Rough diamonds: <i>The IoS</i> selects its alternative national treasures

They are just that bit more interesting. Matthew Bell reports

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Sunday 03 May 2009 00:00 BST

It's been a busy week for Joanna Lumley. Securing British citizenship for 36,000 war heroes and sparking a House of Commons revolt is more than even Saffy could hope to achieve, let alone Patsy. But in winning her long-fought campaign to welcome home the Gurkhas, Lumley has found herself a new home too. She has secured a berth in that peculiar tier of the celebrity pecking order – at one remove from the A-Z list – as a living national treasure.

Up there with Alan Bennett and David Attenborough, Geoffrey Boycott and Elton John – they're the untouchable heroes without whom Britain would not be Britain. You used to know one the minute they bobbed up on Parky (a long-standing NT himself) – Ronnie Corbett, Judi Dench, Bruce Forsyth and Shirley Williams. Happy in their own skins and free from aspiration, they have no side to them and through sheer decency transcend their given professions as objects of national pride. Despite the fickleness of editors, they will always make a splash thanks to their bounce-back-ability.

A poll by the British Library and a Sunday newspaper decided on the ultimate top 50, which included Cliff Richard, Margaret Thatcher and Richard Branson – note they're so established to have been recognised by the Queen (a crown jewel herself). But in the week in which the casket of national treasures was flung open and Joanna Lumley officially added to the pile, here at The Independent on Sunday we thought it would be more interesting to rummage around the bottom and pick out the rough diamonds in there too.

They're the ones who make our lives better despite the occasional slip of the halo. Perhaps they're not safe enough to be embraced comfortably by middle England; they have hearts of gold but come with a past; they certainly make us smile but we might think twice before introducing them to the in-laws.

If one of the defining features of a national treasure is universal appeal, rough diamonds are more likely to divide opinion. While it's hard to think of anyone objecting to June Whitfield or Joan Bakewell, Jo Brand is no less a talent, but would you want to hug her? Bobby Charlton may be a legend, but it was to Gazza that the literary magazine Granta once dedicated a whole issue. It's not hard to imagine someone one day organising an annual ball for national treasures, but a get-together of rough diamonds would be like herding cats. They are a disparate bunch, united only by their differences.

National treasures have necessarily achieved the bulk of their life's work but they never quite retire from public life; rough diamonds come and go with much less ease. Advanced age certainly helps to make a national treasure – typically they're at least 50, sport a genial smile and are loved all the more for a few crinkles. The youngest age limit in the national treasury is Stephen Fry, but rough diamonds come in all ages. It was as an old woman that Caroline Ahern showed her genius, but if ever there was a rough diamond it was Mrs Merton. Charlotte Church is too young to be a national treasure, but the nation would be poorer without her.

So here in your cut-out- and-keep guide to the rough diamonds of Britain, we've selected the top 10 figures who will never be "institutions", but who deserve two cheers for that very reason. The decent people of Britain might always love Cliff Richard, but wouldn't you rather have a pint with Keith Richards?

Charlotte Church Singer

With the voice of an angel and face to match, Charlotte Church was all set for national treasure territory when she first opened her lungs aged 11. But after those early days of Susan Boyle-style hysteria, Church ran away from home, discovered sex, cigarettes and drink, and fell out with her parents. Now back on track, we're not sure about the TV show and reserve judgement on the pop songs too, but there's something winning about this fallen angel. Full marks for rakishness.

Vivienne Westwood Fashion designer

Even when picking up a damehood, Vivienne Westwood cocked a snook by not wearing knickers. Not for her the demands of convention. As the mother of punk, she's been ripping up the rulebook for decades; that's one reason she's married to a man half her age. The clothes have a cult following but nobody can wear them quite like she can. We hardly need explain why we love this fire-haired 68-year-old. The name of her shop says it all: Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die.

Jo Brand Comedian

She may look like John Sergeant and sound permanently bored, but does Jo Brand care? Effortlessly hilarious, the psychiatric nurse turned comedian is too risqué to join the establishment. Described by The Sun as a 'hideous old boiler', she gets marks for sticking two fingers up to looksism. Because her routine centres on feminism, she says she's always described as a lesbian. 'I've read it so many times I've started to believe it.' We give her points for overcoming a bad past after running away with a heroin addict at 16.

Craig Murray Former ambassador

Britain is a better place now that Craig Murray has returned. As ambassador to Uzbekistan, Murray witnessed the UK's changing attitude to torture, and rather than keep it under his hat, came back and revealed all. He had his own problems, what with the drinking and leaving his wife for a dancer. But after a breakdown, he has bounced back to become a fully fledged member of the awkward squad. The Foreign Office may have disowned him, but we welcome him with open arms.

Jimmy White Snooker player

Blowing a fortune isn't normally enough to merit a place in the history books, but snooker champion Jimmy White set the bar. "You can only reach the highest peaks of heaven if you have first touched your feet on the floor of the inferno," Kazantzakis tells us St Francis said. Jimmy has certainly taken the words to heart. Drinking and gambling did nothing to diminish his standing as one of the top snooker players. Bankruptcy got him back on track, and he is now a professional poker player.

Kathy Burke Actress

Kathy Burke once told Helena Bonham Carter to "shut up you stupid cunt" for complaining how difficult it was being a pretty and middle-class actress. A proud Londoner with a proper cockney accent, Burke is a heroic smoker and swears like a navvy. She's made it into Who's Who, but vows never to stop being frank about her difficult childhood and her struggle to get where she is. Hard to pigeonhole, Burke is a rare gem.

Fern Britton Television presenter

Nobody likes a liar, but it took Fern Britton to tell some porky pies before we knew she was sound. Why shouldn't she install a gastric band and keep it a secret? Those who felt misled by her adverts for Ryvita could soon forgive her by reading her memoir, Fern: My Story, which brimmed with optimism despite some dark secrets from her past. She deserves a gong just for putting up with Phillip Schofield for so long.

Keith Richards Musician

After one bender lasting nine days, Keith Richards eventually fell asleep, but standing up. Next thing he'd fallen and smashed his nose. Not many people could get a huge autobiography deal despite not remembering much after years of drink, drugs and rock'n'roll. As cool as Jagger, the hellraiser has written world-changing riffs. He's nowhere more at home these days than at his cottage in West Wittering. "The World's Most Elegantly Wasted Human Being" finds a special place in our list.

Dennis Skinner MP

The third of nine children of a miner, Dennis Skinner has never wavered in his loyalty to the working-class cause. All right, so he might live in Chelsea, but there's nothing he likes more than asking questions about fellow MPs' expenses. As he says: "If you missed a shift at the pit, you would get the sack." Tony Benn might be friendlier, but we like our socialists loud and tetchy. The Beast of Bolsover never minded being chucked out of the Commons; we need more like him in politics.

Pete Postlethwaite Actor

Steven Spielberg says he's "the best actor in the world", but who else gets excited about Pete Postlethwaite? The Warrington-born actor has been in nearly as many films as Michael Caine but nobody raises an eyebrow when he announces he is returning to the theatre to star in King Lear. It's not just his acting we like – as a good environmentalist, he told Ed Miliband he would hand back his OBE if the Kingsnorth power station is built.

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