Celebrity biography: Ricky, Richie and Eric

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The Independent Culture

As we in the League of Showbusiness Groupies (armchair branch) know, the principal joy to be extracted from celebrity books is the anecdote. Forget private life confessions and the tear-stained memories of "dear old Mum who always believed in me"; what we want is funny, or at least amazing, stories. It is against this proudly shallow criteria that this year's crop of showbiz books will be judged.

For instance, much criticism has been aimed at Eric Morecambe by Gary Morecambe (BBC £16.99) for being more about the latter than the former. No matter; for here, among the tit-bits (Eric was a serious dab-hand at Airfix kits and origami), are these gems. Radio interviewer to Morecambe and Wise: "What would you two have become if you hadn't been comics?" Eric: "Mike and Bernie Winters." One-armed commissionaire outside BBC stops the great man as he enters studio and asks "How about a ticket to see your show?" Eric: "I can't do that." Commissionaire: "Why not?" Eric: "You can't clap."

And then there is any number of stories in Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer (Faber £17.99), easily the year's best Hollywood biog. The story of how the small-town girl struggled repeatedly to make it in New York as a model, in Hollywood as an actress (managing only to queen it in "B" movies), and to have children, before becoming television's first great star, is richly told. This, then, from when she and husband Desi Arnaz (the man who popularised the Conga) broke it to Cecil B DeMille that Lucy, then under contract to Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures, was putting pregnancy ahead of appearing in his Paramount film The Greatest Show on Earth. Turning to Arnaz, DeMille said: "Congratulations. You are the first person in the world to screw Harry Cohn, Columbia Pictures, Paramount, Cecil B DeMille, and your wife all at the same time."

The surprise package is Rags To Richie (Contender £17.99) by Shane Richie, EastEnders jack-the-lad and former presider over Daz commercials. If you can forgive the tales of compulsive bed-hopping (and most of the ladies concerned seem to have done), then here are some memorable moments from his days as a Pontins Blue Coat and club circuit struggler. There is the campers' nature ramble that Richie led, and which was interrupted by the Children's "Uncle" streaking past dressed in only a straitjacket; the day on the Isle of Wight when Richie led 1,000 campers to the beach so they could cheer the Canberra and its cargo of Falklands war heroes as it sailed by (a large ship was sighted, much hooraying and flag waving began, only to stop when the word "Sealink" became visible on the vessel's side); and there is the hen night performer called Billy Hot Rocks whose unique rendition of the "Floral Dance" (complete with attendants and coloured ribbons) will, once read about, stay in the mind forever.

God willing, this will not be the case with Julia Roberts Confidential by Paul Donnelley (Virgin £18.99), a dire mixture of downloaded fact-ette and sub-tabloid stuff about which publication said what about who was allegedly mooning over whom. If you've ever dreamt of stumbling across a figure for the population of Atlanta's metropolitan area in 1960 within the same covers as what the Evening Standard said about various movies, then this is the book for you. And, as a companion volume, may we suggest Drew Barrymore by Lucy Ellis and Bryony Sutherland (Aurum Press, £16.99)? The gist of its prose can be gleaned from the opening paragraph: "Drew Barrymore is a paradox... she is bisexual yet has recently discovered the beauty of her own company... and she's an intellectual, but believes washcloths have feelings." The shame is that this book's subject ought to be fascinating: in dog food commercials at 11 months, she had an agent at four, played in ET at six, got drunk at eight, was smoking and night-clubbing at nine, dressing like a hooker and smoking dope by 10, on vodka by 11, and cocaine at 13 - a momentous year in which she also lost her virginity, and was twice in rehab. And so, of course, it went on, with a three-week marriage and much else besides, until her present, and not entirely unsurprising, empathising with dishcloths. So many fish in the barrel and not a clean shot by either author.

One would like to draw a heavy veil over Martine McCutcheon's Behind the Scenes (HarperCollins £18.99), but the interests of public safety dictate otherwise. Subtitled "A Personal Diary", it would perhaps have been best if an impersonal one could have been arranged. "I am quite a hands-on person," writes Martine, and the shame is that someone at Harper did not act before (or after) Martine got her hands on a keyboard. And while there's still vitriol left in my pen, let me impart, too, a warning about Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb (Headline £18.99). This depends so much on an anorak's knowledge of his work, places its subject on such a ludicrously elevated pedestal, is so replete with silly, obscure footnotes, and is so up its own spine, that it defied reading to completion. It's the perfect gift, however, if you know someone who wears zip-up cardigans and hangs around collectors' fairs.

What a pleasure, then, to come across two books that simply tell the story. Stop The World: The Biography of Anthony Newley by Gareth Bardsley (Oberon £19.99) is the well-researched tale of the illegitimate Hackney boy who had a walnut shoved up his nose by David Lean so he could look authentically Victorian as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, and became one of the class acts of post-war entertainment. Kate O'Mara's autobiography Vamp Until Ready (Robson £16.95) is a little gem of honesty, giving a more accurate picture of what it is like to be an actor than almost any book I've read. The story of her rape at 18 (shattering her confidence so much that she could not appear on stage for another four years), and how she fought back is told without a trace of self-pity.

Speaking of which, Spike Milligan: The Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (Hodder £20), all too accurately conveys just how much of a pain in the butt the Goons creator was. Comic genius he may have been, but he was also a self-indulgent hypocrite who inflicted his mood swings on all about him and was busy fathering children in and out of wedlock even as he lectured the world about over-population.

And so to Ricky Tomlinson, whose Ricky (Time Warner £17.99) is his own testament to the several lifetimes he has managed to cram in: Liverpool scally, part-time entertainer, National Front member (long since repudiated), trade unionist, opportunist shagger, half of the Shrewsbury Two unfairly jailed for unlawful picketing, showbiz agent, extra, actor, father, Royle Family star and Cilla Black baiter (Cilla: "He wasn't born in Liverpool". Ricky: "I may have been away from Liverpool for the first three days of my life, but she's been away for the last 40 years." If there is a better written, less pretentious book by an actor, then I have yet to read it. Undoubtedly the show- business book of the year.