Cherie Blair

‘Vulgar, self-pitying, greedy’ – impressions of Cherie Blair weren’t exactly sympathetic during her time as the Prime Minister’s wife. But two years after she left Downing Street, the human rights lawyer is frank, funny and (whisper it) quite charming

From the moment she enters the room, Cherie Blair manages to wrong-foot me. We are meeting at the chambers in London where she works as a QC specialising in human rights law and, as she shakes hands, she stands way too close, invading my personal space like a one-woman Barbarian horde. Then she says, while still pumping my hand and smiling up at me, ‘I read your columns, including the stuff you sometimes write about me!’

Argh! For the next 10 minutes I cannot concentrate, trying to recall what I might have written about her over the past decade or so. Was it anything rude? Did I refer to her as Cruella de Vil, as journalists lazily do? Compare her smile to a Scalextric track, perhaps? Oh God… You have to admire the tactic, though.

I also find her perky manner disconcerting. By way of preparation I’ve been watching footage of this 54-year-old mother of four being interviewed on television, and she often comes across as edgy and cold. Yet in person there is a lightness and warmth to her, her sentences punctuated with laughter. I’ve been told by the third party who set this interview up that I am not to ask about the expenses scandal or the fate of Gordon Brown – because she won’t be able to comment on either – but it soon becomes obvious that she will answer pretty much any question I ask.

I have also been reading Speaking For Myself, her best-selling memoir. Some reviewers gave her a kicking, calling her vulgar, self-pitying, grasping, cringeworthy and so on. One amusingly suggested she should take out an injunction against herself, or perhaps sue herself for libel. But this is to be expected. Few people have been as divisive and unpopular in recent years as Cherie Blair. A Radio 4 poll even voted her the person listeners would most like to see deported.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on her. My devoutly Catholic mother-in-law, for example, is not keen, mainly because Cherie claims to be devoutly Catholic, too, despite the very non-Catholic revelation in her book that she used contraception, or rather forgot her ‘contraceptive equipment’ when they visited Balmoral (and lo, unto them, a baby was born nine months later).

My mother isn’t that keen either, come to think of it. Like many people who used to ride to hounds – including the Princess Royal – she blames Mrs Blair for the hunting ban, or at least for forcing her husband’s hand on the issue (Mrs B, as she was known in Downing Street, claims this wasn’t the case, by the way).

Being neither a Catholic nor a subscriber to Horse & Hound, I read her memoirs with an open mind and was surprised by how funny they were. She has fine comic timing and does a nice line in self-deprecation, describing herself as looking like ‘the mad woman from the attic’, for example, in that photograph where she opened the door in her nightie – ‘with my hair like a bird’s nest, and bleary-eyed’. And her account of how Tony proposed to her while she was on her knees cleaning a loo is hilarious. ‘I know,’ she says when I mention this. ‘So romantic. Him standing, me on my knees scrubbing the toilet, then after that, the wretched man said: “Let’s not tell anyone yet, let’s keep it to ourselves!”‘

Plenty of reviewers loved the book though and, on the cover of the paperback, published this month, there is a quote that reads: ‘Charming, frank and funny.’ And that is about right.

We are meeting on the Thursday of the European elections. Downing Street is in turmoil. Gordon Brown is a gibbering wreck. There is speculation he might not survive until the weekend. On a day like today, I suggest, when the body politic is pumping with adrenaline, she must miss being at the heart of things. ‘Not really. Been there, done that, got the scars on my back. It’s quite nice being a spectator again, rather than the subject of a spectator sport.’

Presumably she doesn’t miss things like the press scrutiny of her finances – the £100,000 fee she was paid for a lecture tour of Australia in 2005, on behalf of a charity, for example. ‘Rather naively, I thought because it raised $250,000 for charity it was a good thing, but the press didn’t think so. I’ll never do that again. You learn by your mistakes.’

Did she consider paying her fee back? ‘No, I didn’t. The caterer was paid. The comic was paid. I was paid. Together we made a lot of money for the charity. In England I speak all the time for charities without asking for a fee. But I had gone all the way over to Australia and spent a week away from my children and my work, whereas I wouldn’t have to do that for a speaking engagement in Manchester.’

Long before the current expenses scandal, Cherie Blair was involved in an expenses dust up of her own: whether she should pay for André, her personal hairdresser, out of her own money, or whether he was a legitimate government expense. ‘In the end I did pay for him, but I couldn’t have done my duty as the wife of the PM without him or someone like him.’

So, can she empathise with MPs who feel their expenses are justified? ‘I think – what can I say about the expenses row? – not much other than I am glad I am no longer involved in that world. There is now an impression that MPs are out for what they can get, which usually isn’t the case. Our MPs are not crooks and it is wrong that people should think they are. I think there is a real danger now of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’

The word greedy is often applied to her; is that fair? ‘No, because personally I don’t think I am all that greedy. Like everyone, I am formed by my background and mine was, well, we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t live in a cardboard box but I did live in a place where at the end of the week the money was gone.’ That was in Crosby, Liverpool. Her father, the hard-drinking, serially adulterous actor Tony Booth, was absent for most of her formative years, and she was raised by her grandmother and mother, a RADA-trained actress who worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet.

‘That must have affected my own anxieties about money, about paying the bills. We knew that when we left Number 10 we had no house to move to because we had sold ours in 1997. Sometimes I used to say to Tony, “We could be out of here tomorrow and it could be me, you and four children with nowhere to go”.’

Now they have bought a house in London (for which they paid £3.5m) and another in Buckinghamshire (£5.75m). Tony Blair has consultancies with investment banks thought to be worth £2.5m and he is also thought to have earned around £2m from speaking engagements, as well as £4.6m for a book deal. In addition to her salary as a QC, Cherie Blair was reportedly paid around £1m for her book. Are all her money worries over now? ‘I’m in a fortunate position now, but do I still worry in the back of my mind that it could all be gone tomorrow? Yes.’

She was the original WAG (Women Against Gordon) and complained about the way he was constantly ‘rattling the keys’ to Number 10. Does she now think that her former neighbour should have been careful what he wished for? She laughs. ‘There is this whole image about my relationship with Gordon being… Look, he has many good qualities and it was not wrong of him to have wanted to be prime minister – most politicians do, and why shouldn’t they? It’s just that as Tony’s wife, when Gordon’s ambition got… when he became impatient, I was on Tony’s side.’

Hence Tony Blair’s quote that there was no danger of his wife running off with the man next door? ‘Yes, I think that was quite observant of him.’ And the reason why, when Gordon said in his conference speech that it had been a privilege to work with Tony, she said: ‘That’s a lie’? ‘I didn’t say that, I didn’t! The trouble is, everyone thinks I might have said it.’ But she did think it? ‘I might have thought it, but even I’m not so stupid as to say it.’

Well if she didn’t say it then, she has now. We are on the subject of her gaffes and they seem odd for someone with an alpha brain. Upon leaving school, she studied law at the LSE, going on to gain the highest bar examination marks of any student in the country in her year. There are, it seems, two Cheries; the smart lawyer and the not-so-smart embarrassing politician’s wife. They even have different names – Cherie Booth and Cherie Blair.

She does indeed talk of a disjunction between her life as a high-flying QC, a world in which she feels comfortable and in control, and her former life as a prime minster’s wife, less sure of herself, more prone to gaffes. ‘The thing is, I knew the decisions I was making in the legal world would only affect me. In the political world, if I made a gaffe Tony took the consequences, and it is always worse to hurt the ones you love than hurt yourself.’

Is it true he would sometimes bury his head in his hands and say, ‘For goodness’ sake woman!’ ‘He does say that, you know, quite a lot. But he kind of only half means it. He’ll have a rant and get it out of his system. He is not one to hold grudges. We’re both optimists.’ She reckons one of the reasons
he loves her is that she is so unpredictable. ‘I hope so, otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck around for
so long.’

Any advice for Sarah Brown? ‘Be there for your husband. But she doesn’t need my advice. She’s done a lot better than me in the press.’

And Samantha Cameron? ‘Exactly the same. In the end, it’s about having someone to share it with, which Ted Heath didn’t have. Even now Margaret Thatcher gets confused and looks for Denis.’ She describes her tempestuous relationship with Alastair Campbell as a ‘double act’. He went ballistic over what became known as ‘Cheriegate’, the time she bought two flats in Bristol at a discount, with the help of the fraudster Peter Foster.

‘Yes, that was not one of the high points of our relationship. I’m very fond of Alastair. He was extraordinarily loyal to Tony. But he was slightly prone to barging in without knocking. And I think he felt the pressure towards the end, especially when he became part of the story. What he was trying to protect me from was what he fell victim to himself.’

Does she now resent the way Campbell bullied her into doing her emotional mea culpa speech about Cheriegate on the evening news? ‘I don’t… I don’t think I was bullied. The trouble was, Tony had insisted I tell him what had happened in terms of my contact with Peter Foster and he would pass on what I said to Alastair… Today Tony has a Blackberry but when he was PM he… He had a computer on his desk but never turned it on. So when I said I’d had an email from Foster, it didn’t really mean much to him.

When we left Downing Street in 2007, I said to Tony: “We’re going to sit down and I’m going to show you how to use a Blackberry.” And now the kids say, “Mum, he’s never off that ruddy thing, why did you teach him how to use it?” ‘

Speaking of equipment, I tell her my Catholic mother-in-law was somewhat surprised by her admission that she used contraception. ‘I suppose it was the Catholic in me that meant I couldn’t bring myself to go into any more detail.’

But surely the term raised more questions than it answered. ‘Some people have speculated that it might have been a wooden shelf to put between us in bed… But part of me said that because, though I like to think of myself as a good Catholic, I couldn’t have had the career I had without contraception. The fact is, even in Spain, France and Italy there must be a lot of Catholics who bend the rules.’

So is she going to solve the mystery of what the equipment was? ‘Nooo! Certainly not. You can probably guess anyway.’ A cap? She covers her ears and laughs. ‘I’m not saying anything!’

Here is another mystery. As a couple, their friendship with the Clintons is easy to understand, all four are left-leaning lawyers. But the Bushes? What was that about? ‘It’s not really that baffling because one of the main job descriptions of the British prime minster is to get on with the American president. Whatever the domestic policies, on foreign policy Tony and George saw eye to eye. That said, I talked about policy and politics with the Clintons in a way I never did with George and Laura. Most of the time I talked to the Bushes about the things we did have in common, like having children the same age. We have stayed friendly with them.’

OK. Time to authenticate some tall tales. Is it true that when Bill Clinton came to Chequers she was worried he would try and get off with Carole Caplin – the masseuse, one time soft porn model and New Age ‘therapist’ – who was walking around in her stretched leotard? Another laugh. ‘I just think Bill is one of those men who appreciated… feminine company.’

Why did she trust Caplin when she was so obviously flaky, what with her crystals and her ‘toxin showers’ and everything? ‘I don’t think my judgement… I shouldn’t have bought those flats [Foster was Caplin’s boyfriend] because even to this day they are not worth what the Daily Mail claimed they were worth.’

What does she make of Lord Levy’s insinuation in his memoirs that Tony was the father of Carole’s baby? ‘I think that’s a load of old rubbish, frankly.’

Is it true that Cherie and Tony rolled round in mud as part of a rebirthing ritual while on holiday in Mexico? ‘That’s a load of old rubbish, too.’ Really? ‘It wasn’t rebirthing. We went to Mexico and we thought we would try some treatments and one of them was the Mayan equivalent of the sauna.’

And it involved mud? ‘No, actually. Did it involve mud? I can’t remember. Don’t think so. Although you get all sorts of things these days, don’t you. Seaweed wraps and so on. I don’t think that one was about mud, particularly.’

Is it true that her husband has a pact with the Queen never to watch the film The Queen? ‘That’s my understanding. I don’t know whether the Queen has watched it but I’m pretty sure Tony hasn’t. I watched it on my own on a plane. My daughter Kathryn was miffed because they didn’t get a red-haired actress to play her. And I wish I was as thin as the actress who played me. And I hate Michael Sheen as Tony. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Tony is six foot and quite broad shouldered and Michael isn’t six foot and isn’t strapping and doesn’t have that physical presence.’

Is Mrs Blair a monarchist? ‘I am a great fan of the Queen. I miss her.’ That was not what I asked. Is she a monarchist? A knowing smile. ‘I’m a huge fan of the Queen.’

When she left Downing Street she shouted at the waiting press: ‘I won’t miss you!’ She describes in her book how her husband cringed, telling her through clenched teeth: ‘For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be dignified, you’re supposed to be gracious.’ Obviously she doesn’t miss the press, but what about Number 10?

‘The big difference with our life today is that Tony is constantly travelling to the Middle East and America. The irony is that we saw more of him when he was PM. Leo would pop down and see him, sometimes he would pop up for lunch. But, you know, today Tony is working at home so we just had lunch together.’

Their eldest two children have graduated from Bristol and Oxford and are now working. Kathryn is around the corner from here at King’s College, London, and has just finished her second year exams. Leo is eight and Mrs Blair now says she is aware of being one of the oldest mothers in the playground. ‘Sometimes I think I’m older than some of the grandmothers, frankly.’

Time to go. Cherie Blair has, indeed, been charming, frank and funny. I can only think it is to do with the freedom of being out of what she calls the goldfish bowl. Her happiness must also be a little to do with Gordon Brown’s unhappiness. She would have to be inhuman, I say, not to allow herself a chuckle about the pickle Gordon has got himself in.

‘Well you forget that I am a Labour Party animal. I joined the party at 16. We have our Labour poster out today. This is the government that I think deserves to be re-elected. So there is not much joy in seeing the turmoil at the moment.’ ‘Not much’. She is a lawyer who chooses her words carefully.

She stands close again to shake hands and, as she is leaving, turns and asks me a question. ‘Your Catholic mother-in-law doesn’t approve of contraception, but what about your Catholic wife?’ Damn she’s good. Wrong-footed again.


Charles Dance

Army officers, worthy medicos, louche aristos, and now a donnish C.S. Lewis in ‘Shadowlands’ – when casting directors need ‘a toff actor’, Charles Dance is top of their list. It’s all pretending, the secret plebeian tells Nigel Farndale, and he loves it. Portrait by Joss McKinley

Given that Charles Dance is an actor, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his manner off stage is quite actorly. Yet somehow it does. I suppose it is because he is often cast as the reserved, taciturn, patrician type, while, in person, he is tactile and garrulous. Sitting on a sofa in his dressing-room at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, he makes big theatrical, off-the-shoulder gestures, taps the wood of his dressing table – the superstitious actor – and leans forward to touch my knee occasionally, to emphasise a point. Moreover, he punctuates his anecdotes with ‘darlings’, ‘sweethearts’ and ‘dears’.

