Christmas Books Special: Celebrity memoirs

Does anyone feel nostalgic for Old Spice?
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The Independent Culture

For celebrities, Christmas is a time for giving. For sharing. The deal works something like this. You hand over your £18.99 - always £18.99 - and you get a thickish book that contains a story about, say, Nigel Havers' testicles swelling up like honeydew melons. Or Nigel Havers pooing into the trousers of his white lounge suit. Or Nigel Havers reflecting on his life and remarking: "There's nothing I like more than lying in the sun and reading a book, occasionally clocking the odd beautiful pair of tanned tits - but back to work." Nigel's memoir is dedicated to his mum. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Nige has called his autobiography Playing with Fire (Headline Review £18.99). Bit melodramatic for an actor known mainly for playing tiny posh men in BBC sit-coms and R F Delderfield adaptations. There's not much pyromaniacal terror in paragraphs that begin with sentences such as "I never really enjoy answering the telephone." Instead, the focus is very much on actorish roister-doistering (our man nude in the wings of a National Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest, for example) and opportunistic sex (our man fellated in a corridor by a notorious person known only as Big Hottie).

Playing with Fire exhibits two qualities common to many thespian memoirs. It offers confessional stories that fail to allude to the emotional state of the writer, and gives you the strong sense that the author can't easily judge the difference between a painful and a larky anecdote - or how one might move from one to the other with decorum. Havers, for instance, freely admits that he has found it difficult to be faithful to his wife - and yet he finds no space to note that she died over a year ago. Perhaps there is a more sombre sequel in the works.

The same peculiarity is legible in Hello (Orion £18.99) a memoir by Leslie Phillips, the British comedy actor with the moustache and the manner of a lascivious RAF Wing Commander. Like Havers, Phillips presents himself as a heroic shagger. Glamorous actresses slink through his pages accompanied by the prose equivalents of that smoky saxophone riff the Carry On films used to indicate to their audiences they were in the presence of sex. ("One of the most immensely physical creatures I've ever met...") And then in a few heartbreaking paragraphs, he describes being presented with the body of his stillborn daughter, wrapped up in newspaper and pushed under a chest of drawers by his sister-in-law. And before you have time to wonder about the psychological effects of this, he sidetracks us into an account of his role as stoker to Jack Warner's driver in an Ealing film set on a steam train.

Perhaps this tonal oddness is a product of autobiography by committee. Hello was written with support from someone called Peter Burden; Nige's book certainly reads like a ghost job. You can't imagine anybody actually writing down phrases like "cop a stinker" or "God, when this business is good it's out of this world." But some celebs pride themselves on their ability to move their own fingers over the keyboard. Vic Reeves seems to have written Me:Moir (Virgin £18.99) all by himself - which may explain why the book seems so overburdened with detail. "Nowadays," he breezes. "I adore cooked vegetables - my favourite being cabbage smothered with butter."

Alan Titchmarsh has been doing some typing, too - and with Nobbut a Lad: A Yorkshire Childhood (Hodder and Stoughton £18.99) he confirms his status as an Alan Bennett for stupid people. Titchmarsh's literary technique is as simple as making compost - he piles up the references to cultural bygones like Newberry Fruits and Condor tobacco and stamp hinges and Hans and Lottie Hass in the hope of inspiring Proustian reveries in his readership. (Some of his choices are peculiar - does anyone feel nostalgic about Old Spice aftershave?) So blackbirds nest in sycamore trees, Mr Hay keeps a haberdashers by the Essoldo, seedlings get reet nithered, and readers unequipped with an inexhaustible appetite for Hovis ad clichés long for the burnished smugness of his 1950s Ilkley to be disrupted by a race riot or a drive-by shooting or an unsavoury revelation about Dennis Petty the coalman. Titchmarsh knows what he's doing, though: he's reflecting the mediocrity and dullness of his readers back at them as though it was a form of virtue or cuteness - as though there was a kind of moral superiority in being able to recall a time when husband-and-wife aquanauts went squid-bothering on primetime. The book jacket may be right when it describes him as "one of the best-loved men in Britain". But surely that means it must be time to emigrate.

Terry Wogan is not sufficiently conceited to allow anything but mild self-mockery to adorn his dust covers. As a broadcaster, Wogan has always generated the agreeable impression that his working day is unburdened by onerous activities such as research and preparation. But it's not such an agreeable quality in an author - and Mustn't Grumble (Orion £18.99) has all the precision of a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. The Atlantic is always "the Pond", New York is always "the Big Apple", women are generally "feisty" and "redoubtable" and two different TV producers are said to be "trailing clouds of glory" in the space of six pages. Wogan's self-deprecations, though, help distract attention from the laziness of the work: he concedes that his daytime show with Gaby Roslin was a failure and delivers the same verdict on his TV special Christmas with the Carringtons, in which he enjoyed a tinselly audience with Linda Evans. The badness of the latter, he suggests, may explain why we haven't heard much recently from the producer of Dynasty, Aaron Spelling - though I think it may have more to do with the fact that he's dead.

No self-deprecation in Julie Goodyear's Just Julie (Macmillan £18.99), just self-pity on a grand operatic scale. Julie is Tosca. She is Violetta. She is Mimi. She is Bet Lynch. She is a former Miss Britvic who kept marrying wrong 'uns, but who, with the help of her mam and a certain sort of now-look-here-lady brassiness, made it through the rain. She begins with a tabloid-serialisation manifesto - "This book cannot be anything other than searingly honest because that is how I am - and I am not changing that for anybody." And it ends with Julie sitting at her escritoire, communing with the dead spirits of her Mam and Grandma, under the light of the moon. ("I fancy one of its silvery beams is lighting up their faces, and each line of their sweet smiles is, once again, etched on my memory.") If Barry Manilow turned the last page of this book into a song, it would become a hen-night karaoke classic. If you are a drag act on the Manchester club circuit, I reckon there's a decade of material in its pages. It's certainly the only celebrity memoir this Christmas that contains £18.99 worth of pleasure.

So listen to Julie: "In my long experience, there are tit men, leg men and pinch 'em on the bum men, and as I've said, dealing with them by kneeing them in the balls is the thing done up North." Something that Nigel Havers should bear in mind, should he ever find himself on Blackpool beach. But back to work.

To order any of the titles with a 10 per cent discount and free p&p call Independent Books Direct on 08700-798 897 and quote X10/06

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