Roger Scruton

I discovered Roger Scruton’s true identity quite by accident, while listening to an interview I’d taped with him. There it was: a perfectly normal, if slightly lispy voice belonging to an earnest, 16-year-old public schoolboy. At first, I thought I had picked up the wrong tape. Only when my own voice came on – Mickey Mouse on helium, the normal sound of speeded up human speech – did I realise that I had flicked on the fast-play mode on my recorder.
Scruton, it seems, is a 16-year-old trapped in a 52-year-old body. As with Dorian Gray’s picture, the exterior has aged while the inner voice, the ‘identity of self’ he so often writes about, has remained young. If you don’t believe me, try taping Radio 4’s The Moral Maze next time he’s on the panel. Listen to his slow, ponderous monotone and then play it back at speed. I know it’s childish, but I promise it will make you smile.
This discovery is only amusing, of course, because Roger Scruton is gravitas incarnate and he’s quite intimidating to boot – and not just because he has a brain the size of Denmark (the double first, the professorship) and because he is a Renaissance man with a capital R (barrister, novelist, opera composer, journalist, author of 20 academic books on subjects ranging from architecture to sexual desire, and organist at his local church). It’s to do, too, with his repertoire of facial expressions: he hasn’t got one. Instead, his pale angular features are frozen in an impersonation of the sinister German dentist-torturer played by Laurence Olivier in ‘Marathon Man’. As Scruton himself once said of his inflexible face and voice: ‘I can’t simultaneously develop an argument and appear like a human being.’
He does smile occasionally, but even this is intimidating: more a tight grimace. Even his fiery hair is a bit scary. As for his name – well, Maurice Saatchi couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate monicker for a right-wing polemicist who’s been accused, over the years, of everything from racism to homophobia to, probably, global warming. Try saying it. Roger Scruton. It’s brutal. It’s stark. It almost snarls at you. Can it be just coincidence that the closest word in the dictionary is ‘scruto’, a trap door? ‘Actually,’ says Roger Scruton, as he prepares to drive off in his battered old Land-Rover, one of his rare, taut grins playing about his face, ‘it’s an old Yorkshire name. It means one who treats dandruff sufferers.’
Two hours earlier, Roger Vernon Scruton looks blank as he opens the door of his Wiltshire farmhouse. ‘Forgot you were coming,’ he eventually says in his Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android voice. This is as it should be. You wouldn’t expect Britain’s most famous philosopher to consult his diary every day. Nor would you expect him to dress up for the occasion, even if he had remembered you were driving all the way down from London to visit him on his remote 35-acre farm with its four horses, orchard and ducks. He hasn’t, and he is wearing a blue moth-eaten tank top, grubby trousers and no shoes (but grey school socks that are threadbare and inside out). ‘Follow me,’ he says, and leads me through the kitchen and in to a sitting room that is – despite the log burner, the chairs that don’t match, the hunting horn, the Wagner recordings scattered on the floor, the small painting of a saddleback pig and the large portrait of Lord Fairfax in long wig and armour – somehow austere.
On the windowsill is a photo of two riders clearing a jump. One is Scruton, the other Sophie Jeffreys, the handsome, blonde 24-year-old he is marrying on 7 December. ‘This photo’, he says, ‘shows her competence and my incompetence.’ You can see what he means: he has a shocked look on his bespectacled face and is joggling awkwardly out of his saddle; her seat is perfect. ‘We met out hunting, believe it or not,’ he says. Sophie Jeffreys is half-sister to Lord Jeffreys, a Conservative peer who shares Scruton’s passion for country sports. She is also a descendant of Judge Jeffreys, whose enthusiasm for capital punishment you might expect Scruton to share. (Scruton is, after all, the man who once quipped on The Moral Maze that, ‘Punishment is a good thing. There should be more of it, and it should be more severe.’)
The couple are, by all accounts, smitten. The age difference seems not to be a barrier. Nor does Scruton’s contempt for television (he won’t allow a set in the house) nor his disdain for pop music. When asked if he worries that the marital home might be filled with the sound of Oasis, for instance, Scruton says: ‘No. She is very much not that sort of person. She has the same outlook as I have. She loves, as I do, classical music, architecture and the countryside. Old-fashioned decencies. Not a television-watching type. I don’t think there will be any conflict.’
No kidding. Scruton’s latest book, out this month, was tried out on his fiancée first – and she suggested some ‘vital improvements’. It’s called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy and its modest aim is to rescue mankind from the trivialising uncertainty of science and to ‘replace the sarcasm which knows that we are merely animals, with the irony which sees we are not’. In recognition of the improvements suggested, Scruton considered renaming the book An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Philosophy. Given that his last novel, Xanthippic Dialogues (1993), was essentially a send-up of scholarly writing in which Scruton draped himself in the clothes of Ancient Greek women the better to debate such topics as the role of the individual in society, you suspect that he may be only half joking.
All this might make you think that Scruton lacks the lightness of touch necessary to become a living national treasure, in the tradition of ‘Freddie’ Ayer and ‘Bertie’ Russell. I’m not so sure. There is, for instance, a story about Scruton’s time at Cambridge: when his girlfriend’s clothes were discovered in his college room – a serious offence – he told his tutor the clothes were his, and that he needed them because he was a transvestite. In fact, it could be that his sense of humour is so dry it is misinterpreted as pretentiousness. As a teenager, while at High Wycombe Grammar School, Scruton was accused of riding on the London Tube without a ticket. The case was made rather more serious by the allegation that he had given a false name to the police. This was solemnly read out in court as John Stuart Mill. And when once asked by the Guardian what phrase he most overused, he said, ‘the transcendental unity of apperception’. He added that his favourite smell was the French Literature section of the London Library.
The Cambridge don John Casey once said that Scruton’s philosophical armour-plating hides a quixotic, absurdist nature. It is an astute observation, even if the absurd aspects of Scruton’s life are not always intentional. In 1989, for example, I heard him give the inaugural lecture of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in a lecture hall at Durham University. As he was talking, a choir began practising in the next room. The choir grew louder and louder, until everyone else in the hall had to bite on their knuckles to avoid sniggering. But Scruton was unruffled. He did not smile, raise his soft, low voice, or vary his measured, monotone delivery, as if it were for him an everyday occurrence to be accompanied by a heavenly choir. It got worse. Later that night, I gave him a lift back to Durham Castle where he was staying in the Bishop’s Suite. Thinking I had got him back just before the Castle gates closed at midnight, I did not wait to see that he was let in. He wasn’t, and, next day, the campus was tittering with tales of how Scruton’s wan and wraith-like figure had been sighted flitting through the cobbled backstreets of Durham at two in the morning, still looking for a policeman to help him.
Scruton stares out of the window and, with limp fingers, drags on a fat cigar. ‘What’, he asks, ‘would you like to talk about now?’ Well, we could start with Animal Rights and Wrongs, a book he brought out in the summer. Or the First of June Prize, the award he was given this year by the people of the Czech Republic in recognition of the role he played in overthrowing Communism. But we plump, instead, for Modern Philosophy, out in paperback this year. When it was published, The Times devoted a leader to it, not least because it is, unlike most books on philosophy, readable and lucid, conveying complex ideas in a conversational style – or, as Scruton puts it, expressing the problems of the head in the language of the heart. Judged in this light, Scruton has earned a place on the same pedestal as Russell and Ayer – for what they, too, had was a gift for sharing their wisdom with others. Unlike them, though, he is not the apple of academe’s eye. Professor Ted Honderich of University College, London, for instance, went so far as to call him ‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’. (Scruton retaliated by calling Honderich ‘the thinking man’s unthinking man’.)
And if an Oxford chair once beckoned, it was off the cards once Scruton wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980. ‘After that book,’ Scruton says, ‘it was ruled out that I would ever gain the highest of academic honours. Even if I deserved them. Which I didn’t. But being free from the possibility of those ambitions enabled me to write rude and disgraceful things about the intellectual establishment. It meant I was free to say some really enjoyable and unpleasant things and thereby give pleasure to others.’
He denies, though, that he makes his caustic comments solely because it excites him to do so. ‘No, I don’t enjoy being controversial, but it is enjoyable telling the truth about a conspiracy of silence or an established lie. If you are a right-wing academic, your colleagues think that you are not a proper philosopher at all. My right-wing stance has always heavily compromised my career. If you criticise the whole idea of human equality, which is basically what I do, you are going against a prevalent quasi-religious orthodoxy.’
His many enemies accuse him, though, of striking poses rather than expressing deeply held conservative convictions. The exhibitionist who subverts liberal pieties through ridicule, who declares unambiguously that there are no natural human rights, who describes democracy as a wildly raging contagion is, they say, exactly the sort of masochist who would take up fox-hunting at the age of 45 simply because he knew socialists would hate him for it.
There is, undoubtedly, a combative side to his nature, but it’s a mistake to suggest, as the Guardian once did, that his most controversial views – on multicultural education, say, or homosexuality – are just expressions of prejudice. Unlike true bigots, he welcomes serious debate and, you suspect, secretly wishes someone would come along and free him from his martyr’s cross by persuading him that his ‘offensive’ believes were wrong. ‘I don’t want to be right-wing,’ he says, ‘but I just am.’ He is similarly reluctant to set himself up as a moral arbiter, but he can’t help himself. ‘I have thousands of weaknesses and sins, like everyone else. I spend a lot of time regretting what I’ve done, feeling remorse for bad behaviour.’
It is depressing to consider the paradox implied by this. Here is an intellectual who feels he has to live with the indignity of upholding populist views that even some London taxi drivers might consider unsophisticated. Here is an essentially private, almost shy man who has felt obliged to court publicity all his life, even to the extent of appearing on television, a medium he despises. And here is a man who feels he has had no choice but to make himself unpopular with liberals even though he says he found the sack-loads of hate mail he has received over the years hurtful: ‘You’d think I would get used to it, but I don’t.’
It needn’t have been like this. Roger Scruton’s father was a Socialist. And so was Roger Scruton – until he went to teach at a French university, just before the country was torn apart by the student revolution of 1968. After this, Scruton became vehemently anti-Communist. Personal experience confirmed his views: ‘When I started visiting Eastern Europe and acquired friends there, I became indignant and frightened on their behalf. I had an experience of evil: the systematic negation of the human spirit. If you wanted a description of the devil’s work, that would be it: the world devoid of human spirit and freedom.’
In 1979, Roger Scruton was invited to address an underground seminar in Prague – ‘In a Communist society everything is forbidden unless permitted, the opposite of our assumption. Nobody had ever permitted anyone to gather in a private apartment and discuss philosophy, therefore it was considered a crime by the secret police.’ Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic, was one of the students Scruton taught. Scruton learnt Czech, helped set up a resistance movement and found himself cast in the role of Scarlet Pimpernel – before eventually being arrested and expelled.
Whatever kudos this might have earned Scruton among the bien pensants was dispelled in 1982, when he set up The Salisbury Review, a right-wing magazine, and published Education and Race, an article by a Bradford schoolteacher, Ray Honeyford, which advocated that immigrants should be taught without respect for cultural difference. This established Scruton in the public consciousness as the natural successor to the other inflammatory right-winger Enoch Powell. Wherever Scruton went, demonstrators would be waiting. Some of his lectures had to be cancelled because city councils could not guarantee his safety.
Enoch Powell is one of Scruton’s heroes, along with Kant and Wittgenstein. ‘Enoch Powell suffered much more than me. He said things that all decent Englishmen in their hearts believes. But in the wrong tone of voice, and when it was so unfashionable. It became possible to label him…’ He hesitates. ‘In the most damning ways. I think he was very brave and stood for the right things, but he would not have made a good prime minister because he was totally unsound on the question of Communism and Russia. He never saw what it meant. He had a romantic 19th-century view of how great powers worked. For him it was as if Disraeli and Bismarck were still dividing up the Balkans.’
Scruton doesn’t think he would have made a good prime minister, either. ‘I did put myself forward as a Conservative candidate, about 20 years ago, ‘ he admits. ‘I had an interview with some old blue-rinse at Central Office but I was judged to be far too intellectual and was told to go away. I think they were right. I didn’t have the temperament to be a politician.’
One enduring myth about Scruton is that it was Powell who persuaded him to take up fox-hunting because to do so was every true Conservative’s duty. ‘He didn’t really get me into hunting but he did sell me his hunting gear,’ Scruton recalls. ‘I happened to be sitting next to him at a dinner when he said he was giving up. I was a bit poor at the time so I offered to buy his second hand clothes. I’ve still got his jacket but it never was quite big enough for me. It split down the seams. The story goes that when someone asked Powell about the hunting clothes, he said, ‘We’re just about the same size. Physically, I mean, not intellectually.’
It’s his physical being, really, that provides Scruton’s strongest claim to the status of national institution. The subject of hunting suddenly reminds Scruton that he is supposed to be picking up a horse, even as we speak. As he rushes outside to hitch up a rusty trailer to his Land-Rover, he becomes distracted by a chicken that has escaped from its coop. It looks at him quizzically as he potters across the field towards it, making clucking noises. As he draws closer he spreads his arms wide, and assumes a shuffling crouch, as though trying to hypnotise the bird. It is a comical sight. Gloriously undignified. And, yes, utterly endearing. Like the 16-year-old’s voice on the tape, it serves to remind you of a sentence in Scruton’s new book: ‘We all know in our hearts, even if we never put the matter in words, that the human subject is the strangest thing that we encounter.’
This appeared in November 1996. Sophie Scruton gave birth to a son, Samuel, in November 1998. Roger Scruton declared that Sam would not enjoy his childhood but would be more enjoyable company as a consequence. Sam would not be allowed to watch television or listen to pop, instead he would hunt, learn Greek by the age of six, as John Stuart Mill had done, and  learn the viola, because it is not much fun to play.
In 2002 the philosopher came unstuck briefly when he lost his column on the FT, after it was revealed he was receiving £60,000 a year to influence the media on behalf of a Japanese tobacco company.