Physically, he looks taller and more athletic than seems decent for a 61-year-old. He doesn’t dress his age, either: his 6ft 3in frame looking rangy in faded jeans, T-shirt and heavy black boots. His hair may be thinning and becoming as pale as his skin, but his face is still strong boned, his hooded eyes still flinty. Intellectually, you suspect, there is not as much depth there as he likes to think there is, but he is friendly and engaging. Like many in his profession, he enjoys having a whinge about the actor’s lot.

Don’t get him on the subject of dressing-rooms, for example. He has just been touring the provinces before opening in the West End this week – ‘the foreplay before the penetration,’ he calls it, rather alarmingly – and the dressing-room he had in Cambridge was dark and subterranean. This one is windowless and has a fan whirring, but at least it is freshly decorated and all the light bulbs around the mirror are working. ‘That’s thanks to Madge,’ he says. ‘I was doing The Play What I Wrote here in 2002, just before Madonna did a show here and she paid for the dressing-rooms to be done up. But the funny thing was?…’ he bounds up from the sofa and marches across the room to the shower area; here he describes two diagonal slashes with his arms, ‘…?they put crime scene tapes over the shower so no one else could use it before Madge.’

The play he did before that was Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. ‘In the dressing-room were little sachets of vermin poison. Pretty bloody awful. There was a mattress in there with a piece of fabric that looked like Monica Lewinsky’s old dress on it. Half the lightbulbs had gone. I was there for 12½ weeks doing a play that was not a bundle of laughs, so I bought some ready-made curtains and a throw and some lightbulbs and insisted they had the room painted. They brought colour swatches of white, white or white – so I chose white.’

In his latest play, the first major revival of William Nicholson’s award-winning Shadowlands, Dance plays C.S. Lewis. Although Nigel Hawthorne, on stage, and Anthony Hopkins, in the Oscar-nominated film version, are hard acts to follow in that role, Dance proves himself worthy. His struggle as the middle-aged Lewis to accept that he has fallen in love for the first time, only to lose his new wife to cancer, is mesmerising. ‘It is about love in the presence of pain and suffering,’ Dance says. ‘C.S. Lewis believes pain is a tool. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

Presumably getting in the right reflective mood beforehand, while sitting in a pleasant dressing-room, is crucial to this performance? ‘Your mood can be affected by the state of your dressing-room, and by the day you have had, but hopefully that doesn’t affect the performance.’

I ask whether he can relate to the religious aspects of the play: C.S. Lewis, the devout Christian, agonises over the faith that has let him down. ‘Not at all. I am an agnostic. I’m not bothered about not knowing. Religion is at the core of the play, but we pretend. It’s my job. If I’m playing a murderer I don’t murder people.’

And the academic aspects, the donnish world of Oxford? ‘I am not an intellectual. I am reasonably intelligent, but not intellectual.’ I only ask because he often plays men who are in professions that others find inspiring: Army officers, doctors and so on. When he prepares for such roles, does he ever wonder whether, by comparison, being an actor in greasepaint is somehow not quite a proper job for a grown man? He seems affronted by this question and answers in a loud and indignant voice. ‘Some might think it’s a job for children, but it’s not! We do work very hard!’

Slightly taken aback, I say that I didn’t mean to sound rude. I reframe the question in terms of the Samuel Johnson quote about every man thinking meanly of himself for not being a soldier. ‘I see; well, I like pretending to be all those things. I like pretending to be someone in the military, but whether I could do it I don’t know. That’s why I am an actor.’

I tell him I went to see his Coriolanus years ago, the ultimate role for an actor with martial aspirations. ‘London or Stratford?’ The Barbican. ‘Good. I was reasonably happy with it by the time we reached the Barbican.’ It was a powerful and memorable performance, I say. Perfect casting.

The irony, though, was that Coriolanus is the patrician who is condescending towards the plebeians, and Dance’s background is plebeian. He is the son of Nell, a former parlour-maid.

Dance returns to his actors-are-just-pretending theme: ‘I just pretend. I was able to observe the aristocracy at close quarters because my mother worked for them. She certainly worked for much posher people than we were. Housekeeping. One observed it and absorbed it. My mother married above her station. She came from the East End. I’m not sure what my father did, because he died from a perforated ulcer when I was four, but I think his family had been confectioners. And I think he had been an engineer. A little further up the social scale than my mother. He used to do the occasional music hall recitation.’

Despite this background, when Dance started out in acting a fellow actor noted that he was ‘a toff actor’ as opposed to ‘a peasant actor’. ‘It’s because I have a patrician face,’ Dance says. He does indeed. But it is also to do with his bearing. As an actor he has a commanding presence and a certain grace. He can convey emotions with the flicker of a muscle, with the slightest movement of the eye. Two of his more polished aristocratic roles are the Earl of Erroll in White Mischief and Lord Raymond Stockbridge in Gosford Park. When he was filming the latter he told the director, Robert Altman, that he was in the wrong place, upstairs with the toffs; he should be downstairs with the servants. Altman said: ‘Not with that face, Charles.’

It might be that he learnt his patrician bearing from observing his step-father, Edward, a civil servant. He had been the lodger. He drank lots of tea and did the pools. ‘A fairly solitary men who seemed to have no friends or family, but quite decent. He looked after my mother. She would say, “When your father died I had 10 bob left in the world, dear”.’

His mother’s wasn’t a happy life. Nell nursed Edward through cancer and then died from a heart attack six months after he did, in 1984, the year The Jewel in the Crown was making her son’s name. They used to row a lot, mother and son. ‘Terrible emotional scenes. She was a very emotional woman.’

I ask if she was socially insecure. ‘She came from the servant class, which was not the same thing as the working class. The servant class is right in the middle. I’m not sure I believe there is such a thing as a middle class: it is either working class on the way up or aristocracy on the way down. She also, of course, was a lifelong Tory voter, as most people from the servant class were; you can’t possibly be governed by your equals. You have to be governed by your betters.’

His brother is 10 years older, a retired naval officer who lives in France. ‘He had been a difficult adolescent and my mother thought joining the Navy would make a man of him. So she marched him off to the recruiting office when he was 15, a decision my mother regretted until the day she died. I remember sharing a bedroom with him before he left for the Navy and there were books of poetry around the place and he wasn’t a bad draughtsman either. All that had to go. My mother learnt from her mistake and allowed me to indulge in poetry and the arts.’

Charles Dance had been studying graphic design and photography at Leicester Art School when he got the acting bug. Steve McQueen and Peter Finch had inspired him to become a screen actor, while ‘Brian Rix dropping his trousers in a farce made me want to prance about on stage’. He abandoned his course in favour of acting lessons from two retired thespians, Leonard and Martin. They were gay, but quiet about it, as society demanded at the time.

What was he like at that age? ‘When I was 19, I was long-haired, going on the Aldermaston march, shagging everything in sight. The march was more fun than anything. I’m not especially political.’

Was he narcissistic as a young man? ‘Not really, not until way after my teens. Mid to late twenties, possibly. I look around now and see guys who are fantastic looking and then I look in the mirror and think this is a very odd face. It doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Bags under the eyes, thinning hair, I don’t see a handsome man when I look in the mirror. Never have done. It is not an easy face to photograph, which is tricky in a film career unless you are in the hands of an astute and clever director of photography. I wear clothes quite well and am reasonably fit and have a good body, but I don’t think I am particularly handsome. When people first started describing me as being that, at the time of Jewel in the Crown, I was surprised, but then I learnt to embrace it, a little too fondly.’

At the time, he was described as the English Robert Redford. I suggest it must have given him confidence to be told he had matinee-idol looks, even if he couldn’t see it himself. ‘Confidence is something I have had to acquire. This profession is littered with people, who, by their nature, are more introvert that extrovert. I can have my flamboyant moments, but I am, by nature, an introvert. I acquired confidence by giving myself severe talkings-to from time to time. I found that aspect of Coriolanus – the opening scenes where he is confident, strutting, all “I’m f—ing wonderful, and powerful”, harder to act than the more vulnerable moments later in the play when it emerges that he is a mummy’s boy.’

He thinks that early on in his career he may sometimes have been cast because of his looks – but not any more. ‘Now I am getting more interesting roles. Mr Tulkinghorn in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, for example. Or Ralph Nickleby [in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby]. He is a complete s—. Evil, but interesting. Whereas there are only so many ways you can play a romantic leading man. You know you are there for a reason.’

He described himself earlier as ‘shagging everything in sight’; just how successful was he with women? ‘Not that successful. You know how it is when you are a young man: lots of groping most of the time, nothing serious.’

For 23 years he was married to Joanna, a sculptor. They have grown-up children: Oliver, who works in film, and Rebecca, who is in publishing. Then, in 2004, they divorced. Dance’s name has been linked to one or two actresses and models since, but he nevertheless worries that he might end up alone. He prefers not to think about it. Indeed, he feels uncomfortable with this conversation, not least because his ex-wife was door-stepped by the press at the time of their divorce. ‘I’d rather you avoided the subject,’ he says, ‘but I can’t blame “the business” for the breakdown of my marriage. I don’t want to talk about it. If I had a choice in the matter I would say “please don’t go into all that”, but if you want to insert something about it I can’t stop you.’

I note that actors tend to be liberal by inclination, that this is partly to do with the bohemian life they lead: the touring, the intimacy with fellow cast members, the abandonment of self-consciousness. In Dance’s case, that includes appearing nude. He has no qualms about it, as he demonstrated recently in the film Starter for Ten. He turned up on set for that scene already naked. When the wardrobe assistant offered to cover him up, he said: ‘No need, darling’.

‘Well, if you’ve done it once, after that it doesn’t bother you,’ he says now. ‘To continue the painting analogy, painters have brushes and paints, we have this.’ He sweeps his hands the length of his body. ‘The audience feels cheated if you don’t open up and be honest about yourself. I feel I have cheated myself if I don’t go that far. Having stuff in reserve is to cheat.’

Similarly, he is not fussy about what he appears in, so long as the money is good. He has done a number of forgettable Miss Marple-type dramas on television and memorably wore fishnets and a red rubber micro-skirt for the Ali G movie. ‘I’ll do anything for money,’ he says. ‘People talk about choices. What choices? The choice is to work or not to work.’

I suppose he has an additional choice in that he can also write, produce and direct. Notably, he wrote, produced and directed Ladies in Lavender, a film about two sisters, played by Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, living on the Cornish coast, who take in a Polish stray just before the Second World War. ‘There was a day when I was stupid enough to try to direct Judi. She came up with a line that was a bit sentimental for her and I knelt down and touched her knee and said: “Judi, it is a bit Celia Johnson-ish.” And she said: “How dare you? And get your hand off my knee.”.’

The film grossed more than $30million. ‘But none of it found its way into my pocket. It all went to the f—ing distributors and sales agents. I see the returns. I get “0000” next to my name while they are coining it in. It was a bugger to get the financing together for that film. I had to ask Judi and Maggie to defer fees and they sweetly said “of course, darling”, even though they knew deferment usually means deferred indefinitely.’

He slips on a black polo-neck and scoops up a packet of cigarettes from among the greasepaint pots. He is going to pop outside for a quick fag. As we walk through the theatre we talk about Shadowlands and its funereal themes. He says he would have loved to have gone to George Melly’s funeral. ‘He had a cardboard coffin which people wrote funny things on, like, ‘You owe me 20 quid, George”.’

As we stand outside the stage door, in the drizzle, I ask if he has thought about what form he would like his own funeral to take. ‘God no,’ he says, lighting a cigarette. ‘Too busy trying to live, for f—‘s sake.’


Aaron Eckhart

Aaron Eckhart plays baddies best – and his latest role, as a champion of the tobacco industry, reaches new depths. ‘I think if I chose to, I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered,’ he tells Nigel Farndale

‘Look at them,’ Aaron Eckhart says, as he studies the Londoners outside the bar opposite, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. ‘They are talking, and laughing, and drinking. But I can’t see anyone smoking. Can you see anyone smoking? The anti-smoking lobby has won. They have turned smokers into pariahs.’

The 38-year-old Hollywood actor is sipping coffee in the shade of an awning and, as he studies the nonsmokers, I study him: his dusty blond, side-parted fringe; his irregular features; his cold, narrow eyes. He has a jaw like that of a cartoon character, square and dimpled – so dimpled, in fact, that curious strangers have been known to come up and explore his chin with their fingertips.

He also has a disarmingly wide and lupine smile that reveals his back teeth. He uses this to great effect in his new film, Thank You For Smoking, a wry and biting satire on the world of the Washington lobbyist. It is based on Christopher Buckley’s acclaimed 1994 novel of the same name, the one that opens with the line: ‘Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.’

Eckhart plays Naylor.

Although best known as Julia Roberts’s smooth-talking biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s thoughtful lover in Possession, Eckhart is at his most formidable as an actor when playing anti-heroes. His character in this film makes his living defending the rights of smokers and the profits of his tobacco baron boss, played by Robert Duvall.

‘He’s a yuppie version of Mephistopheles,’ Eckhart says. ‘He’s a spin doctor with a moral flexibility that is beyond most people. For audiences, I think, watching him practise his dark art will have the thrill of the taboo. Naylor is proud of what he does. He loves to argue because arguing well means never having to say you’re wrong.’

The film opens with Naylor on a talk show about to be verbally attacked by the other guests, who are all anti-smoking, include a boy dying of cancer. Instead of being daunted, he turns the tables on his accusers.

With his deadly, winning smile he asks the audience, ‘Why would we want to kill this lad when people like him grow up to be our best customers?’ Though Eckhart doesn’t smoke himself – he gave up three years ago with the help of a hypnotherapist – he does go along with the libertarian arguments presented in this film.

‘The first thing to remember is that it is not illegal to smoke,’ he says. ‘The second thing is that lobbying is not illegal. If it was, it would be a different proposition. As it is, we are left with a conscientious argument, not a legal argument. Anyway, who is going to speak for all those millions of people who do like to smoke? I assume that everybody, essentially, knows what is right and wrong, so let them choose. If someone wants to smoke and die at 50, let them die at 50. I’m not talking about health care and secondary smoking here, those are slightly different issues. But as long as someone is smoking and not hurting anyone, I say let them.’

In order to empathise with his character in Thank You For Smoking, Eckhart spent time with lobbyists. ‘The tobacco lobbyists I’ve met have been delighted with this film because they feel like they have been let out of a cage. They felt so hated. So oppressed. They felt like there was a cloud above them. Now they feel their voice has been freed and that they are not such bad people, after all. It’s funny, they told me all the strategies they use to pass legislation and influence people.

