Television & Radio: The fame game

Fame is a drug, an agent of destruction. A Channel 4 season on this 20th-century addiction takes an anti-Hello! approach to celebrity. James Rampton gets a fix

Bros used to wail, "When will I be famous?" Now, in this era of intense media scrutiny and stalkers, they might ask, "when will I be anonymous?" The Fame Factor, a new five-week season on Channel 4, peers into the dark side of celebrity. A brief glance at the schedule for the first night - which includes programmes about the misery of Lynne Perrie, aka Coronation Street's Ivy Tilsley (right), the obsessiveness of star stalkers, and the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers' rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards - reminds us that fame ain't what it used to be. These days it's just as likely to drive you into a sanatorium as into the gilded pages of Hello!.

Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4's Controller of Arts and Entertainment, is the man behind the zone. He explains what drew him to fame: "It struck me as a resilient subject. There's been this promiscuous growth of the media - you can now get TV 24 hours a day. There are so many different outlets. One of the people in the zone talks about the media `breeding a pseudo-intimacy' with famous people. Now you feel you know what Gazza's faults are. The famous have become a kind of extended family as a by-product of round-the-clock TV."

Fame, so the zone argues, has become a bug with an unshakeable grip on those it infects. "The series sets out to explore the darker elements of fame," Cosgrove contends. "It's not like a trip through Hello!, where everything's wonderful - quite the opposite. Fame is one of the great disorders of the 20th century. People in the past have been famous, but it is only in the 20th century that fame as a distinct phenomenon has multiplied. At least 50 times across the documentaries, people use metaphors of drug addiction to describe fame - it's easily the most recurrent single metaphor. People say `I needed to hear the applause'. They talk as though fame were like heroin."

Indeed, in the very first film of the season, The Ghost of Ivy Tilsley, Lynne Perrie sounds like a government "just say no" advertisement, reflecting that: "I didn't really want the fame, to start off with. But then gradually, as you get it, it's like taking drugs. The more you get, the more you want."

Jaine Green, who directed I'm Your Number One Fan, the documentary about stalkers, echoes the sense of fame as a false friend. "People are fascinated by fame. The urge is within us all. We're all going to die, so it's nice to think that someone, somewhere will remember us. Nowadays it's not enough just to survive and keep our families. We want to leave our mark. Death's not round the corner at the age of 35 anymore; we now live till we're 70 and we have to fill in our time. Fame gives us something to aim for. In days gone by, we had other things to fill our lives, like wars and religion. Now we think, `you become famous, and your life's problems are immediately sorted out'. But, of course, fame triggers more problems than it solves."

Cosgrove has majored on the problems - "whether it's psychiatric breakdown, or stalkers, or someone like Lynne Perrie who is haunted by her fictional character. One programme about Linda Blair [the actress from The Excorcist], called Didn't You Used To Be Satan?, looks at the way satanic myths have pursued her throughout her career. People assume she died a horrible death, even though she's a housewife in America. The fame from The Excorcist determined the rest of her life. People fill the vacuum of knowledge with a residue of dark fame.

"We're also very conscious of people's fascination with Babylonian excesses," continues the man who once wrote a book called Hampden Babylon about the bad boys of Scottish football. "Fame brings out the side liable to the extremes of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Fame is one of the most attractive and charismatic things in the world, but also the most dangerous - which is where the drug metaphor comes back into play. There's a `proceed with caution' warning."

He is fully aware of the dangers of making films about the famous - and thereby making them more famous still. "That is inevitable," he concedes. "By doing this interview about the zone, we're caught in the viral cycle of the media. Every time you draw attention to Gazza, you risk making him less secure. He's vulnerable. The higher his profile, the more likely he is to touch the self-destruct button."

It has recently been a case of the biter bit for Cosgrove, whose fame north of the border is burgeoning thanks to a weekly football phone-in on the radio. "I've learnt a lesson," he admits. "It's time for me to take a lesser profile. You go out with close friends and you end up spending the whole evening talking to strangers about jokes you cracked on the radio. I took a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow one Friday night and eight people talked to me about the show. Even the man selling tea and sandwiches sat down and chatted for 20 minutes. You don't get any space. It's hard for me to go out in certain parts of Scotland. I spend more time hiding now."

Speaking from bitter experience, Cosgrove trusts that viewers will get the misery message about fame. "I hope people might come away thinking, `I'd quite like my 15 minutes of fame on the karaoke machine down the local pub. If this is where it leads, then you can keep it'."

The Fame Factor starts with `The Ghost of Ivy Tilsley' at 8pm on C4 tomorrow night.

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