Tim Rice

It’s all that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fault. If it hadn’t been for his soppy influence, Sir Tim Rice could have been a serious rock ‘n’ roller: helping Keith Moon throw television sets out of hotel windows; hanging out with John and Yoko as they lived off a diet of champagne, caviar and heroin; and generally having some phreaked-out phun with the children of the revolution. But, oh no. What was Tim Rice doing in 1968 instead? Touring provincial schools with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, that’s what. These aren’t Sir Tim’s exact words but, as we sit sipping coffee on a drizzly Sunday morning in his Thameside house in Barnes, you can tell that’s what he’s thinking. Suddenly feeling rather sorry for him, I suggest that Joseph was a little bit trippy, what with all that psychedelic dreamcoat stuff.
‘Not really,’ he says, in his mild, buttery soft voice. ‘The lyrics were more influenced by Fifties semi-cabaret numbers like “Mud, mud, glorious mud.” Then, regretting the admission, he adds: ‘Oh, I suppose we were vaguely influenced by all that Sixties stuff. I mean, I was really a rocker at heart.’
There. He’s said it. He may be 52, the thinning hair brushed over his ears and forward over his brow may have silvered, and he may be wearing a blue pully, comfortable shoes and pressed jeans that ride up to expose pale grey socks when he sits down. But in his daydreams, Timothy Miles Blindon Rice is still 22, his hair is shoulder length and he is wearing leathers.
In fact, he thinks that if he hadn’t met Lloyd Webber in 1965 he might have become a rock star. ‘I did sing with one or two bands,’ he says. It’s true. Whang and the Cheviots, for one. But they disbanded because none of the members could agree on who was supposed to be Whang. Not that one feels they’d have got too far in the Age of Aquarius – one musician at a Superstar recording session was chided by Rice with the words, ‘Oh, good heavens! You’re not stoned again?’
But the point is taken: Rice was in the right place at the right time. EMI records. As a management trainee. ‘In one sense,’ he recalls, ‘I was at the centre of what was going on. The whole of EMI revolved around the next Beatles single. Even a junior employee like me got to hear the acetate of Sgt Pepper a week before the common herd got it!’
Then again, if he hadn’t met Lloyd Webber, he wouldn’t be celebrating the 25th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which opens soon at London’s newly restored Lyceum theatre. ‘Superstar holds up wonderfully,’ Rice says. ‘But almost every work of art is about one thing – getting old. Everyone over the age of 40 is aware of time rushing by. At least one has the consolation of knowing one made it.’
In material terms, Rice has certainly done that. The three musicals he wrote with Lloyd Webber – Joseph, Superstar and Evita, as hep cats everywhere shorten their titles –  have made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. The Superstar album alone sold a staggering six million copies. ‘I get so many Americans come up to me now and say “Gee, when I was at school Superstar was the record we played all that year.” In its way, it was just as big as Sgt Pepper.’ And, as if all those royalties weren’t enough to retire on, Rice co-wrote Chess, co-founded Pavilion Books, wrote the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, carried off two Oscars for songs in the Disney movies Alladin and The Lion King, and – may the Lord have mercy on his soul – has now written the lyrics for Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff.
His genius for satisfying the demands of popular but middle-of-the-road culture have made him very comfortable indeed. In fact, as one looks around the conservatory in which we are sitting, the words ‘cosy’ and ‘comfortable’ keep popping back unbidden to mind. Hanging from the ceiling are cuddly toy parakeets. On one wall, there are pen and ink drawings of Victorian cricketers. On another is a glass cabinet containing nine international caps, signed by nine international cricket captains.
We are even on a comfortable sofa. And though Rice occasionally clasps his hands together on his lap, and though he rarely makes contact with his pale blue eyes, preferring instead to address his comments to a large, comfortably cuddly toy lion sitting on a chair opposite him, for the most part he looks pretty comfortable with himself, sinking languidly into the cushions, and stretching his arms out along the back of the sofa.
But making it in material terms is not the same as making it spiritually – ask any true child of the Sixties. Rice once, for instance, shrugged off the failure of Blondel, a medieval extravaganza for which he wrote the lyrics, with the comment: ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, after all’ – only then to blow it by unhiply adding, ‘And it doesn’t really matter a hoot.’ But it was the ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll’ line, from the Rolling Stones song, that was significant. Much as he wanted it to be, his work has never been ‘only rock ‘n’ roll’, as well he knows. It was ‘only a musical’. And, as he himself once confessed: ‘The trouble is, I’m not really the sort of bloke who likes musicals that much.’
We start talking about The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a film made in 1968 but not released until now. Rice has just seen it – ‘So many people at the height of their fame, success and beauty,’ he sighs. Not, alas, including Rice. Nor was he present when, soon afterwards, guests at Mick Jagger’s birthday party drank from huge silver bowls of Methodine-spiked punch and nibbled at hash brownies. Such Sixties hedonism passed Rice by. ‘I was fairly straight, I guess. I don’t remember anything wildly outrageous. I had my odd little moments, I suppose, but nothing much. I would have a few drinks and would live a wild existence in some ways. But the Sixties were four guys somewhere having a great time and everyone else running around trying to find them.’Everyone else, presumably, including him and Lloyd Webber, who at the time favoured tunics buttoned up to the collar, trousers tucked into knee-length leather boots and a Louise Brooks bob.
Part of the reason Rice makes such an unconvincing rocker is, of course, that he is simply too nice, too decent, too gentlemanly. With his lanky, ambling walk, his boyish looks and his amiable, diffident air, he will always be the well-mannered but over-enthusiastic public school boy playing air guitar at the disco. He will say, ‘That twerp [the photographer] turned up 15 minutes early this morning – before I’d had a chance to go for some milk.’ Then, feeling guilty, he will spoil his stab at prima donna-ishness by saying: ‘Actually, he was a rather nice bloke.’ It is this trait, too, that ruins Sir Tim’s efforts to be cynical; because he is always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, he qualifies every comment he makes. When he talks about his inability to say no, for instance, he says: ‘It’s definitely a problem. I find I’ve agreed to have lunch in the West End knowing it will wreck the entire day, that it’ll be a waste of time and that I won’t really enjoy it. Having said that, I do like, you know, there’s nothing I like more than a, sort of, good meal. Some wine and a good time out with good pals, but, um, um, there’s always a danger of agreeing to everything.’ Again, when talking about relationships: ‘I quite like being on my own. But there are times when I don’t like being on my own.’ Everyone happy?
The same confused wholesomeness applies to his weird and wonderfully complicated love life. On the glass coffee table in front of us, nestled between copies of Variety and Mojo, is this morning’s Sunday Times Magazine. On its cover, looking like a drag queen, is a photo of Elaine Paige, Rice’s lover for 11 years. His wife Jane, ‘sort of’ divorced him in 1990 after 16 years because the marriage was ‘full of question marks and very strange’. Yet Rice still goes on holiday with Jane and their two children. And, though he split up with Paige shortly after he divorced his wife, he still sees her. ‘Had dinner with her last week, funnily enough’, he says blithely. He adds that he is now in a ‘very relaxed sort of situation’ with another woman.
Also on the table is another colour magazine, containing a lurid – if disputed – account of another public figure’s love life. ‘I wish someone would make up some interesting stories like that about me,’ chuckles Rice. ‘It would give me some street cred.’
Along with the status of a true rock ‘n’ roller, street cred is something that has always eluded Rice, in part because he still uses such expressions as street cred. His is a nerd’s vocabulary. He uses the sort of expressions fathers use to embarrass their children. ‘I’m a chart freak,’ he says at one point. ‘I quite like this Kula Shaker lot.’ He describes something else as being ‘all over the shop’, and, elsewhere, talks of ‘numero uno’ and ‘all that jazz’.
For all his obvious warmth and charm, it is possible to see why Rice rubs some people up the wrong way. Craig Brown, for instance, has dubbed him Tim Rice-But-Dim. ‘He’s the luckiest man alive, after Ringo,’ Brown says. ‘I mean, for a man with such modest talents to be given an Oscar… I suppose he hasn’t actually killed anyone. It’s just his professional niceness that gets me.’
When I ask Rice if such criticism annoys him, he says: ‘Yeah, suppose so. Well, yes and no. I mean Craig Brown has had a go at me from day one. Not quite sure why. He obviously thinks I’m crap. Which is fair enough. I think he’s one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced.’
Oo. Controversial. ‘Whenever anyone says anything bad about you you always say, “I’ll get him,”’ Rice adds with promising menace. ‘But then you forget. You see someone like Craig Brown and think, “Was he the one who was rude about me or was he the one who thought I was great?” It’s a bit difficult because you don’t know whether to go up to him and be friendly or hit him.’
But his niceness is not, as he implies, simply a matter of being absent-minded. An hour or so after the subject of Craig Brown has come up, Rice is still smarting from it. ‘Superstar will be around for a few years to come. The  only one-up I have on the brilliant Craig Brown is that I’ve written a few pieces that will be around for a long while.’