‘They don’t seem to feel any personal responsibility. Like lawyers, they feel their job is to present the best argument and then they wash their hands. They probably know that what they are doing is immoral but they have learnt to live with it. Like Nick Naylor, they have learnt to face the world with smiles on their faces.’

That Eckhart smile: it is electrifying, in the execution sense of the word. The director of the film told him that whenever his character got into trouble he had to deploy that smile ruthlessly. ‘When I was growing up, I had one of those hard faces that made it difficult for other people to know what I was feeling, so my mother told me to show my feelings more, to smile more. Perhaps I over compensated. In the film you have people spitting at my character and him smiling back. The smile helps you to like him, despite yourself. It is the cult of personality.

‘You want to believe him. He invites trust and confidence. Tony Blair is a good example of that. He is always smiling, so you want to believe him.’

Eckhart is, he says, more aware of the power of his smile than he used to be. ‘I think if I chose to I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered. Sorry, that sounds more boastful than I intended. What I mean is, if I arrive at a party and walk in slowly and confidently, and make eye contact, and smile, I know I can take control of that room. It’s also to do with being curious about people, putting them at their ease and making them laugh. Bill Clinton was brilliant at that, and Warren Beatty: ladies would say that when he talked to them they would feel like they were the only person on Earth.’

It wasn’t always that way. Eckhart used to be shy and insecure. It was partly to do with his childhood. He was born and raised outside San Jose, California, where his father worked for a computer firm. But when he was 13, his family moved to England. They lived in Cobham in Surrey, where he and his younger brother attended the American Community School.

‘I tell you, I wanted to shoot myself. In California the sun was always shining, I had just started surfing, getting into girls, not getting beaten up. In England it was always raining, we lived in a small flat, and I had to take the bus. It was very scary for me at first. I got really introverted for a while. We would come home and torture our mother for bringing us here. Within a year, though, I discovered I was allowed to go anywhere in Europe on holiday trips. My father felt guilty for bringing us here, you see.’

His parents are Mormons and when Eckhart returned to America at the age of 17, he went to Brigham Young, the Mormon university in Utah. ‘Am I still a Mormon? Well, I do think of myself as one, but I tend to make my own decisions about my lifestyle. All the things you associate with the Mormon church – being against alcohol, tobacco and homosexuals – well, I am more liberal about those things. I used to feel guilty when I drank, though. I knew it was a destructive force in my life. I wasn’t hiding bottles or anything, but I drank a lot and would get into fights. I took hypnosis for that, too. Stopped three years ago.’ He smiles. ‘I haven’t been invited back to BYU to speak, by the way, so I guess they don’t approve of me there.’

It was at the university that he met his long-time collaborator, the director and playwright Neil LaBute. LaBute’s confrontational style and malevolent humour seemed to complement Eckhart’s. They have done four films together – relatively low-budget art-house movies – most memorably, the surprise box-office hit In the Company of Men, made in 1997.

Eckhart plays an angry young marketing man who befriends another angry young marketing man. Dumped by their girlfriends, they decide to take revenge on the opposite sex by simultaneously seducing and dumping a vulnerable, deaf secretary – just because they can. ‘Boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle,’ is how LaBute summed it up. ‘Women would come up to me after that film and say they hated me and that I was a prick,’ Eckhart says, matter-of-factly.

‘One woman came straight up and slapped me.’

He reflects upon how strange it is that some people cannot accept that actors can be different from the characters they play. I ask how his own personality differs from those of the misanthropes he has so often played. ‘I do have mood swings, but I’m working on them and I do think I’m naturally quite breezy. I think it is to do with maturity. Since I stopped drinking and smoking I have become an exponentially more positive person. I’ve partaken in drugs occasionally, but I’ve never had a problem. They’d always scared me enough not to be a user. I like to work and stay fit. I wake up at six in the morning. Try and fill my day usefully.’

When I suggest that LaBute put him on the map, Eckhart becomes defensive. ‘Well, we helped each other. He had the good words and I said them in the way he wanted. Neil has a unique vision. He likes to cast a certain type of actor – classic, all-American looks – because it hurts more. If you can get the audience to fall in love with the character on appearances alone, then…’

He tails off. ‘You wanted to trust the characters I played. They were worldly, well-educated people who didn’t seem naturally dark. Yet they would rip your heart out. I got to Neil first. I called him. I used to act with him in his own plays at college where he was the other character. In that way I got to hear how he delivered his own dialogue.

‘Actors always want to over-emphasise words but that’s not how it is with Neil. He is almost deadpan, saying lines confidently and unemotionally. It makes it more malicious. More manipulative.’

I ask Eckhart if he is ever manipulative when he is dating. ‘If you study body language, which I do, you learn that you can say things with every part of your body. When you apply that knowledge to your relationships it gives you control. I’m aware of using my knowledge of body language when dating, sure. If I’m talking with a girl I can tell whether she likes me by the direction her feet are pointing. I can made judgments based on that. It gives you an advantage. You’re doing it naturally anyway, it’s just when you know about it, it lets you be two steps ahead.’

Do women ever say they find him difficult to live with? He pauses, smiles and avoids the question. ‘Being with a different girl all the time is not fulfilling. I’m sort of with someone at the moment, not strongly but getting there. I want to be monogamous, living on my ranch in Montana. I feel like I ought to get married and have children. I need to share my life with someone.’

Does he use his body-language skills in acting, too? ‘Yes. Absolutely. You bet. If you want to influence and control the audience you can do it a bit through your movements. People all know about how when a person lies they cover their mouth, say, but you can be more subtle and subliminal than that. For one role I would put my hands on my hips like this whenever my character was lying.’

He demonstrates. ‘It would just build up and some people might notice it and others might not.’ He sits back in his seat. ‘Look at my body language now,’ he says. ‘I have an open posture, leaning back, making eye contact. This says I am feeling relaxed. It also says I want you to like me because you are writing about me.’

Is he playing a role, manipulating the situation, during this interview? ‘Not really, but I know what you mean.’

We talk about how, during the filming of The Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman would run before a take so that he seemed genuinely out of breath. Laurence Olivier, his co-star, famously dismissed this approach by asking Hoffman why he didn’t just act being out of breath.

‘I’m with Dustin on this,’ Eckhart says. ‘If you need to be out of breath, why not be out of breath? It gets your blood up, gets you excited and lets you concentrate on other aspects of your character. In that sense I think of myself as a method actor. I will manipulate the people around me. To make a love scene more convincing, I will flirt with my leading ladies from the moment I walk on set.’ He smiles his vulpine smile again, teeth bared. ‘And no, before you ask, I’ve never had an on-set relationship.’


Alan Ayckbourn

A lesser playwright might have slowed down after a stroke. But not Alan Ayckbourn. He talks to Nigel Farndale about critics, creativity and the healing power of comedy

From the bow window of his drawing-room, more a belvedere of curved glass, Sir Alan Ayckbourn can contemplate the North Sea. It’s the reason he moved his bed here, while convalescing after his stroke last year. Well, not his bed – a hydraulic one on loan from the hospital. The playwright adopts a comedy Yorkshire accent as he recalls the words of the orderly who came to take the bed away: ‘I see you’re standing then. Normally when I come to collect these it’s because the patient is dead.’

Although Ayckbourn’s house – actually three Victorian terrace houses knocked into one – overlooks Scarborough’s South Bay, he is not a Yorkshireman himself. Far from it. He was born in Hampstead and went to school in Hertfordshire. But he clearly delights in northern bluntness. Indeed, he tells me with an ambiguous grin about the time a local taxi driver dropped him off at his theatre in Scarborough and noticed a poster on the wall. It was for an Alan Ayckbourn play and it was peppered with press quotations praising the production. ‘If you’re that good,’ the taxi driver said, ‘what are you doing here?’

The short answer is that Ayckbourn, who is now 68, first came to Scarborough as an 18-year-old actor in 1957, liked it and stayed. The longer answer is that Scarborough is where his mentor, the theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph, founded the theatre-in-the-round that was to become Ayckbourn’s spiritual home.

Ayckbourn is not only the most prolific playwright of his generation but also the most widely produced. He is probably, in fact, the most successful-in-own-lifetime playwright there has ever been, including Shakespeare. And nearly all of the 70 plays he has written have had their first performances at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. Many have ended up in the West End, too. There and Broadway, where a street was briefly renamed Ayckbourn Alley in his honour.

He has two plays opening in the next couple of weeks and they follow this pattern. Absurd Person Singular, written in 1972 and probably his best-known play, is about to open at the Garrick Theatre. It stars Jane Horrocks and David Bamber. A new production of his play A Trip to Scarborough, meanwhile, is about to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. With time shifts between the 18th century, the Second World War and the present day, it is loosely based on the original play of the same name by R.B. Sheridan. Unusually, exceptionally in fact, this play is not set in the South.

‘I’m not sure why this is the only play I’ve set in Yorkshire,’ Ayckbourn says. ‘I suppose it is because your voice as a writer is formed early and before I reached puberty I was branded a cockney – so I still write with a cockney voice in my head.’

Actually, his ‘voice’ is more genteel than that. He is usually described as ‘the Molière of the middle classes’. His domain is usually an unspecified Middle England, probably somewhere around Peterborough. His genre is usually the ‘serious comedy’ of suburban manners – astute observations about middle-class foibles, artful dissections of the failures of family life, pitiless but funny examinations of the strange and loud egomania of the unhappy. It is said he creates happiness by depicting unhappiness, and this formula has served him well.

But his commercial success hasn’t necessarily endeared him to the cognoscenti. Faber & Faber declined to publish his plays in the early 1970s because it regarded him as ‘too successful’ (it relented in 1986, after the production of Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval at the National Theatre, and has been his publisher ever since). What Faber meant, of course, was that Sir Alan Ayckbourn didn’t seem to be in quite the same league as Sir Harold Pinter, Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare.

When I ask him how he feels about not being mentioned in the same breath as these ‘heavyweight’ playwright knights, Ayckbourn doesn’t seem defensive. ‘I’m comfortable with it now. Years ago I did think: why aren’t I being taken very seriously? But as someone once told me, I have an ability to make audiences laugh so I should treasure that. I don’t want to lose that. There are plenty of people who can make audiences cry. Woody Allen has spent years trying to be taken seriously off and on, but we all go back to Bananas. Unlike David Hare, who writes about the state of the nation and current affairs, I write about domestic affairs. I see myself more as a Jane Austen who never bothers with the Napoleonic Wars going on around her.’

He may be known for his comedies, and occasional farces, but in recent years his plays have been getting a little dark. Does he think his stroke will make his writing darker still? ‘I don’t know. I do look at my writing in terms of pre-stroke and post-stroke. I found it hard to get back into writing because you have to be on your own and I felt quite frightened about that. I’ve never really analysed how I write and I wasn’t sure whether the instinct would still be there. I had taken it for granted, up to that point, that the part of the brain responsible for creative writing would function automatically – but a stroke is a dysfunction. I’m still not quite right. These fingers are a bit odd.’ He waves them. ‘And this foot is less than mobile. That thing one doesn’t like to talk about, that shaft of light that suddenly arrives and we think of as inspiration, would it still be there?’

Ayckbourn has two jobs, it should be explained. As well as being a playwright, he is also the long-standing artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (though he has announced he will be giving up that demanding role next summer, to become an associate director instead).

‘When I first came round in the hospital after my stroke I imagined writing would be easier to get back into than directing, because writing is sedentary and solitary while directing is more active. But actually it was the other way round. I got straight back into the rehearsal room, with the doctor telling me it was too soon. I found it a shot in the arm. I get so excited when I get into a rehearsal room. I am like a racehorse being ushered into the starting gate, under starter’s orders.’

It helps that his rehearsal studio – a converted school – adjoins his house. Indeed, everything seems to be handy for him here. He has his own indoor swimming pool. One of his sons – he has two, both in their forties, both from his first marriage – is living with his family in a large flat upstairs. ?And one of the actors in his company is renting a flat from him downstairs.

He has no regrets about giving up his own early career as an actor. ‘At least as a writer you are standing beside the thing you have created. As an actor you are inhabiting that body they are criticising. It is direct and personal. Your personality and your appearance are being criticised. It’s like a head butt. Critics who maul actors don’t understand what it does to them. The actress Charlotte Cornwell once sued a female critic for saying her arse was too big. I did think she was right to sue. The critic had overstepped the mark.’

Surely it is just as bad for a playwright, because it is his mind that is being criticised? ‘I do get depressed and lose confidence if criticised over a new play. But I can put this much distance’ – he holds up a finger and thumb – ‘between the work and myself, even for a new play. If someone says now that they think the Norman Conquests [a trilogy written in 1973] were rubbish it doesn’t bother me because they are miles away and I have to think twice to remember I wrote them. With a new play, I am always anxious when offering it to actors. I await their reaction with trepidation.’

After all these years, all that success? ‘I think because when I write something new it really is new, sufficiently new to make me nervous. That’s the test. If I am unfazed, I know I must have written it before. That it is the same old formula. I stopped acting when I was no longer nervous about going on stage.’

He is beyond retirement age, he clearly doesn’t need the money: is it a form of failure that he still hasn’t got writing and directing plays out of his system? ‘I don’t suppose my wife would want me under her feet if I retired,’ he says. ‘Besides, I think if I walked away from the theatre I would probably die. Sometimes you need something to retire to. When I’m not writing or directing I wander around not knowing what to do with myself. But does it amount to failure? I’m not sure how to answer that.’

Actually he answers it with an inscrutable smile. For all his southern gentility, openness and politeness, there is something oddly wooden and closed about Sir Alan, as if he is a man playing himself. His voice is actorly and hesitant, a little ingratiating if anything. His laughter is polite, but he is not fully engaged. Such is his diffidence, he is incapable of holding eye contact for longer than a couple of seconds, preferring instead to stare ahead of himself. When he does try it, he has to swing his whole body round, holding the gaze almost as an act of will before retreating. He has few close friends, it is said, and finds it difficult to be spontaneous because he is always thinking ‘I could use that’. Self-absorbed, that is what he seems – the self-absorption of a child.

It is reflected in his feverish writing method. He writes very quickly, taking a week or two for the dialogue once he has his idea. In fact he always starts with the title, which goes on the posters before the writing process begins. He draws on his own life in a lateral way. He thinks his stroke, for example, might throw up some material. For a while it left him confusing the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. A reversal of word circuits was diagnosed, a relatively normal side-effect of strokes. A title for a play has duly come to him: The Man Who Couldn’t Say No.

