Miles Kington: The imperishable Sir Cliff and other national treasures

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The Independent Online

Today I am bringing you more of my exclusive interview with Sir Ralph Willoughby-Fiennes, head of the National Treasures Council, whose job it is to confirm the National Treasure status of such figures as the Queen Mother and John Betjeman, and to arrange their replacement when the time comes ...

"I don't think we'll see another member of the Royal Family national treasure for a while," muses Sir Ralph. "Camilla, possibly? Give her time ..."

What about Prince Philip?

"Interesting case," he says. "He's the right man in totally the wrong job. If he weren't in the Royal Family, he'd be wonderful. That salty approach, those blunt remarks – we love that sort of thing, but from anyone but a royal. Now, imagine if he were the Poet Laureate. Sensational!"

Why Poet Laureate?

"Well, that's what Betjeman was. And he rose to it. He had the cuddly persona and all the accessories. Poor old Andrew Motion. A non-starter. Nobody even knows what he looks like. He's hardly any better than Philip Larkin."

But Larkin was a damn good poet, surely?

"What's that got to do with it? Larkin the man was furtive, shabby and nondescript. How in God's name can you have an unassuming national treasure?"

Well, Betjeman was shy ...

"Yes, but that was attention-seeking shyness! Look at me, look at me! – That's what his shyness shouted out. Just like Alan Bennett's. National treasures have to be attention seeking, even if seeming not to be. Larkin was zero. Not like his great friend, Kingsley Amis, who was tactless, boorish, clever, drunk, bigoted, womanising ..." Sir Ralph shakes his head. "What a waste."

Women don't seem to figure in his list of candidates.

"Au contraire – I would say they set the benchmark. The first great national treasure of modern times was a woman – old Gracie Fields. The clearest favourite of modern times is female."

Oh? Is it? Like who? Pam Ayres? Jilly Cooper ...?

"Silly boy," chides Sir Ralph. "Joanna Lumley is staring you in the face and you can't even see her. But she has done the near impossible. She has gone from young heart-throb to middle-aged icon and now to the first suspicion of ageless maturity, and is still loved. A miracle."

Hmmm – but perhaps too good to be true? Wouldn't a hint of loucheness help?

"Ah, but you forget she always refused to tell people the name of the father of her child, which has preserved a nice frisson of mystery ... Funny you should mention Jilly Cooper and Pam Ayres, by the way. They've often been on the shortlist. But Pam is just a bit regional. And Jilly is just a bit too posh."

Isn't Joanna Lumley posh?

"She's beyond posh."

Any others coming up?

"You know, I was always surprised that David Jason was never in the frame. After The Darling Buds of May and Only Fools and Horses, not to mention Inspector Frost, you'd think he'd be a heavyweight national treasure. But of course, it's not him – it's the parts he plays. Del Boy, yes. David Jason, no. Fictional characters can become national treasures, without the actor achieving the status. I'm thinking of course of ... Go on, guess!"

Um, Mr Toad? William Brown? Dame Edna?

"Rumpole!" beams Sir Ralph. "It's Mortimer's curse! However charming Mortimer tries to be, Rumpole will always be more popular and crumpled and charming than his creator!"

So that wraps up the list ...

"God, no! If we had time, we could discuss the imperishability of Sir Cliff Richard or why Nicholas Parsons could never be a national treasure, while Humph is a national treasure twice over – once in jazz, once on Radio 4. Then there are all the oddly uncuddly cases like Tony Blair and his wife, whom we never take to our bosoms, while we cherish John Prescott, Barbara Windsor and even Germaine Greer."

And Gyles Brandreth?

"I suspect he tries too hard," frowns Sir Ralph. "He aspires to be a national treasure. But wanting does not make it so."

More of these fascinating insights some other time, I hope.

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