Julie Burchill: Me and my big mouth

Britain's most controversial journalist, who once regularly held court in the Groucho Club, is now setting herself up as a new figurehead - for chavs. The outspoken Times columnist talks to Ian Burrell about how this resolutely working-class girl made good
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She comes from the wrong side of the West Country tracks, speaks in a high-pitched worzel-accent and delivers her rapid-fire putdowns with the attitude of the hip young gunslinger she considers herself still to be.

She comes from the wrong side of the West Country tracks, speaks in a high-pitched worzel-accent and delivers her rapid-fire putdowns with the attitude of the hip young gunslinger she considers herself still to be.

Like, ohmigod! Julie Burchill, one-time Queen of the Groucho club and Vicky Pollard, the chav slapper from David Walliams and Matt Lucas's Little Britain are one and the same.At least Ms Burchill likes to think so. "I will not rest happy until they admit that she was based on me," she says. "I think she's fantastic. You should hear me when I've had a few, I sound just like her."

Burchill is having a few as we speak, vodka martinis served just the way she likes them in her favourite Brighton haunt, the Hotel du Vin, where she lounges on a leather sofa. Couch-potatoing is, says Burchill, the favourite pastime of the chav, the style-challenged British social grouping for whom she has emerged as a champion, fronting a programme on the social phenomenon by way of an entrée into a new career as a television presenter. "I spend a lot of time lying on the sofa yelling at the television," she says, announcing her credentials at the outset of the documentary. "I'm proud to be a chav."

Julie Burchill, 45, habitually referred to as "Britain's most notorious journalist", is a very well-paid columnist on The Times newspaper. She lives in a big house in genteel Hove, West Sussex, valued by property developers well into six figures. As she holds forth in a bijou hotel bar with not a square inch of Burberry check in sight, her clothing understated and her hair unscrunchied, she does not emit too many signals of being Council House And Violent.

"Yeah, but no, but..." she protests, saying she has never forgotten her roots. "When I was told a couple of years ago there were websites like Kill A Chav and Chavscum I couldn't believe it. You grow up among the working class - they do their best with the hand they've been dealt - and you find out it's the one group in English society you can say what you like about. You can say the women are slags, you can say they are idle. If you said that about any racial group you would get the long hand of the CRE on your neck," says Burchill, who has herself had the long hand of the Commission for Racial Equality on her neck several times as a result of columns that she has written.

Since she emerged into the public consciousness in the late Seventies as a devil-may-care teenage writer on the NME, Burchill has never found it difficult to touch a nerve. Switching to national newspapers, she became one of Britain's best-known and most highly paid journalists, although her attempts to establish herself as a novelist have met with distinctly mixed success since her best-selling debut Ambition.

This is a media pages interview and, as a journalist, Burchill has come prepared. "I can give you two exclusives that I won't give to anybody else," she says. It has to be said in advance that these "scoops" will hardly change the world, or indeed the London media village where Burchill once held court before she decamped to the South coast. But they do tell us something about where the mind of one of British newspapers' most powerful polemicists is currently at. She reveals: "A: I want to write a song for Kylie. B: I want to write Doctor Who."

Burchill follows Kylie's career with a fanaticism that would not be out of place in Vicky Pollard's occasionally visited classroom in Darkly Noone. "I've already sent the song to Kylie, so I hope she has it now," says Burchill. "I've got it in my room if you want a copy. I wrote it with my ex-mother-in-law [Fran Landesman, the mother of Burchill's first husband, Cosmo] and she's had songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, so it's not as brave as it sounds. It's a lounge-jazz type of song, but it's got drugs in it. Do you think Kylie's allowed to do songs about drugs? It's only, like, a joint."

It is indeed the case that Mrs Landesman is an acclaimed lyricist and singer, described as "the Dorothy Parker of the jazz world", known for tracks such as "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and a source of inspiration for Barbra Streisand, among others. Burchill wrote the words to the song, and Fran Landesman helped put them to music with Simon Wallace. "I'm not blowing my own trumpet, but it's about the best thing I've ever heard," says Burchill. There has, as yet, been no response from the perfect-bottomed Australian songstress.

Burchill has never done any song-writing before, but "when I think of Kylie I go all soppy and mushy and inspired". This is the same person who, wrapped in a leather jacket and sneering sexily into Pennie Smith's lens, was an icon for a generation of young women who embraced the rebel attitude of punk. It should be said, however, that even back in her NME days, Burchill was not afraid to rile the new-wave cognoscenti by expressing a fondness for pop.