He finds writing dialogue the fun part. ‘The trick is to make characters sound convincingly different: some might talk in short sentences, others long, others will fade away.’ He sometimes feels they are with him, crowding round his head – and when he goes to bed they are in suspended animation until he brings them back to life in the morning. ‘My wife, Heather, will touch my head sometimes as she is on her way to bed and say: “Blimey, it’s overheating tonight”.’ He treasures his hang-ups, he says. ‘Please God, don’t make me sane. My characters have faults that roll out of me. Most of the flawed characters are me in some phobia or other, some prejudice or other. I’m sure I had terrible childhood traumas but I have mined them so much now they are neutralised.’

His father, Horace, was a first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. One day he ran off with the second violinist, abandoning the young Alan and his mother, Irene. Horace had never been married to Irene though, partly because she was already married to someone else, and only divorced him to marry a bank manager in 1948. (Ayckbourn had an arrangement that was almost as complicated: he separated from his first wife after 10 years but did not divorce her for 30 – and only did so then in order that he could marry Heather, the woman he had been living with for those same 30 years.)

By all accounts, Irene was rackety and bohemian. She once put two ailing newborn puppies in the oven, on the vet’s advice, and then forgot about them. A volatile woman with a fondness for drink, cigarettes and men, she would pick up sailors and GIs and tell Alan they were his uncles.

She once threw his father’s framed photograph at him in fury and told him that all men were bastards. When she died in 1999, Ayckbourn wrote a eulogy which included the line: ‘She gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations and self-insights than any writer has a right to expect from a parent.’

‘Although I had a stepbrother, I was essentially an only child,’ Ayckbourn says now. ‘And I remained a loner. My insecure childhood gave me an emotional energy. Alan Bennett’s characters are reassuringly ordinary whereas mine tend to be extraordinary – my women, particularly, because my only contact with them was through my mother’s extraordinary girlfriends, journalists mostly. Girls remained uncharted territory for me for a long time. I was shy among them. They were another race, and I suppose that is why I was drawn to the theatre – as a way of meeting girls.’

Something else he seems to have inherited from his mother is a passive-aggressive streak. The play of his that is about to open at the Garrick is the first one he has allowed in the West End since his self-imposed moratorium in 2002. His complaint then was that West End producers had lost their nerve and wouldn’t put on plays unless there was a television personality or Hollywood actor attached to the show. The last straw for him came when a feeble-voiced and stilted Madonna was cast in a play.

Does this mean he has forgiven the West End now? ‘Yeah, yep. I won’t take the new ones there, though. They are welcome to the revivals. With Absurd Person Singular they have a cast of proven actors. None has come off a Dubonnet advert. That’s what I really objected to: the casting of people who weren’t proper theatre actors. Some Hollywood actors struggle to be heard beyond row three. And the trouble with putting an actor from ­EastEnders in a play is that audiences will come in who don’t normally come to the theatre and they will expect those actors to be the same as they are on television. When they are not they will go away disappointed and not come back to the theatre. My mum was a bit like that. She would ­confuse an actor with the part he was playing. She would say, “He’s a nasty piece of work.” And I would say, “But Mum, that’s just the character he is playing”.’ Beyond the bow window, seagulls are wheeling and screeching. It is a reminder that the theatre in this country does not begin and end on Shaftesbury Avenue.

In his slightly apprehensive way, Ayckbourn has been trying to imagine how his play set in Scarborough will go down with a local audience. ‘When you meet Yorkshiremen for the first time they can seem quite rude,’ he says, levering himself up from his chair with the aid of a walking stick. ‘If I meet them on their way in to see one of my plays they will say: “Am I going to enjoy this, then?”‘

What do they say afterwards?

He grins the ambiguous grin. ‘Usually they will say: “Not bad”.’


Alison Goldfrapp

She’s a pop phenomenon whose loud, flamboyant stage presence has inspired everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga. But in person, her silences speak volumes

If June 6, 1944, is the longest day, my hour in the company of Alison Goldfrapp may qualify as the second longest. It’s not the singer’s scaly silences so much (though they are bad enough), it is the grumpiness.

Example: I ask her if, when she is on the road, there is a hierarchy among her band. An innocent – even bland – question, you might suppose. A chance to share a droll anecdote about how the drummer always comes at the bottom of the pecking order, perhaps. But no. ‘That’s you saying that, not me saying that,’ she snaps. ‘Hierarchy is your word, not mine.’ I know it is, I think, mentally pinching the bridge of my nose.

Amusingly, her publicist, a friendly soul, has told me Goldfrapp is on good form today. He must be aware of her reputation, must know that almost every interviewer who has come into contact with his client has noted how frosty she is. So why put up with it, you might ask? Well, she’s hard work, but her Garbo-like mystique is intriguing. You have to tease answers out of her. Be persistent. And after a while you are rewarded. You also come to realise that, through her occasional silences, she is speaking volumes.

To be fair, Goldfrapp, which is her real name – it is German in origin, though she is British – has never pretended she likes being interviewed. Indeed, she has said she has a complex about talking to people, has nightmares about it even. She puts it down to a lack of confidence, to being shy. Yet shyness can be an excuse for rudeness, the social equivalent of wearing sunglasses indoors and not taking them off when talking to someone, which she also does.

Occasionally she will tilt back her sour face to study me – her Ray-Bans are darker at the top than the bottom – and I half glimpse the eyes which, exaggerated by false lashes, are made so much of in her videos, along with her shapely legs and her natural golden ringlets. Today her hair is half-gathered, her legs tucked up beneath her. She is wearing black, which emphasises her pale, almost transparent skin, and, though she does smile from time to time, this has the effect of lowering the room temperature even further.

But, and this is the reason it is worth having a stab at interviewing her, for all this, she makes good, hooky, interesting music and has been doing so for quite a while. She was something of a late developer musically, having turned 30 before she landed her first record deal (she is 44 now). Before that she did a fine arts degree at Middlesex Polytechnic as a mature student, and for her graduation show she milked a Jersey cow, while yodelling.

Her break came in 1999 when she teamed up with Will Gregory, a classically trained musician who had previously worked with Portishead and the composer Michael Nyman. He is articulate, well-spoken and seven years her senior. They formed Goldfrapp, her surname being more arresting than his, and developed an innovative brand of electropop. She usually writes the lyrics, he the melodies.

After a couple of albums they hit paydirt in 2005 with Supernature. It opened with Ooh La La, a T.Rex pastiche, and sold by the million. Madonna said it was her album of the year and invited Goldfrapp to her parties. Soon after this, Madge began imitating Goldfrapp’s look and sound, inspiring critics to call her Oldfrapp.

Younger acts have followed, including Florence + the Machine and Lady Gaga – who, like Goldfrapp, is 5ft 2in and bisexual. But by the time others were copying her, she had moved on. A melancholy album followed and her latest, Headfirst, is even harder to pigeonhole, with quirky shades of Van Halen and Olivia Newton-John.

The imitation is as often of Goldfrapp’s flamboyant stage persona as her music. She doesn’t dance much but she certainly has presence, and a sense of the theatrical. She designs many of her costumes herself, from the high camp of feather boas and bell-bottomed catsuits to the surreal juxtaposition of horses’ tails hanging from hot pants. Her videos are equally witty. It’s a paradox that someone so introverted in private can be such an extrovert on stage.

I guess it helps in her job to have exhibitionist tendencies. ‘I’m not sure about the exhibitionist tendencies,’ she says, emphasising the words mockingly. She chews on a strand of hair. I ride the silence. ‘Um, I think a lot of singers are shy people. I suppose singing on stage is not like talking, you are not as exposed.’ There. That wasn’t so hard.

What would she normally be doing now, on a typical afternoon, if she weren’t subjecting herself to the torture of an interview? ‘At the moment? Getting on a plane. Having some crap food. Getting off a plane. Touring. The gig bit is fine but the travelling … it’s so unglamorous. The loos at festivals, the dressing rooms, sticky, smelly. Actually, I’m enjoying it at the moment, still doing the festivals, then we have a tour in this country in November.’

When she says she is enjoying it at the moment, that suggests she wasn’t in the past. What is it she finds enjoyable now? ‘Well, we get on really well, the band.’ This is where the hierarchy question comes in. I re-phrase it. Bands often fall out on tour. The clashing of egos. The close proximity. But because she is the leader of her band, presumably her word goes. ‘I suppose I am the boss. It’s my gig but we’ve known each other a long time, so we are a team.’

We are in a private room in a West End hotel. A waiter knocks and enters with the Coke and a coffee we have ordered. When he can’t find a bottle-opener, Goldfrapp sighs loudly.

She stirs and stirs her coffee. Tap, tap, tap with the spoon on the side. Stir, stir. She doesn’t take a sip. Is Will the more musically trained? ‘The more musically trained.’ I take it from that answer that she doesn’t read music? ‘No. It’s all by ear. But I use my voice. If you’ve got a computer and an ear for melody you don’t have to be classically trained. I think it’s a bit of a myth that if you can read music you can write music. It doesn’t work like that.’ She stirs the coffee again. Tumbleweed passes through the room.

With her background in the visual arts, perhaps she is stronger on the design side of the live shows? ‘Actually, I was doing music before art school.’ I surreptitiously check my watch. The hands seem to be going backwards. I know – the Jersey cow. There must be an amusing anecdote about that. How on earth did she get hold of one and get it in her degree show? ‘I rang a company called Animal Actors and said I want a cow. They asked what colour. I said Jersey. I got it miked up and I sang while milking it.’ How did she learn the technique? ‘I took lessons.’ From?

‘A goat farmer.’

Well, top marks for being deadpan. It occurs to me that her hostility might be an act, a pop star being cool. She is very image-conscious, after all, and very controlling of it. But there may be another explanation. Her singing voice is silky and appealing but her speaking voice, well, isn’t. She has an estuary twang that reminds you of Janet Street Porter. She is self-conscious about this, not surprisingly, given that her father, a well-spoken army officer, mocked her for it.

He was an interesting character, a little eccentric by the sound of things. He used to take the family – she is the youngest of six – out into the woods at night to listen to the sounds of nature. He also took them swimming in the sea, when the moon was full. And once a week he would sit them all down to listen to classical music, and afterwards ask them to express how it made them feel.

Goldfrapp grew up in the Hampshire countryside, in what is known as ‘Jane Austen country’. Her early childhood there was happy, especially when she was at a private prep school. But then she failed the entrance exam for the senior school and had to go to a comprehensive instead. The children there seemed ‘scary’. To fit in, she dropped her received pronunciation, tried glue-sniffing and pricked herself an ink tattoo on her hand. She left school at 16 with two O-levels, one in drama, one in art, and moved in with a friend. At 17 she went to live in a London squat, where she smoked a lot of cannabis.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, was that it? ‘I was clear that I wanted to do music and I wanted to write songs. But I wasn’t clear about how I was going to make that happen. I wrote loads of songs but didn’t want to show them to anyone.’ But she doesn’t mind showing them to Will? ‘He is very good at not making me feel self-conscious.’

I have read that she thought she must have come across as a ‘stroppy bitch’ when she first met him. This comment prompts me to ask her how would she describe herself today? ‘I’m not going to do that. I don’t think about that.’Well, OK, she mentioned shyness earlier, let’s start with that. ‘I just didn’t get the exhibitionist bit. I don’t think that just because you go on stage you are an exhibitionist.’

She chews on her hair again. Stirs her coffee. She must have had a lot of freedom growing up in the countryside, I say. ‘Yes, I did. But I think it’s difficult when you are a teenager because the countryside can seem stifling and boring. Up to the age of 13 I thought it wonderful, then I thought it small-minded and claustrophobic. Going to the woods didn’t have the same allure as it did when I was eight. There’s not a lot going on for the youth in the countryside unless you are in the Girls Guides, which I wasn’t.’

Her transition from private school to state school, was that hard? ‘I don’t think about it. It was school. Whatever. Why are you interested?’ Because personalities are often formed in the early years, that is why they are called formative years. ‘OK, there were good parts to it and shitty parts. I left school at 16 and I’ve done quite a lot since.’

If she could meet her 16-year-old self again, what advice would she give her? The 44-year-old Alison Goldfrapp lets out another long sigh. ‘God, this is like an amateur therapy session, isn’t it? I really don’t know. I think I was eager to get out of a small town and try things out. Being a teenager I found tough. And I found it hard in London, not knowing anybody.’

Was her father still alive when she left home? ‘Yeah. He died when I was 23.’What did he think of it? ‘Don’t know actually. I was probably a bit oblivious and ignored any advice.’

She says her close friends found it ‘odd’ when she became famous. Was it a bit odd for her, too? ‘Around Supernature I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of travelling I was doing and the number of interviews. It was all a bit, Whoa! A bit weird. I didn’t know how to deal with the attention. It made me uncomfortable. I love making music and performing but I don’t like the celebrity side of it. The photographs I find pretty gross, actually. No one tells you how you are supposed to react when someone shoves a camera in your face.

‘I like going home and having dinner with my friends. People sometimes have an expectation of you when your career is at a certain level. They want you to be some kind of character. It can be quite stressful. People want to meet you.’

Unexpectedly, she now laughs; an easy, room-filling laugh. ‘But I don’t get the same attention any more, so that’s quite good! It suits me fine.’ Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face, as John Updike once said. ‘I don’t know how to explain it really. I would feel guilty for not going out to dinner. Or someone would be shocked because I was out without my high heels and mini-skirt, disappointed because I was in jeans and T-shirt. It would confuse me.’

There is a palpable sadness about Goldfrapp, a weariness, and she wears it like a heavy cloak around her shoulders. We talk – well, I talk – about how music has the power to reflect and manipulate emotions, especially with the use of major and minor keys. ‘Yeah, certain chords will feel right,’ she says, nodding in agreement. ‘We spend a lot of time talking about the atmosphere and mood of our songs. Every sound has a personality.’

Has she been in love many times in her life? ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. Sorry, how did we get on to this?’

Major and minor keys. Emotions. ‘Oh, OK. Do I fall in love easily? I don’t know. I get into people. I like discovering them. I’ve probably been infatuated with a lot of people in my life, I don’t know whether that is the same.’ She is in love at the moment? ‘Yes. It’s a good place to be. The world seems like a kinder place when you are in love.’

Her girlfriend, Lisa Gunning, is a film editor. They met a couple of years ago while co-composing the soundtrack for Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy. Her previous relationships had been with men. It just happened that this time she fell in love with a woman. Even she was surprised.

I ask how her constant touring affects her relationship with Lisa. ‘She has come on the last couple of legs of the tour and documented some of it, which was nice. She gets on well with the band. I think some people find it difficult being away from the family for long periods. Adjusting to being still, and having a routine, after a tour is over is hard, whether I’m in a relationship or not.’

Does she cry easily? ‘Yes, really easily. Sometimes it’s pathetic. It can happen anywhere. In the airport the other day I was really tired and got tearful. I was watching this family who were all saying goodbye to each other, parents saying goodbye to their son, and it was a really intense moment. They couldn’t let him go. And the dad was patting the son on the back, doing the manly thing. And they all started crying. Then I started crying. F—.’

