Profile: A sharp-clawed pussycat: Craig Brown

The prodigious output of Britain's leading satirist shows no sign of abating. Tim Hulse met him
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The Independent Online
"MANDELSON faces the full force of Harry Enfield," ran the headline in last Monday's Daily Mail. The story concerned the announcement of a BBC 50-minute special starring Harry Enfield, and the Mail was by no means the only newspaper to identify the programme's central character of Norman Normal, a politician who ends his career as special adviser to the "Millennium Dome Experience", as a parody of Peter Mandelson.

One assumes that Mr Mandelson's breakfast was not unduly disturbed by the threat of Harry Enfield's "full force". His last encounter with the television comedian was at a Labour drinks party in November, when a somewhat tired and emotional Enfield reportedly told him, "You're ghastly. Nobody likes you. You should resign or Tony Blair should sack you." Not exactly the sort of thing to cause our steely Minister without Portfolio to quake in his boots.

But another name in the report might have given him pause for thought. For the writer of this political parody is Craig Brown, a satirist with a reputation for cutting public figures down to size. What sport might he have with Mandelson?

None, as it happens. "Norman's not Peter Mandelson at all, he's a Conservative MP," says Brown, who recently completed the third draft of the script. He first came up with the idea some time ago, well before last year's election, and his aim was to do something along the lines of Enfield's acclaimed spoof bio-doc, Norbert Smith - A Life. Norman Normal's political career in fact begins in 1958 and he is indeed a Tory, although he eventually transfers his allegiance to New Labour. Asked how he thinks the press confusion about Mandelson arose, Brown says, "I suppose the journalists just saw the word 'Dome'. It would suit them to have another luvvie turning against New Labour," he adds, referring to Ben Elton's recent attack on the concept of "Cool Britannia".

It was something of an unusual experience for Brown to find his name in the middle of a newspaper report, since if it's to be found anywhere, it's normally at the top of one of his columns. And there are lots of them. There's his restaurant review for the Sunday Telegraph. There's his column for the Saturday Telegraph. There's his Bel Littlejohn column for the Guardian. There's his diary spoof for Private Eye. And, of course, there's his Wallace Arnold column for this newspaper.

Brown, who is 40, lives in a huge, rambling house in the seaside town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, and each morning after breakfast he climbs the stairs to his office on the top floor to set to work. At one end of the room there's a telescope pointing out to sea and at the other, surrounded by the jetsam of a writer's life - screwed up pieces of paper, pullovers, stray cushions, a single shoe - is the desk where he sits and where the words pour out of him. Whichever column he's writing, he'll be finished by lunchtime and can go and play tennis. Brown writes quickly, with an innate skill which was further honed by producing daily parliamentary sketches for the Times for a year. "If you don't think too hard about writing and just race at it, something more interesting happens," he says. He also talks blithely about writing at "a conversational pace", something which most writers, even Jeffrey Archer, can only dream about. The annual profit from this prolific output is in the six-figure range.

By his own admission, Brown's greatest talent, and his greatest selling point, is his skill at parody. "Other people can review restaurants and do the other bits and pieces," he says. "There are other people who do good parodies, but there aren't very many of them. It's not a very great talent, but I think I've got it." And at times he can be savage. In the past, he's carved up Cecil Parkinson, made mincemeat of Bienvenida Buck and left Taki bleeding on the floor. It's one good reason for living in Suffolk.

"I remember Kilroy once coming up to me at a party," he says. "He tapped me on the shoulder and said, [he adopts a slightly sinister Kilroy voice] 'So, Craig Brown, why do you say I'm sinister?' And suddenly you have to answer for yourself." He feels awkward in such situations and admires the likes of AN Wilson who are unaware of the power of their barbs. "I ran into him once and he said, 'Ann Leslie's just come up to me and been very rude to me. She was very upset and I can't remember what I wrote about her.' I said, 'Well, I remember.' It was only the week before and he'd called her 'a painted whore'. And he couldn't work out why she was upset!" he laughs.

