Celebrity memoirs: Black eyes and Rohypnol in the latest crop of tell-alls
Sunday 07 December 2008
Sometimes I envy the other contributors to these pages. They get to salute the heroes in their field, to bestow garlands upon the best and the finest that the bookshops of England can offer – and to acquire an armful of volumes that would grace the shelves of any reading person. I'm more like the Dynorod man. I roll up a sleeve, dip an arm into the slimy feculence of the celeb memoir business and yank out the ghost-written, self-indulgent, self-aggrandising effluvia of a ghastly gang of cash-randy showbiz egotists. I'd give it up – tell the editor to stuff it and give the gig to Marina Warner – if only I didn't like doing it so very much.
So who's first out of the U-bend this year? It has to be Jonathan Ross, who must have pressed Send on Why Do I Say these Things? (Bantam £18.99) months before those dirty phone calls to a minor British character actor gave the title of his book such topicality. The cover photograph features him in a scrum with the three wise monkeys. Some simian fingers are clamped across his face, neatly expressing the theme of the text and hiding the author's double chin from the camera. But that office really ought to have been performed by the hand of his hairiest human friend – and co-defendant in the recent Manuelgate brouhaha. Trying to look cool while sitting next to Russell Brand was what got Jonathan Ross into trouble at Radio 2. Why Do I Say These Things? does the same job in print: this is his Booky Wook.
Brand's bestselling memoir was a series of confessions – mostly involving bodily fluids – that would have made Rousseau's horse blush. Ross's revelations are just as undignified, but they are of a lesser magnitude. Brand wrote about taking his dad on a Thai sex holiday. Ross writes about practising his oral technique on peeled satsumas. Brand wrote about smashing the mobile phone of a prostitute during a bout of nihilistic coitus. Ross supplies six pages detailing his attempts to remove a small genital wart. Brand admitted that he'd once made a heroin-fuddled attempt to steal a preserved foetus from a hospital in the hope of selling a story about aliens to The News of the World. Ross tells the tale of how, when working as the token able-bodied person on a Channel Four show about disability, he volunteered to carry a colleague and his wheelchair up several flights of stairs, held the man too tightly and found himself bespattered with the contents of an exploding colostomy bag.
So, despite the emphasis on excrement, vomit, sperm and Rohypnol to be found in its pages, Ross's memoir is positively Pooterish in comparison with the book that it apes. Which ought to be a relief to his wife and children, if not to his publisher.
Dawn French's autobiography contains nothing so scatological – apart from one feeble joke about William Shatner. For me, French is an unusual figure in British comedy. Maybe my memory is at fault, but I can't actually remember her doing or saying anything amusing in the 30-odd years she's been in the business. There's nothing wrong with my eyes, however, and I failed to spot anything funny in Dear Fatty (Century, £18.99). I'm afraid I'm just not the sort of person who finds their sides aching when they read words such as pootle, cockin' and faddle. Laughter, though, isn't really the principal object of this book, which appears to have been modelled on the kind of autobiography you find filed in Tragic Life Stories section of WH Smith: those books about people who spent the first 10 years of their life tied to a hat-stand in the attic.
Dear Fatty is a story of genuine heartache and loss, written as a series of letters to loved ones, notably French's father, who committed suicide when she was 19, and her husband, the comedian Lenny Henry, whose much publicised extra-marital affair is the subject of a chapter. The tone is very odd: these letters, which deal with extremely raw and emotional subjects, purport to be intimate reflections addressed to the most important people in her life. And yet – because we are the true audience for them – they are delivered in a smirking stage whisper. "You is SO not an arse," she tells Henry, after he has done a stint in the Priory (a "frickin' good" place) and embarked upon a short tour of family members to apologise for his sexual misdemeanours. "You is a proper man." As a soppy-stern remark made between consenting adults in private, it seems fair enough. But why would anyone want to say it to their spouse with several thousand Vicar of Dibley viewers between them on the pillow? If you want a comedian's life story in your stocking this Christmas, stuff the thing instead with Alan Carr's memoir Look Who It Is! (HarperCollins £18.99) – it is simple, satisfying, and the author chooses the moments when your toes curl.
Roger Moore, the knitwear model turned third-best James Bond and Unicef ambassador, is far too smooth and well-mannered to splurge the details of his marital bust-ups into a hardback for the Christmas market. I admire him for it, because he has more material to draw upon than most. He spent the 1960s as husband to the singing legend Dorothy Squires, a foulmouthed domestic pugilist who considered no tiff to be complete without a black eye and a few smashed pieces of furniture. In 1950, Roger Moore's predecessor was relieved of his position during a fist-fight in a theatre bar in Llannelli. (Her father tried to separate the couple and was punched in the face for his trouble.) Moore married her in 1953, and is reported to have avoided her rages by sleeping in the garden.
However, there's none of that in My Word is My Bond (Michael O'Mara £18.99), in which the author emerges as the embodiment of chivalry. In fact, for a man who spent much of his screen career undoing bra-straps with magnets, a high quotient of his anecdotes are about being the object of male desire – from the story of the dirty old man who popped into his scout tent and complimented him on his knees, to his experience of being wedged on a Knole settee between Godfrey Winn and Terence Rattigan, to his rather sly practice of accepting drinks from homosexual strangers in pubs and ending the evening by ordering a ruinous final round and disappearing. (Gin and tonic was very expensive in the Churchill years.) The first incident, he notes in his opening chapter, was once the source of some inaccurate newspaper reports about his childhood. Frankly, I'm not surprised he gets misquoted. I was once at a press conference at which he intended to say, "I have just returned from a conference on child sexual abuse, chaired by Queen Silvia of Sweden," but instead told us, "I have just returned from sexual congress with Queen Silvia of Sweden."
The primate who is the ostensible author of Me Cheeta (HarperCollins £16.99) has not a hint of modesty in his make-up. He's worked – usually naked – with all the cinema greats: Chuck Heston, David Niven, Louis B Mayer, Marlene Dietrich and, most famously, Johnny Weissmuller, the Tarzan star who spent a decade swinging over the author's head and barking "umgawa, umgawa!"
Cheeta will confess anything, as long as the main players are safely in their graves: snorting cocaine off the breasts of Constance Bennett; getting hopelessly drunk during the shoot for Tarzan's Secret Treasure; sitting glumly on a Louis Quatorze dressing-table at a Hollywood orgy involving Paul Henreid, Paulette Goddard and Ronald Colman. ("They're like a bunch of fucking bonobos," he rages.) Aside from shamelessness, his most salient characteristic is a noisy aversion to the English, partly because of a bad experience on the set of Dr Dolittle involving Rex Harrison, a monkey-puzzle tree and a packet of fags. "I've never liked the goddam English," he snarls, "with their razor-wire elocution, their total lack of humour and their godawful pedantic spelling." But he says nothing about whether this hatred extends to the Welsh, and seems not to know that the line that gives him the title of his book – "Me Tarzan, you Jane" – was written by Ivor Novello, during his unhappy time indentured to MGM.
I can forgive this inconsistency: even though Cheeta has no morals or manners and gives an extravagantly unreliable account of himself, the personality that leaps from these pages remains a more plausible construction than those offered in the other books on this page. This, unquestionably, is the gold glinting in the cloacal slurry. Any celebs hoping to crack next year's Christmas market should take note: look upon the work of the guy with the hairy ears and the saggy scarlet bottom, and despair.
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