So there are chinks in the armour of Sir Tim’s niceness. He hates people poking fun at his lyrics. And his relationship with Lloyd Webber has not been entirely smooth, either. Indeed, there has been much speculation about their respective professional and emotional jealousies. When I ask Rice if his dealings with Lloyd Webber are more harmonious now, he chuckles and says that they had dinner together in New York only the other day. (Elaine one night, Andrew the next. The napkins of peace were being puffed pretty hard in the Big Apple.) But he adds: ‘The only thing that pisses me off is when people keep saying Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. In the musicals he did after we broke up, no one knows who did the words. They all get billed as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset  Boulevard, or whatever. And that’s what’s happened with Evita. The guys who wrote it should have equal credit. Even Madonna seems to think Andrew wrote the plot to Evita. Actually it was my idea and it took me a year to persuade him to do it.’ (Incidentally, Rice says he would have given the film role to Elaine Page. But then, in a rush of niceness, he adds: ‘But I can see equally good reasons why Madonna should have been given the part. And I’m delighted for her’.)
He gives me another example of how the craving for equal billing haunts him. He was once on a Concorde which juddered for 15 seconds and then let out a big bang. ‘Bryan Adams, the rock star, was on the plane and I remember thinking seriously for about 20 seconds that this was it: if this plane goes down, it will be BRYAN ADAMA DIES IN CONCORDE CRASH and I’ll just get mentioned in Wisden Cricket Monthly. I would have been the Richie Valens of the Buddy Holly plane crash’
This is Rice at his most self-deprecating, humourous best. But it also displays an insecurity that probably explains why he never misses a chance to point out that lyric writing is an art form on a par with writing music. ‘Writing music is a talent,’ he says, ‘but it’s not a time-consuming talent. That’s why Mozart produced so much stuff. He could just do it. Writing with words is a much slower job. And it takes a long time.’
Like the other virtuoso of non time-consuming talent, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rice was given his knighthood for services to the arts. At the time, this prompted the Guardian journalist Francis Wheen to ask if a peerage for Pam Ayres could be far behind. But most people suspect he was knighted because he is pally with John Major. After all, referring to his campaigning work in the 1992 election, Rice did call himself the Jeremy Irons of the Conservative Party. ‘I didn’t really get the knighthood for my lyric writing,’ he now says. ‘It was more for my involvement in sport.’ Neverthelesss, Wheen’s slight has stuck. In the public imagination, Tim Rice earned millions, and was given a knighthood, simply for rhyming district with biscuit in Joseph. Rice believes that people who say this do so because they are jealous (and he’s right, of course, in my case anyway). If it’s so easy, he has been known to ask, why don’t you try?
On the way over to his house, I had done just that. ‘Tell me what you think,’ I say, and offer this: Tim Rice / quintessential Englishman / Is John Major your biggest fan?
‘Well, it rhymes,’ he says with a smile. ‘But it would depend on the music. A lot of my stuff has been written to music, you know. So you have to be concise, saying a thought in 12 syllables. No more, no less. And the danger of writing lyrics on their own, and I do enjoy that, and it’s very nice to do it that way round, with Elton [John] in particular, the danger is that you do become too long-winded. Because you’ve got nothing to stop you and you think, “Well, I want to get this point over and I can’t say it in eight words so I’ll say it in 18.” And then it might become long-winded. So that’s the danger you have to watch. I usually set myself, if I’m writing words without a tune, I usually set myself a little, um, pattern for the first four lines and of course then you have to repeat it.’
Quite. I try again.  Tim Rice / Superstar / Do you think you’re what they say you are?
‘What do they say I am?’
Mr Nice Guy.
‘Incredibly accurate, that is.’
But is there a dark side?
‘Well, obviously, everybody, obviously, there are many things I do that I’m not too, that I wouldn’t advertise. I mean, I don’t go round molesting goats or anything. But yes, I mean, er, I think I’m quite laid back in my approach to most things.’
Is that because he is six foot four? You know, the gentle giant never having to worry about being beaten up in the playground as a child?
‘Yes, I’m sure that’s right,’ he smiles, his face wrinkling up like a labrador puppy’s. ‘But I was never into fights anyway. Doesn’t apply to everyone who’s tall, of course. I mean Robert Maxwell was very tall and he wasn’t very laid back. And my brothers. I probably don’t need to go around thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m tall.’ Ha ha ha. It allows one to assert oneself.’
Part of his Mr Nice Guy image, of course, comes from his obsession with cricket: the fancy blazers, the committee membership of the MCC, the Heartaches XI, the team he founded in 1973 and which he is still captain of today. I ask him how he would convince an alien that the game of cricket wasn’t boring. His answer is too long-winded and, yes, all over the shop to repeat in full, but the overall thrust of it was that cricket is like an art  gallery rather than a movie, I think. For this is what Sir Tim’s discourse is like. You find yourself adrift in it, floating on a seat of cotton wool, deprived of all sense of time and space. I try to steer it back on course by asking Rice if he would rather have been Keith Richards or David Gower. ‘Well, both those characters are fascinating. It would’ve been great to have been either. They’re both marvellous.’
From which life would he have got more satisfaction, then?
‘Very interesting question. Very interesting question, indeed. But I think possibly David Gower, because I can’t contemplate being good enough to do what he did. Of course, I can barely play guitar but I can contemplate a situation where if things had gone differently, I might have become a figure in the rock world. The thought of being Keith Richards is not quite so ludicrous as being David Gower.’
He’s on to something. Indeed, Keith Richards, who was once described as the world’s most elegantly wasted human being, has, in a curious way, become more like Tim Rice over the years. It is as if their lives have been lived in parallel. Jekyll and Hyde. Rice and Richards. Both men, after all, are fantastically wealthy. Both men have had rich and varied love lives. Both have songwriting partners who’ve attracted all the glory. Both have had complete blood changes – or perhaps not.
But both, certainly, are appallingly lucky. Rice once nipped off an express at Newcastle for a sandwhich, and the train left without him. He then picked up £200 at a betting shop on 18-1 winner Gay Traveller and used the cash to hire a car for the rest of his trip to Edinburgh. During the war, Keith Richards was evacuated from his home in London, two hours before it was hit by a Doodlebug. Could it be that some alien force is guiding their lives? After all, Rice is a passionate stargazer. He has even built an observatory at his secluded Edwardian house in Cornwall. ‘I would think’, he says, ‘almost certainly there is life somewhere else in the universe. Almost certainly. Equally, the odds on them arriving here are tiny. That said, aliens could well have landed on the earth millions of years ago, not found any life forms and sodded off back to Betelgeuse.’
See that? Notice how specific he was? Betelgeuse. It all makes sense now. Don’t be taken in by his ‘brought up in Hertfordshire, father worked for Hawker Siddeley company’ line. Tim Rice came from Betelgeuse. Consider the evidence. When someone once called him ‘Rock Brain of the Universe’ he said, ‘I’m not sure I deserve this title – there was nobody from another planet in the final.’ And what about that song, ‘A Whole New World’? What else can explain Sir Tim’s supernatural powers?
You think I exaggerate? Well, just before I left his house, he played me a song he wrote which he thinks ‘is rather nice’ but which, he says, no one will ever hear because it never made it into a show. It’s called ‘Ziggy’ and it’s about a girl who is in love with a boy who is gay. It goes like this: ‘Ziggy / I call him Ziggy / I’m so hot for him / He’s not like all the rest but there’s no doubt he’s the best/ Ziggy / I call him Ziggy / I’m so hot for him/ When I saw him that day I gave myself away  Ziggy / My crazy Ziggy  He lives a life that I don’t share / I don’t know why but I’m not there…’ You get the picture.
As he was playing it, I didn’t know where to look. At the end, there was a silence. What could I say? ‘I’ve never heard anything quite like it’, maybe. Yet, in the car on the way home, there I was singing along to this inane lyric: ‘Ziggy / My crazy Ziggy.’ And now I can’t get it out of my head.
This is a dangerous man. Like a cult leader, he plays with people’s minds – he sucks out their brains, steals their souls and leaves them with a goofy, joyful smile on their faces. So don’t be taken in by his onslaught of bonomie, by his pose of the amateur who never has to try too hard. Don’t be seduced by his breezy English charm and innocence. Those mawkish, drippy lyrics he writes are a travesty of nature. This is a man who abetted the celibate Cliff Richard in his absurd fantasy that if he put on some designer stubble and a long black wig, he could transform himself into that smouldering Gothic sexual inferno, Heathcliff. Only Rice could have made Heathcliff sing: ‘Oh Cathy – the game you played / Oh Cathy – you’ve paid / I’ve been betrayed.’
You need only look at the queues of middle-aged women trying to get hold of Heathcliff tickets to see that I am right. Look at their vacant eyes. Observe their slow, zombie-like movements. All has become clear. Rice didn’t need to experiment with LSD in the Sixties because he knew what he was taking, and peddling, was far more potent: he was on musicals, the opiate of the masses.
Today, he has given us a sanitised Heathcliff. But do you think he’ll stop there? Of course not. Next year, he is doing a musical about King David and, in another collaboration with Elton John, Aida. And after that? Can Keith Richards – the Musical be far behind?
Oh, the horror! The horror! Pass the Methedrine-spiked punch.


