Ben Miller on Los Angeles: I love the glitz, the glamour, the quirks, the beauty
It's glorious, it's shabby, it's the Californian city that the actor and comedian Ben Miller just can't resist returning to. In fact, he's been a regular visitor for the past 25 years. Interview by Jenny Cockle
Sunday 11 November 2007
I'm always hearing people say: "I don't like Los Angeles. It's very false." But that's just not true. Obviously, you do get those types who flock to LA for the nice weather or because they want to be famous, but the people who actually grew up in LA are very like New Yorkers. In fact, they have a very similar accent. They're sassy, sharp, witty and very cynical, and I can guarantee you will meet several people who you think are from New York but are Los Angeles born and bred.
People also overlook the fact that LA is a very beautiful city. It has outstanding natural features: mountain forests (even after last month's devastating fires), vast wilderness and desert. But unless you get in the car and travel right round the city, you won't experience that. Most tourists head for the Beverly Hills Plaza or The Grove. To get a real sense of the place you need to go hiking in the mountains.
My enthusiasm for LA stems from my father who was a lecturer in American literature at the University of Birmingham. Through his work, our family did several house swaps with LA families. It was a dreadfully daring thing to do in the early 1980s; there was no internet, so you had no idea of what you were getting in to. Our first visit was in 1982 to Riverside, where we had a brilliant time.
We met a couple there, Jean and Gerald Boring – with a name like that (it's Swedish) you have to become the most interesting people on the planet – whom I now refer to as my American parents. They invited me to stay with them during my year out from university at their home in San Bernadino, a beautiful valley east of LA, in a small place called Cucamonga in the foothills of mountains. I remember looking down from the mountains at the valley stretching all the way across LA – an incredible sight. That was when I really fell in love with the place.
Initially, the best thing about being in LA was the girls – they loved me. It was like being a pop star. I remember pulling up at college in a station wagon and there were eight girls lined up ready to meet me. It was fabulous – all very innocent, I might add. But coming from Western Europe, it also seemed that so much was possible in LA and people had such an extraordinarily high standard of living. England in the early 1980s was pretty grim; we were on the brink of the miners' strike. So to go to this place where everyone ate out practically every night was quite intoxicating. I remember using chopsticks for the first time and eating Mongolian food. Every day was an extraordinary experience.
I go back to LA as often as I can, and even if I'm there on business I always add on a few extra days for pleasure. I love all the obvious places such as Santa Monica Pier, Third Street Promenade and all the quirky restaurants and weird bookshops around Venice Beach. And you can't beat going for a coffee and a pancake in a diner or shopping for second-hand clothes on Melrose.
Nobody realises that LA has its own underground system. You can walk out of Mann's Chinese Theater and step into the most hi-tech, underused subway system in the world. It will take you all the way to the city's financial district where you'll find the most incredible restaurants at the top of stunning high-rise blocks.
LA also has some of the world's finest museums. There's the new Getty Museum perched up on the hills with the most incredible view of Los Angeles. The building itself is worth a look even if you don't have time to view the exhibits. Alternatively, there's La Brea Tar Pits, which is one of my favourite outings because it houses a unique collection of fossils dating back to the ice age. And if you're keen on astronomy, the Griffith Observatory is definitely worth a visit. It's where they filmed the fight scene with Demi Moore in Charlie's Angels 2. It's a fabulous building.
However, my favourite secret place is Topanga. I discovered it through my friend, the actress Lena Headey, when she was house-sitting for the actor Joshua Jackson, who has a place there. The properties in Topanga village are all cabins built on stilts, so it's an unusual looking place. It's where all the weirdos from the 1960s settled – people such as the Manson family. LA's hippies are actually quite scary – more like Hell's Angels than the Haight-Ashbury hippies of San Francisco.
To reach Topanga, head north along the Pacific Highway from Santa Monica and you'll see just one sign for Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Miss it and you'll end up on the beaches of Malibu. Topanga is up on the hill, set in a huge state park. It's home to a famous woodland restaurant that has been popular since the 1960s called Inn of the Seventh Ray, a wonderfully creepy place. The tables are set among the tree trunks and there are lots of odd things hanging from the trees. The food is pretty much surf '*' turf, but it's good Pacific cooking in a fantastic setting.
I also like Los Feliz, north of East Hollywood and south of the Santa Monica mountains, which is where the Hollywood movie industry was originally based. This is the old Laurel and Hardy territory with wonderful Spanish architecture and incredibly grand houses, including some designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Charlie Chaplin was the first person to move out of Los Feliz and buy a big house in Beverly Hills at a time when it was deserted. The rest of Hollywood soon followed.
LA is such a huge city that you have to get into a completely different mindset. It's essential to be socially proactive because it's not like London, where you can turn up in a club and assume you'll see a few people you know. In LA, you have to make specific arrangements. As a result, I have a much better social life there than I do in London. What's great is that you're allowed to go out with people you've never met before. You only need one friend in common and they'll be happy to meet up with you.
So I have friends in different parts of LA now, but I always stay in hotels because they are the best in the world. My favourite is Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica – you can't beat it. It's in a fantastic location and the building is rather beautiful in a grotesquely naff kind of way. It's what I'd call nouveau plantation but there's something glorious about it. It's not ashamed to put those little fairy lights in the trees and I'm a fool for all that.
But what I love most about LA is the exquisite mix of the glorious and the shabby; the tremendous hope and crushing disappointment. It's a place of huge extremes. You have the most outstanding beauty of any city on the planet – bar Cape Town – and then you have this gross urban sprawl. But that's what makes it unique.
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