Well, if this were a therapy session, there is a lot that could be read into that reaction. The sight of a father saying goodbye to the child moves her to tears. She stirs her coffee again. Does not take a sip. It will have gone cold by now.


Amanda Ross

Amanda Ross, the brains behind the Richard & Judy Book Club, has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires. So why does she attract such sniffiness? Nigel Farndale finds out

Before I meet the most powerful woman in British publishing, I meet her dogs, two Tibetan terriers. They skitter in, narrowly missing a stack of books that teeters on her office floor. As I crouch down to stroke their heads I become distracted by the names juxtaposed on the book spines – they include Billie Piper and Bill Clinton; Julian Barnes and Griff Rhys Jones. It takes a pair of high-heeled, knee-length leather boots in my peripheral vision to undistract me. ‘People always like to check on what I’m reading,’ Amanda Ross says airily.

Of course they do.

Her unofficial title stuck after a publishing ‘power list’ came out last year. It is slightly misleading because a) she is the most powerful ‘person’ in publishing, there being men on the list as well, and b) she is not actually in publishing. She runs Cactus TV with her husband, Simon Ross (brother of Jonathan), and together they produce Richard & Judy, the daytime chat show which, through its insanely popular Book Club, more or less dictates what is in the bestseller lists.

The Book Club was Ross’s idea – inspired by the Oprah Winfrey show – and she is the one who selects the titles featured on it. It works like this: Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan (along with a rotation of celebrities) read and discuss the books that she has shortlisted over the same eight-week period that their viewers are reading and discussing them. Sales of the shortlisted books are known to increase by as much as 3,000 per cent the day after they are featured. The winner of last year’s Best Read Award, Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, holds the number one spot in the 2006 overall sales league table; at number two is Victoria Hislop’s The Island, which was the viewer’s favourite in last year’s Summer Read. Since it started in 2004, in fact, the Book Club has been responsible for the sale of more than 10 million books and has generated more than £60 million for publishers. What this means in practice is that the sales of one in four books sold in this country are now based on Amanda Ross’s recommendations. It also means that, almost single-handedly, she has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires.

Publishers, I suggest, must be sucking up to her like crazyweed. ‘Well the thing is they don’t suck up. They don’t. Partly, I think, because I’m so busy doing a daily live show I don’t have time to have lunch. Anyway, right from the start I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be bribed.’ She laughs. ‘But I do keep dropping hints that I wouldn’t mind a backlist or two for our library in Italy.’ She refers to her second home, a restoration project on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. Her first is just off Clapham Common, a short drive from her studio, a converted polystyrene factory in Kennington.

Amanda Ross is 44 years old and 5ft 5in tall. She has blonde highlighted hair tumbling over her shoulders and an easy laugh. Though she studied drama at Birmingham University, she has no literary pretensions and is keen to point out that, having grown up in a bookless council flat in Pitsea, Essex, her roots are working-class.

To what does she owe the confidence she clearly has in her own taste? ‘It’s not confidence at all. I’m not a very confident person. Making these selections scares me stiff. I do take it personally when I’m criticised, because the book industry is not my industry. It’s like, hey, you know, I’m trying to help here. I don’t make any money out of this. That’s the bizarre thing. The most successful thing in my career, which this is, I don’t make any money from.’

Criticism? Well, according to Madeley: ‘The Book Club has nailed the lie that daytime TV is for “dimwits” and “bored housewives”. We demonstrated that our viewers are intelligent people who relish the opportunity to read and discuss books.’ Certainly, the brow line of the book choices falls between high and middle. Even so, there is still some sniffiness in literary circles. There are those who grumble, off the record, that the prominence given in shops to the Book Club choices means that there is no space left for any other new books.

The arts commentator Mark Lawson, meanwhile, has argued that word-of-Richard-and-Judy has replaced word-of-mouth. Monica Ali snubbed the awards when she was shortlisted. And the novelist Giles Foden made a brave – or foolish – stand in the Guardian recently when he wrote: ‘Personally, I’d rather not listen to the twitterings of a pair of permatanned nincompoops on literary matters.’ What had irked him was a comment Amanda Ross had made about the word ‘literary’. She was quoted as saying she hated it. She also admitted that she had never read anything by Martin Amis, the big beast of the literary world.

‘I got knocked for saying I hate the word “literary”,’ she now says, a touch defensively. ‘What I meant was I don’t like books being put into a box or category if that scares away readers. I was criticised when we started the Book Club because my choices were considered too difficult for a daytime audience, yet one of our winners was Cloud Atlas, which was also shortlisted for the Booker. A lot of our viewers enjoyed that and then afterwards, when they heard it was Literature with a capital L, they were pleased because they had seen past the label. Julian Barnes – he’s another literary author we’ve shortlisted. If we had sold that as a literary work it would have put people off because, for some, literary means difficult or inaccessible.’

Does she read book reviews? ‘No, never. I read The Bookseller and Publishing News, that’s it. I don’t have any real literary knowledge.’

Has she felt under pressure to fill in those gaps? ‘No, because I never pretended that I am particularly well-read. I read a lot, but who knows what is the right thing to read? What I will say is that because of my background in popular television I can look at something and visualise it. I can say: “I think that will have universal appeal.” If any smart-arse critics want to trip me up on my lack of knowledge about literature it would be really easy for them. But I’ll never lie that I’ve read something if I haven’t. Now I’m stuck in a horrible trap, because with the selection process all I’m reading is brand-new fiction: 1,400 books a year are submitted so I don’t have a chance to catch up on other reading beyond that.’

She doesn’t read them all, she explains. She is helped by three assistants, who change each year, and they tend to read a couple of chapters and a synopsis. Only when they are down to a longlist of 50 do they read cover to cover. The final 10 is all a question of size. The list goes thick, thin, thick, thin.

Is Ross a quick reader? ‘No, unfortunately – it’s really frustrating. My husband is a really quick reader. It annoys me because we’ll be sitting together on a plane and he’ll have done 30 pages to my three.’

So what bones can she throw authors in terms of helping them get on her lists? ‘Well a book has to be vivid. Some books can be beautifully written but not a lot happens. They need strong themes and plots. In the end I’m picking something which has to sustain 12 minutes of television discussion. That’s a helluva long time in TV terms.’

So something like Ulysses wouldn’t work? ‘Well you’d have to be able to say what its central themes are and is it going to stimulate an argument? That’s the other thing. Because we are in our fourth year it has to be a discussion we haven’t had before. After Labyrinth was so successful I was submitted a lot of books saying: “This is your next Labyrinth.” Well I don’t want that. There tend to be patterns in publishing. This year there were a lot of African-themed books around so I felt we should choose one of those and so I chose Chimamanda – I can’t say her surname, can you?’ I have a stab: Ngozi? She laughs. ‘I was taught it was “amanda” with “Chim” in front. Anyway, now we are getting lots more African-themed books and we feel we’ve done that.’

The Book Club selection she was most excited about was The Time Traveler’s Wife. ‘I read it on holiday in Italy and I could see now exactly where I was when I read it and I was crying from half way through. I gave it to my husband and he loved it too. Only on holiday do I get a chance to read a book all the way through.’ Publishers, she adds, are always bullying her PA to tell them when she is going on holiday.

Tuh. Publishers. Nearly as bad as authors. When I joke about unsigned books in bookshops being more valuable than signed ones – because they are sale-or-return for the bookshop – she says: ‘Is that why they say a signed book is a sold book? I hadn’t realised that.’ It is a curious thing not to know, a measure of her detachment from the cut-throat publishing world. I ask if she knows many authors. ‘A few. Mostly the ones I’ve picked. And publishers do try and get me to meet authors I might pick, but I think that’s dangerous because if you really like them and then don’t like their book it is awkward. I sat next to William Boyd at the Costas [book awards] after I had picked him and his book was due on the show the next day. I came home and said to my husband: “I’m not going to sleep now because if the panel doesn’t like the book I’m going to be mortified because he is so nice.” ‘ It is a guileless comment. An endearing one, too. ‘Unlike Oprah, we consciously never have the author in the studio, so that we can be honest,’ she adds. ‘You don’t want it to be a puff piece.’

How would she describe her taste? ‘Eclectic.’ Another laugh.

Can she be more specific? ‘There are some I like more than others. I do have favourites in the present list, such as The Girls.’ She plucks a copy of it off her shelves and, as she reads its first page to me, I am struck by her obvious passion for books. She handles them as if they are sacred objects. ‘There are other things which determine taste,’ she says. ‘On the Tube at the moment people are reading This Book Will Save Your Life partly because it’s got a funky, urban cover.’

So she thinks people on the Underground worry about what their choice of book says about them? ‘Exactly. That is why covers are important. Cecelia Ahern’s PS, I Love You was submitted with a bright pink cover and I told HarperCollins that Richard can’t sit there with a bright pink cover. My husband wouldn’t want to either, even though he’s very comfortable with his manhood. No man is going to want to. When you go on holiday you swap books with your partner.’ The cover was changed to blue. It went on to sell a million copies.

I ask about the notorious Richard & Judy Book Club sticker, the one that seems to be spot-welded on. ‘I’m sure there are many people who buy the books and the first thing they do is peel the sticker off,’ she says with a grin.

Because they don’t want strangers to presume that the sticker is the reason they bought it? ‘Maybe, yes. But I do think the stickers make a big difference because I have a lot of feedback from people saying we never watch the show but we have always found when we have read a book with the sticker on that it is an enjoyable read.’

Ross now lets me into a secret which publishers would do well to take note of: ‘My husband is the ultimate arbiter, because I get him to read anything I’m not sure of.’

They married 16 years ago after meeting at Tyne Tees television. ‘We were paired up together as researchers and I laughed so much because Simon is very funny. He made me laugh so much the first week we worked together that my side hurt. I actually had shingles and didn’t realise.’

I ask what Ross family gatherings are like. ‘Loud.’

Jonathan dominates? ‘Actually no, because in the family dynamic he has two older brothers, Paul and Simon, and all three of them are really quick. They shared a bedroom when they were growing up. Five boys. So they had to get along for survival. There are 17 kids in the family – we are the only ones without – so yes, family gatherings are loud.’

Despite IVF treatment, the couple have not been able to have children, something Ross has found hard to come to terms with. ‘I don’t think I could have had the same career if we had had children, though. I don’t think I could have had the same relationship with Simon. We work the hours we do because we don’t have to get back for children.’

Her own childhood was not happy. When Amanda was 11, her father, who worked in an oil refinery, left her mother. ‘I don’t see my father. Haven’t seen him for years. I was brought up by my mother and stepfather. My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I could read when I was three. My mum joined a book club for me and I would read under covers after dark with a torch.’

Escapism? ‘Yes. I’m sure it was. I didn’t fit in at school. I don’t have a posh accent or anything – you can properly still hear where I come from – but my mother taught me to speak properly, for Essex. I was bullied because I didn’t sound like everyone else and because I was very short for my age – I shot up five inches in a year when I was 15 – I was a natural victim. I would join all the clubs because I didn’t have a very nice home life.’

What sort of bullying? ‘It was really bad. Everything from stealing my books to forcing me to have fights with people. Locking me in the toilet. Burning me with cigarettes. I had to change schools, which gave me a chance to change attitudes. My attitude after that was “Don’t pick on me.” It worked.’

She gives me a tour of the TV studio. I meet Simon Ross in the production gallery and, on the studio floor, stand a few feet away from Richard and Judy as they are broadcasting live. They really do have permatans. When we return to her office I study the shelves a little closer and see, between the mugs, framed photographs of Amanda Ross with Tony Blair; Amanda Ross with George Michael. She is smiling in both. She does seem open, friendly and unaffected, but she is not her usual carefree self today, she says. ‘I haven’t been sleeping well.’

Because she has been under siege? ‘Because I have been under siege.’

We are talking about what the tabloids call the ‘TV Quiz Phone Scam’. It started with Channel 4’s daily premium-rate phone-in quiz You Say We Pay – part of Richard & Judy – and ended with ITV suspending all its phone-in quiz shows, pending an investigation. The rot even appears to have spread to the BBC’s Blue Peter. In the case of Richard & Judy it is said they urged callers to continue entering the quiz even after the winners had been picked. I ask whether it was cock-up or conspiracy. ‘Cock-up. We are confident that when the report comes out Cactus will be exonerated.’

Because? ‘Because Simon and I had no way of knowing it was going on. We were getting the information the same times as the winners. We didn’t know the telephone company had the results earlier than us.’ She sighs. ‘I can’t comment on the details while we are under investigation, but I think the phone company has a lot to worry about because they are behind all those ITV shows that have been suspended.’

So she made no money from it? ‘The reason this has really got to me is that I am scrupulously fair. If we were doing it deliberately, as a scam, we would have found a way to make money. But we weren’t and we haven’t. It’s hurtful. There was some idiot writing in a literary column saying if she could cheat on You Say We Pay perhaps we should examine how the books are chosen for the Book Club and I thought: oh f— off! Really! I work so bloody hard choosing these books objectively and get no financial reward. OK, don’t have books on the telly. I don’t care. I’ll move on to something else. It’s galling. You’re probably seeing me at my most depressed and down because, at the moment, I am feeling “what’s the point?” ‘

Well, if I may, the point is that Amanda Ross has created a revolution in the nation’s reading habits, democratising the world of books so that readers with non-literary backgrounds can enjoy literature without feeling intimidated. Also, in expanding the total market for books, she has done something miraculous for British bookselling. Publishers everywhere must be hoping she doesn’t move on to something else.


Andrew Lloyd Webber

His 1986 musical gave the world its darkest hero and broke every box office record going. Now, amid feverish anticipation, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom’ is returning. But is his creator coping with the pressure?

There are two Andrew Lloyd Webbers, separated by a hyphen. There is Lord Lloyd-Webber, the mogul who owns seven London theatres, collects vintage burgundy, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and wives (well, three of them anyway). He is a Tory. A man of refined taste. Establishment to his bones.

And then there is Andrew Lloyd Webber without a hyphen. He was so precocious as a child he could compose almost before he could walk. He won a scholarship to Westminster School and an exhibition to read history at Magdalene College, Oxford, only to drop out after one term in order to pursue his dream of writing musicals.

This must have seemed like an act of rebellion bordering on patricide, given that his father was a professor of classical composition at the Royal College of Music. (And come to think of it, even Lloyd Webber’s Tory tendencies have a rebellious cast to them, given that his domineering mother, a piano teacher, was a socialist.)

