The Mail's chief pie-chucker lets fly at those without The X Factor

The acidic sketch writer Quentin Letts detests bog-standard Britain and thinks Simon Cowell should be in the Cabinet. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 02 November 2009 01:00

How would Nicholas John Griffin, member of the European Parliament for North West England, be portrayed by the unforgiving pen of Quentin Letts, the most waspish of Westminster sketch writers and the political journalist of the year?

That’s Letts of the Daily Mail who describes John Prescott as “having the manners of a flatulent caveman”, lampoons Speaker John Bercow as a “ludicrously orotund midget”, and depicted Lord Sugar, on the grand occasion of his admission to the Upper House, as “television’s runtiest little rooster”.

So, Nick Griffin? “He’s quite camp in some ways and then there’s the eye, he has almost the look of a starling with a sort of beak and those bird-like eyes, I’m not sure there’s the most tremendous brain in there, although he’s fluent and horribly plausible in some ways,” he says. “He seems to be very keen on pastel pinks, and his ties are the sorts of thing footballers wore in the 1980s.” An oily-looking perching bird with a penchant for pastels is probably not quite the image of Anglo-Saxon masculinity that the stylists at the British National Party were looking for.

Letts, in spite of his right-winger’s distrust of Europe, is breaking his fast on croissants, continental style. He is in the dining area of the Savile Club, in London’s Mayfair, where he stays three nights of the week, enabling him to write theatre reviews for the Mail, file by 10pm and later retire to his “monk’s cell” in an 18th century institution where past members include Darwin and Kipling. He is looking forward to Prime Minister’s Questions at midday and the evening launch of his new book, for which an opera singer has been booked to sing “Rule Britannia”.

But these are difficult times for Fleet Street polemicists (“we pie-chuckers” as he calls them), vulnerable as they are to libel lawyers rampaging on conditional fee agreements and the mass protests generated by Twitter. His Mail colleague Jan Moir, who criticised the gay lifestyle of singer Stephen Gately after he died from natural causes, has found herself the subject of a record 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

“Poor old Jan, yes, she stepped on a landmine with that,” he says of an article published the day before Gately’s funeral. “I think [she was criticised] a bit unfairly. The timing in retrospect might have been bad but I think she was saying things that an awful lot of people in this country would slightly suspect as well. You always want to be first with a controversial theory and point of view but it’s like judging the moment to overtake a long lorry.”

Letts has had his own share of legal correspondence of late, emanating from Herbert Smith, the heavyweight London law firm which represents Lord Sugar. In a radio interview, Letts suggested that the host of The Apprentice was, as he puts it subsequently, a “less than intellectual political ingenue who had been ennobled owing to his TV fame”.

While others might have quaked at gravely worded threats of a court hearing, demands for damages and a humiliating public apology, Letts was rather amused by the behaviour of Messrs Smith, promising he’d get back to them in due course, a message he conveyed on a picture postcard of Herefordshire, where he lives in an old mill with his wife and children, when not staying at the Savile. He then used the legal correspondence as material for his Saturday column in the Mail, to the fury of Sugar’s brief, Alan Watts, who complained bitterly of a breach in confidence. That too went straight in the paper. “Well, sorry, comrade,” Letts advised Watts, “but I reckon a letter becomes the property of its recipient. If it includes threats to my freedom of expression, they need to be reported to my readers.”

He seems confident to have seen off the action – “I think they have given up – they haven’t sent a letter for at least a month” – but that may change with the publication of Bog Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great Nation, a chapter of which is dedicated to a further onslaught on “Sugarlump”, as Letts calls him, admitting Herbert Smith “will be crawling all over it”.

It’s not that he hates everybody in modern British life. He thinks the aspirational Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances is unfairly maligned. Surprisingly, he is a great fan of Simon Cowell, who he sees as a champion of competitive spirit and a future education secretary. “We’ve been told for years that the country cannot accept selection on merit and that grammar schools mustn’t exist because it’s too cruel to snap the dreams of a child like a Twiglet. Then along comes Simon Cowell and does this every week. They have 15 seconds and most fail and trudge away and the audience loves it. “Simon Cowell has reintroduced the respectability of failure and of selection on merit.” His book is a rant about “boggish”, egalitarian, modern life, where successful people feel comfortable dropping aitches, dressing-down and addressing each other as “mate”. This is infuriating to Letts, who grew up in a prep school owned by his father and cites Wodehouse and Trollope as his literary heroes.

He is boyish-looking for 46, mischievous of tongue and, by his own admission, runs “rather easily to fat”. Sat before his fellow sketchers he might inspire thoughts of a gobstopper-sucking, catapult-wielding Fat Owl of the Remove.

Sometimes he just despairs. In his book, Letts recalls visiting Bournemouth to sketch a party conference only to find himself “mooned by gaggles of boozed-up hen-nighters”. “A ripe eyeful I can tell you,” he says. “Our Patterdale terrier bitch behaves in much the same way when she is on heat.”

He wishes we Britons could raise our collective bar so that someone as “pretty average” as Jonathan Ross was not the best-paid person at the BBC. The management of the corporation is a great Letts bugbear. He subjected the BBC1 controller Jay Hunt, pictured right, to an attack so personal and poisonous that it shocked the television industry. “Blonde-bobbed Jay”, he described as “lean-lipped and ever so faintly humourless” with a “killer kitten smile”, who should have resigned for running a media training company that worked with BBC clients.

Like the scalding of the Bournemouth hens, there’s a whiff of misogyny about the language but I have no more chance of hearing an apology than Alan Sugar’s lawyers. “She’s a prime example of the BBC’s failing not to raise the ambitions of the public,” he says of Hunt, berating her repositioning of Countryfile as “Blue Peter with some new Wellington boots”. Hunt, “should be sacked, she shouldn’t be chasing ratings, she should be trying to show that the BBC is about public service, which is about raising standards”.

He is similarly caustic about the arts establishment. Mention of the Tate’s director Sir Nicholas Serota causes Letts to cry out: “Give me a gibbet, give me a length of rope!” The regulars at London’s Royal Court Theatre are a “miserable, world-weary bunch … with their clip-on exhaustion and their vegetarianised appetites.”

Yet Quentin himself is tiring. He might even pack it all in after the election. “I may have to give up, I think I’ve probably done it long enough,” he says.

Is he serious? “I’m getting knackered. Journalism nowadays, you start to run out of ink, to keep the ideas going and to get up in the morning…”

Many parliamentarians and senior figures in the media and arts will hope it’s true, that Letts is really going to hunker down in his Herefordshire mill to forever watch re-runs of The X Factor. But don’t bet on it, mate.

“Bog-Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great Nation” is published by Constable £12.99

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