The unwelcome ghosts that haunt celebrities

By Terence Blacker
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The Independent Online

In the great wash of embarrassing publicity that has attended the memoirs of Barbara Windsor, the soap star and national institution, a single incident has been of interest. A man called Robin McGibbon was banned by the actress from attending the launch party of the book - a somewhat unkind move, since he wrote it for her. Having announced to the press that he is "deeply hurt", McGibbon is now considering legal action.

In the great wash of embarrassing publicity that has attended the memoirs of Barbara Windsor, the soap star and national institution, a single incident has been of interest. A man called Robin McGibbon was banned by the actress from attending the launch party of the book - a somewhat unkind move, since he wrote it for her. Having announced to the press that he is "deeply hurt", McGibbon is now considering legal action.

A tiff between a star and her ghost: it is hardly the stuff of headlines. Yet, in its way, what appears to be an act of petty revenge on the part of Barbara Windsor says more about the world of celebrity than any of the idiotic guff currently being written about "the only professional sex kitten to become a well-respected Mother Courage without missing a beat" (Julie Burchill, News of the World).

The relationship between the person whose name appears on the front cover of an autobiography and the person who actually writes it involves a complex balance of power. The star gets the money - £380,000 against royalties in this case - and appears on the chat shows to talk about the book she hasn't written. The ghost's job is to turn hours of taped ramblings into a coherent text for which he will be paid a flat fee. When I was on the game, during the 1980s, I could be pulled for £10-12,000; McGibbon probably made around £20,000.

But the ghost has another kind of power. It is through his words, his ordering of material, that the star's life and personality will be presented. If he does it badly, she will feel that her full, fascinating complexity has been inadequately reflected on the page; if it is done well, she will be eager for her ghost to disappear as quickly as possible. Hour upon hour of collaboration over a life provides an uncomfortably intimate perspective on a life.

Who could be surprised if the front-person in a joint enterprise prefers to enjoy her moment of glory without her collaborator skulking around discontentedly in the background? Barbara Windsor's is a peculiarly fragile talent, being largely based on losing a bra in a comedy film, marrying a gangster and acting in a popular BBC soap opera. She has played only one part throughout her career, and not particularly well at that. When, in Terry Johnson's television play about the Carry On team, the actress playing the young Babs gave way to the real person for the final scenes, the result was embarrassing.

It was her good fortune that she was born in a country for whom her personality was perfectly suited. The British have a soft spot for the girl-next-door kind of star, for mediocrity made good. Barbara Windsor belongs to the great tradition of national "sex kittens", from Diana Dors to Samantha Fox to Denise van Outen, who provide a bouncy, motherly, safe version of sexuality - a spot of slap and tickle rather than the moon-faced, rather foreign erotic intensity that makes us feel us so uncomfortable. With a private life that keyed into the nation's sentimental affection for Cockney villains, she could hardly fail.

So, when, in the tabloids, an overexcited showbiz correspondent such as Julie Burchill sobs that "Barbara Windsor is simply one of those people who could not possibly come from any other country but ours", one has to concede that, in a grim sort of way, she is right. Nor should it be too much of a surprise when, in all apparent seriousness, Windsor is celebrated as "music hall, McGill postcard, Blitz spirit and the sort of backbone that built the welfare state all rolled into one". She is, it seems, the way that we like to see ourselves as a nation.

Frankly, if Mr McGibbon is seriously thinking of spending his flat fee on taking this national icon to court, then he is one seriously deluded ghost.

terblacker@aol.com

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