David Lister: The Week in Arts

The Hollywood inquisition can be painful
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One of the brightest young stars in film today is Ben Barnes. He plays Prince Caspian in the new Narnia film, is a Brit, a sex symbol, a big talent, and a troubled man. He revealed in an interview this week that he was so sick that he took to his bed and found it hard to rise from it. A doctor had to be summoned.

This is disturbing to hear about a young screen hero. But when he explained the reason for his distress, all was crystal clear. He had been doing publicity for the Prince Caspian movie; in other words, he had been doing, for the first time in his life, a series of interviews to promote a blockbuster film. In Barnes's case he did 90 of them over a period of three days before hiding his head under the pillow.

Now there are those misanthropes who might say at this point that there are worse things in life, that Ben Barnes is displaying early symptoms of chronic luvvyness, and that he should get a life. But I'm with Barnes on this one. The Hollywood publicity machine, when it moves into action, can test the health of even the fittest young actor.

At these junkets, as they are called in the trade, film stars will indeed do days of interviews. They are often conducted at what are called "round-tables", at which seven or eight interviewers from different countries put their questions.

I've done a few of these, and for the interviewers they are quite relaxing and useful. You can put your few questions, then watch your overseas colleagues put theirs, jot down in your notebook any interesting answers and pass them off in your article as being elicited by your good self. I have yet to read an interview in a British newspaper in which a film writer from Uruguay is credited for a probing question.

But for the actor, these round-tables are heavy going. For a start, they have to adapt every few minutes to a different nationality. As Ben Barnes found, this can be perplexing. He says: "I had people saying things like, 'Who is Ben Barnes?', and a French journalist said: 'Tell me, what is life?' I don't know. And if I did, who cares?"

Ah, the existentialist questions. Yes, the French film writer will more often than not expect a twentysomething actor to explain the meaning of life. I suspect that the "Who is Ben Barnes?" question came from an Austrian journalist with a thesis on the works of Kafka. This must have all been hard to take for Ben, especially when the next question probably came from a British showbiz correspondent asking him when his first kiss was. Then he most likely faced The Washington Post, who would have wanted to know Ben's views on Afghanistan. And that's just half the table.

It could be worse, of course. Ben has probably yet to meet the film writers of Lebanon, who as I have mentioned before, are the most sycophantic in the world, one of them once asking Charlton Heston at the Cannes film festival: "Mr Heston, are you aware that you are my father, my mother, my sister and my brother?" I'd prepare an answer for that challenging little riddle if I were you, Ben.

Britain has an array of young actors and actresses taking America by storm. Our film industry should give them some proper international media training. It's no easy matter for actors in their early 20s to have a working knowledge of sex, politics, poverty in the Third World and existentialist philosophy. But to promote a film in a global market today it's a must.

Perhaps having a good doctor on hand too isn't a bad idea.

Undiplomatic behaviour

I attended the annual Black Ball thrown this week by the R&B singer Alicia Keys, pictured. Seeing the highly talented and not totally unattractive Miss Keys in action, it's easy to see why she got a gratuitous little love letter on Bob Dylan's last album.

Her £1,000-a-head ball in London was in aid of charity work to combat Aids in Africa. The performances were electrifying – especially herself, Annie Lennox, the world music star Emmanuel Jal, and Damian Marley.

The only irritating moment was the speech made by one of Alicia's "ambassadors" for her charity, Padma Lakshmi. The US-based ex-wife of Salman Rushdie could do with a few tips on how to coax money out of a British audience. First, don't ask them for their "dollars and dimes"; second, don't tell them to stop wasting money on shoes when you are dressed up to the nines and earned your money from modelling; third, don't ask everyone "with a brown face" to stand up. It left the people in the room a little perplexed.

* I think I can cast some light on Gordon Brown's bizarre comparison of himself to Heathcliff this week. The newspapers all carried pictures of Laurence Olivier in the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights. But I suspect it was not Olivier and his dark, brooding intensity that the Prime Minister was thinking of. Neither was it the Heathcliff of Emily Brontë's novel.

It was, I am sure, the 1996 stage musical of the book, entitled simply Heathcliff and starring none other than Cliff Richard in the title role. I was unfortunate enough to see the show, and witnessed how Sir Cliff unforgettably achieved the impossible – turning the dangerous, romantic anti-hero of English literature into a jolly nice, mischievous chap.

That, of course, is Gordon Brown's fantasy – not to be intense and brooding, but to be jolly and lovable. I'll bet it was Cliff he had in mind all along.