In what sort of warped world does a production of Hamlet depend on Davina McCall? There was an article recently, in the London Evening Standard, about an opening night of Hamlet in which the main actor is said to be a huge success. And the bottom half comprised pictures of celebrities who'd been there, including Nancy Dell'Olio, Peter Mandelson, and Davina, who said the actor was "fantastic" but too thin, adding "I want to take him home and feed him a big bowl of pasta."
It doesn't matter that she didn't have anything more intelligent to say. If they'd quoted me it would have been something like "Hang on, I'm confused, so which one is it where the bloke has his eyes poked out?" But does a Shakespeare play need to be judged by a dippy woman whose job it is to put her hand on the knee of evicted Big Brother contestants and say "Now let's have a look at your best bits?"
Maybe the Hamlet actor will now be invited to do something really good, like presenting "The top 100 ghosts" or hosting a series of "Thou hast been framed".
There's been a shift in the notion of celebrity over the last few years. It now permeates every corner of society, whether gardening, settee design or science. To be considered a successful scientist now, you have to be a famous scientist. Physicists probably have publicity agents, who advise about creating a unique selling point, adding "But keep clear of wheelchairs as Hawking has the quadriplegic angle covered."
Maybe the government could have got the war to be popular if it had been officially turned on, as happens with Christmas lights. They could have got Robbie Williams to stand over a button while a crowd chanted "Four - three - two - one", and cheered as he sent off the first cruise missile.
But there's a more pernicious change in the concept of celebrity, in that it's become a pursuit in itself. The aspiration of vast numbers of people is not to be a famous musician or a famous sportsman but famous. So if you find fame accidentally, like Christine Hamilton, the media will find plenty of slots for you. Give it a few weeks and Maxine Carr will be presenting "TV's Naughtiest Blunders", or appearing as Aretha Franklin on Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes. If only Shipman had been patient for a couple of years he'd have earned a fortune for a "Me and my cell" feature in Hello magazine.
But most modern celebrities have done nothing except be on things. The reverence they're afforded isn't even necessarily their fault. But the media surrounds them with sycophants whispering how marvellous they were, when all they did was sit on a settee reading an autocue, so they never get to know how useless they are. If the same system worked in sport, TV executives and showbiz reporters would surround a footballer who'd just missed a penalty and gasp: "You were wonnnnnderfulll. Oh don't be silly, no one noticed the slip, honestly you're such a perfectionist, anyway blasting it six feet wide of the post is so original."
And the new view of celebrity is attaching itself to sport. Whereas W G Grace, Dennis Compton and Muhammad Ali were celebrities due to their achievements and personalities, Beckham's celebrity is out of all proportion to either of those attributes. Instead it thrives on the way he lives his entire life in a celebrity world. His greatest value to a club now appears to be the amount of merchandise he can sell. Perhaps Alex Ferguson should make a shock signing by replacing Ruud Van Nistelrooy with Britney Spears. Then everyone else will have to compete; Bolton signing Leslie Ash, East Stirling signing Rhona Cameron and so on.
The depressing side of this is similar to the problems caused by royalty. If we believe someone is worthy of special adoration because they're on breakfast television, we must also believe we're less worthy of respect because we've never been photographed with our dog for Heat magazine. And we're creating a generation that believes the first step to doing something well is to get business cards printed, and attend a course on how to assert yourself with strangers at parties. Once you've got that sorted you can work out what it is you want to be good at.
But there's a danger, which becomes joyfully evident with access to cable television. Flick through the channels to the obscurest corners of Living TV and Bravo, and you'll find piles of these perky idiots who, not long ago were giving interviews to the glossy magazine that comes with the The People about the pressures of being a superstar, or how they find it hard to live a normal life since coming fourth on Big Brother. I'm keen on finding that camp bloke who worked in an airport. I reckon he'll be hosting a quiz show on Challenge TV called "Turbulence", in which the winner gets a return flight to the destination of their choice on the Isle of Man.
Despite this, Geoff Hoon seems to feel his best strategy is to act exactly like Jade from Big Brother. His next statement will be "Document - what's that mean? I never heard of it. Who's the Red Cross then? Are they, like, cross, like all the time, they want to chill out then. I don't know nothing about nothing."Reuse content