The curse of the celebrity couple

First Hugh and Liz, then Will and Julia ... now the show's over for Ken and Em, too. What is this disease that's attacking the glossiest of romances, asks Vicky Ward
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The arrival of the Sunday newspapers at the separate breakfast tables of Will and Julia Carling must have come as something of a relief. Last week's news that the England rugby captain and his wife were separating had been eclipsed by an even more sensational development - Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, the pre-eminent celebrity couple of their generation, a couple who seemed effortlessly to combine talent, ambition, good looks and romance, were parting.

It has been a sorry year for British celebrity couples. The partnerships of Ken and Em, Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant, and even, in their small way, Will and Julia followed in the wake of the failure of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales in December 1992. Where the Royals had failed, others filled the vacuum. In Branagh and Thompson, Grant and Hurley, we had couples who, for the first time since the Sixties, allowed Britain to rival Hollywood in the glamour stakes.

The Princess of Wales and Hurley are among the world's most photographed women; Grant is a regular feature on glossy magazine covers; Branagh and Thompson move between acting, writing and directing on stage and for the cinema, here and in the US. Carling's marriage to Julia received more coverage in the British newspapers than that of minor Royals such as Princess Margaret's daughter, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

Yet in each of these cases the union that made each couple really famous is over, on the rocks or at least beached. To lose one celebrity couple might be a misfortune; to lose two could have been carelessness, but to lose four (and that is not counting John McCarthy and Jill Morrell) suggests that something more systematic is at work.

So what disease of celebrity is it that has brought all these couples to grief? The collapse of each relationship has its own causes, no doubt, but several common factors are at play.

Public expectation, which robbed them all of any privacy. In part we, the British public, are to blame. Starved of Hollywood glitter, fed and then deprived of the romance of Charles and Diana, we helped build up the other couples into something they were not. We have transmuted them into our idols, made them our ambassadors in the world of celebrity. The Royals are trained to play a public role. With the failure of the royal marriages, celebrity couples were thrust forward to fill the empty space.

None of them can have been prepared for the complete loss of privacy that resulted. At least when Liz Hurley was relatively unknown, the hapless Hugh could escape back to her. When they both became celebrities - and they set out to court the attention - there was no escape; their entire relationship was played out in public. The private realm, in which intimacy could flourish, all but disappeared and with it probably the chances of them having a real relationship at all.

Fame is not liberating, it is imprisoning. As you become more famous, the list of image makers and corporations that own your behaviour grows. This makes normal, natural behaviour in public an impossibility, which in turn creates tensions at home. Elizabeth Hurley is now so much the property of the cosmetics company Estee Lauder that the conduct of her bitter talks with Grant, in the wake of his indiscretion in Los Angeles, were supervised by the corporation. The company has managed her through her personal crisis so as to protect its investment in her image.

Even the seemingly open Branaghs were not immune from public judgements on the conduct of their relationship. When she won an Oscar as Best Actress for Howards End, he got appalling publicity for not going with her to the ceremony. Your entire life is up for review as a performance.

The global marketplace for celebrities forces them to travel endlessly. To be an A-list star these days, you have to be famous all over the world. It is difficult to be a real celebrity within the confines of one relatively small economy such as Britain's. Your name needs to be on products and magazines, chat shows and advertising hoardings all over the world. It is even true of Will Carling: you cannot be a top rugby player and seek to maximise the financial returns from the sport without spending a lot of time travelling abroad on tour.

When Grant was caught with his trousers down on Sunset Strip, Hurley was on the other side of the Atlantic. Emma Thompson found romance with actor Greg Wise on the set of Sense and Sensibility while Branagh was away acting in Italy. And all this pales into insignificance compared with the pressure of the Wales's schedules.

Competition. One canot help but think that everything was fine in these relationships until the women started to get their acts together. Charles was happy as long as Diana was subservient. It was when she started to eclipse him in public popularity that their relationship started to deteriorate. There were no whispers of dissatisfaction in the Grant and Hurley household until Liz became well known in her own right, making her less dependent upon Hugh. Ken was the brightest young thing in British theatre since Olivier. So it must have been rather galling to see Emma's rise amid plaudits for her acting, screenwriting and directing.

Is it a coincidence that Grant and Carling looked so washed out after the crises in their relationships were revealed, while Liz and Julia looked controlled and more in charge? In most of these cases it is the women who emerged determined to pursue their own agenda, for their own ends. The men have looked hapless.

Pressures of work. Far from providing a model for other couples to follow in conducting their relationships, all these super-celebs seem to have got it drastically wrong. They are all people driven by ambition who seem to undervalue private life. Take Will Carling's comment the other night - designed to make Julia feel more wanted, no doubt - that he would "focus on work and rugby and hope that these other bits and pieces fall into place". Ken and Emma apparently spent no more than 100 days together in what passed for their home in the past year. It is striking that Emma was working so hard that the only affair she could have was with someone she was working with: an office affair.

Indeed, when it comes down to it, that may be the root of the problem with all these relationships: they were all realtionships based on work, careers and ambition, rather than love and romance. Charles married Diana to create a working partnership to provide heirs to the throne. Ken and Emma met on the set of Fortunes of War. Liz and Hugh got together through their work, and even though Will did not meet Julia on the rugby field, it seems that the main currency of their relationship has been ambition and public profile rather than intimacy. So the disease that affected all these relationships may not be celebrity at all but an extreme form of those other Nineties afflictions: over-work and stress.