Celebrity biographies: Who do they think they are?

Getting desperate over your gift-buying? In part two of our Christmas Books special, we assess the season's car-crash celebrity memoirs, plus the best in music, politics, football, film, poetry and comics

By Matthew Sweet
Sunday 16 December 2007 01:00

You think you're safe from celebrities, but you're so not. The other day I was doing some research in a respectably unsexy archive wood-effect concrete, strip-lights, nylon carpet tiles, huddles of reassuringly boot-faced academics and looked up from my work to see Patsy Kensit, hunkering down over a box-file of genealogical gubbins. Accompanied, of course, by a stylist, the archivist whogot lucky in the sit-next-to-Patsy tombola, and the director and camera crew from Who Do You Think You Are?

In Patsy's case, the question is easy to answer. She's that girl off the pea advert who keeps marrying rock stars. But for those toilers and turns and has-beens and wannabes unfortunate enough to miss out on a charmed hour of family-history prime-time, there's always the printed word. And Christmas is when they choose to inflict it upon us.

So here's Leslie Ash on the cover of My Life Behaving Badly (Orion 18.99), smiling uncertainly with that mouth-like object between her nose and her chin, as if she too were troubled by the syntactic confusion in the title of her memoir. Is it life or Leslie herself who is guilty of bad behaviour? She's with the former, and I think I am too. True, nobody forced her to have that famously piscine labial surgery, but neither did she ask for the other medical woes detailed in her book: an abscess on her spinal cord, toxoplasmosis, a broken pelvis, hospital-grade trapped wind. Ash's book is a top read for the sick-room. Harriet Martineau might have liked it, if she'd been a fan of Men Behaving Badly.

Ash also fingers her sister, Debbie, with the charge of bad behaviour. In the 1970s, Debbie was much more famous than Leslie, but when that was no longer the case, Debbie started to furnish the red-tops with stories about her sister. That's probably why, when Leslie tells us she had a small part in the British sexploitation film Rosie Dixon Night Nurse, she fails to mention that she got it because Debs was playing the title role. There's clearly some excitingly minor and mildewed British version of Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud to be written about this pair. John Waters could direct the movie.

In one of the most entertaining sections of the book, Leslie takes us back to her alma mater, the Italia Conti stage school, where she, Bonnie Langford, Lena Zavaroni and Rosemarie Hetherington of Legs & Co were taught improv by the master, Melvyn Hayes out of It Ain't Half Hot Mum. The biggest celebrity book this Christmas is the work of another Italia Conti alumnus: Russell Brand, back-combed darling of tabloid gossip columnists, the biggest thing on Radio 2 and to my mind, the only modern comic who'd be able to hold his own if he found himself propelled through time and deposited on the stage of the Britannia Music Hall, Hoxton, in 1865.

His title, My Booky Wook (Hodder 18.99) is painful. The text is, too, but for much more complex reasons. There are things here that Rousseau would never have 'fessed up to. A heroin-addled attempt to steal a pickled foetus from a hospital lab, in the hope of selling a story about aliens to The Sun. A father-and-son sex holiday in Thailand. Smashing the mobile phone of a prostitute during a bout of half-hearted coitus. Taking a reluctant Rob Brydon to an Athenian brothel where the clients are encouraged to indicate their interest in the staff by picking them out with a laser pen-torch. It's sometimes hard to work out why he's letting you in on this stuff and how self-critical he's being as he does so. But here's a clue. "What I've learnt to my cost," he writes, "is that people will put up will all manner of bad behaviour so long as you're giving them what they want... but the minute you're not, you're fucked." Perhaps that moment is approaching.

Staying, just for a moment, with Radio 2's stable of former drug fiends, let's note that Johnnie Walker, the DJ named after a whisky but more firmly associated in the minds of News of the World readers at least with a less legal narcotic, has written Johnnie Walker The Autobiography (Michael Joseph 18.99). That's what the title page insists, anyway. Clearly the book is really the work of Steve Coogan, who's used it to find a home for off-cut Partridgisms that didn't make it to BBC2. It's very funny. I loved the bit where he brags about the impact of the "harder, more direct style" that he brought to the early evening schedules of a local radio station in Bristol. I also loved his reply to the offer of a job from the boss of Wiltshire Radio: "I'm flattered by the offer, Ralph, but why would I want to leave a big station in the media centre of the South West to come to your much smaller station with far fewer listeners?" The bit about living in a caravan somewhere off Junction 15 of the M4, though that's been done before. It's a pretty effective comic hoax. I hope the real Johnnie Walker sees the funny side and doesn't sue the publisher.

Less amusing, surprisingly, is Alan Alda's Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself (Hutchinson 17.99), which is a collection of would be-wise speeches given by the actor, mainly while accepting honorary degrees. I laughed at the story of how he stopped the Orient Express with a grease-spotted sandwich-wrapper; the rest was just like being lectured by somebody's smug, rich dad.

Alda isn't the only actor who likes the feel of a lectern. Some Sort of a Life (Oberon 19.99) documents the theatrical and rhetorical but mainly rhetorical triumphs of Miriam Karlin, the performer who remains stubbornly known for blowing a whistle and ordering everyone to down tools in the shop-floor sit-com The Rag Trade. Karlin's best stories are self-deprecating, like the one about the woman who collars her in the lav and exclaims, "I've been such a fan of yours. I've often wondered why you haven't gone further." But the book is most valuable as a record of how politicised a profession acting once was; how the struggle against General Pinochet or Enoch Powell was, for many

thesps, as much part of the job as learning the lines and trying not to bump into the furniture. She seems to have annoyed all the right people. In the 1970s, the National Front congratulated Karlin for her work with the Anti-Nazi League by shoving excrement through her letterbox. "I think that the majority of people probably have all kinds of prejudices deep down," she says wisely. "The way I look at it, it's like a dustbin where you know there are maggots. It's betterto keep the lid firmly down."

Down there in the reeking feculence, she might find a copy of James Whale's memoir, Almost a Celebrity: A lifetime of night-time (Michael O'Mara 18.99). Or possibly the man himself. Like Karlin, Whale has opinions. He thinks that we should "reclaim this country for its own inhabitants". He thinks that white middle-class men are "an endangered species". He thinks that we shouldcastrate criminals and "breed out the inadequates". Well, of course he does. He's a late-night radio phone-in host and when those drunk, friendless, recently-divorced UKIP voters dial in to evacuate their ramblings on political correctness and asylum-seekers and the compulsory bar-coding of the HIV-positive, he has to do something to make them feel at home.

Almost a Celebrity contains much well-rehearsed ranting of this kind as well as the interesting claim that in the 1970s, its author "appeared regularly on Doctor Who" a fact unrecorded by the vast scholarship in this area and one that he strangely failed to mention when he hosted a Who-themed edition of his own show. Whale is an open-minded kind of cetacean, though. David Icke, he argues, "makes a lot of sense". That would be the David Icke who asserts that the late Bob Hope, Ted Heath and Boxcar Willie were part of a secret society of shape-shifting kiddie-fiddling alien reptiles who adumbrated their evil masterplan in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "I believe," says Whale of Icke, "that he's beginning to be taken more seriously." Sorry, James, I'm going to have to cut you off there. And myself, too.

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