton John was coy this week when insulting Madonna by saying she looked like a "fairground stripper". There are stronger insults. My hunch is that Madonna wouldn't mind being compared to a fairground stripper. In her seemingly never-ending range of personae designed to shock, it's likely that fairground stripper was only a few tours away. Sir Elton might have cut his fellow superstar more deeply if he had said that on stage she looked remarkably like a suburban, middle-aged woman. That would have stung.

His analysis of her music was definitely spot-on, pointing out how she had moved misguidedly from making marvellous pop records to becoming just another purveyor of dance music with few distinctive traits.

But whatever the quibble over the choice of insult, there's something oddly refreshing in the fact that here is a star publicly insulting another star. Normally, we only get adulation in public, and the best insults are saved for private chat. Dame Maggie Smith was once asked if she would be going to see a celebrated performance by a fellow actress. In her inimitable style, and elongating the last two words, she replied: "I would rather drink ink." That deserved a wider audience. When the actress Glenda Jackson was an MP, I was asked unfairly but memorably by a fellow actress, now a Dame and a national treasure, with wide-eyed innocence: "But doesn't one have to be intelligent to do that job?" Alas, such memorable moments tend to be private.

I agree with the theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn that the widely used term "luvvie" is demeaning for a profession that works hard and is bursting with talent, but one of the reasons why the term is used is that people in showbiz are publicly so warm about one another, in contrast to what they often tell you privately.

Perhaps the words of actors, musicians, dancers et al would be more believable if once in a while they said in the morass of interviews published every week how much they disliked a particular performance, despaired of a certain experimental approach, or found working with a much praised artist a right pain. It happens all too rarely, but there's something to be desired in someone who is an expert in a particular field sharing their views about the current state of play and about their peers, even if those views are sometimes negative.

Incidentally, Sir Elton grew up in the London suburb of Pinner, where I happen to live, and every year the area has a big street celebration, Pinner Fair, decreed, believe it or not, in a medieval charter by King John. This fair did indeed once have strippers, but as with all other fairs and fairgrounds, strippers have long ceased to be fairground material. Perhaps Sir Elton had childhood memories of the fair in mind when he used the language he did. That's by way of explanation in case Madonna should be reading and still puzzling over the insult.

The bigger point though is that Sir Elton has opened up a channel of communication between performers that uses ripe and direct language in a world more used to continual insincerity and flattery. One wouldn't want it too often, but once in a while it can be a breath of fresh air.

The woman who had the PM's ear on the arts

It was very sad to hear of the death from cancer of the highly effective and well liked arts PR Helen Scott Lidgett. I, like many in the arts world, knew her well and found her likeable and caring. She had a strong reputation in PR, but what is less well known is that a few years ago she took a sabbatical from her day job to become arts adviser to Gordon Brown in his last couple of years as Prime Minister. I attended one meeting that Helen organised at Number 10 of figures in the arts world to give their views. I also learned that far from the PM's arts adviser being allocated a small office somewhere out of sight, she actually saw the Prime Minister very regularly and even sat on the table of advisers that he consulted on an almost daily basis. I'm not aware of David Cameron giving the arts such a special place at the Downing Street table.

Will.i.am Shakespeare: now that's real comedy

Humour is a personal thing and there's no real explanation as to why some stand-ups on the Edinburgh Fringe can leave you cold and others make you burst out laughing. I had the latter reaction, without even attending the festival this week, when I read of a routine by the new comic Cariad Lloyd, who combined knowledge of the current music scene and English literature to do a sketch about Will.i.am Shakespeare. I fell asleep still chuckling at that one.