Sholto Byrnes: The secret lives of celebrities

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

Poor James Hewitt. Those three words may not be ones that fall easily from the lips of the many who regard him as a slightly dim hooray Henry who has made a living exploiting his relationship with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. But pause for a moment and consider: would he even have been arrested on suspicion of possession cocaine, a substance now barely regarded as illicit in the bars of west London, let alone plastered across the front pages after his arrest, were it not for his infamy? Hewitt is one of those people whose lives are caught in a freeze-frame; so marked are they by one particular event or period, they can never escape being defined by it, whatever else they may have done since.

Daniel Barenboim is another example. The conductor and pianist has had a long and distinguished career, but all that a recent interviewer was interested in was racy details of his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré - who died 17 years ago.

What if these freeze-frames were concealing the way that many such figures have changed, possibly pursuing unexpected, surprising, new sidelines? Here, let us for a moment peer behind the defining images...

Joan Collins is still widely celebrated for her role as the 1980s super bitch Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. Less well known is the fact that, inspired by her frequent journeys on Concorde, she has developed a keen interest in aerophysics and gives occasional seminars on the subject at the University of Minnesota, where her doctoral thesis on the "shoulder pad" theory of air currents in the northern hemisphere is much admired.

Her friend Christopher Biggins, meanwhile, has capitalised on his notoriety for ubiquity. Famously once accused of being willing to turn up to the opening of an envelope, he has now launched his own stationery firm, Biggins & Bond, suppliers of oversize postal packaging and those tired jokes that go inside Christmas crackers.

Morph endured some lean years after Take Hart went off air, Wallace and Gromit's refusal to offer him a part in Chicken Run being a particularly bitter blow. But recent film roles - not least as Mark Wahlberg's prosthetic penis in Boogie Nights - are building him an underground reputation as a versatile stuntperson.

Since leaving ITN in 1991, Sir Alastair Burnet has decided to shuck off the old-fashioned, gentlemanly style he brought to the airwaves. He is now the leader of the Brighton & Hove chapter of the Hell's Angels, and takes great delight in having his followers rev their Harleys outside the nearby home of his fellow former Express editor, Derek Jameson.

After a hugely successful career lasting several centuries in his ancestral home of Transylvania, Michael Howard renounced the title of Count Dracula. But his new career as a surprisingly toothless leader of the Conservative Party has disappointed his many fans, who hope to see him return to his old ways in the near future, or before sunrise at any rate. His predecessor as Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, grew tired of his role as the most outstanding national joke since Screaming Lord Sutch, and is attempting to rebrand himself as an homme sérieux, with public-speaking engagements and his own think tank. This last one, sadly, is true.

All the right notes at Ronnie Scott's

News that the effervescent Sally Greene, head of Old Vic Productions, is going to enter into a business partnership with Ronnie Scott's to ensure its long-term future, is to be greeted gladly by all those fond of the Soho jazz club. Whatever the deficiencies in the food (Ronnie advised against eating it when he was still alive) or the wine list, it remains the most important jazz club in Britain, if not in Europe. You only have to step inside and glance at all the photos of musicians who have performed there - Thelonious Monk pounding the keyboard, Roy Ayers with his vibes mallets flying - to feel the place's history.

The great American saxophonist Sonny Rollins would agree. When in residence there, he was asked to write the soundtrack to Alfie (which he did - it's only the title tune that's by Burt Bacharach). So one night, after his set had finished, Rollins told the club managers to lock up and leave him in there. By morning, he'd written the entire score. You could feel the music seeping out of the walls, he said later.

But if Ms Greene is to bring her high-profile friends, such as Peter Mandelson and Kevin Spacey, round to Ronnie's, she might suggest that the management employ a more diplomatic tone than has been habitual. When I spoke once to Pete King, the club's co-founder, about reviewing a gig for this paper, he told me that he'd leave a ticket in my name at the door. As it is common practice for critics to be given two tickets each, I asked for another. King was unimpressed. "'Ow many bloody reviews you gonna write then?" he said.

The bare facts

And finally... British newscasting may never be quite the same again. I refer not, of course, to the imminent retirement of Sir Trevor McDonald from the ITV 10.30pm bulletin, but to the arrival in London of a rather different news team. This column can reveal that, as of 16 August, Sky Channel 235 will be screening the Naked News (also at 10.30pm, so distraught McDonald fans will have somewhere to migrate to). The newly UK-based anchors Lily Kwan and Samantha Page will begin reading reports fully clothed, and then gradually discard items of apparel throughout the programme until they are down to their birthday suits.

Some cynics may scoff that this will be no substitute for the "serious" news. But I am assured that the content will be subject to rigorous editorial control. And we should expect no less, considering that one of the newscasters, Samantha, is a psychology and zoology major; and the other, Lily, is said to find "nothing better than a good book - Albert Camus and his existential teachings being a favourite".

The BBC, which is always looking for ways to "freshen up" its current-affairs coverage and bring in younger viewers, should perhaps take note. Wouldn't it be a sure way to boost viewing figures for, say, Newsnight? "I put it to you, Minister - oh, excuse me while I just take off my blouse..."