Lloyd Webber without a hyphen seems to have been impulsive, driven, contrary and perhaps a little socially awkward and gauche, but a man with keen populist instincts and no qualms about pandering to the sort of middle-brow tastes that might have made his father shudder.

So there’s the paradox, then. Not only is he a nonconformist Establishment figure, he is also a slightly vulgar aesthete. And the two identities are separated by a hyphen that was added in 1997 to avoid confusion when he became Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. As he might put it, Lloyd ain’t his first name.

In terms of his vocabulary, by the way, he does have a tendency to strain for the colloquial, perhaps in compensation for his received pronunciation – as well as saying ‘ain’t’, he will refer to a ‘beaker’ of wine, or his ‘PR honchos’, or his ‘grey matter’. Anyway, I think it is the Andrew Lloyd Webber without the hyphen that I meet in a rehearsal studio near Waterloo.

At 62, he looks trim and healthy. He is wearing jeans and a pale blue shirt. His hands are small, his grip light and, contrary to reputation, his eye contact steady. His manner is polite but impatient and distracted, and a habit to talk over the top of people gives him the air of a busy man, one who really shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee.

Prior to this meeting I have spent a long morning at his office in Covent Garden listening, under armed guard it seemed, to a recording of the much-anticipated ‘continuation’ – not sequel – of The Phantom of the Opera. Called Love Never Dies, it takes up the phantom’s story 10 years on, when he has left his lair under the Paris Opera in order to haunt the fairgrounds of Coney Island, Brooklyn.

The musical, which begins previewing at the Adelphi Theatre next week, is to my ears more vaudevillian than operatic, with recurring background hints of a fairground barrel organ. But the overall mood seems similar to Phantom, a mixture of soaring ballads and tender love songs.

Predictably enough, ticket sales have been more than healthy. There are a lot of Phantom fans out there, you see. A lot. In terms of revenue, it is the most successful entertainment of all time, way ahead of the combined world tours of the Rolling Stones, even ahead of Star Wars, Titanic and , so far, Avatar. It has taken nearly £2?billion.

Lloyd Webber began planning what would become Love Never Dies back in 1997. Dozens of ideas were chewed over. At one point even Frederick Forsyth and Ben Elton were called in to give it a go, though not together.

The problem was not the music; Lloyd Webber writes quickly. ‘I often think of random melodies,’ he tells me. ‘And I pretty much hear in my head what I want to do with the orchestra as I’m writing on the piano. But the most important thing with musical theatre is the story. That is where you have to start. With the exception of Cats, which is an oddball, it is always the story that is the most important aspect and when they haven’t worked, as with Woman in White, it was because the story wasn’t right.’

His breakthrough came when he worked out the only place the Phantom could hide in 1907 without people staring at his face. ‘The answer was Coney Island, where freaks can walk around without being noticed. Freud gave the best quote about the place: ‘The only reason to go to the United States is to go to Coney Island.’ So this made the story about vaudeville instead of opera.

Like the original Phantom, Love Never Dies reflects Lloyd Webber’s highly romantic sensibility. ‘This one has taken romance as far as it will go,’ he says. ‘This felt like coming back to my own turf. When it was finally unlocked for me after 20 years of attempts I felt I was coming back to a character I knew well.

‘If you looked at the logic of the original, the whole thing falls apart. I remember Hal Prince saying we have to start one scene before the last has ended and let the music overlap – and then just go for it. We don’t need to explain all this because the audience will get it. The story of the Phantom is one of rock masquerading as opera. The passions in Love Never Dies are rock passions.’

To what does Lloyd Webber attribute the enduring appeal of Phantom? ‘It’s to do with sexuality and, well, I remember 20 years ago going to a charity event Elton was giving in a restaurant and I found myself, to my great joy, sitting among five of the world’s most beautiful supermodels and they were all talking about Phantom because it had just opened.

‘I think it was Elle Macpherson who said: “If you ask X she is worried about her nose and if you ask Y she is worried she isn’t tall enough and Z thinks she is too skinny. We are all of us insecure about our looks.” And I think that’s it. That is why people identify with the Phantom. Everyone has something about themselves they would like to change.’

To say there is anticipation for the new show is to understate. Is he nervous that Love Never Dies might not live up to expectation? ‘There is pressure. I can’t tell you whether Love Never Dies is of its time, because it ain’t Legally Blonde or Hairspray. All I can say is that I think the story is strong and the lyrics are the best I’ve had since Tim, if you take TS Eliot out of the equation.’

His musical Cats, it should be explained, the one that was a fixture in the West End for 21 years, was based on words by TS Eliot. And the Tim he refers to is Sir Tim Rice.

Rice was the reason the 17-year-old Lloyd Webber dropped out of Oxford. It was a life-changing encounter. Sir Tim was five years older, taller, longer haired, more urbane and socially confident. He also had an ability to write wry and catchy lyrics that electrified the young Andrew.

When these were combined with Lloyd Webber’s instantly memorable and charming melodies, a chemical combustion took place. The obvious comparison of a librettist meeting his perfect composer is when Gilbert met Sullivan, but a better one might be Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

Either way, Rice and Lloyd Webber clicked and within a few years they had produced three of the most successful musicals of all time: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Then, at the height of their creative powers, they fell out.

As Lloyd Webber is the richest person in the British music industry, ahead even of Sir Paul McCartney, it is safe to assume he is not just doing Love Never Dies for the money. He can’t still be hungry can he? I mean, if he still needs the sense of affirmation that comes with success, after all these years of it, isn’t that a form of failure?

‘Why am I still hungry? I think it is just that I love the collaborative element. You depend on each other in a project like this. It is a shared adventure between the cast, director, designer, costume maker, lighting engineer, choreographer. One ingredient could be wrong and a great piece of work will disappear.’

The comment is a reminder that, for all his success, Lloyd Webber has known failure. In fact, he hasn’t had a new hit for a while, and by his standards Woman in White, The Beautiful Game and Whistle Down the Wind constitute flops.

Could it be that his recent brush with mortality, last autumn he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, has focused his mind? To paraphrase a certain mid-market tabloid, Love never dies – but he nearly did.

‘Yes and I did nearly die when I saw that headline because the point about my illness was that I didn’t nearly die, because we caught it in time. I kept having to get up to pee in the night and so I went to have a checkup and, luckily, they spotted it. Men over 50 should really have a prostate check regularly. It is the most common form of cancer in men and if you can get it before it angles off into other parts of the body, it’s not a problem.’

He had a prostatectomy in November and looks very healthy now. ‘Yes,’ he says with a grin. ‘I am. In the circumstances.’ He has an endearingly self-deprecating anecdote to share about the time he was told to leave The London Clinic by a side door via a row of huge dustbins, in order to avoid a gang of paparazzi that had assembled outside the hospital’s front door.

He assumed they were for him but next morning awoke to vast coverage of Amy Winehouse leaving the same place having had, allegedly, a breast enhancement.

He speaks about how he accepts the operation may leave you with an incontinence problem, but that this gets better every day. It can also leave you impotent, but not necessarily. As for the infertility, he is not worried about that because he has five children.

It must have given him intimations of mortality though. ‘Yes, it makes you think.’ What is it all for? That sort of thing? ‘No, more that it makes you realise who your real friends are. I was struck by the number of people who were my friends a long time ago who were the most supportive. Tim, for example. He rang my wife every day. And my first wife Sarah came to see me and she happened to arrive on the same day as Tim and they were getting on like a house on fire, catching up and talking about old times.’

He grins again. ‘There they were talking away by the bed and I might as well not have been there! And then the phone went and it was Sarah Brightman and I thought this is not great timing so I said: “This is a little awkward Sarah, can I call you back?” It made me laugh.’ Sarah Brightman was known as Sarah Two.

Was he surprised to find himself on his third marriage by the time he reached his mid forties? ‘Well I’ve been married 20 years this time, quite a stretch. I’m very pleased that I am still very close to both my ex wives. Both of them have stayed at my place in Majorca this past year. At different times.’

I have to say, I am impressed by the way he has remained friendly with his exes be they in business or marriage. ‘Yes, Tim is such a good friend and Sarah was wonderful when I was ill. She heard the roughs for Love Never Dies before it was mixed in LA last summer and I was quite worried about playing it to her because, in a way, it would mean more to her than to me.’

His marriage to Brightman lasted six years and was played out in the spotlight, including the acrimony of the divorce. Was it a passionate affair to begin with? ‘I think with her it was more about the music.’

He makes himself a coffee and is adept at operating the complicated looking machine. I’m surprised given that he probably has butlers to do that at home.

‘We don’t have butlers. Obviously we have people who look after the houses, but I try not to run things formally. I have good people around me. My PA, my driver, but my best investment is my black cab which means you can go anywhere.’

When he says his cancer made him think, was that partly about the meaning of material possessions?

‘I don’t think I am that materialistic, actually. Obviously at home in the country the art collection is important but we have one big room in the middle of the house where we do everything, the television, the kitchen, everything. I like cooking so I always like to have the kitchen in the central place. Music, architecture and pictures have always been my passions, and all that material wealth has meant for me, is being able to have some of the pictures I liked.’

I try and get a measure of what he was like as a schoolboy. Was he serious? ‘I was a bit. I was passionate about architecture and so was considered an oddball. I could have been academic but I got bored. I think I was quite popular at prep school because they thought I was weird playing the violin, and then one day I got up and did a parody of the masters, six tunes, and after that they thought I had a sense of humour.’

Were his parents pushy? ‘I think my mother would have preferred it if I was more interested in history, but I wanted to plough my own furrow. My parents were supportive about me leaving Oxford, even though the family didn’t have any money. We didn’t have anything to fall back on. We have that now with our 18 year-old, who I have a feeling isn’t going to go down the university route. He’s got all his grades, but he’s been doing work experience and enjoying that. I’ll support him if I think he’s going to the right place.’

When Lloyd Webber was that age, the right place meant being alongside Tim Rice. ‘Yes once I met Tim I realised how few really good lyricists there were. I was aware of a chemistry between us but also an awareness that there was no one else around who had the sort of individuality he had. The turn of phrase he had was so quirky and individual. I had met no one who had come even remotely close to him.’

He talks about Sir Tim a lot. You get the feeling it was, in some ways, his most painful divorce. Was part of the problem that Tim’s heart wasn’t in music theatre? That he finds it a little, well, embarrassing? Wasn’t he always more interested in rock and pop?

‘I think that is true, though goodness knows, he’s made enough records. He’s sometimes deliberately provocative about these things, that’s all. Saying he hates musicals. But I think deep down he cares much more about his work that he would ever say.

‘We’ve written a few songs together since Evita and we almost have an album’s worth. And always with Tim there will be a couple of lines in a song that no other lyricist could have come up with. There’s one we’ve worked on called Dance the Dance and it has the line: “She was on the ball and he was so last season”. Wonderful.’

Lloyd Webber had even been hoping that Sir Tim would come on board to write the lyrics for Love Never Dies. He was quoted as saying: ‘I have implied it and he knows perfectly well to phone me.’

Clearly there is still a strong bond between them, so what went wrong? ‘Where Tim and I really had a parting of the ways was over Chess. I think I put it the wrong way to Tim when I said I thought the plot wasn’t theatrical. I said what it needs is a theatre craftsman to give it some John le Carré-type suspense. And for once we got out of step and then next I heard he was doing it with [Abba’s] Benny and Bjorn.’

It sounds like his feelings were hurt. ‘I was a bit hurt, yes, because I felt I could have done something with it. As it turned out, the songs from Chess are right up there with some of the very best ever written for musical theatre. If you audition in New York you will always hear four songs from Chess. But still, for me, there was a fundamental problem with the script. It never worked in the theatre, for me.’

Having been such a successful double act was he nervous about going it alone? ‘Well I had an immediate disaster without Tim, which was when I did Jeeves with Alan Ayckbourn. But then I did a big hit album on my own with Variations and that was a turning point.’

For his part, Sir Tim went on to have a huge hit with The Lion King, made by Lloyd Webber’s only real rival in music theatre, Disney. Ouch.

It occurs to me that, in some way, Sir Tim, who supposedly finds musicals a bit embarrassing, might have been something of a father figure to Lloyd Webber.

I ask Lloyd Webber – who has been quoted as saying that he was never that close to his father – whether he ever got a sense that his actual father considered musicals to be, well, not one of the higher art forms.

‘Not at all. I remember him bringing home a single by the Shadows and saying they are probably the finest quartet working in Britain at the moment. My father got every scholarship going and followed an academic side, but I know deep down inside that he would have preferred to go into film music. His make up was such that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with the problems that crop up constantly in the music theatre or film music world. Also, I think he would have thought he was letting the family down.’ Because? ‘My grandfather belittled it.’

For the record, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rare forays into classical music was his Requiem in 1986. It is beautiful and haunting and deserved the Grammy it won. It was composed in memory of his father, William Lloyd Webber, without a hyphen.


Ann Widdecombe

She’s a 57-year-old spinster with teddy bears in her bedroom, her mother in the spare room, and a loathing for introspection. So why is Ann Widdecombe, politician-cum-novelist, about to try her hand as a television agony aunt? By Nigel Farndale

Be honest, if left alone with Ann Widdecombe’s fridge, could you resist a peek inside? You could?

What if you arrived early for a meeting with her and she asked you to wait in the kitchen and help yourself to coffee, adding, ‘the milk is in the fridge’? Exactly. With a clear conscience, then, I can reveal that Ann Noreen Widdecombe keeps a well-stocked fridge.

There is single cream and lettuce. There are tomatoes, eggs and cartons of New Covent Garden soup. So far so healthy; she must be sticking to ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club diet, the one that so publicly helped her lose three stone in 2002.

But what’s this? Eight chocolate-chip brioche rolls? A couple of bottles of champagne? A tub of tiramisu?

Ann Widdecombe, the 57-year-old MP, novelist and incurable attention-seeker, lives in a terraced house in Kennington, south-east London. It has a lilac painted front door.

Although her 93-year-old mother Rita has lived here since 1999 – perhaps the tiramisu is hers – it is very much a single woman’s house. The mirror in the bathroom is placed low over the sink (she is 5ft 11/2in and, as she says, ‘don’t forget the half’), there is a bowl of sanitary pads on top of the lavatory – for guests? – and there are cats wandering in and out.

On one wall of the sitting-room there is a samurai sword alongside a ceremonial naval sword (her father was a senior civil servant in the Admiralty and for a few years was stationed in Singapore, where Widdecombe lived between the ages of five and nine).

There is also a framed photograph of Widdy, as she calls herself on her website – ‘the Widdy Web’ – with the Pope (she converted to Rome in 1993, in protest over the Anglican church allowing the ordination of women).