Andrew Neil

600px-Andrew_Neil_FT_2011All heads turn as Andrew Neil enters the newsroom of the Sunday Times like a gunslinger moseying through the swing doors of a Wild West saloon. On his arm, dressed in the shortest of skirts, is the pouting Pamella Bordes. On his hip is the security pass to the newspaper’s offices that he has taken to wearing like a holster. It’s 11.30 on a Friday night, the early pages are being put together and, as he swaggers past cowering sub-editors and reporters, the editor points to various computer screens. ‘Cut that intro,’ he barks. ‘Give me a better headline on this.’ All eyes follow him as he now leads his girlfriend ostentatiously into the executive washroom at the end of the line of desks. He emerges 20 minutes later grinning like the cat who got the cream.
It is a story veterans of Wapping love to relate. And I am now reminded of it as I watch the great man approaching the entrance to Brighton’s Palace Pier. He has a pigeon-toed walk which, combined with the rolling motion of his wide, forward-hunched shoulders, looks like someone doing a bad impression of Robert Mitchum.
Today he is not wearing the cowboy boots he sometimes favours, but he is carrying a six-shooter on his hip, disguised as a mobile phone. It is high noon. The sun is blazing down. And the Wapping Kid is back in town. I ask if he was followed. He grins and says that he doesn’t think he was. Full Disclosure, his autobiography, tells of the time when he was tailed. By MI6, he thinks. In New York. It also describes the many death threats he received; the bodyguards riding shotgun in his car; and the attempts he claims were made by the Establishment to destabilise him.
On one occasion his new flat in South Kensington was burgled, and every drawer and cupboard searched. ‘It was hard to avoid the impression that somebody was looking for some dirt on me,’ he says, with a neutralised but still springy Paisley burr. ‘It was no time to be paranoid. I knew everyone was against me! That was what hardened me. It brought out reserves of brutality I didn’t know I had.’
Seagulls are wheeling and screeching overhead and, as we wander along the pier, past an arcade full of slot machines, their cries are drowned out by the sound of Madness singing ‘I Like Driving in my Car’. Sportingly, Andrew Neil agrees to be photographed sitting in the tiny car of a brightly coloured merry-go-round in front of a huge grinning clown. It seems that Brillo Pad, as he is known to Private Eye readers, has a sense of the ridiculous. (The journalist Matthew Norman discovered this, too, after he started a campaign in his Guardian diary to find a suitable wife for Neil. The butt of his joke joined in the search and began faxing his own suggestions. Neil apparently enjoyed the whole caper, even when Norman’s mother was revealed as the only applicant.)
A gang of shuffling old-age pensioners stops to stare. ‘I know the face,’ says one as she unwraps a treacle toffee. ‘But I can’t think of his name.’ One’s thoughts return to the time when Neil was asked by Mrs Merton on her television show if he had ever thought of having an allotment because it would do him good to get out and meet people his own age (Neil is only 47, but he appreciated the joke).
The photos done, we stroll back along the pier and stop at a booth where palms can be read electronically. Ever since he dragged Fleet Street picketing and screaming into the computer age, Neil has been obsessed with new technology. Indeed, on the door of his downstairs loo is a framed page from Private Eye in which a disillusioned journalist from Wapping is quoted as saying: ‘If he can’t fuck it or plug it in to the wall, he isn’t interested.’ But the electronic palm-reader has gone to lunch, so we take a walk along the seafront to find a restaurant and do the same.
Andrew Neil edited the Sunday Times for 11 turbulent years. He was, he now claims, eased out of the job in 1994 for two reasons. First, the Malaysian prime minister demanded Neil’s head on a plate, following a spat between the Sunday Times and the Malaysian government which threatened Murdoch’s Far Eastern business interests. Second, Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s proprietor, had become jealous of his celebrity. As if on cue, a middle-aged man lying in a deckchair recognises Neil and shouts out to me, ‘Are you auditioning him?’ Neil smiles tightly, ignores the man, and continues his theme. The trouble was, he says, that in many people’s minds he had come to personify the Sunday Times. ‘Rupert didn’t like that. He resented the independent celebrity I had. No one is allowed to outshine the Sun King.’
Neil portrays the Australian media mogul as a cross between an omnipotent Sun King and a foul-mouthed tyrant who has no real friends and who rules over his medieval court through authority, loyalty, example and fear. ‘He can be benign or ruthless, depending on his mood or the requirements of his empire. It was part of his management style that he could leave you in deep depression or on top of the world.’ Neil describes Murdoch as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality. In a later chapter, perhaps unconsciously, he uses the same cliché when writing about Pamella Bordes, the Parliamentary researcher who, after her fling with Neil was over, was exposed as a high-class call girl. I ask if he has a masochistic streak that draws him to such people. ‘I’m not self-destructive. In fact there’s a huge self-preservation streak in me. That was what stopped me falling head over heels in love with Ms Bordes, or getting besotted in the way our tiny friend [Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer] did. The same applies to Rupert. The best advice I ever heard was: ‘Don’t fall in love with Rupert. He turns on his lovers.’
Neil constantly talks of the breakdown in his relationship with Murdoch in terms of a divorce. ‘It wasn’t a love affair in the sense of being two intertwined individuals in a passionate embrace,’  he says. ‘But we were a team and we both knew our roles. I could see the divorce coming as early as 1990. But the decree absolute took until 1994. It was all about a clash of egos and, in a way, I’m surprised he tolerated me for as long as he did.’
There is a third version of what happened between the star-crossed lovers. According to this, when Murdoch offered the 34-year-old Neil the job of editing the Sunday Times he knew he was taking a big risk — critics said that because Neil came from the Economist rather than a newspaper, he was too inexperienced. But the Sun King’s faith was rewarded when Neil rode into town for his shootout with the unions during the bitter Wapping dispute, one of the longest and most violent strikes in industrial history. And when Neil then went on to introduce the first multi-multi-section newspaper in Britain, as well as launch Sky TV, a strong bond was formed between master and servant. But in the early Nineties, the theory holds, Murdoch began to accuse Neil of being gratuitously controversial, a parody of himself, guilty of folie de grandeur.
Worse, Murdoch feared his editor was so unpopular with the public that he was putting off more readers than he was attracting. (When Neil became editor in 1983, the circulation of the Sunday Times was 1.29 million — when he left in 1994 it was 1.22 million.) Murdoch’s antennae may also have picked up on a feeling at the time that, under Neil, the Sunday Times had become mean-spirited, yobbish, too rabidly anti-Establishment. As a former colleague of Neil’s puts it: ‘The Sunday Times had become a perfect fake Rolex. Neil knew it, and each week he would pray that the gilt — his sensational scoops — would stay on until the lunchtime news. After that it didn’t matter if the stories fell apart because everyone would have already bought the paper.’
And so, the story goes, Murdoch let Neil down gently by promising him the job of anchorman on a new prime-time current affairs programme in the United States. But it was a bone his pet Rottweiler never got to play with. The programme only made it to the pilot stage — amid plentiful stories of American terror at his untelegenic looks and impenetrable accent — so, when Neil returned to Britain six months later, tail between his legs, all his enemies were delighted.
Tellingly, some of these have been unable to keep up their animosity. As Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye puts it: ‘It is difficult to sustain a loathing of Brillo since the Dirty Digger stripped him of the apparatus of power and blew him out — or rather “offered him a job in television”, as the euphemism goes.’
But Andrew Neil is canny enough to know that many people will still try. He is well aware of the enemies he has made over the years. ‘The reviews for this book will all be hostile,’ he grins. ‘There will be a lot of retaliation from the diaspora of the dispossessed. You know, the old guard, from Hugo Young [a former Sunday Times colleague, now a big cheese at the Guardian and Observer] downward. But I don’t mind. This book will sell on its controversy.’
And, judging by what is on the record, Neil’s expectations are justified. Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, finds him ‘ghastly. It makes me laugh just to look at him.’ Auberon Waugh says he associates Neil with a sort of whingeing enviousness: ‘He seems to me like a wounded bear, ranting and raving inside his cave, a sort of Caliban figure.’ Francis Wheen, writing in the Guardian this summer, seemed to sum up the feelings of many journalists when he wrote: ‘I know of no spectacle so ridiculous as Andrew Neil in one of his periodic fits of morality. Come to think of it, I know no spectacle as ridiculous as Andrew Neil, full stop.’
Neil now thinks that the reason he made more enemies ‘than was necessary’ was that he had no patience or skill for massaging bruised egos. But there was more to it than that. Canvas the views of colleagues from Sunday Times days and you hear such descriptions as: ‘A volatile man. Pugnacious and full of bluster. Eaten up with anger’; ‘The key to understanding him is that he is very negative. He is driven by what he is against, not what he is for’; ‘Working for him was nerve jangling; he created a poisonous, internecine atmosphere wherever he went’; ‘He is chippy and gauche — all wing collars and red braces — but there is an attractiveness to his chippiness. And he could never be accused of being a hypocrite.’
