Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

What should the smart reader – and publisher – do about celebrity? It hardly needs underscoring for the umpteenth time that the celeb memoir has become the crack cocaine of the book business. This wallet-draining scourge leaves its addicts with empty pockets, broken relationships (with more deserving authors), addled brains, but still the driving urge to hunt down another hit. Yet celebrity is one the great themes of the age. Forswear all interest in it and you deny the lure of talent, beauty, money, sex and luck: the ingredients that go into its mix. Maybe we simply need fewer and better celebrity books, from fewer and better celebrities. Enter Helen Mirren, one of the happy few.

Some admirers felt apprehensive at news of an autobiographical "scrapbook" that would merge pictures, journals and commentaries into a record of her 40 glorious years, from Cleopatra at the National Youth Theatre in 1965 to DCI Jane Tennison and, of course, The Queen. Surely Mirren warranted some more lasting literary monument when even an old trouper like Rupert Everett (the satyr to her Hyperion, as Hamlet might have said) could surpass all expectations with his memoir?

Mirren's In the Frame: my life in words and pictures (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) is a defiantly different sort of showbiz apologia, and all the more admirable for it. Such is the innate strength of Mirren's tale that she, rightly, keeps the tone informal and temperature down. When a story grips as this one does, a great performer never needs to roar.

Its extraordinary photographs cross cultures, continents and epochs. The images stretch from the "Chekhovian" life of a military clan on the family estate outside Moscow before the Revolution, through semi-detached Leigh-on-Sea where Vasiliy Petrovich Mironov settled as "Basil Mirren" (and married an East End butcher's battling daughter, Kit), to their gifted daughter's hippie-era tours with Peter Brook's band in Africa, pastoral raptures near Stratford at the high noon of Trevor Nunn's RSC, designer decadence in the 1970s with photographer James Wedge – and, finally, the international tribe that surrounds Mirren and her husband, director Taylor Hackford.

Mirren's words – both in sketches of people and events, and glosses on the pictures – stay grounded in work, in feeling, and sometimes in conflict. In place of scandal or gossip (which she hates) comes a bracing but generous-minded frankness: about lovers (from Prince George Galitzine to Liam Neeson), about directors (if she revered the shamanic Brook, Michael Winner earned "eternal disdain"), about stage sexism and the curse of "girly" roles, lifted first by her refusal to play gang moll Victoria as a "sidekick bimbo" in The Long Good Friday.

Yet the familiar progress of an Oscar-winning star pales beside her richly moving evocation of an upbringing in seaside suburbia. It fused descending upper-class Russia and rising working-class England; the soulful, gentle idealism of her father with her mother's fierce ascent of the "social ladder" (as one of 14 children). Mirren writes that acting for her has always been "more to do with disappearing than with 'look at me'". It may seem an odd thing to say about a book stuffed with fabulous photographs that invite us to look at her, but the first half of In the Frame shines as postwar history.

Those unstable faultlines of class and culture bred an energy and talent that helped to fuel a national change of heart. The girl from the edge of Essex, and of England, conquered the heartland. So much so that future generations will remember her acted monarch rather than the actual queen. This uncanny power lies some way beyond celebrity – but so, as her book shows, does Mirren herself.