Julie Andrews is one of those public figures who, probably through no fault of her own, has become a larger-than-life representative of a range of contemporary clichés. For some, she is the wholesome, faintly sexless Englishwoman, a trilling, skipping optimist who embodies a lost age of virtue and kindness; for others, she is a ludicrous, old-fashioned goody-goody. For quite a few, she is a much-loved gay icon.
Now, unhappily, she has become a symbol of something altogether less glorious: the rip-off comeback. Critics and fans among the 14,000 people who paid between £61 and £106 to attend a one-off event at the O2 Arena called "An Evening with Julie Andrews" have said that it was misguided, cynical, perhaps even exploitative. They had expected, one assumes, a marvellous, uplifting trip into the past with that clear, beautifully bred soprano voice cutting through the spring air. What they got was the dame's presence and a few staged reminders of her past, but not much else.
Julie Andrews' voice is pretty much shot after an operation 13 years ago to remove a polyp from her vocal chords. As she told her audience, she could manage a passable version of "Ol' Man River", but anything more was a struggle. As a result of this drawback, the show consisted of songs made famous by Dame Julie being rendered by a chorus of singers, a staged version of a children's story she co-wrote, and precisely two songs from the star herself, not so much sung as spoken in the manner of Lee Marvin's "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star".
The fury of fans has given the hacks and headline writers a field day. The tills are alive with the sound of refunds, they have written. How do you solve a problem like getting your money back? A spoonful of sugar did not help this medicine go down.
It is all rather odd. Everyone in the arena will have known that their heroine is now unable to sing as she once did. The carefully entitled "An Evening with Julie Andrews" was simply a chance to celebrate a remarkable career in the presence of the star itself, admittedly at rather high expense.
We live, though, in a world of fantasy. A combination of the new technology and ever more sophisticated cosmetic surgery panders to a Peter Pan culture. Certain celebrities are expected, in some weird, unspoken way, not to grow old. Their young selves can be seen on a computer screen. When they do appear in public, the ageing stars often have shiny, scarily smooth skins and trim figures. Male oldsters – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson – are allowed to wheeze and groan their way into their dotage, but stars like Julie Andrews are expected to remain as clear-voiced as they were 50 years ago.
By appearing as a real, ageing woman and innocently expecting to be treated and reviewed as such, Julie Andrews has broken one of the unwritten rules of the new showbusiness.
Whoever said saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent?
In literature as in life, reputations are difficult to shift once established. A cad – Arthur Koestler, say – will have his caddishness confirmed in the way a new biography of him is reviewed. When William Golding was found by John Carey to have recalled an incident of sexual misbehaviour in his teens, there were headlines on the news pages about the Nobel laureate having been a would-be rapist.
No such stories have been told about George Orwell, although his recent letters reveal a similar incident of attempted rape from his youth. There are also references to regular, well-planned infidelities during his marriage while, on the professional front, the author was cheerfully prepared to write reviews puffing his friends' books. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," he once wrote to Cyril Connolly. Admirers of the great writer need not worry that these insights will prompt lurid headlines. Unlike Koestler and Golding, Orwell is a bona fide literary saint whose lapses are quickly forgiven.
Send for 'Scoff' to beat the new puritans
The war on fatties is getting serious. The Food Standards Agency has proposed that, in the interests of the health of the nation (and, one suspects, making a few billion every year for the national exchequer), VAT should be extended to unhealthy foods, snacks and soft drinks.
This so-called "fat tax" will doubtless find supporters. Presumably the British Medical Association, who last year debated the idea of a tax on chocolate, will be in favour. One of those specious, unprovable statistics which will quickly harden into accepted fact has suggested that 3,000 lives a year would be saved by a fat VAT initiative. A quango called the National Obesity Forum has, unsurprisingly, welcomed the new proposal. Heart attacks, strokes and diabetes would be reduced at a stroke, says the NOF.
It is time, before our nannying culture sends the nation's fatties to the naughty step, to set up an organisation to counter the NOF and the rest of them. The Society for the Consumption of Fatty Foods, or "Scoff", will point out that once the state, urged on by trim, jogging quangoists, uses taxation to make us all healthier and more socially responsible, something distinctly dodgy is going on.
Who, it might be asked, will judge which foods are acceptable and which should be taxed? And, if over-eating can effectively be persecuted by government, why not other forms of inappropriate behaviour? We need Scoff to halt the march of the concerned and the disapproving, and to remind the world of the importance of individual choice.