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"How popular do you expect a porcupine to be?" wheezed Kurt Vonnegut at the beginning of Omnibus's (BBC1) profile of Gore Vidal. He laughed a cigarette-wrecked laugh - the chuckle of a boiling pot. But Vidal himself seemed much sleeker than that introduction suggested, his spines laid back. Intellectually, the impression was more feline - one of retracted claws, a faint note of gracious condescension, a manner of speaking that placed its feet with elegant care.

The life appears to be an audacious fiction - an idea hinted at by the title of John-Paul Davidson's film - "Gore Vidal's Gore Vidal", with its faint hint of the airport epic. The plot is perfect for a mini-series; the childhood in Washington, acting as amanuensis to his blind grandfather, Senator T P Gore (an apprenticeship in literature and politics for the 10-year-old boy); the precocious talent (his first novel was published when he was 19 and was actually his seventh); the early career in television and film which made him financially independent and introduced him to America's other aristocracy - the royalty of the screen. "I was brought up a Stoic," Vidal said, explaining why his memories of life are so serene. The immaculate finish of his persona, its disciplined diminishment of pain and unhappiness, can easily mislead here. "What's to be stoical about?" you think, forgetting the divorces, the bereavement (his first great love was killed at Iwo Jima), the pettiness his sexuality exposed him to.

That said, it was still a gilded inheritance. The geography of his past is mapped out by some of the most prestigious addresses in America and he drops names because he has too many on hand for any one man to carry. The Jackie who inherits his bedroom after a childhood house is sold, is Jackie Bouvier, future First Lady; the Paul with whom he shares sensational Malibu parties, is Paul Newman and the Greta who walks his dog is Greta Garbo. His talk of the Empire, his references to the Senator, even the Greek-revival mansion on the Hudson which he brought when he was 25, all lend a distinctly classical flavour, which the aristocratic bearing confirms. Gore Vidal was born to the purple and wore it with some style.

But the life reads like a fiction too, because Vidal calculates his effects with such care. Recalling his mother, from whom he was estranged for the last 20 years of her life, he spoke rather oddly. "The only way I can handle her in the memoir - and I think it's going to work - is as a character of great comedy." The problem, then, is not one of recollection but of shaping. He had been candid about such adjustments from the beginning - fiction, he suggested, is the only real way we can tell the truth about the people we have known; indeed his suggested title for his own memoirs was A Tissue of Lies. Even so, the sense of a life so consciously remodelled was intriguing. Later he described his accommodation to old age as if he was an actor preparing a new and rather enjoyable role, one to be relished for its opportunities.

Vidal suggested that he had chosen writing over politics because a writer is bound to tell the truth as best he can, while a politician must always attempt "not to give the game away". It's also true that politics did not choose him, and he must have known very early that his intellectual candour and personal life would disqualify him from any high career in Washington. Given that he didn't seem prepared to settle for anything less than the White House, he had probably made the right choice, though you were given a glimpse of his skills on the stump when he attended a reunion of the Gore family. He gave a gracious, warm and flattering speech, in circumstances which must have been trying to so fastidious a spirit.