My team-mate was worried by a surprising development in his life. He had been receiving anonymous calls on his car-phone. This sudden, inexplicable curiosity of strangers made him feel uneasy. Almost two decades later, he is rather more militant in his views about intrusion. As I watched Hugh Grant testify to the Leveson Inquiry this week, it occurred to me that early signs of the nasty side-effects of celebrity we see today were evident all those years ago when our right-back suddenly became famous.
Character is revealed on the football pitch. Hugh and I were part of – indeed at one point jointly organised – a ragtaggle team of freelancers (this paper's distinguished sketch writer Simon Carr was at one point a central defender) which played on Wednesday afternoons. On the pitch, Hugh was rather different from what was to become his screen persona: he was, shall we say, robustly competitive.
Shortly after he mentioned the mysterious calls, he went off to make a film, and I was away from London for a few months, teaching creative writing at a university. When I returned, Hugh's face was on posters on every street. The film was Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Although he would occasionally play for us after that, everything changed, and in a way which the evidence to Lord Leveson has helped to explain. There was a guardedness there, a distinct sense of separateness. The easy, unthinking view is that becoming well-known tends to give people airs. The truth is that it is not fame that screws up the famous so much as the attitude to fame of the outside world.
A self-protective bubble is required. Nothing is normal any more. No one can quite be trusted. There is always a danger that something said or done in a relaxed moment can be leaked to a gossip column, with miserable consequences.
Even at the time, it struck me that Hugh was paying a high price for his success as an actor. He and I were no closer than weekly footballing buddies, but he was always funny and open. It seemed a shame that he now had to be so cautious, so unlike himself.
Cultural weirdness about celebrity, unpleasant in the mid-1990s, has today become grotesque and shameful. Curiosity about those in the public eye – for whatever reason – has led to a sinister sense of ownership which, in its turn, has encouraged the kind of press harassment, bullying and inhumanity exposed this week.
The last time I saw Hugh, we were playing in a tournament together and he seemed slightly unfriendly in a way which I found bewildering at the time. Now I realise that the problem was that by then I was writing a newspaper column. I was among the ranks of the enemy.Reuse content