She may have once styled herself as the Groucho Queen, but she has always thrived on antagonising those around her rather than craving their allegiance; on testing the waters of current opinion and deliberately swimming against the tide. Her favoured tactic for provoking a London media elite that she regards as uniformly middle class is to invoke her proletarian upbringing and the fondness for far-left politics that she inherited from her dad. "I most fear being stupid and middle class," she spits at the start of Chavs, which is shown tonight on Sky One.

The project came about as a result of a lunch meeting with Steven D Wright, Elisabeth Murdoch's collaborator at Shine, an independent television production company. Wright had noted Burchill's apparent obsession with chavs, to whom she had referred in 32 separate editions of her column. She says: "I said I would be rubbish on TV, [but] Steven said, 'No, you won't be rubbish. And the combination of very strong views and a slightly silly voice is a good one.'"

Burchill only worked on the pre-researched programme for four days, and found the presenting lark far from easy. "I always thought actresses were so stupid, but when I did my piece to camera I literally had to look at my prompt card every other sentence. It just goes straight out of my head," she says. But the project has left her enthused about future television work. Her only previous TV venture was a piece for BBC4 on her father's death from asbestosis, which "had the lowest recorded viewership of any programme ever". She says, "I wouldn't have watched it if it hadn't been about my dad. It was depressing as hell."

Her new-found fascination with Dr Who and her longing to write for the programme appear to come from the fact that her late father (to whom she was devoted), loved it - and her young husband, Daniel Raven, is equally obsessed. She compares her late-flowering love for the Doctor with her realisation that there was life beyond Britain when she first went abroad at the age of 35.

And she has another television venture in the pipeline. Sugar Rush, her raunchy novel about teenage lesbians, is being turned into a drama by Channel 4. "My husband and I had gone out with Lucy Richer, the commissioning editor from Channel 4, to pitch for this other thing entirely, which was about a bunch of deadbeats working on the pier. She looked so exhausted and depressed," explains Burchill. "Then my husband said, 'Tell her about your underage lesbian book,' and she said 'Have you got any of it?' I sent her three chapters and bang, she bought it."

Burchill remains mystified as to why she has yet to find anyone to commission her idea about a group of atheists trying to survive in heaven. "The boy's in the British National Party and he falls in love with this dead Muslim girl. And there's these Goths who are devil-worshippers, they're in heaven too," she says. "This idea must have been touted around 12 production companies, and I got a big zero from all of them. I just don't understand why." Her own favourite television programmes, she says, are on digital channels such as Living and Bravo; typically, reality shows such as America's Next Top Model. The Sky television press officer, who has sat down beside her on the sofa, is beaming. "It's funny how I've ended up working so much for Mr Murdoch," says Burchill, who is perhaps Britain's best-known Stalinist. "I've always wanted to ever since I saw him at a party about five years ago and found him really quite sexy.

"I'll tell you why, because his cuffs were all frayed and dirty, and even though he's so rich he looked really hands on. When you saw Robert Maxwell he was, like, buffed and made-up to within an inch of his life. Mr Murdoch, he just looked like a hack and I found that really cute." Burchill turns to the press officer and says "Right, that's as much as I'm doing," then laughs.

Her lucrative contract with Murdoch's Times (signed in January last year and worth double what she was paid by The Guardian, but less than the rumoured £300,000) is her current day job, although she likes to say that she tosses off her columns double quick, allowing for more time spent goggle-boxing. She does not miss The Guardian, and claims that some of her colleagues were so uncomfortable with her presence on the paper that they were rooting for her to be prosecuted when she fell foul of the CRE over columns on Catholicism and Islam.

"When you are working for a newspaper that considers itself to be at the forefront of free speech and liberal comment, and you know that there are people on your team who want you to be at least rapped over the knuckles, and at most to have the full force of the law put against you, it's not a pleasant thing," she says. "That made me feel so weird about where I was working."

Burchill, an outspoken supporter of the state of Israel who has expressed regret at not being born Jewish, also had problems with The Guardian's coverage of the Middle East. "The level of freaking anti-Zionism just gets you down," she says, adding that she was "freaked out" to find herself sharing the paper's comment pages with a piece bylined to Osama bin Laden.