As we sit down on pale green leather sofas, I notice the crucifix around her neck. It reminds me that for all her frivolous appearances on television – she has done Louis Theroux and Basil Brush, as well as Celebrity Fit Club, and in February will star in her own agony-aunt show for the BBC (entitled Oh No! It’s Ann Widdecombe) – she considers herself to be a high-minded moralist.

The political subjects associated with her tend to be either coloured by her Catholicism (anti-abortion, anti-gay rights), or her aversion to libertarianism and liberalism (she is pro the ban on fox hunting and pro the reintroduction of the death penalty). She also writes serious novels which sell well and meet with favourable reviews.

Her first, The Clematis Tree, was about a family struggling to cope with a handicapped child and her second, An Act of Treachery, was a love story set in occupied France. Her third, Father Figure, which is published later this month, has a topical theme: the rights of fathers over their children.

I ask her, then, whether she thinks her flirtations with lowbrow television undermine her seriousness as a politician and novelist.

‘I often hear politicians complain that they can’t get their message across because they are unrecognisable,’ she says in her fluty voice. ‘Well, I always score high in recognition polls. Always. And when people recognise me, what they say is not, “Oh, you used to be the Shadow Home Secretary”, but, “You’re that MP from Fit Club.”

‘If you appear on programmes such as that, the next time you are on television talking about politics, viewers pause to listen for three sentences instead of three words. But there are limits; I turned down Ruby Wax.’

As she talks she constantly blinks her pond-black eyes. It makes her seem vulnerable, which must be an illusion because, as she tells me, she has ‘no hang-ups’, never suffers nerves, never cries, and has no interest in analysing herself. Yet she doesn’t seem to mind analysing others.

Her new television programme, after all, sees her attempting to solve family crises, love quandaries and workplace spats and is, in turn, a spin-off from a bizarre, no-nonsense agony-aunt column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Buck Up’.

But, looking for fissures in her armour-plating, I wonder whether Widdecombe’s mad whoring after applause is simply a matter of her raising her political profile, as she claims. Could there have been a degree of masochism in her agreeing to humiliate herself on Celebrity Fit Club?

‘I did it because I wanted to lose weight,’ she says matter-of-factly. So why not do that in private? ‘Because I had a serious point to make which is that our obsession with physical perfection is out of all proportion.

‘I argued with the experts on that show most of the time about their “councils of perfection”. We marginalise the disabled, the disfigured, the odd, simply because we’ve got this image which now is entirely physical. I mean, the spiritual side of life is just being kicked to one side.

‘People are willing to undergo the most horrendous operations for the sake of increasing their bust size and I think, “Is there nothing more important in this world?”’

Perhaps there isn’t, I suggest, given that cosmetic change is ultimately intended to help us procreate.

‘It’s nothing to do with procreation at all! If you think of the women’s magazines, television, all the programmes about losing weight, having face-lifts, the multimillion-pound business that is the cosmetics industry, I mean, the whole thing’s gone mad!

‘Do you think the war generation thought for one second how straight their teeth were? I mean, it’s crazy!’ In terms of her appearance, there is little you can say about Ann Widdecombe that she hasn’t already said about herself. Her descriptions have included the words ‘short’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, ‘spinster’ and ‘crooked teeth’.

Presumably this was partly a defence mechanism: saying it before anyone else can. Also she may have reasoned that if she made no effort with her appearance she could justify being single, not only to herself but to the world. Yet she took it further, seemingly revelling in the mockery she received about her looks.

When she heard that her nickname around Westminster was Doris Karloff, for instance, she took to answering the phone by saying ‘Karloff here’. Now the black, pudding-bowl haircut has gone, along with the extra pounds. Was it belated vanity?

‘Now, look. I always said if ever there was a health reason for my losing weight, I would probably do it, but that I wasn’t interested in it for cosmetic reasons. And if I had been remotely interested in it for cosmetic reasons, I wouldn’t have gone all my political career with your profession being rude and spiteful and nasty – and just not minding. I would not have done it.

‘So you are wrong to say it was vanity. It was, very straight-forwardly, backache. As for the hair, I see no reason why someone shouldn’t go blonde if they want to try it out.

‘I had been keeping in my natural dark – dyeing the rest to match it – and the white was taking over. I mean, your lot in the press gallery of the Commons were talking about the zebra crossings in my hair as they looked down.’

Did she find that hurtful?

‘Oh, no. I didn’t. But I do occasionally find it irritating.’

Widdecombe did a documentary with Louis Theroux before she lost weight and went blonde. She seemed prickly and defensive in that. She seemed much more friendly and jolly when she did Fit Club some time afterwards. Was this because beginning to lose weight improved her self-esteem?

‘No. I was very wary of Louis Theroux. I mean we had a bust-up on day one because he asked questions which I’d said I wouldn’t answer.’

The questions were about her virginity. She doesn’t believe in sex before marriage and once threatened to sue a journalist who expressed doubts that she really was a virgin. I try a more tactful approach. How many times has she been in love?

‘Sorry, been…?’

In love.

‘In love? Er… once. In Oxford.’

She refers to her fellow student Colin Maltby, now a married banker. Their relationship was chaste and fizzled out after three years. So he was the one love of her life?


And does she ever look back and regret not having married him?

‘No, I don’t. I don’t think it would have been right for either of us. He is now very happily married. Successful man. Great family. I think both of us have been happy, as it turned out, not marrying each other.

‘Um, if you’re asking me in the broader sense, do I wish I’d married, the answer is no. It was never a conscious decision not to marry. A lot of people say, “Oh, you put politics first,” well, tosh, I didn’t.

‘It was chance, because Mr Right didn’t turn up. It was also choice because he was never a big enough priority to go out looking for.’

Was it partly that she had a low sex drive?

‘I don’t know, I’ve never bothered. You know, I’m very ha… I take myself as I am. If I was sitting here depressed that I hadn’t married, I might be asking myself those questions, or if I was sitting here with a failed marriage behind me, I might be asking myself those questions…’

Her mother calls from upstairs.

‘Oh, hang on. Yup! I’m down here! Hello!’

She disappears and returns a few minutes later.

‘Right, where were we?’ I ask about her mother. ‘I love having her here and I very much hope that I outlive her, because I wouldn’t like her to have to cope with losing me.’

It’s a strange comment, but I think I know what she means. Does she ever think about what it will be like to go back to living on her own?

‘No, but I mean, my Mum’s only lived with me since ’99, after Dad died.’

When she lived on her own and got home at night, did she ever wish someone was there? A companion?

‘It is that moment when I’m always grateful to be solo. It’s when I come in, after a dreadful day in politics, shut the doors, and there are no demands at all. I mean, there might be a cat crying for food [Widdecombe owns two], but that’s it.’

So she prefers her own company?

‘I think that the brute truth is that I’ve enjoyed being alone. I love my own company. I’m the best company I know. I mean, I can make myself laugh uproariously.’

Not everyone in Widdecombe’s party finds her as funny as she claims to find herself. When I asked one senior Tory what he thought of her he said she was a ‘freak show’, a ‘dinosaur’, and ‘the political equivalent of the Taliban’.

Part of the ill feeling must stem from the unhelpful ‘something of the night’ comment she made about Michael Howard in May 1997. It undermined the future leader badly. As she will be fighting a Tory seat in a few months’ time, does she now feel any regret or guilt about what she said?

‘None at all. None at all. None at all.’

So she still thinks it?

‘I don’t take back a single word I said in 1997, including the famous phrase, but, that was 1997, and we are now in 2005.’

If she doesn’t retract it, it means she still believes it.

‘I’m not going to re-rehearse it, either. I’ve moved on, he’s moved on, the world has moved on and I’m living in 2005.’

Ann Widdecombe is a stranger to self-doubt. She has the masculine traits of literal mindedness, remorselessness and a bluff refusal to concede weakness. When I ask her about these traits she says, ‘No, they are not masculine traits they are human traits.’

From where does her political certainty come? The Bible?

‘I think the answer to that is, yes, to some extent, obviously. But if you take the pro-life issue, most people think I’m pro-life because I’m a Catholic. Actually, I’m probably a Catholic because I was pro-life.’

She goes to confession?

‘Of course.’

And she has vices to confess?

‘I think everybody does. I think people have… quick tempers, um… people have resentments.’

What does she think happens to people who have sex before marriage?

‘What do you mean?’

Well, do they go to hell?

‘We don’t know who goes to hell. But it’s not to do with totting up every single thing you’ve done and when you cross a certain line you’re dispatched off to the infernal region. I mean, come on! I have lots of friends who have done things I disapprove of.

‘But I am not their judge. They know I disapprove and the interesting thing is they remain my friends.’

Although she is reluctant to analyse herself, she does concede that her doggedness and ambition probably come from her father; while her brother, Malcolm, a vicar who is ten years older than her, is more like her mother – more gentle and placid.

‘But I don’t analyse things in all this great depth. I mean, I know it’s very fashionable to look into every last possible motivation, and to think therapy is the answer to everything, but as far as I am concerned there were things I wanted to do, and I’ve managed to do most of them.’

There is something slightly otherworldly about Ann Widdecombe. She didn’t own a television until her mother moved in five years ago. Her speech is peppered with oddly outdated words such as ‘golly’, ‘darn’ and ‘bunkum’. And I notice the teddy bears in the room. Are they hers?

‘No, they’re mother’s. That’s mother’s corner there. We’ve even got a camel that sings.’

She picks up a fluffy camel and it starts singing an Arabic song.

‘Friends bring them. Those two were gifts from friends. That one I got at some exhibition. They get eaten by the cats and discarded and others come.’

The camel continues its song.

‘Sorry, he does shut up in the end.’

She stares at it in her hand.

‘I do have a fair collection of bears.’

Given her suspicion of therapy and analysis, presumably she doesn’t see anything regressive about an adult collecting teddy bears?

‘I don’t consciously collect bears. People give me bears, you know, and I’ve got bears – I mean, I’ve got bear plates, I find that very endearing. Most people find it quite yucky, and I say, “Doesn’t matter, you don’t have to look at it.” ‘

‘You know, the whole world may laugh at my bear plates, but if I like them I’ll have them because it’s nothing to do with anybody else, and it does nobody an iota of harm that I have bear plates up there. If I want them there, I’ll have ’em there.’


Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox, angry? You bet she is. As she releases a new album, the singer tells Nigel Farndale what she’s railing against now – and why, for all her pacifism and fragility, she relishes a good scrap.

It is Annie Lennox weather outside – the bruised clouds, the chill, the darkness at noon – and we are contemplating it from under a long skylight, in the empty café of a north-west London art gallery. ‘I come from a place in Scotland that is very grey and flat,’ the singer says as she gazes upwards. ‘Bleak atmosphere, pretty much like today. Granite buildings. I think it informed my character. As an only child growing up in the tenements of Aberdeen, I had a lot of time with my own thoughts. All my reports said, “Ann could do better if she stopped daydreaming,” but I couldn’t help it. Growing up, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want normality.’

Her skin is the colour of a mushroom; her short hair is equally pale, in contrast to the dark brown of her fake-fur coat. Scotland is still there in her breathy, rolling vowels. ‘Aye,’ she says when I ask if pessimism is her defining characteristic, ‘you’re not wrong. I’ve been a pessimist most of my life and it doesn’t always serve me well. The black dog. That cycle that takes you down.’

Has that pessimism been the price of her creativity, though? For being able to write such dark and potent lyrics? ‘It has. How perverse. Then again, I’m not a total nihilist because if I were I would have done myself in long ago. Killed myself. There is a part of me that is still quite like a kid. I meet some people my age and think they seem older, because they are stuck in convention.
My spirit sees things just as I did when I was a kid. I get enthusiastic about beautiful things, like berries in autumn. The colour of leaves in the spring. Colour and beauty. It’s in contrast to my dark side.’ She gives a rictus grin and shakes her head. ‘I’m a fairly intense person, as you have probably gathered. Everything affects me. I’m not detached. I have a lot of empathy. When I was little if I saw someone or something suffering I would cry.’

She finds mass suffering equally unbearable, hence her crusading work on behalf of HIV/Aids sufferers in Africa, for which she won a Red Cross Services to Humanity Award last year. She has various other charity commitments, but one that is especially close to her heart is Hear the World, a campaign to spread awareness about the deafness that afflicted her late father, a boilermaker in the Aberdeen shipyards. More recently she was seen leading the protest marches against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. As she talks about it I can see she is blinking back tears. ‘Yes, I find it hard to detach myself. It’s there on my surface. The Gaza protest was because a million and a half people were trapped in a relatively small space. When I saw the bombs dropping, I knew what was going to happen. The Israelis could say that they weren’t targeting civilians but there was nowhere for the civilians to go. They were trapped.’

I take it she rules out the possibility that Hamas was using them as human shields? ‘Aye, I do. There was nowhere for the civilians to hide. Even when they went to UN buildings they were attacked.’

She was limping on those protests, and she still has that limp today. But she is grateful to be walking at all, because last August she had surgery on her spine. Sounds scary, I say. ‘Didn’t have time to be scared because it happened so quickly. I had a bulged disc and I went to see a chiropractor who popped it out and damaged a nerve. I’ve never had so much pain. A thing called drop foot. My left leg was paralysed, basically. I couldn’t move my toes. I was in Mexico City attending the international HIV/Aids conference. Had to cancel everything and get home. Got an MRI scan and at the end of that week I had surgery. They had to scrape the bone to make more space. Some people were, like, “Don’t do the surgery. It’s too risky,” but I thought, “I don’t want to be disabled.” I was warned the surgery could go wrong and had to sign a liability waiver. I made a decision to just do it and not freak myself out.’

I imagine there was a psychological toll, though. ‘To be honest with you, it has taken a lot of my self-confidence away. My physicality, my limping has made me feel vulnerable. It’s shut me down a bit. My foot is numb all the time. Pins and needles. Like it’s in an icy bucket of water. I’m dragging my foot and… this is boring.’ She grins again, short and tight. ‘This is the sort of thing you talk about in your sixties. I looked at my toes and was saying, “Come on! Come on!” And then I thought, “Heigh-ho, I’ve had 53 years of very good service from these toes so I’ll have to accommodate them.” I’m hoping it will get better eventually. Maybe in a year’s time.’

Meanwhile, Lennox has a new collection of her solo work out called… ‘The Annie Lennox Collection’. After dropping out of a degree course at the Royal Academy of Music, she spent the 1980s as one (androgynous-looking) half of Eurythmics. Her solo career, which began with the album ‘Diva’ in 1992, has been even more successful, to her surprise. She has sold 80 million records, all told. ‘I look back on “Diva” and think that was when I was expecting a baby. My whole adult life seems to be measured in albums, and album covers – all those images of me down the years.’