Nearly everyone who meets Andrew Neil says that he can be relaxed, charming and affable. As we now sit down to lunch, he proves to be all three. But this, I suspect, may have a lot to do with the taut chuckle that punctuates his every sentence. He smiles a lot, too, which always helps. Indeed, over the years, his constant smiling has etched deep grooves on his face that run from the side of his nose down to the corners of his mouth. Combined with the cleft in his chin, these make him look as if he has been accosted by an over-enthusiastic, amateur make-up artist worried that those at the back of the village hall will not be able to make out her subject’s expressions.
Actually, as he studies the menu, I can’t help noticing that Neil is wearing make-up — orange powder that, presumably, has been applied in readiness for his televised conference report later that day. Despite this, his thick, rubbery skin still looks ruddy, as if his head has been boiled, and it strikes me that this may in part account for his Mr Angry image. He always looks as if his head is about to burst with rage.
I have to suppress a childish snigger when Neil opts for the brill (actually, his hair is not nearly so corrugated and bristly as legend has it — although it is a rather alarming mahogany tint). He doesn’t want potatoes with his fish — just green salad and vegetables. Thanks to such restraint, he says, he has recently shed 26lb. He eats using just a fork, American style, and, returning to the subject of Murdoch, jabs with it for emphasis. ‘What’s Rupert going to think of the book? I don’t know. I suspect he won’t like it. But he’s very unpredictable. It’s not a hatchet-job, is it? It just reports what I saw. I suspect he’ll pretend he hasn’t read it.’
Murdoch still haunts Neil’s dreams. This is not surprising given their symbiotic, almost preternatural relationship: Murdoch playing Frankenstein to Neil’s Monster, or, more accurately, Mephistopheles to his Faust. At one point in the book Neil describes the way Murdoch ‘descends like a thunderbolt from Hell to slash and burn all before him’. And you can almost smell the whiff of sulphur that lingers around Neil still. Indeed, I suspect the Wapping Kid still lives in fear of the moment when the ground will open up and the Prince of Darkness will return to claim his soul.
But it is a mistake to assume, as most of Fleet Street did, that Murdoch made Neil in his own Machiavellian image. Murdoch’s attraction to Neil was narcissistic: he saw in him a reflection of himself. Neil was a fellow outsider, a mercurial Scotsman who hated the English Establishment and had an evangelical commitment to the freemarket economy. (A former Sunday Times journalist gives an example of how single-minded and one-dimensional Neil can be. He was once working on a nostalgic anniversary feature about the 1968 hippy counter-culture. Neil approached and asked what he was doing. ‘Ah yes,’ said Neil wistfully, ‘’68 — the year of Callaghan’s economic reform.’)
Murdoch also recognised that both men are reckless gamblers: always acting on instinct and, almost addictively, taking risks. Neil compares his time with Murdoch to a ride on a rollercoaster. Again, he uses exactly the same comparison when talking about his time with Pamella (now Pamela) Bordes. He says he was genuinely frightened by what he calls her dark and evil side; yet, to echo Neil’s cliché-rich writing, he was drawn to her like a moth to the flame. The thrill of the risk, the whiff of sulphur, was overwhelming. Bordes, he claims, told him that she thought she might be schizophrenic and this, combined with her bulimia, is what he now thinks accounts for the frenzied way in which she scrawled obscenities on his mirrors and took scissors to his suits and shirts. (She suspected him of being unfaithful because, according to Neil, she had listened to an answering machine message that was nearly a year old.) She would ring him constantly, send him dog excrement in the post and, one day, was even spotted by a caretaker waiting outside his flat with a breadknife.
‘I found myself playing the starring role in the sequel to Fatal Attraction,’ Neil recalls. ‘The day I got back and she had wreaked all that havoc was terrifying. My friend Gerry Malone [now a Tory minister] joked that if I’d had a bunny rabbit it would’ve been a goner.’ Until now, Neil has been leaning forward in earnest anchorman mode. As the conversation turns to Pamella Bordes he leans back as though trying to get away, one hand in his trouser pocket. He was flabbergasted when he found out that Donald Trelford was wooing Bordes as well: ‘It seemed to me an incredible folly for, just as on Sunday mornings on the news-stands, it was a competition with me he could not hope to win.’ The crude machismo of this comment reminds you of the answer he gave Mrs Merton when she sarcastically asked why women found him so attractive: ‘Because I had the biggest organ on a Sunday.’ It also helps to explain why, when the Bordes scandal broke out, Peregrine Worsthorne, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, should have felt compelled to publish a leader accusing Neil of being unfit to be an editor.
In response, Andrew Neil sued the Sunday Telegraph for libel and won £1,000. ‘I risked too much,’ he now says. ‘Winning by a
thousand wasn’t enough. I mean, it was better than losing, but £10,000 would have made it look more convincing.’ In the press the libel case was presented as a clash of the Old Britain (Stowe and Oxbridge, stuffy, snobbish, pseudo-aristocratic, High Tory) versus the New Britain (Paisley Grammar and Glasgow University, brash, upwardly mobile, meritocratic, Thatcherite).
‘The English Establishment thought it was a game,’ he says. ‘I didn’t. They resented the fact that I couldn’t be bought. I didn’t want their cold country houses where you have to bathe in two inches of hot water. I didn’t want one of their knighthoods. The hope of baubles and gongs in return for good behaviour is what is holding Britain back.’ He adds that he would have refused a knighthood if one had been offered. ‘But,’ — that clipped chuckle again — ‘I’m happy to say my resolution was never likely to be put to the test!’
Part of the reason he now regrets the libel trial, I suspect, was that it gave his press foes a second chance to snigger at him. He says he doesn’t mind jokes being made at his expense. Indeed, he professes to enjoy Private Eye’s long-running gag of finding an excuse to reprint in every issue a photo of him in a vest and baseball cap with his arm around an young woman in a bikini. But Ian Hislop doubts this: ‘Well, he has to say that, doesn’t he? I heard that when the photo was first printed someone pinned it up in his office and he was hopping mad.’
When asked why it is always open season on Neil in Private Eye Hislop says: ‘It’s partly because his sense of himself as an outsider against whom the Establishment is always plotting is so absurd. The irony is that he was the Establishment in the Eighties. That’s the other funny thing about Andrew Neil. He’s just funny. He says people like me are jealous of him because we live sad, pathetic lives with our wives and children. He’s right, of course. How I would love to live his life! In the end, the best that can be said of him is that he is less ghastly in the flesh.’
Hislop is referring, of course, to Neil’s reputation for working hard and playing hard. According to Fleet Street mythology you will find Neil in Tramp, the St James’s nightclub frequented by minor royalty, celebrities and second-hand car-dealers, almost every night.  ‘I haven’t been there for about three months,’ Neil now says. ‘But I don’t want the mythology to be broken. As we say in journalism, it’s a story too good to check.’ But he does have an incredibly robust constitution. The model Nicola Formby, an old friend of his, says he is always the last to leave a good party. She recalls times when he and two drinking mates — a threesome known collectively as the ‘Maltesers’, cockney rhyming slang for old geezers — have still been going strong at 5am, long after everyone else has slid under the table. And then Neil has gone straight to a studio to present an early morning radio programme.
Neil has a vulnerable side, though. He is never comfortable working a room, even if it is full of friends. And he describes how, when he was flying back from a holiday in America to take over as editor of the Sunday Times, he was so nervous he had an anxiety attack and began to hyperventilate. Again, when he was awaiting the outcome of the libel trial, he was so churned up with angst he couldn’t swallow. ‘They were the most miserable, loneliest two hours of my life,’ he says.
The mood of the lunch having now changed, Neil tells me a touching story about the last time he saw his dying father, in 1988. ‘I had just said goodbye to him. I kissed him on the forehead, but I don’t know whether he heard me say goodbye. I was lost in my thoughts, keeping my head down as I waited at Glasgow airport for my plane back to London. Suddenly all these screaming banshees, Sogat activists with East End accents, came from nowhere and started cursing me. I nearly punched one but, thank God, Gerry Malone happened to be on the same flight and grabbed my arm to stop me.’
He says it wasn’t so much his father’s death as his mother’s, in 1993, that concentrated his mind on his own mortality. ‘Ours was a small family and it made me feel very alone in the world. Just me and my brother left. You don’t really appreciate how much you are going to miss  your parents. I keep thinking of all the times I should have made the effort to go up and see them but didn’t.’
Though there are stories of him dressing up as Santa and visiting orphans on Christmas Day, and of him being devoted to his seven
godchildren, Neil has no immediate plans to start a family of his own. ‘I never set out to get married and the way things have worked out I never have. I don’t fall in love easily… But I do fall in love.’
Is he courting at the moment? ‘Erm… I might be. We’ll see how things go.’
Driving back to the conference, I ask him a final question. What is he like on the dance floor?  ‘Oh! A knockout!’ he laughs, revealing a sprig of spinach caught on his tooth. ‘Sensational! Whether I’m sensationally good or bad is another matter. But definitely sensational.’
The answer is as good a summary of the life and times of Andrew Neil as you are ever likely to hear.
Two days after this article appeared Andrew Neil wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph to say that the anecdote with which this article begins is apocryphal, offensive and entirely without foundation. ‘If this is really a true “story veterans of Wapping love to relate”, as opposed to one invented by some fevered imaginations, did it never cross Mr Farndale’s mind to consider why it has stayed unpublished for eight years? If anything remotely approaching such an incident had ever happened it would undoubtedly have been given due prominence in the next edition of Private Eye. After all, everything else I did at the Sunday Times was.’


