The celebrity interview has had a bad press lately. Not because an interviewer has teased out a shocking truth from a celebrity, but because the interviewee has been vile to his interrogator. A couple of weeks ago, snatches of a Q&A exchange at London’s Curzon cinema between Michael Hann, the Guardian journalist, and Ginger Baker, the Cream drummer, appeared online, revealing Baker growling “what a stupid question” at his interlocutor, pouring scorn on his attempts to connect with him, and behaving in a thoroughly obnoxious manner before an audience of sycophantic gigglers.
On Monday, The Times published Janice Turner’s disastrous interview with Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, revealing how he became enraged by questions about Welshness and the Leveson Inquiry, got more and more furious and finally told her to “f**k off,” adding “I wanna end this interview now. I’m bored with you. Bored, bored.” He apparently later sent flowers, his publicist citing antibiotics and bad news.
In my years of interviews, I don’t remember anybody storming out, but by God it’s a jungle out there. It’s a false relationship – two strangers meeting for an hour in a hotel room, one pretending to be delighted to meet the press, the other pretending to be fascinated by everything the celebrity says – but what you most fear isn’t fury or bombast; it’s blandness. I think with horror of the hours I spent yawning through the pre-digested, assembly-line replies of politicians’ wives, foxy-babe violinists, Luciano Benetton… If interviewees happen to become a little cross with you, it’s more fun and better copy.
There was, for instance, the time that Sir Roy Strong bit my head off for asking about his first sexual experience. The time I had a flaming row with Morgan Freeman about Simon Schama’s dismissal of Amistad as “sentimental”. The time Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of English ballet, ticked me off for gesticulating too much and insisted that I sit on my hands or she wouldn’t answer any questions. The time I interviewed Peter Greenaway on stage at the Hay Festival and congratulated him on the brilliantly filmed, candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon. The time I attempted to extract some words from Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys (an undertaking as likely to succeed as feeding a corpse) and, when I finally hit on a subject he wanted to talk about – his support for Phil Spector – being steered away from it by the PR lady. And, of course, the time that Ozzy Osbourne, sequestered in a recording studio in Monmouth, shambled off to the Gents and returned holding a Rambo-style assault rifle, and wearing a helmet with night-sight goggles, in order to signal that the interview was pretty much over (though, to be fair, he pretended that he was off to shoot rabbits).
These encounters didn’t, to be honest, add a great deal to the Noble Art of the Interview. But years later, they’re the moments I remember best.
Middle of the road – and proud of it
As a fully committed driver in the middle lane of motorways, I think the Government has a bloody cheek to threaten us with £100 fines. Are traffic police really going to chase motorists down the M3 to nail them for spending five minutes in the same lane? How is that a crime? Middle-laners are not careless drivers, nor negligent ones.
We are in the middle lane because we are not just accelerating, we are driving fast, something you cannot do for long in the slow lane – and cannot do in the fast lane for more than 20 seconds without having some combative, Hyundai-driving hooligan with erectile-dysfunction issues appearing from nowhere, sitting on our exhaust–pipe and filling our rear-view mirror with menace. We are the hommes moyen sensuels of drivers. We are the MOR majority. We are the squeezed middle.