The first thing his friends are quick to point out is the contrast between Brown the writer and Brown the man. The ravening beast that sits at his ancient Apple Macintosh is a gentle pussycat the rest of the time. He's a nice guy. Everyone says so. Apart from Brown. "I'm not, actually," he says. "I'm not incredibly unpleasant, but in a way I think you can judge whether you're nice or not by how you are with children, and I'm quite grumpy with them. I'm kind of tetchy." (He and his wife, Frances, who is also a journalist, have two children, nine-year-old Tallulah and seven- year-old Silas. They weren't around to be cross-questioned on their father's grumpiness.)

The day we met, Brown was wearing a thick corduroy suit and bright green suede shoes. He's a walking fashion disaster and freely admits he's often bought his clothes from Oxfam in the past. "I'm a dead man's shape," he says. His hair is something of a parody in itself. It sticks out at gravity- defying angles and appears to have been styled by Coco the Clown. "I try not to think about my hair," he says. "I went to a Spectator lunch a few years ago and I had a tie on and was thinking I looked quite smart. As I was getting there, I walked past some builders and one of them shouted out, 'Oi, it's Doddy!' It completely put me off and I felt very timid throughout lunch."

Brown went to Eton, where his contemporaries included Nicholas Coleridge, now managing director of Conde Nast, and Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph editor. But Brown and Eton didn't really go together. "As a pupil, I never felt in the right place at the right time wearing the right clothes in the right way," he once wrote in a long article about his early life. "I was always avoiding people, and making excuses, and not managing to learn things, and feeling anxious that around the next corner I would be found out. I never felt in place because I could not work out where my place was."

He did A-levels in English, theology and history of art and, as a gesture of rebellion, chose not to apply to Oxbridge but instead went to Bristol University to study drama. He'd always wanted to be a playwright or a novelist, so it seemed like an obvious step. But Brown and Bristol didn't go together either and he dropped out towards the end of his second year, "bored stiff". He moved to London and spent a couple of years idling days away at the French House pub in Soho and dipping his toes in the world of freelance journalism.

"It was quite difficult to place him in a social or class context, although he did go to Eton and all that," says Granta editor Ian Jack, who gave Brown occasional work on the Sunday Times "Atticus" column in those early days. "Both in the way he looked and in the way he thought, he was unpredictable. He had good ideas, and, of course, he finds writing distressingly easy. Things that would take most people half a day take him twenty minutes or half an hour. Lucky bastard," Jack concludes.

There have been occasional blips along the way - the stage version of The Marsh Marlowe Letters, his parody of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis letters, bombed in the West End, and he was sacked from his job as Sunday Times television reviewer by Andrew Neil - but on the whole Brown's rise has appeared as effortless as his prose. In 1993 he published a collection of his journalism, entitled Craig Brown's Greatest Hits, the cover featuring a hot-panted blonde, itself a parody of those Top of the Pops albums of the early Seventies. His peers were ardent in their admiration. "Craig Brown has a genius which transcends mere parody," wrote Auberon Waugh. "Craig Brown is astonishing, uncanny in his canniness, his every wicked paragraph doing what a born satirist is born to do," gushed Alan Coren.

And he's still churning it out. Apart from his daily grind of columns, he's just finished The Little Book of Chaos, a parody of The Little Book of Calm, and there's also a "Bel Littlejohn" book on the way, which will be called Hug Me While I Weep, For I Weep For The World. "Sometimes I think, 'Oh Christ, more jokes'," he says. "But there are much worse jobs. I think there's a thing with humorous writing where you kind of have your time in the sun. People think you're funny for a while and then you go off or people get sick of you. So I suppose that's one of the things that's made me write so much."

"Still, it's a nice life," I said.

He paused for a moment. "I suppose I can't really deny that," he replied.

Lucky bastard.

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