Julie Burchill: Leslie Nielsen – the Hamlet who found wisdom as a clown

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The Independent Online

I was well-pleased to read in the obituaries of the actor Leslie Nielsen – who died this week at the age of 84 – that he had started out as a serious actor, but decided against it in later life. "I've finally found my home," he said, upon being cast in Airplane! in his fifties, when critics warned that he was being cast against type and bound to fail. Indeed, so much did he prefer the mask of comedy to the mask of tragedy that even in his own time he liked to stand in a crowded elevator, urge the palms of his hands to mimic flatulence and then apologise sheepishly. What a guy!

Legally deaf since youth, coming from a home where he and his mother were beaten by his father, volunteering to fight in the Second World War at the age of 17, one shudders to think what your average modern luvvie would make of this challenging start to life.

Can't we just imagine them sharing their pain and suffering for their art while blubbing all the way to the bank! Even though "serious actor" is an oxymoron right up there with "friendly divorce", it is not unknown for luvvies to compare their profession to armed conflict. For instance, my much-adored actress mate Joanne Good, discussing her appearance in Cinderella alongside Julian Clary and a large pumpkin some years back, likened it to "being in the trenches during the First World War and about to go over the top". Bless! While Liz Hurley notoriously used to describe non-pretendys as "civilians", saying that she could never date one because they wouldn't be able to deal with the "pressure". Liz, love, you made your living by showing your tits to strangers for payment – the word is "punters", not "civilians".

And Nigel Havers – the male Liz Hurley, surely – recently had a nation in stitches when he went into the celebrity jungle because "there needs to be more drama on TV and I want to make people aware of the fact". He subsequently hissed off because of the lack of intellectual conversation in the camp. As Dom Joly commented: "He's a man going through a certain existential despair. He said: 'I've got a panto in Birmingham straight after this. I don't need this.' I suspect if you've got a panto in Birmingham, you possibly do."

Right back to Marilyn Monroe, bright kids have gone into showbusiness because they want to put a smile on folk's faces and – after going through the Method madness – have generally ended up wanting to slash their wrists. The fortunate Nielsen lived his lucky life in reverse. After graduating from the Actor's Studio, he went on to play more than one-and-a-half-thousand roles on TV, finding film stardom after his overly serious peers were damaged, dreary or dead.

Judging by his entertaining behaviour in elevators, it's pretty fair to say Nielsen didn't take himself especially seriously and probably found himself somewhat ridiculous, which is what made him so terrifically appealing.

It's a dying art, sadly, and these days you can't turn a page or change a channel without coming across a crying clown, a suicidal soubrette or a Lonely-Hell-having hoofer. Even Beyoncé, that apparently most level-headed of crooners, recently revealed herself as a big-time belly-acher when she was filmed for her new documentary, sobbing: "Why did God give me this life? Sometimes it's overwhelming. Why did God give me my talent, my gift, my family?" Surely she's not serious?

Unless you are either suffering (this doesn't include "surviving" some self-inflicted psychodrama, BTW) or doing something heroic, you really should find yourself at least somewhat ridiculous once past the first flush of youth. And the more fortunate your circumstances, the more ridiculous you should find yourself, unless you're a total tool. When I hear David Cameron telling us that money has nothing to do with happiness, I really hope for his sake that he has the smarts to go home to Samantha and raise a Waterford crystal glass in tribute to his remarkable ability to update Tim-Nice-But-Dim. The same with William and Kate, after that press call: "Did you hear me trying not to crack up when I said what a daunting task being a princess was going to be?" "Yeah, having your photo taken, trying on frocks, shaking hands and waving. Nice one, Babykins!"

I myself find myself ridiculous at least two-thirds of the time these days and I live in hope that as I get older my RQ will rise, as it comes only after sex and pharmaceuticals for putting a smile one's face and a spring in one's step. Taking oneself seriously is a bit like lovebites, Maoism and masturbation – fine when you're a youngblood, but a bit sad once you've turned 30. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that he who does not take himself seriously at 20 has no soul and that he who does not find himself ridiculous at 50 has no sense. Just this once, I'm doing the grown-up thing.

My fat insulates me against life's chill winds

Not even 8.30am and I'm watching Adrian Chiles doing a twirl in the sort of mini-kilt usually worn by sexy teenagers from north London, going gaga over their superior A-level results – as seen through the leery lens of the press. Is this his crisis point? Is Daybreak hitting rock bottom? Or can he/it sink even lower?

It's a question I often ask myself about my weight.

How fat do I have to get before I feel appalled and do something about it? When you're happy with your life, it's very hard to get motivated; Freud said that people need love and work to be happy, but he didn't say anything about a low BMI. You think of the skinny misery-goats you've known (heck, I used to be one of them!), then you think of the dreadful marriages you made when slender and how you started getting fatter when you fled them and finally you think: "Praise divorce and pass the panna cotta – it's not calories, it's insurance!"

But even I am not endlessly smug. I have a feeling I know exactly when my crisis point is going to come and poke me in my rock-bottom and that's going to be when I can't get my seat-belt on in planes.

Unlike a lot of fat broads, I love hot weather and I've been chasing the five-star sun about six times a year since the start of the century – put THAT in your pipe and suck on it, George Monbiot! The idea of being shamed into indefinite staycations is more than my mottled flesh and triglyceride-ridden blood can bear. But that's the only thing that's going to do it.

'Doctor' McKeith could do with a few more Whoppers

I would bet that the prime-time exhibition of Gillian McKeith – who, at the same age and half my weight, looks easily a decade older than me and most other fat broads – has given many of my kind a mental licence just to keep on chowing down till we can't buckle up, such a bad advertisement has she been for healthy eating.

If she hadn't already been revealed as a fake doctor, she'd definitely be struck off now for services to the fast food industry.

Burger King should pay her to be on their billboards. Feed her up and see how much better she looks after a few Whoppers.

Come to think of it, the shape her TV career's in now, she'd probably work for food.