She is still smarting from The Guardian having offered her a sofa by way of a pay rise (despite that piece of furniture's potential to accommodate her daytime TV addiction). "I was one of the few women there of genuine working-class origin, and they just thought they could bung me off with a bit of soft furnishing," she moans, adding that her friend Barbara Ellen ( The Observer) was offered a fitted kitchen, but that male journalists received "hard cash".

"The reason I hated The Guardian was that they are as staid and set in their ways as any outraged major in Tunbridge Wells. The person who reads The Guardian is 'Horrified of Hampstead'," she says. "It was like preaching to a bunch of old people in the end. You could smell the closed minds. The Guardian never takes a chance on anything, and I do believe that Guardian readers have more closed minds than any other readers in Britain, including those of The Sun I would say."

So would this Stalinist work for Rebekah Wade's paper? Burchill, who makes frequent references to her dabblings in lesbianism (she previously dated her husband's sister, Charlotte), says that she submitted one piece to The Sun, about the model Jordan, who she describes as "the sort of woman that built the empire". Alas, Burchill's drooling composition was judged by The Sun to be "too lascivious and dirty, and it had to be censored, so I don't think that Rebekah would have me again".

The writers she currently admires are her pals: Zoe Williams ( The Guardian), Suzanne Moore ( Mail on Sunday) and Ms Ellen. "I mostly like girl writers, contrary to us supposed to being like cats clawing at one another," says Burchill, who once warned the US writer Camille Paglia, "I'm not nice. I'm not as loud as you, but if push comes to shove I'm nastier. I'm 10 years younger, two stone heavier and I haven't had my nuts taken off by academia."

She still has her enemies - Germaine Greer, for one. As a couch potato/chav, Burchill naturally watched the latest round of Celebrity Big Brother. "What Germaine Greer did was pick on the other women and side with that repulsive wanker, John McCririck," she observes, re-igniting a feud with the Australian feminist that began when Greer criticised Burchill's friend Moore.

"I hate to sound like Vicky Pollard... but she started it!" she adds. "Nobody hates more than I do the spectacle of a cat fight, because it is there just to satisfy the most base desires in a certain type of man. But when you've been forced into a catfight by a bona fide cow, what can you do? Let them walk all over you?"

Burchill seems to feel she has found a home at Robert Thomson's Times, where she is largely left to her own devices. But history suggests that it may not be her last stopping point on a journey that has taken her to many corners of the former Fleet Street. Her career really took off when she was hired by the late editor of the Mail on Sunday, Stewart Steven, having previously written for The Sunday Times. "They offered me loads of money, and that was when I first started to go to the Groucho and everything," she says. "It was one long round of wine, women and song." In Ambition, her airport-novel take on the world of national newspapers, Burchill modelled characters partly on Steven and on her friend Susan Douglas, an MoS executive. The editor had the chutzpah to turn up at the book launch at the Ritz. "He was such a classy guy. He was on his way to the opera, but he came up to me and said, 'I hear I croak in the first chapter'," she says, referring to a love scene in the novel that has tragic consequences. "Stewart was a fantastic man to work for."

Ms Douglas, who Burchill says was an inspiration for the high-flying journalist character Susan Street, was equally gracious. "She never complained. But a year later we were having a drink one evening and she just looked up and said, 'Couldn't you have just changed the first name to Samantha?' I thought that was the epitome of cool."

Burchill later joined Ms Douglas at the Sunday Express, where she had been appointed editor. The resultant column was as uncompromising as ever and generated weekly mailbags of cancelled subscriptions. When a management rethink led to the departure of the editor (now a senior executive at Condé Nast) a few months later, her star columnist went, too. "I've never been sacked so ignominiously," she says. "They sacked me like a dirty little dog and replaced me with someone called Kate Saunders. They printed an editorial saying 'From now on we will listen to the wishes of our readers and the first wish is to get rid of Julie Burchill.' It was so hurtful."

All this talk of old times in Fleet Street (she even mentions the notorious Stab in the Back pub), has put Burchill in good spirits. "I'm having such a good time, I thought I was going to be really miserable," she says, having earlier stood in the rain for a photo-shoot. Amid her nostalgia for the wild times, the revelation that her latest employer, Sky television, operates a no-alcohol policy at its Isleworth headquarters seems genuinely to shock her. "It's to keep 'em out of trouble, innit?" she says, as she knocks back another vodka martini and prepares to give her thoughts on chavs to the Daily Star.