In with the inside crowd
Career in the doldrums? Then a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure may be just the thing. As long as you haven't beaten up your girlfriend or mugged any grannies, doing time will show them you're a rogue, a survivor, a real man. These days, crime does pay, says Hettie Judah
Sunday 21 June 1998
Sounds fanciful? It just might happen. The day already seems to be upon us when the perfect launch to a showbiz career is no longer a long run at Her Majesty's, Blackpool but a short stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure. A couple of years ago the style mags were busy tubing up to any celeb with an historic heroin habit: Shaun Ryder, Will Self, Irvine Welsh - chemicals equalled coverage. Now the route to hard-man fame has shifted from taking drugs to doing time for them. Unofficial king of the new cool is TV presenter Johnny Vaughan. Recent profiles in The Face and GQ have lingered lovingly over the near two years he spent inside. Where Vaughan is the King, then Howard Marks is probably the Lord Chancellor. If his claims of penury are to be believed, then Marks has made almost as much money from talking about his time inside as he earned from the smuggling that put him there in the first place. Honourable mention and an Archdukedom should also go to perennial bad boy Keith Allen, who got his career off to a fine start with a spot of Borstal.
Looking at these chaps, it doesn't take long to work out that they probably weren't the ones getting whatevered in the showers; they're not victims, they're geezers, one of the boys. Male interviewers watching Vaughan in action, chatting to his mates in the pub or bantering with Denise Van Outen have been quick to point out that Johnny is The Man; always has a joke up his sleeve, always leading the conversation. His likable charms, they speculate, were what got him through prison and out the other side almost unscathed. Marks has been quick to write up his own legend. Locked up in the hardest penitentiary in America, he was universally respected for his intellect and skills as an intermediary; the Crips and the Bloods, the Rastas and the white supremacists; they all loved him, they stopped him getting his ass whupped and he taught them how to read. Of his early brush with the law, Keith Allen simply says, "Borstal, for me, was brilliant; I had the best time of my childhood there."
GQ's Martin Deeson was an avid reader of novels about, and books by, people who had done time. When he himself was remanded in Dublin's inappropriately named Mountjoy he thus "went in with this kind of storehouse of how to survive in prisons. I think if you're an intelligent person you can, not thrive, but do fairly well in an arena where the general education standard is not that high." His interest in the works of John McVicar et al gave him more than just a set of survival hints; without question he was also infected by the prison legend. "I must admit that even when I was doing it, thinking 'this is horrible', I was also thinking, 'well, this is another tick the box in the experiences-you've-had-in-life column'."
Deeson tellingly refers to prison as a kind of rite of passage, a view shared by Andrew Harrison, editor of the considerably more sedate men's magazine Deluxe. While Harrison himself has not spent any time inside, he think it is a situation that most men contemplate at some time in their lives. "In the modern world, it is one of the few places where a man would find himself tested to a certain degree," he says. The fact that both Deeson and Harrison focus on prison as an-all male arena is telling; not only is prison a testing ground, but it is specifically one of the few remaining situations which pitches man against man.
Certainly the revelation of a little time done seems to add, if not status, then certainly depth to public perceptions of a celebrity's character. After coming clean about his misspent youth, Stephen Fry was no longer simply a wimpy word botherer, but a man with a past. Even Hugh Grant's little brush with the law blew him out of the hapless pretty boy stakes and gave him a chancy edge. To an extent the trick works for our brothers over the pond but there does seem to be a particular code of honour between the British male and his prison. We, after all, have grown up with Porridge and Noel Coward in the Italian Job; the intense nature of the prison lends itself to dramatic representation; but there is no suggestion that our heroes behind bars were wrongly convicted. Even if they were bending the system to their own needs, they were still, technically, paying their debt. It's a fair cop, Guv.
This concept of honour and the gentleman criminal explains in part why Mark "return of the mack" Morrison has become such a laughing stock; not only did he make some nifty moves to try and avoid the strong arm, but when he was finally nabbed he sent a lookalike along to do his community service for him. Not cool, Mark, not cool at all. Crime of choice is also of vital importance; ideally it would be something easy to brush off as youthful high jinx, even better if it has a vaguely surreal edge; Joe Orton defacing library books, for example. There is, however, a very thin line between lovable chancer and nasty piece of work. Christian Slater and Tommy Lee did nothing but secure their reputations as grade one assholes by beating up their lovers. Weapons, hooliganism, sex crimes and violence are simply horrific and unforgivable. Oddly enough, over-excitable lad mags do seem to make an exception for gangsters (it's that gentleman criminal thing again, see?); witness the bizarre respect still afforded to "Mad" Frankie Fraser.
Essentially, prison is an accelerated school of life; you learn to swim with the sharks, keep your wits about you and survive in a filthily tough environment full of dangerous criminals; which makes it ideal training for a job in TV. You also get absolute editorial control over your own history; the name of Nick Leeson may still make Mr Baring's head explode, but it is his side of the story that gets told in the biopic Rogue Trader; he's already in prison, so what are you going to do? Arrest him? Is some incarcerated Chicagoan crack dealer going to stick his head up and say "shared a cell with that Howard Marks once; we all thought he was a bit of a prat, actually"? Not likely. You have carte blanche to star in your own myth. For an aspiring celeb, this all adds up to a pretty attractive package. In the words of Gomez's current single, "Got a haircut, got a silver tooth, going to get myself arrested". It could be the anthem of the summer.
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