Christmas Books Special: Celebrity Autobiographies

Vanity. Handy hints for anorexics. And very short sentences. Matthew Sweet tackles celebrity autobiographies and finds himself warming strangely to the 'Death Wish' director...
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The Independent Culture

When the Bonfire of the Vanities is lit again, they'll use celebrity autobiographies for charcoal briquettes. And a stroll past this year's High Street Christmas dump-bins is enough to bring out the Savonarola in the most mild-mannered bibliophile.

When the Bonfire of the Vanities is lit again, they'll use celebrity autobiographies for charcoal briquettes. And a stroll past this year's High Street Christmas dump-bins is enough to bring out the Savonarola in the most mild-mannered bibliophile.

Tommyland (Simon and Schuster £17.99) is the world inhabited by the heavy metaller Tommy Lee, and it's a place that no rational person should visit. Lee's fame is derived principally from a certain video clip of him that is still making money for someone on the Internet, and his eclectic taste in wives - in the 1980s he was married to Heather Locklear, centrefold model and the woman who made Lee Majors look good in The Fall Guy, and in the 1990s he set up home with Pamela Anderson, centrefold model and the woman who made David Hasselhoff look good in Baywatch. Appropriately, the opening chapter is constituted of a Socratic dialogue between Lee and his own penis. ("Bro, don't disrespect me," says the penis. "I've always been a big fan of yours.") Read alternate chapters of this and Pammy's autobiography, Star (Simon and Schuster £12.99), and you'll know what Heloise and Abelard would have been like if she'd been an airhead swimwear model and he'd been a member of Motley Crue with a passion for firearms and intimate shaving.

There's nothing quite as gruesome in So Me (Hodder £18.99), Graham Norton's journey around himself - although it does begin with an injunction to readers not to share any of its content with his mother. Odd, because the worst bit - a childhood spent wetting the bed and wearing his sister's dresses - she must know all about already. The book is a drudge once he's got to the part of his life that involves having New Year's Day brunch with Sharon Stone and hanging out with "the Hollywood royalty that is Debbie Reynolds" and "Hollywood royalty like Tony Curtis". But the details of his life in Stardance, a San Francisco commune in which he spent his early twenties, will be of interest to connoisseurs of bonkers hippy names. (His principal associates were Obo and Jem Help and their three-year-old daughter Faith Shines Help.) Otherwise, the book has very little cause to exist.

There was no good reason, either, for valuable trees to die in order to burden the world with Call Me Charlie: The Autobiography of Lord Brocket (Simon and Schuster, £17.99), the memoir of the titled fraudster who once fondled Jordan's breasts in the Australian jungle. The book details his struggles to regain ownership of Brocket Hall and turn it into a going concern, and as you'd expect, it's one long self-justifying bore - enlivened only by a bizarre chapter (entitled "Nonces") which describes how, during his spell in jail, he was banged up "for his own safety" in the sex-offenders' wing. Brocket's views on the physiognomy of the sex criminal are interestingly Lombrosian. "Few of them looked normal," he reports. "If it wasn't their mannerisms, then many had odd-shaped heads or their bodies were out of proportion in some way." Funny, I've always thought the same about the aristocracy.

In No Room for Secrets (Michael Joseph, £17.99) Joanna Lumley plays a game of Proustian Cluedo in her own nicely appointed home, spinning autobiographical stories from her possessions. ("And here is a Malay bride's headdress, all intricate twisted wires and leaves, and Ellen Terry's tiara of fake diamonds and emeralds made of paste and set in gilded metal ... I can't be without things like these.") Perhaps she got the idea from that coffee ad in which an old hat discovered in the attic transported her into a montage sequence about her day out with some other actor employed by Mellow Birds. Unfortunately, the revelations - that she brushes her teeth three times a day, that her favourite foods are peanuts, avocados and basmati rice, and that her celebrity mates are "still superstar diva über-fab trail-blazers but actually just people as well" - make this book marginally less revealing than an episode of Through the Keyhole. The photographs are a hoot, however, and her tips on how to cut your food about on your plate to make it look as if you've eaten something, may be of interest to anorexics.

Secrets are revealed more convincingly by the broadcaster Nicky Campbell, who has written about his search for his biological parents in Blue-Eyed Son (Macmillan £17.99). His prose looks a bit odd on the page. It's written in very short sentences. He's not shy of tautology. Repetition doesn't bother him. And restatement is no problem. But he tells his story with admirable candour and wins the prize for the year's most arrestingly frank opening line: "I was committing adultery in Room 634 of the Holiday Inn in Birmingham when my wife rang to say they'd found my mother." It takes guts for someone in Campbell's position to admit that they've stayed in a Holiday Inn.

Lumley and Campbell are not the only showbiz luminaries who've recently spent some time at the keyboard - or paid someone else to do it on their behalf. Maureen O'Hara's 'Tis Herself: A Memoir (Simon and Schuster, £17.99) reads like an extension of her official website - which may also be the work of her ghostwriter, John Nicoletti. Jimmy Nail's A Northern Soul (Michael Joseph £17.99) is a deeply unattractive work of self-pity, self aggrandisement, cliché and mixed metaphor, but appears to be all his own doing. David Hemmings's posthumously published memoir, Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations (Robson £17.99) is an evasive and superficial version of the actor's life which exposes the brevity of the interesting part of its author's career. Sheila Hancock's The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw (Bloomsbury, £17.99) has a vinegary honesty that makes its other faults easier to forgive. (Anyone who once worked as a lion-tamer's assistant and thinks the Liverpool poets are rubbish gets my attention.) Ian Holm's Acting My Life (Bantam £18.99) is a curiously disengaged autobiography, in which the actor considers his strange childhood in the garden of an Essex psychiatric hospital, his breakdowns and his predilection for adultery, with the same attitude of wistful neutrality. Michael Blakemore's Arguments with England (Faber £20), is far more passionate - I was delighted, particularly, by his story of an early encounter with the moustache-twirling old-school melodramatist, Tod Slaughter - but I can't in all honesty think of anyone but me who'd actually want to read it.

So I find myself in the odd position of offering my most heartfelt recommendation for Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts (Robson Books, £17.95) - not a glossy guide to the 1970s quiz show with Jimmy Tarbuck and Geoffrey Wheeler, but the memoirs of the director of Death Wish, Death Wish II, Death Wish III and Won Ton Ton - the Dog that Saved Hollywood. It's easy to be sarcastic about the film career of Michael Winner - particularly if you've ever watched the scene from Dirty Weekend (1993) in which Rufus Sewell looms between a pair of Lia Williams' drying knickers - but this book serves as a useful reminder that before Charles Bronson stormed into his life, he was a perfectly respectable director. His bedsitland thriller West Eleven (1963) and advertising satire I'll Never Forget What's 'is name (1967) are long overdue for reappraisal, and it's only his status in the culture as a mouthy, self-important gargoyle that's preventing their rediscovery.

The uproariously enjoyable Winner Takes All is written with the same gurgling immodesty familiar from his ads for car insurance, but the author shows that he can be humble when he needs to be, particularly when Marlon Brando or Orson Welles are in the room. His account of his relationship with his mother, a hopeless gambling addict, is the heart of the book. He describes her decision to turn his Bar Mitzvah into a poker party, his attempts to bawl her into having a heart attack, her plan to have him arrested for stealing her jewellery, and the numerous lawsuits they launched against each other. It'd make a wonderful movie, with Rufus Sewell as Winner and Jenny Seagrove as Mumsy, of course. And in the meantime, Winner's book will serve. One to read by the fire, not throw into it.

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