Christmas books: Happiness is a glass of warm milk

Misery, illness and humiliation - that's what you want from a celebrity memoir, says Matthew Sweet. Sharon Osbourne provides plenty, but what's Ned Sherrin so jolly about?
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The Independent Culture

Celebrity biographies and autobiographies are like tombstones: fat slabs that attempt to prevent the reputations of their subjects from putrefying along with their soft tissues. But read through a stack of them and they soon begin to achieve the opposite effect. When a celeb boasts about some workaday honour or drops a name that's doomed to oblivion, the process of decay goes into time-lapse.

So when Rodney Bewes, for instance, uses his memoir A Likely Story (Century £17.99) to brag that he sold out the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh and that Derek Nimmo came to see the show "in his Garrick Club tie", it's as if he's invited the grave-worms to lunch and handed out the cutlery himself. The same goes for Judy Cornwell, in Adventures of a Jelly Baby (Sidgwick & Jackson £17.99), when she crows about a short conversation with Princess Alexandra at a movie premiere: "She discussed my character in the film, having noticed all the subtle things I had put into my performance." (The reviews, of course, were "fabulous".) And if you're thinking, Judy who? - it's her out of Keeping up Appearances.

Rik Mayall's Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ (HarperCollins £18.99) is, I think, an attempt to satirise the egomania from which many might assume its author to suffer. Unfortunately, Mein Kampf has more laughs per page. The illustrations include a shot of Mayall pretending to fellate a bespectacled gentleman, captioned, "Me securing my book deal with Trevor Dolby from Harper Collins." If this act had been unfeigned, at least that would explain why someone other than Mayall's therapist has been offered the opportunity of reading this material. His friends, I suspect, are all sitting in their vast Devonshire farmhouses, wonder what on earth they're going to say to him about it.

I suppose if Bewes, Cornwell and Mayall hadn't written autobiographies, nobody would have bothered to swank on their behalf. But some celebs don't have to do their own showing-off. Stephen Griffin's Ken Dodd: the Biography (Michael O'Mara £17.99) is a fan letter to a comic legend that doesn't lose sight of the intense oddness of its subject. Gilly Smith has rustled up Nigella Lawson (Andre Deutsch £16.99) from cold cuts - great if you like quotes from old Lynda Lee-Potter interviews. Teresa Ransom's Prunella: the Authorised Biography of Prunella Scales (John Murray £16.99) is as greyly tasteful as it sounds - presumably we'll have to wait for an unauthorised version to learn about Pru's years running that notorious brothel for trannies on the backstreets of Guadeloupe. And Graham Lord's John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate (Orion £20) might have made more comfortable reading if it had been an authorised work. (Note to celebs - don't suddenly withdraw co-operation from a biographer if you don't want them to write paragraph upon paragraph about your mouldy teeth and your predilection for being spanked with a hairbrush.)

Of the autobiographies, the best of the bunch are the ones that dwell on misery, illness and humiliation. (Ned Sherrin: the Autobiography (Little, Brown £18.99) is a notably jolly exception.) Sharon Osbourne's Extreme (Time Warner £18.99), reads like a Craig Brown parody from Private Eye - but there's a good-humoured, foul-mouthed charm in her anecdotes of cancer, drug abuse and stabbing people with forks. I also enjoyed Too Many Mothers (Atlantic £16.99) by Roberta Taylor, that corking actress from EastEnders and The Bill who looks like an eggbound pitbull terrier. It's not, thankfully, an Albert Square confessional, but a family memoir written under the influence of Frank McCourt - rats squeak, babies are brained on flagstones, dead monkeys are stuffed in coal-holes, and everyone gets up the stick. I was baffled by some of her metaphors: "Like a brass band on a Sunday morning the speeds and energy of the cockney accent cooked very nicely thank you with the Southern Irish tones of her parents." But if you're a sucker for the pornography of poverty, this one has a satisfying complement of stink and snot and shivers.

George Melly's Slowing Down (Viking £17.99) uses Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools" as its starting point, and the book is a highly readable account of its author's physical collapse. George can't cut his own toenails, he can't help himself farting as he exits a taxi, he soils himself in the V&A and his psoriasis is so bad that his bed once resembled "a butcher's shop in which someone had spilt several packets of cornflakes". He is an old toad by whom it would be very nice to be escorted down Cemetery Road.

Death also hovers over Eric Sykes's If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will (Fourth Estate £18.99), principally because the author believes that his long and successful career in comedy can be attributed to the supernatural influence of his mother, Harriet, who died bringing him into the world. It was Harriet's influence, Sykes asserts, that saved him from the effects of an infected mastoid by providing a lift into hospital in a car belonging to Peter Brough (the ventriloquist who spent his career with a hand up Archie Andrews). It was his mother, too, Sykes believes, who warned him to slow down and take stock of his life by robbing him of his vision.

For Sykes, all pleasure seems locked off in the past. Nothing, he reflects, was ever so enjoyable as a Friday night bath in front of the fire, followed by a glass of warm milk. "If only we could carry these moments of happiness and contentment into adulthood," he reflects. But if biographies and autobiographies have anything to tell us, it's that we stand a good chance of returning to these pleasures in the end. We may be lifted into the bath by an electric arm and the milk may have been warmed in a microwave by a nurse or a kind relation, but that need not trouble us. Baths, milk - these pleasures will outlive boasting. Particularly if all you have to boast about is that a man came to your play wearing a tie.