Clive James

The dimly lit back room of the Japanese restaurant is empty save for some scruffy codger hunched up in the corner, sitting sideways on, lost in his thoughts. At 56, it seems, Clive Vivian Leopold James has become smaller than life. Only when I am opposite him, face to face, do the features of the man on the box lurch into focus. And this is just as unnerving. After we have been chatting for a few minutes, picking over a salver of sushi, I forget that we are mid-conversation. I have been watching his lips move, enjoying the performance, imagining the TV set framing that familiar face  – a face once described by its owner as small and pointed at the bottom, like a talking turnip –  when suddenly the turnip gets all interactive on me and asks, ‘Have you read Kim?’ Startled, I nod and shake my head at the same time. ‘Well, you must. You must.’
This, I think, is Clive James as he likes to see himself: the pedagogue, at once avuncular and didactic. Had he not been a critic, poet, author, TV presenter, et cetera, et cetera, he would, you feel sure, have been that favourite English teacher at school. You know the one, pens in top pocket, tie over shoulder, infecting you with his sophistry – but always getting himself into trouble for teaching off the syllabus.
‘I warn you,’ he says. ‘This will be the dullest encounter of your life. I’m a nightmare. Cantankerous. Tetchy. I’ll either ramble or shut up.’ He grins crookedly, offering a glimpse of shiny bridgework, and then starts to ramble. But it is one thing for James to allow himself to stray from the point. Permitting his syntax the right to roam is another. Even in discourse he constructs his sentences with a precision bordering on the anal: he never has to search for the right word, but you can tell that he is listening out for a satisfying pitch and rhythm – even if it means, as his critics say, that he sometimes sacrifices content for form.
A detractor once described the TV column he wrote for the Observer for ten years as a cabaret turn. James took it as a compliment. But does he write as he speaks, or is it the other way round? ‘First and foremost,’ he says as nasally as the most unreconstructed Australian, ‘I think of myself as a writer. Even on TV when I say something spontaneous I have written it in my head a few seconds beforehand.’
It can sound like it. A favourite Jamesian (he’ll love that) device is to fold a sentence neatly in on itself, as in: ‘Not everyone who wants to make a film is crazy, but almost everyone who is crazy wants to make a film.’ A similar trick is to break one sentence into two and flip its tenses over until both sides are lightly browned: ‘Breakfast was there for the taking. I rarely took it.’ His own description is that he tries to ‘turn a phrase until it catches the light’. That he resists the urge to add ‘quod erat demonstrandum’ shows admirable, if uncharacteristic, restraint.
He has a more galling verbal tic: the rather anti-social habit of regarding conversation as an opportunity to pontificate – as Dr Johnson did, as James might put it. For that’s another thing. He throws in references to playwrights, philosophers and men of letters the way other people punctuate. This could be intellectual bullying – he studied for a PhD, and speaks eight languages – but, equally, it could be his way of flattering, as opposed to patronising, his interlocutor. Either way, he is well aware of the involuntary flinch that academic name-dropping elicits in the English nervous system. It is just that, after years of taking stick for it, he’s past caring.
‘Oh yes, I’m a raging intellectual snob,’ he says, thoughtfully tapping the tips of his fingers together. ‘But only because I see books, music, art and the life of the mind as a concrete reality. I can’t separate them from nature. I don’t just acquire knowledge to show off. I’ve read all my life. Devoured whole literatures. Why should I apologise for that? The English are embarrassed about learning. It’s unique to these shores – a kind of Philistinism encouraged by the landed gentry.’
Landed gentry? It seems too easy and arbitrary a target. Could it hark back to the same smouldering resentment that once prompted the Kid from Kogarah to write that the principle effect of the Sixties social revolution was to make young men who had been to Shrewsbury (the Private Eye crowd of Ingrams, Foot and Booker) feel less miserable about not having been to Eton?
Perhaps not. James gives an example of what he means: the time a journalist caught him reading Nietzsche in a restaurant in California. ‘A piece appeared in the English press saying I was ostentatiously reading Nietzsche. There was no counter to that because the journalist was assuming you only read a book like that if you are trying to impress someone. I don’t.’
There are other dimensions to this, I suggest: the British fear of appearing boastful, of being seen to try too hard. ‘That’s the influence of Private Eye for you,’ he says, lightly conducting with his chopstick for emphasis. ‘The assumption that if you are an intellectual you must be a bore. Perhaps the people who assume that should be more bothered for their souls. For their loved ones. For their children.’
James is talking in an untypically muted voice. As he does, he rests the side of his head against the wall to his right, as if to relieve his neck from the burden of all that weighty grey matter. It throws half his face into shadow, and this, too, seems unfamiliar: James as you never see him, away from the make-up and the harsh lighting of the studio. Someone once described his face as being that of a bank robber who has forgotten to take the stocking off. It is a cruel description – but not altogether unfair. Apart from two insouciantly raised clumps of wirebrush eyebrow, his face is curiously lacking in definition. It is something to do with the width of the nose; the corrugated shape of the lips that barely move, even when engaged in perpetual monologue.
That monologue is just one of the reasons why Clive James is almost impossible to interview. You feel you know too much about him already. What he has not told you on TV, he has in his novels and essays or in the three volumes (so far) of his Unreliable Memoirs. You know, for instance, that he sees himself as a wolf-whistling, red-blooded all-Australian male, but that his first sexual encounter – mutual onanism – was with a boy, Gary. You can guess, too, why he doesn’t open his mouth much when he talks: ‘The last and hardest job was to clean my gums. After every few scrapes I flew around the surgery like an open-mouth balloon. The [dental assistant] pinned me with a body-slam and the job was done.’
What does not come across in his memoirs, though, is any real sense of his emotional geography. James will tell you that he is conceited, arrogant, pompous, naive and insensitive, but this, you suspect, is probably what he thinks other people think; it is not necessarily what he feels. He charts his motives at every turn, but instead of analysing what he finds in terms of his own condition, however painful that might be, he cops out and sweeps them aside with some clever-clogs aphorism or generalisation that applies to Everyman. ‘Christ died for our sins,’ he tells me. ‘It’s rather presumptuous to think you have to die, too.’ Yes, yes, you find yourself asking, but what about you? What, for instance, makes Clive James cry?
‘I can be moved to tears by my own failures and failings in relationships,’ he answers. ‘But that’s self-obsession. Usually when one weeps one weeps for oneself. That’s the terrible truth. So I try to weep as little as possible.’ He adds that the way he empathises with a tragic novel is to imagine it happening to his children. ‘People say it’s impossible to imagine the Holocaust. But all you have to do is picture your own children being taken from you and gassed.’
James has been married to Prudence, a lecturer in modern languages, for 28 years. They have two daughters – James says he can imagine dying in order to save their lives. ‘I really hope I could. But you never know. In Germany, people killed their own children in order to save them from a fate worse than death in medical experiments. That took real courage.’
Just as we’re descending into despair, James inadvertently flicks some raw fish across the table.  ‘Ah. Sorry about that. Always been a messy eater, especially when I’m talking.’ He sees me prodding warily at what looks like a piece of pink wood. ‘Try holding that ginger under your tongue and let the juice come out,’ he says, playing mentor again. ‘And wash it down with that sake. It’ll do you the world of good. Clean up your sinuses.’
In an attempt to keep the mood light, I ask him if the sake will also make me fighting drunk. ‘No,’ he says with a chortle. ‘Sake only makes the Japanese wrap bandannas around their heads and charge when they are officially at war.’ It is a surprisingly glib reference to a subject he is known to be haunted by. (His father was taken prisoner in the fall of Singapore in 1942 and died in an air crash while flying home at the end of the war.)
This, says James, was what spurred him to learn Japanese about ten years ago; it was, he felt, his best chance of coming to terms with his past. He has, too, been working for some years on an epic novel about the war in the South Pacific (along with a novel on Rio, and the next volume of his memoirs – no slouch, our Clive). Perhaps the epic may do something to atone for having single-handedly reduced the Japanese race to a crude stereotype in the eyes of the British viewing public. At best, I suggest, the mockery he made of Endurance, the masochistic Japanese game show, was entertainingly patronising. At worst, it was racist.
