Being Janet

Janet Street-Porter has had an extraordinary life and career - making some famous friends and foes along the way. Now she's turning that experience into a one-woman show. Here, she explains why
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have tried psychotherapy and failed. I've tried marriage and failed at that too. I've also failed at yoga, dieting, being tactful and not gossiping. Undeterred, I have now written a one-woman show for the Edinburgh Festival about my favourite subject - me. Why, at 56, do I feel so cross about everything and everyone from Geri Halliwell to caravan owners? Why does a ruched chintz curtain or a yapping collie send me into a foaming frenzy? Why do I hate cockneys, men wearing white shoes, off-road motorists and Ken Livingstone? Why am I such a monster? I blame my mother, a thoroughly unpleasant person I never really got to know, who, even though she has been dead for several years, still has a dreadful hold over me. We argued throughout my childhood, till I flounced out of the family home at 18, throughout my four marriages and every single week till she died - on the telephone, face to face, via other relatives. We could not be in the same room together for more than 30 minutes without a major spat deve

I have tried psychotherapy and failed. I've tried marriage and failed at that too. I've also failed at yoga, dieting, being tactful and not gossiping. Undeterred, I have now written a one-woman show for the Edinburgh Festival about my favourite subject - me. Why, at 56, do I feel so cross about everything and everyone from Geri Halliwell to caravan owners? Why does a ruched chintz curtain or a yapping collie send me into a foaming frenzy? Why do I hate cockneys, men wearing white shoes, off-road motorists and Ken Livingstone? Why am I such a monster? I blame my mother, a thoroughly unpleasant person I never really got to know, who, even though she has been dead for several years, still has a dreadful hold over me. We argued throughout my childhood, till I flounced out of the family home at 18, throughout my four marriages and every single week till she died - on the telephone, face to face, via other relatives. We could not be in the same room together for more than 30 minutes without a major spat developing that would end in tears and recriminations. Why can't we preselect our parents in some great incubator in the sky? I ask god this nearly every day. Why was I chosen to have such a peculiar upbringing - what crime had my parents committed that caused this divine retribution?

Over the last few months I have also started to investigate my background for a book about my childhood. The more I have found out, the less I understand. It's as if I am one of Ruth Rendell's Detective Inspectors, only this time the crime I am unpicking is my own life. Why did our budgerigar only speak Welsh? Why was my favourite godmother suddenly airbrushed from my life? Why did I never attend a funeral of any of my close family until my father and then my mother died? Why was being Welsh so important to her, a woman born in Birkenhead living in Fulham, west London? Why did my English granny hate my mother so much she would vomit up every Sunday lunch she ate at our house? I've decided to use some of this material on stage, because I suspect that what happened to me also happened to a lot of people my age, born directly after the Second World War, to parents who hardly knew each other. Why has my generation turned out to include so many over-achievers? Why is it so obsessed with staying youthful and fashionable? From Richard Branson to John Birt, David Bowie to David Bailey, Paul Smith to Lynne Franks - the bulge babies, all high profile and with so much in common.

I can't call what I've come up with comedy, not unless you like it very black and bleak. It's a diatribe about my life, career, and many husbands. Of course I could have just spent £90 an hour on counselling and got it all out of my system in the privacy of some shrink's sitting room in Chelsea, but I don't think that would be cathartic enough. Then there's the challenge of performing it nightly for total strangers in the hothouse atmosphere of the Assembly Rooms at the epicentre of the Edinburgh Fringe. I like a challenge. In another room, Jo Brand is performing a show about mental illness - is my life really very different? Looking back at photographs of my childhood I see a group of people whose body language reveals so much. There is little intimacy and no cuddling in these out-of-focus snapshots taken on our many holidays in rainy north Wales or in our cramped back garden in Fulham. Sometimes my mother looks impossibly glamorous (an off-the-shoulder frock and pearls on the beach at Beaumaris), obviously praying that some gorgeous man is going to pitch up and remove her from these two gawky kids and a husband she seems to have grown bored with ... but no one ever did.

I was no different - between the ages of 10 and 14 I hoped secretly that the butler from my real (rich and cultured) parents would knock on the front door at 18 Elmstone Road and take me back to their palatial mansion. Obviously my mother had picked up the wrong child in the nursing f home - I could not possibly be related to these two dreary people who constantly bickered and had no sense of style. They seemed at least 60 years old, and I could not even imagine them in the same bed, let alone having a sex life. Even though I was saddled with the huge disabilities of thick National Health glasses, straight mousy hair, no sense of balance, no singing voice, big frilly teeth and a funny voice, I thought secretly I was pretty fantastic and very interesting. I had no other option. The other children at school would sneer at me and call me Olive Oyl after Popeye's lanky companion, but it didn't bother me. By 10 I was taller than anyone else at school and took to spending my evenings swotting in Fulham Library, joining the Young Socialists and then the Young Conservatives, simply so I could compete in their quiz teams. I lived my life almost entirely in my head, speaking little to my parents and not at all to my sister, who had turned into a pleasant friendly person with a bigger bust than me. I simply wanted her dead so I could have our bedroom to myself, and subsequently pushed her down the stairs. Sadly she just ended up bruised, with a cut forehead.

