BOOKS OF THE YEAR: SHOWBIZ: Patron saints of sexuality

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The Independent Culture
At last, a theatrical autobiography which isn't just a list of roles played, venues toured and japes japed. Sian Phillips's Private Faces (Hodder pounds 18.99) opens on the hills above her Ty Mawr farm and her story is immediately rich, valid and peopled with a properly engaging cast of characters (not actors). It doesn't matter that you know this dangerously intelligent imp will go on to become an elegant, commanding actress - it is simply a story told with love and conviction.

Whether it's the anger she feels when she is allowed a single glimpse of her parents through confinement ward windows, or the sight of her first lobster (in a string bag in a BBC studio), the writing brings the moment to you. As a wild child, she seems to have been constantly confused: why had God "organised things in such an impossibly difficult way"? Unable to find an answer, but finally tamed, her performance at the weekly Eisteddfod led to the BBC which led to Rada and Peter O'Toole, which is where the book tantalisingly but triumphantly ends.

What Michael Crawford lacks in literary style, he makes up, unsurprisingly, with energy. Parcel Arrived Safely: Tied With String (Century pounds 16.99) rattles through his illegitimate birth (the news sent to relatives in the coded telegram of the title), unspectacular schooldays, first job as a boy chorister for Benjamin Britten, into rep and then TV and film. There is an over-enthusiastic sprinkling of exclamation marks and some emetic obeisance to the glamour of it all, but this never claims to be more than a thesp's autobiography. Here is a man who revels in every last splodge of make-up (Phantom), each corpsing moment (dead farting Caesar) and every popping glass eye, (Leo McKern's, in a Chinese restaurants). Fortunately, all the man's charm shines through.

You won't find much charm in Eddie Fisher's Been There, Done That (Hutchinson pounds 16.99). It could have been called Been There, Had Her - it's a flat, unatmospheric catalogue from someone determined to parade all his seedy victories. He outsold Sinatra and holds the record for consecutive Top 50 hits, but his downward slide started when he visited Doctor Max for an injection of "vitamins" and became hooked on methamphetamine. As his other addiction was sex, it was only a matter of time before he married Elizabeth Taylor. How he managed previously to marry that professional virgin, Debbie Reynolds, apparently remains a mystery even to him (even if it has helped make George Lucas a very rich man).

But writing your own autobiography proves little - you aren't truly famous until they are still attempting to define your essence 77 years after your death. As Midge Gillies's new biography of Marie Lloyd, The One and Only (Gollancz pounds 20), reveals, it was her personality that made her immortal, not her reviews. This new exploration of her turbulent life is most successful when bringing to life the world of the Victorian music halls, the young Marie frequently travelling from Oxford Street to Houndsditch to Hammersmith in a single night to appear on different bills - novelty was the key in these dark, smoky halls.

With no freakish deformities or talking cockatoos to fall back on, Marie seems to have exploited her sexual appeal right from the start, dressing herself in that classic of Victorian erotica, the schoolgirl with satchel strap neatly emphasising a more than sophomoric cleavage. She is the patron saint of all those performers who now exploit song-singing to make a career out of unabashed sexuality.

If Marie Lloyd represented the acceptable side of titillation, Alan Sinfield's Out On Stage (Yale pounds 20) charts the flipside. In this engrossing but scholarly study of homosexuality in 20th-century theatre, Sinfield sensibly does not try to categorise playwrights or plays as queer (his word), he searches for representations of homosexuality as they may have been perceived by the audience of the day. It came as news to me that "Bunburying" - Algernon's slang for his invisible rural weekends - may also have been slang for buggery.

To set this microclimate in context, you need Theatre: A Crash Course (Simon and Schuster pounds 9.99), one of those pocket-size, son-of-Dorling Kindersley, factful books with plenty of pictures. Though it veers between phrases like "contextual chronology" and a jokey sixth-form tone, it is nevertheless an exceptionally thorough primer, devoting a double-page spread to each of the movements in dramatic history, whether that's Noh, Commedia dell'Arte or Method. I can't think of a better way for anyone - even theatrical die-hards - to set the whole bizarre business in context.

And long may it remain bizarre and ambiguous. If he could, Michael J Wolf would have it all homogenised and transnationally controlled. As a management consultant specialising in media and entertainment, he has a vested interest in the big players getting bigger. The Entertainment Economy (Penguin pounds 18.99) is a manifesto for profit-generating domination of film, TV and music.

In fact, he would like to see every walk of life becoming "entertainmentised". He wants to see "services that can aggregate entertainment options" to attract customers. And though he repeatedly insists that "Talent rules", his theories seem predicated on using marketing and multi-national bludgeoning power to minimise the risks that inevitably come with talent. I found this book profoundly disheartening because every word is almost certainly true.

Needing cheering up, I turned to Radio 4. Two of its long-runners have books out to refresh their marathon fans, although I'm not sure Ian Sanderson's The Archers' Anarchists' Survival Guide (Boxtree pounds 6.99) will warm the hearts of any of the Archers production team. This book is a case-study in that classic facet of the English psyche - the ability to simultaneously worship and satirise the self-same object of veneration. He is clearly an addict and the book is written for addicts, but his solution to Susan Carter's money troubles is to ask "Why doesn't she just go on the game?" He left me baffled and infuriated that The Archers - the most odious, complacent, old-fashioned, turgid event on radio - can spawn a book which made me laugh out loud on nearly every page.

I am equally passionate about I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - I adore it and no doubt others hate it with equal vehemence. The Almost Totally Complete I'm Sorry... (Orion pounds 9.99) isn't much more than the best scripted bits and, although it therefore lacks the moments of serendipity that mark the programme out for greatness, it can bring you all the classics: Humphrey Lyttelton's introduction to each venue (of Guildford: "It is not every Surrey commuter town that can boast a bustling Bohemian Latin Quarter"), the Late Arrivals and Best Chat-up lines. But, rather like their own Misleading Advice for Foreign Visitors ("Why not join the raven shooting at the Tower of London?"), if you've never heard the programme, then this entire book will be complete nonsense. Thank God.