He studies his nails, revealing liver-spotted hands and hairy fingers. ‘It’s almost impossible to avoid being accused of those things,’ he says. ‘You’re wide open to it. All you can do is rely on the good sense of the public. It’s true, I made my name on television making fun of Japanese game shows. But Japanese game shows are really like that. Hilariously awful. Most Japanese know that, too.’ James showed he knew it with his last novel, Brrm! Brrm!. It  was about Japan, or rather about an immaculately courteous and cultivated Japanese man who comes to England to acquire manners.
Brrm! Brrm! received favourable reviews, although, tellingly, most critics admitted that they came to bury it and ended up singing its praises. For the critics have never been particular kind to James. Auberon Waugh, another favourite schoolmaster, said of him: ‘He pretends to be an irreverent figure but in fact is a cringing man on the make.’ Such crushing comments have left James with a complex, or at least a feeling of insecurity. ‘I’ve learned that the profile as a form does not favour me,’ he says, screwing up his face in a stage grimace. He gives me an example. Earlier this year, a reporter from the Daily Mirror did a friendly ten-minute interview with him that was blown up into a double-page spread devoted to snide implications of serial lechery. ‘They got a photographer to go up to Cambridge and photograph my house. They got someone else to trail my wife and my children. A rock came through the front window the morning after the article appeared. We were showered with glass. You don’t have to be paranoid to find that a cautionary tale. The reporter wrote to me afterwards and said, ‘How can I apologise?’, and I wrote back saying, “You can’t. Get another job.” He laughs at this, lowers his chin and looks over the top of his glasses. ‘I’m trusting you. I hate doing that. I’ve been stitched up by nicer-looking, more plausible, more literate people even than you.’
But because being sarcastic is what he does for a living, he knows that he cuts a less than sympathetic figure. Lest we forget, he did once describe the tennis player Andrea Jaeger as having a smile like a car crash (she was 15 at the time and had braces on her teeth). And he is proud to tell you he once got a letter which said, ‘You were so harsh about my translation of Aeschylus that I didn’t write for a year.’ And that he wrote back saying: ‘Don’t be a cry baby.’
Does James take his own advice? He tries to, but the truth is he bruises easily. Indeed, he once wrote that he enjoys a good joke against himself, before he goes quietly away somewhere to be sick. More recently, he failed to duck when the Modern Review took a swipe at him. ‘I like to think I took the attack philosophically. With poise. The fact is it was designed to piss me off and it pissed me off. But I don’t think you should punish yourself if you feel hurt. As a writer, a thick skin is the last thing you should grow.’
Having both dished out criticism and received it, he knows the thing you should do is ignore it – but that you never can. ‘You always think the guy who is critical about you has got it right,’ he says. ‘Words are magical. If someone attacks you in print it wounds you grievously. Maybe you only get to see it all in perspective when you are on your deathbed.’ Warming to his maudlin theme, he adds that the attacks in the Modern Review were so vitriolic he couldn’t imagine what terms of disapprobation the writers would have had left if asked to condemn Hitler or Himmler. It is a line I remember reading in his memoir, May Week Was in June, where James used it to describe the personal attacks FR Leavis made on his rival academics, Hough and Holloway. For the sixth time during this lunch he makes a reference that has me flicking mentally to the appropriate page in one of his books – ‘a 93-year-old Scots lady wrote to me saying that, when young, she had done all the same things I did’. Flick flick flick, page 12, Falling Towards England.
It strikes me that the price of James’s success is that he has become a pastiche of himself, formulaic, cruising on autopilot, or rather autocue. He has come to inhabit a fictionalised reality of his own making, a twilight zone in which he constantly re-reads the 26 books he has published and then, perhaps unconsciously, reiterates their tried and tested contents as part of his everyday speech. It makes me feel slightly cheated, but it doesn’t change my view that he is, on the whole, a good thing. There, I’ve said it. I like his writing. He makes me laugh and pause for thought. I can’t think of anyone else who could have come up with: ‘I find myself left alone with an Iranian biochemist whose name sounded like a fly trapped against a window.’ Or: ‘My own transitional persona must have seemed as out of focus as a chameleon crossing a kilt.’
Yet I know plenty of people who do not share my enthusiam. He knows plenty, too. So why is it, does he suppose, that he never seems to inspire neutral feelings? He gives an exaggerated blink: ‘I might be just obnoxious, I don’t know.’ But even then he’s hoisted by his transitional persona. When he’s doing interviews on TV, his critics say, he isn’t obnoxious enough – just sycophantic. I ask him whether his interviewing style is deceptively gentle or just gentle. ‘Just gentle. I’m not very good as a probing interviewer – too easily embarrassed. I believe in bowling under arm, instead. That way they take a big swing at it and get caught out. There’s far too much attention paid to the adversarial style of interview. Get them through their vanity instead. I took a lot of stick for my Ronald Reagan interview. But I knew that there were two ways of asking him about his connection with McCarthyism. I could ask outright, ‘Were you a stoolie for the FBI in Hollywood?’ – at which point he would have clammed up. Or I could say, ‘How serious was the Communist menace in Hollywood?’ – which I did and he opened up and told me everything.’
You don’t get the feeling that Clive James tells you everything. Perhaps he expects you to read between the lines of his novels instead. Indeed, there are a number of parallels between the hero’s life in his latest novel, The Silver Castle, and that of the young James. Both learn about the world through magazines and the cinema. Both fuel their ambition with envy and fantasise constantly about being famous. Both incorporate self-mockery into their armoury of devices for staving off wrath, even if it is not the way they really feel about themselves. Both are cursed by a sense that, even in their own country, they can never feel at home.
James has lived here for 34 years, yet still, I suspect, he does not feel as if he belongs, quite. He feels that he is still a bit of an outsider. An exile. ‘I feel more Australian the older I get,’ he says, yet he can’t imagine fitting in there either. England – the motherland – is the only place he feels he could fit in, but, he says, he has never had the least urge to try. ‘So cold in England,’ he once wrote, ‘even when it was warm.’
His friend Vitali Vitaliev, a Russian journalist, describes him as being too melancholy in his private life. Yet James himself once wrote that only self-discipline keeps his face straight. Which is true? The answer seems to lie in the chameleon reference. He is always playing a role, as he probably is here in the Japanese restaurant on the edge of Holland Park. In the Postcard From… series his persona is that of a wide-eyed amateur, charmingly lost, sometimes nervous. For one who lives his life in front of a TV camera, it can sometimes seem an implausible conceit. ‘It’s part genuine, part gimmick,’ he shrugs. ‘But it does answer a genuine need in my character. Egomania is not incompatible with extreme self-doubt.’
To his irritation, James has often been asked why he is wasting his learning – and talent as a writer – presenting populist TV shows. ‘I’m very flattered that people assume I have talent to waste,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe I am wasting it. I believe in mass communication, not art for the few. The short answer to why am I wasting my talent is that I never heard much about this talent before I started wasting it.’ But when I ask him if he is happy, he gives a categorical no. ‘On the other hand,’ he adds, ‘I’m happy to be alive. Happy to be here. But I won’t pretend that I don’t know what the question means. By keeping busy, I’m compensating for something – a sense of the world’s arbitrariness that I acquired in childhood, perhaps. But I’m not about to burst into tears.’
His memoirs, he tells me, were written as a form of therapy. But writing something down, coolly and dispassionately (and later editing it, of course), is not the same as discussing it live, as it were, in the here and now. I am struck by the paradox that Clive James might actually feel uncomfortable talking about his favourite subject. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I don’t mind talking about myself – because I can just offer the outer layer of the onion.’ And with this he goes off in search of the chef, in order to practise his Japanese for a few minutes before it is time to go.
In my imagination, the onion analogy wrestles momentarily with that of the turnip, and then topples it off its throne. Onions have thin skins – those concentric layers of white succulent flesh that are bitter when raw, sweet when cooked. They also have a pungent odour which brings tears to your eyes, or makes you gag, depending on how you look at it.
Clive James said, after this appeared in 1996, that he would never agree to be interviewed again. He did, four years later, to promote a new collection of his essays as well as his internet site. He was much ridiculed in the press in 1997 when he wrote a long and heart felt tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, for the New Yorker.


