We live and die by the stars these days. Where once it was the lives of saints and sinners that offered parables of good or bad behaviour, today it is by public figures, preferably those who have entertained us, that we judge our own progress.
This comedian's life offers a terrible warning to those who indulge themselves with drink or drugs or sex. The terrible decline of that actress reveals the perils of vanity. The unfashionably long marriage of a TV presenter provides a model for those who live the good life. The famous act out little moral fables on behalf of the rest of us.
With the death of a star with a famously turbulent life, there is a rush to the pulpit from those who like offer sermons in the pages of the press. They recount, with many a crocodile tear, exactly how the deceased celebrity was "troubled" or "unfulfilled" or simply "tragic". Reading of the mess he or she has made of life, we feel better about how we are getting by with less talent, success or money.
This army of cut-price moralists has been waiting impatiently to pronounce upon Dudley Moore's life, and this week it has had its moment. Tributes, many of them reeking of insincerity, have been paid to his wit, elfin attractiveness and musical brilliance, before the stilettos of sorrowful moral disapproval have been slid home.
"His Faustian pact with Hollywood did no justice to his gifts," intoned one obituarist. "As to his private affairs, he held that sex was the most important part of anyone's life, and paid the price for this belief in a series of seedy liaisons."
Another journalist, boasting of friendship, tearfully recalled the words of an unnamed Oxford contemporary – "He had it all and what did he do with it? Nothing" – and then concluded with the cliché of the moment, "A life full of rich promise ended for all the world like a morality play."
Of course, on the death of anyone who has had a few wild times, a certain amount of smug clucking from behind the privet hedges of Home Counties Britain can be expected, but these lachrymose maunderings are peculiarly nauseating.
Dudley Moore was a rather funny man, a minor comic actor with considerable charm, and an above-average pianist. From those gifts, he developed a career in which he was part of the most uncompromisingly funny double act of the 1960s, and later was the lead in a highly successful romantic film comedy and then a similarly successful slapstick farce.
He had a full, eventful life during which he had sex with more beautiful women than most of us can dream about. The graph of his career and personal life may not have soared upwards in a perfect straight line, but then whose does? What was he meant to do – play Hamlet at the RSC, perform a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall?
There is an innate snobbery at the heart of these readings of Moore's life – a fear of fun, excess and pleasure. The comedians who earn our approval – David Jason or Ronnie Barker, for example – are presented as leading blameless slippers-and-cardigan lives from which we should all learn. Yet the idea that Moore's famous colleagues from Beyond the Fringe – Cook with his edgy, hit-or-miss satire, the gloomily reclusive Bennett, Miller, the frantically loquacious intellectual – have somehow fulfilled their artistic destinies more fully than Moore is surely absurd.
Each of them, interestingly, appear to have played along with the general disapproval of the direction Moore took. "I think they feel that I'm a lightweight, doing lightweight material, having a lightweight life," he once told an interviewer and, in a sense, they may have been right. Maybe his was a lightweight life and career but, in the end, is that really such a sin?Reuse content