By 16 I had evolved into a sulky teenager who made all her own clothes, dressed as a mod in clumpy shoes and long narrow skirts, glaring at the world through fashionable chunky specs and sporting massive silver earrings like a 6ft Dalek. I was a fashion force to be reckoned with, and soon embarked on my first engagement to Rex, a suitably middle-class architect. Step one of my escape plan was well under way. Gawky schoolgirl Janet Bull morphed into an upwardly mobile ambitious architectural student. Months before our wedding Rex got the heave-ho when I met my future husband number one, Tim Street-Porter. Then I opted for serial monogamy as one relationship seamlessly gave way to the next. If I turned out to be useless at marriage I was much more successful at work, spending far more time issuing orders, writing memos and planning new television projects than I ever did listening to any of my men.

You could say that writing a one-woman show is either a cry for help or a scream for attention - it's probably both. I freely admit that I have grown up not with a chip on my shoulder, but a whole boulder. Maybe it's because I had to accept the reality that my parents really were my parents, and I have inherited a lot of my mother's worst characteristics. I've never felt that I fitted in anywhere, from college to newspapers, to television and back again. I have always been very thin-skinned, pretending I found it entertaining to appear in a BBC television sketch with Pamela Stephenson and Kenny Everett in which they both impersonated me, when deep down I loathed every minute. The only reason I took part was because I thought they'd probably do it anyway with or without me, and I might as well try and seem like a good sport. Which of course I am not, keeping lists of people who have offended me and plotting their downfall all my life. I have had to cope with an enormous amount of criticism over the years, a lot of it about my physical appearance and voice. I seemed to represent some kind of threat - why, I never found out, but a lot of it has always been to do with middle-class snobbery (the same kind of hostility that greeted Greg Dyke's appointment as Director General of the BBC). When I edited the Independent on Sunday I was criticised by the very newspapers I had previously written for as someone without the skills for the job. When I presented television programmes in the late Seventies and Eighties people like Richard Ingrams, the editor of Private Eye, never missed an opportunity to deride me as a thick cockney idiot. Once I was working with Clive James and he seemed astonished that I had ever been to the opera - subsequently I won international awards for producing one for the BBC. The journalist Adrian Gill, a man who looks like a badly dressed transvestite car dealer, is another critic who can't help but slag me off whenever I appear on television. I always think it's because his own TV career has gone nowhere.

I have spent a lot of my working life dealing with ridicule of one kind or another. Over the years I haven't helped myself by sporting every weird pair of specs imaginable, or by changing my hairstyle and colour with frightening regularity from orange to blonde to red. Now when I look at old pictures or videotapes of myself I would like to have some of those opticians and hairdressers lined up against a wall and shot - or at least pelted with mouldy eggs - for persuading me that I looked fabulous when frankly a lot of the time I looked ridiculous. I appeared on television festooned with wicky whacky jewellery, earrings like satellite dishes and rings to match. I am proud of a lot of the broadcasting work I have done as a creator of new formats and as a successful executive at the BBC - and I've certainly won awards and been recognised by my peers - but nothing has really helped me build up my own self-esteem. For although I am good at dishing out carping comments, I am pitifully poor at listening to advice. Also, my career has been played out in a working environment dominated by men, usually white, middle-class and middle-aged specimens, who seemed to speak a secret language to each other and formed a club of which I was most definitely not a part. Thankfully that has changed over the last three years with many women being appointed to senior positions in broadcasting - although there are still very few on the main boards of the FTSE 100 companies, not enough in Government and certainly not enough in the judiciary. I had to behave like a man and be as brutal as one in order to get anywhere. I certainly lack a lot of social skills.

Performing in front of an audience is not a new experience, with more than 25 years of television behind me and hundreds of hours of live broadcasting, but I know my limitations. I can't sing a note, or dance. Elaine Stritch need not fear the competition. I am not an actress - I once tried to play a journalist in a BBC television play written for me by David Halliwell (best known for the hit Sixties drama Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs). Even the skills of award-winning director Philip Saville ( Boys from the Blackstuff) could not wring any kind of performance from me. The struggle to ride a bike, operate a tape recorder, run up steps and remember lines was all too much. My co-star, Donald Pleasance, made it all look so easy - and he had one of those authoritative booming voices I would have killed for. So my performance in Edinburgh will be a physical effort, perfected by years of ranting and raging. There will be props, bits of cards I cling to like a drowning man clutches at a lifebelt. There will be video clips and there will be moments of humility. I hope that at the end of it I might be a bit happier - and less resentful that, at 56, the best offer I've had recently to appear on prime-time television was with a rubber tube up my bottom for a reality series called Celebrity Detox. Even I felt that was one challenge I need not bother to rise to. In the meantime, I had better prepare myself for the inevitable sneering reviews - and you know I will be making little rag dolls of all those sad critics and stamping on them back in my room.

'Janet Street-Porter - All the Rage' is at the Assembly Rooms, George St, Edinburgh, from tonight to 24 August (not 11 or 18 Aug) at 5.10pm. To book call 0131 2260000 or visit www.edfringe.com.

Comments