Tracey Ullman

One of America’s most successful comic actors is back in Britain. Tracey Ullman tells Nigel Farndale why

At Tracey Ullman’s suggestion, we meet at a private member’s club around the corner from her home in Mayfair. In some ways this salubrious venue seems an appropriate setting, because according to the Sunday Times Rich List, the 55-year-old comic actor is worth £75m.

But in other ways it does not. The club is one of those places where you find yourself talking in muted voices so as not to disturb other members, and this doesn’t suit the voluble personality I’ve encountered in YouTube clips of Ullman on chat shows down the years. In those she’s very full on, an extrovert who seems more American than British, not least because she became a US citizen in 2006, after 20 years of living there.

She did this because she wanted to get the right to vote in presidential elections, but she still keeps a British passport and remains an active member of the Labour party (a good friend of Neil Kinnock, no less). She describes herself as a hybrid. “We’ve always come and gone as we’ve been allowed, taxwise,” she says in a voice that evokes her roots in Slough.

Although Ullman insists she enjoys her anonymity in London – “I can observe people on the tube without them recognising me” – she is still recognisable if you are old enough to remember her BBC shows from the early 80s. A few greying hairs at the temples, perhaps, and at one point she reaches in her handbag for reading glasses, but she hasn’t changed much. She puts this down to her daughter encouraging her to run half-marathons, but she has “always been fit, from being a dancer. And I’ve never had plastic surgery.” As she points out: “It’s always men who do the surgery, so it’s their idea of beauty, not a woman’s idea. Age with dignity is my thing – go grey.”

It was after she made her name here in TV comedy shows with Lenny Henry (Three of a Kind), Rik Mayall (A Kick up the Eighties) and French and Saunders (Girls on Top) that Ullman moved to America and found a much giddier level of fame with The Tracey Ullman Show. Aside from winning her an armful of Emmys and Golden Globes, this sketch show was the first commercial hit for the fledgling Fox network, hailing her as a female Peter Sellers. The show also launched a certain yellow cartoon family on the world: “I suppose the only way younger people in the UK might have heard of me now is if they’re fans of The Simpsons – my show was where it started. Dan [Castellaneta, the voice of Homer] and Julie [Kavner, Marge] were on the show when Matt [Groening, the creator of The Simpsons] came in and pitched.”
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show.
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show. Photograph: Craig Topham/BBC

To be given her own show was liberating. “As a woman on British TV at that time you could be a Benny Hill girl and that was about it,” she says. But she never stopped feeling British, even when most of her audience thought she was American.

Her children reflect her dual identity. Her son Johnny lives in LA and works as a writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Her daughter Mabel used to work for Harriet Harman and stood as a Labour candidate in the last election , but didn’t win. “I did a lot of campaigning with Mabel and Harriet,” Ullman recalls. “Harriet says things like: ‘Well, that’s not going to butter anyone’s parsnips, and you can use that as a quote.’”

It was during the election that Ullman started making a new six-part comedy show for the BBC, which very evidently considers it a great coup to get Ullman back after 30 years. Tony Hall, the director-general, turned up to watch rehearsals, and even when we meet the material is being very carefully guarded (I’m shown the first episode on a laptop in another room before meeting Ullman).

The best moments are uncanny impersonations – Dame Judi Dench as a shoplifter, Dame Maggie Smith doing audition tapes and Angela Merkel as a vain and frivolous woman about town. “Merkel is always surrounded by men in suits,” Ullman says, slipping into a German accent. “I vanted to write a sketch with her being very feminine, confiding to her friend who does her hair and make-up that she doesn’t vant to look ‘too sexy’.”

Ullman is entertaining, engaging, slipping in and out of voices, though at times she can seem more vulnerable, a little ill at ease. Until I tell her I enjoyed watching the new show she keeps drawing herself back in her chair and narrowing her eyes at me. For a while I put it down to our having to talk in subdued voices, but I eventually realise that hardly anyone has seen a preview and she has been waiting to hear my thoughts; the relief is palpable. “It was horrible waiting for your verdict,” she responds, putting a funny veneer on things by adopting a doctor’s voice. “‘I’ve seen your X-rays and there is a dark shadow in one corner.’ That’s what it felt like!”
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984.

Perhaps her humorous energy seems slightly tainted because her return to British comedy comes at a time of great sadness in her life. In December 2013 her husband Allan McKeown, a British TV producer, died of prostate cancer, three days before the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary, and last year her mother Doreen died in a fire at her retirement home caused by a discarded cigarette. An inquest ruled the death to be accidental.

It becomes clear as we talk about these events that the extrovert side – the entertainer who craves attention – is masking a version of herself that’s more introverted and uncertain. And to some extent it seems comedy has proved a coping strategy. “I did throw myself into work when my mother died,” she says. “It was a good distraction. But I had already agreed to do the new show, and it was a year on from my husband dying. Coming back to the UK was part of that – I sold our house in LA because it reminded me too much of him. I’d had a long time living with someone very ill there.” She lowers her eyes. “I miss him so much. I was younger than him [by 15 years], but even so I’ve been left [on my own] younger than I thought I’d be.”

She admits that life didn’t really begin for her until she met McKeown in 1982 and that he was the one who made her feel brave enough to try new things. When Charlotte Moore, the controller of BBC1, approached Ullman with the idea of doing a new show she agreed partly because he would have wanted her to do it.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013. Photograph: David Livingston/Getty Images

“He was the funny one in our family, not me,” she says. “He was so droll.” McKeown certainly had a good comedy pedigree, having created the groundbreaking Witzend Productions with the sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. His hits included Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the feature film of Porridge; his circle of friends included Peter Cook.

He also produced some of his wife’s shows in America, which continued off and on for 15 years. But Ullman’s drive to carry on working seemed to dim somewhat after McKeown made a fortune from the sale of his cable channel SelecTV, a source of wealth which the couple added to by “flipping” high-value properties in LA. (Contrary to what some suppose, their wealth didn’t come from her involvement with The Simpsons – in fact she once sued that show for a share of its merchandising profits and lost.) Together they seem to have made a formidable and profitable team and it’s telling that she still refers to her husband as if he were still alive: “It’s been extraordinary what has happened to both of us, my husband and me. I never take it for granted. Money is freedom. I’m not excessive or flash. I live well. What can I say? It’s great. But some of the reports about how much I have, you know the Sunday Times Rich List – they are just hilarious. I don’t know where they get their figures from. It used to amuse my husband, who liked to keep them guessing. Whenever someone suggested a figure he would say: ‘Don’t be ridiculous – we’re worth much more than that.’”

Though she makes light of her wealth, I can’t help feeling she finds it embarrassing. New Labour may have been “intensely relaxed with people getting filthy rich”, but she is Old Labour, or at least the version of Labour exemplified by Kinnock. Their friendship began after he appeared in one of her pop videos in 1984. “His daughter liked my records, so he agreed. At the time it was very controversial. I don’t know whether it would be done with a political leader even now.”

Ullman’s politics had a lot to do with her impoverished childhood. Her father, a Polish émigré who worked as a travel agent, died of a heart attack while reading her a bedtime story when she was six. In an effort to cheer her family up, Ullman put on shows in her mother’s bedroom, standing on the windowsill performing alongside her older sister Patty. “My mother had a tough time after my father died; our fortunes came and went. She married again, which was odd for us as children. Thanks to our Labour council I got a grant to go to stage school at 12 and I became very independent. I left home at 16 to become a dancer in Berlin.”

In recent months Ullman and her sister have been digging out old photographs of their mother and reminiscing. She insists that there was never any sibling rivalry between them, but says Patty was always the “glamorous one. She was even a Playboy bunny at one point, although I think it was more a case of her being in charge of the till because she had trained as an accountant. I was the funny one who looked like a troll and could make people laugh – I was always told I was odd.”

The comment makes me wonder whether her old insecurities have been resurfacing since her mother died. She tells me that during the recording of her new show she realised she was making it as a sort of tribute to her mother, and when I ask if she sometimes finds herself hiding behind her impersonations, she concedes there is some truth in that. “In private I’m quiet. I spend all my time watching BBC4 documentaries and knitting.” (She’s not joking – she has written a book on the subject.) But even when she lived in Hollywood she says she led a fairly tame existence. “I never went to the parties, just worked and played tennis. We didn’t do drugs or all the showbiz stuff. I was signed to Stiff Records when I started out and I used to enjoy wearing my ‘If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck’ T-shirt in the supermarket just to shock people.” She would find herself being drawn to any expat punks who came to live in LA, such as the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. “His dirty secret was that he loved REO Speedwagon and Peters & Lee.”

She hasn’t cut her ties with LA. She still does the odd film, most recently Into the Woods with Meryl Streep, an actor she first worked with in 1985 in Plenty (her other credits include Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and Bullets over Broadway). Ask how she would refer to herself and she will say she’s a “comic actor” (not a standup; she doesn’t write). “My face is a good one for doing impersonations,” she surmises, turning again to self-deprecation. “I’ve got small eyes, a low brow and a big head.” She laughs.“When I worked at the BBC in the 80s the only wigs that would fit me were Mike Yarwood’s.” It seems a happy if disconcerting note on which to end, the American citizen indulging in some very British self-deprecation.