I tell her that I have fond memories of ‘Diva’ because it came out the year I got married. We listened to it again and again on our honeymoon and, to this day, I find its gorgeous melodies and Lennox’s velvety, contralto singing voice intoxicating. It was only when I was listening to some of those tracks in the new collection that I heard, almost for the first time, how haunting and melancholy her lyrics are. Walking on Broken Glass is a good example: an upbeat tune overlaid with dark lyrics, such as ‘I’m living in an empty room/With all the windows smashed’.

Her high-boned face lights up. ‘Albums can mean different things at different times in your life,’ she says, nodding earnestly. ‘All my lyrics are dark, and the darkness is concealed behind the beauty of the music and the production. I am very aware of that irony. My lyrics have always expressed my melancholy, actually. While the music has always expressed my deliverance from the melancholy. I see it like that. Life is about the balance of the two. Positive and negative.’

Her first marriage, to a Hare Krishna monk, was short-lived. Her second, to the Israeli film and record producer Uri Fruchtmann, ended in divorce in 2000 after 12 years. Her two daughters from that marriage are in their late teens now. She took a break from recording and touring when they were young. Had they left her feeling fulfilled creatively? ‘It is quite challenging to do both, and I have done both. I sort of stepped back, but I found I had that schism – when I was with my kids I missed being in the studio and when I was in the studio I missed being with my kids. You are never quite 100 per cent focused on one or the other.’

One thing she didn’t miss when she stepped back from her career was the attention that comes with fame. ‘Some celebrities like to stoke the fire and like to be in the papers all the time because that is their currency, but I have no interest in that kind of attention. What would I want that kind of attention for? People sometimes forget that I am an ordinary person and I want to walk the streets and sit in cafés and mingle with the crowds.’

In person, partly because of her fragile appearance and her whispery voice, there’s a vulnerability to Annie Lennox. She doesn’t do glib or frivolous. And when she smiles, which she does quite often, it can look more like baring teeth. I ask about the chemistry between her and Dave Stewart, her partner for many years and the other half of Eurythmics. Was she drawn to him because he was an extrovert? ‘And I was an introvert? It kind of works like that with people. We had different qualities certainly and it worked for a decade. I was drawn to him because he was a sweet, funny, eccentric person that I got. Completely out of the box. When it works it’s a great thing because you get strength from a relationship, but after a while you want to do different things and it starts to feel restrictive. I needed to stretch myself on my own terms, to find out where I was without Dave. I was very surprised to sell any solo records at all. I didn’t even go on tour with “Diva” because I was having babies.’

Three more solo albums followed, but only three. She likes to write songs at her own pace, ignoring commercial pressures. And she finds the touring that comes with a new album mentally and physically exhausting. ‘When I come off I am always exhausted. I need to rest. I’m full of adrenalin and fear, because it’s not normal to face a crowd of people. When I walk on stage I feel that flight-or-fight instinct, this nervy energy. I want to run off. I used to feel that a lot and I had to fight it. The night before a gig I would be quaking and would sleep badly. Things going round my head.’

Does she have anxiety dreams? ‘Oh, yes. Had one a couple of nights ago. Forgetting my lyrics. The whole thing about performance is rehearsal, though. I know I can do it on demand. My voice is like a secret I carry around with me. If I suddenly burst into song now I’d be embarrassed and you’d be embarrassed, because there is a time and a place. That’s why it is so ritualised. It’s a very physical state and very disciplined. I’m not with you when I’m performing. I’m somewhere else. You can’t walk up to me and start chatting. I get transported and want my audience to be transported, too.’

She tries to avoid reading about herself in the press because, she says, she finds it painful. Quite what she has in mind I cannot imagine – most of her press seems to be pretty much reverential. Perhaps she is thinking of her activism, for which she does get teased a little. I guess she is sensitive. That vulnerability again. Her alabaster skin is not thick. ‘You feel you want to retaliate. If you are attacked you want to fight back. If I had been a man I know I would have got in fist fights all the time. I have that anger in me. I love the idea of peacefulness but I don’t trust people. I can find myself fighting back, losing my temper.’

Do her daughters share her temperament? ‘Not in that respect. They are both articulate and big-hearted. Thankfully, I don’t think either of them has my melancholy.’

Has she ever tried therapy? ‘I dabbled but, to be honest, I’m not convinced it worked for me. It can be a crutch for some people.’

Actually, it is her political campaigning that she finds most therapeutic. ‘I want to engage with the world at a deeper level. I can’t bear cocktail parties and lunches and superficial conversations. Can’t stand that. Cannot. Stand. That. Cannot stand being in a room full of strangers with a glass of wine in my hand trying to make light conversation. That never was who I was. I’m never going to be that person. I feel more comfortable when I am politically engaged. More dignified. I don’t have to feel guilty about the frothiness and the privileges of my life – not so much my wealth, but Western wealth in general, our whole Western society. I want to use my fame to facilitate others.’ That quick and tight smile again. ‘As banal as that might sound, that’s a good feeling. I can grow old well with that.’


Boy George

Addiction to drugs, an explosive temper and being a ‘gay warrior’ have made a soap opera of his life, but those days are behind him, Boy George tells Nigel Farndale

The middle-aged man who answers the glass door could be anyone, though the fact that Boy George has owned this house on a hill in Hampstead for the past 16 years does narrow the possibilities. And it definitely is his house because on the gate posts, as you wait to be buzzed in, you see fans have scrawled messages to him in felt-tip – some are fresh, some faded.

Japanese tourists especially used to track him down here. He thinks they bribed taxi drivers to show them where he lived, then they would wait with their cameras. ‘I’m thinking of putting up a plaque,’ he says. ‘Boy George lives here. Go away.’

He also has a house in Ibiza, and had an apartment in New York, until his unpleasant experience there a couple of years ago, which we shall come to. He moved back to London after that, but not before he had this house ‘exorcised and blessed’. The place has gothic turrets, around which you half expect bats to be circling. Come to think of it, what with his shaved head, there is something of the Uncle Fester about the man himself. There is a blue Star of David tattooed on it, with a pink lotus blossom on the base of his skull. He has luminous pale eyes, wears no make-up and is dressed in a black hoodie and sweatpants – a Buddha in a tracksuit.

Even as a svelte youth playing on his androgynous looks, he had the suggestion of a double chin, one which he used to disguise with shadowy make-up. Now, at 47, he seems comfortable with himself, but different… different from the man who was once one of the most recognisable people in the Western world, after Diana, Princess of Wales and the Pope. So different that it is possible not to recognise him at all, as Italian police discovered a couple of days before my visit.

‘I lost my passport when I was in Italy and because I didn’t have a driving licence I had to show my credit cards, and when they still wouldn’t accept who I was, I had to do the Boy George thing, which I rarely do. I had to say, “I’m Boy George”, then they let me go. They clocked I had nail varnish on and that caused great hilarity.

‘You’d think people would get over it, but they never do. Look,’ he holds out nails that are chipped and varnished black. ‘It isn’t even proper nail varnish. It’s scuppered and butch. It’s manly nail varnish. In a way, it is reassuring, like police sirens.’

The varnish helped convince the Italian police that he was Boy George? ‘I suppose so. Anyway, they let me go, which was a relief. Thought it was going to be pasta for a week.’

He still does nice lines like that. Indeed, they trip off his tongue relentlessly. He talks quickly and breathily – wheezily, actually, because he suffers from asthma. On the subject of which, he couldn’t have eaten pasta for a week, because he is on a special no-wheat diet. No sugar, either. The asthma doesn’t stop him smoking, though. ‘When you smoke as a singer you lose a few octaves, but you gain something as well. Pure jazz, my voice.’

In a curious way, his voice is more recognisable than he is these days. The cadence is still vaguely East End, still archly camp, or camply arch, and it is still punctuated with laughter – albeit the laughter of habit rather than mirth. He always laughed like that when interviewed on television, but I never realised until now that it was a nervy, defensive laugh. Perhaps it has become so over time.

Boy George was just 19 when he found fame as the singer of Culture Club. The reggae-influenced New Romantic band released their first record in 1982 and went on to sell more than 50 million, notching up seven British and nine American Top 10 hits, and going to No 1 in both countries with Karma Chameleon. Boy George played upon his androgyny not only in the way he dressed – the beaded hair, the geisha make-up, the big hats – but also in what he said. When talk-show host Russell Harty asked if he was keen on sex, he said he’d sooner have a cup of tea.

Actually, he was very much gay, as well Harty knew, and when he did officially come out in America, two years later, he had to wear a bulletproof vest because of the death threats – with admirable insouciance, he worried that it made him ‘look chunky’. Examples of his self-indulgence were legion, but perhaps the most rock-star-ish was his insistence on flying the opposite way around the world to the rest of his band for a show in Japan – because it was better ‘nine ki’ energy.

Despite this better energy, the band split up in 1986 and Boy George checked into rehab for his heroin addiction. Some solo success followed, both as a singer-songwriter and as a club DJ. But his biggest come-back was his autobiographical musical, Taboo, which did well in the West End, and not so well on Broadway. He also launched his own designer clothing label (B-Rude) and wrote a memoir, Take it Like a Man.

He has just started a new tour, his first in 10 years, but it may be cut short depending on what happens next month. George O’Dowd, to use his real name, is due to stand trial in November after being accused of falsely imprisoning a 28-year-old Norwegian male escort and chaining him to a radiator in his former flat in London. O’Dowd pleaded not guilty to the charge in February and was released on bail. He faces a possible 15 years in jail. ‘I would love to be able to talk about the trial but I can’t,’ he says now. ‘I’ll talk to you about it afterwards because there is a lot I would like to say.’

Is he apprehensive? ‘No. I’ll think about it when it happens. You wouldn’t want to think of me spending all these weeks panicking in anticipation. It would be so bad for me.’

He says his spirits are kept high by the fans who come to his concerts, as well as by the people he bumps into in the street. Some may consider his behaviour seedy, but there seems to be a deep-seated affection for him as well. ‘People are funny in England. They will cheerfully shout out, “Hey, George, I hear you got nicked again, you’re a one!” Sometimes it can be annoying, but usually it makes me laugh. In America, no one says anything. They are too embarrassed to bring it up.’

This latest charge follows his arrest and trial in New York. In 2005, O’Dowd falsely reported a break-in at his Manhattan flat – and police officers who responded found 13 grams of cocaine there, allegedly, but their over-eagerness to search without a warrant ruled out the possibility of drugs charges. He was found guilty of wasting police time and a judge made him sweep the New York streets on a five-day community-service order. O’Dowd called it ‘media service’ because of the paparazzi frenzy that followed. With his state-issue orange vest, he wore Capri pants and shoes without socks. It was meant to be a humiliation, but O’Dowd reckoned his working-class background meant it wasn’t. ‘My mum was a cleaner, my dad was a builder,’ he shouted across to the scrum of reporters, as he got to work with his brush. ‘Know what I mean?’

Does he take drugs now? ‘Never, ever, ever do drugs again and I don’t drink either. My job of giving the police something to do is over.’

How long since he took them? ‘It’s been a long time. Telling you exact days and months is only helpful to me, not you. I can say that now and mean it, because I’m in a good place. But there was a time when I could have said it knowing I didn’t mean it.’

A curious distinction. Drugs brought him pleasure to begin with, presumably, but if he had his time again would he take that first line, that first needle? ‘If I had known what a dreary old road it would be? Never. And if I can stop anyone else starting on that road, I will. Time is precious and drugs waste time. I think Amy Winehouse is going to realise that soon. Hers is the most played-out drug addiction in rock’n’roll history. Like a living soap opera. But pain makes a wonderful sound. Her terrible vulnerability is touching. So raw and effortless, not even pushing the notes. From a singer’s point of view that’s scary. You notice she is hitting these rich notes without trying, tossing them away like a handbag.’ Pause. ‘And I love her hair-do.’

He’s sort of talking about himself, of course. And on the subject of soap operas, why did he agree to be filmed for The Madness of Boy George, an unflattering Channel 4 documentary a couple of years ago? ‘They pursued me until I surrendered. It was dreadful. A piece of trash. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever, ever done.’ He laughs at his own exaggeration. ‘No, it’s not. Of course there have been much worse things I have done, and will no doubt do, but as a piece of television it was lazy; trying to turn me into a headline.’

They didn’t have to try too hard. ‘You mean because I was doing the community service when they were making it? Yes, but why did they have to go on about that?’

Well, it was a bizarre episode, even by his own standards. ‘As much as other people might like to cling on to it, it’s over. Done. It means nothing to me, Oh Vienna.’

So he didn’t learn anything about himself from that experience? ‘I learnt that I don’t like getting up at 6.30 in the morning and that Chinese people chop vegetables really small, which makes them hard to pick up off the pavement.’

Does that make him shallow? ‘Oh God, you’re really trying hard, aren’t you? No, there is nothing remotely shallow about me: I could probably talk for hours about my community service, but it means nothing. Nothing. It was only five days. I don’t know whether that makes me shallow, or enlightened and Buddha-like.’

Well, he’s Buddha like in one respect. He even seems to have a shrine to himself in the house: two shelves of curiosities including two wooden name plates: one that reads George O’Dowd, the other, Boy George. We are sitting in his high-ceilinged kitchen, which has stairs leading up to a balcony.

On one wall there is a giant mirror, on another a stencil painting saying, ‘F— you. Hate you.’ There is also a photograph of David Bowie, a crucifix, an assortment of candles and a gothic-looking throne-like chair, whose arm rests are fashioned in the shape of two large phalluses. ‘They were made for me,’ he says when I do a double-take. On another shelf are books about Andy Warhol, Marc Bolan and Oscar Wilde.

It may sound unlikely, but there is something Wildeian about Boy George. He is known for his bons mots, after all – at one point he says to me,’Honesty is a curse. It will get you charged every time,’ which is pure Wilde – but also, like Wilde, and every hero of a Greek tragedy, he seems to have been the author of his own downfall.

He shakes his head when I put this to him. ‘If I sweep the streets that does not mean my life is totally tragic. It’s not who I am and it doesn’t take away from the fact that I sold millions of records. I know the media don’t get that and it frustrates the hell out of me. I think I’m generous because I don’t have a blanket attitude to the media, despite what it has done to me and what it continues to do to me.’

Blimey. Get arrested. Blame the media. ‘I’m not blaming the media for that. What I mean is… I’m letting you into my home. I’m not saying there are any questions you can’t ask me. Try asking Madonna or Sting some of the questions you have asked me, and someone will step in and tell you you can’t. Interviewing me is a luxury and you should appreciate it. I’m an intelligent man. I’m exciting company. You can analyse me all you like, but please do a good job. Don’t be boring.’

Blimey again. And OK, I’ll try. He comes across in print as being pricklier than he is in person. Actually, he is likeable and funny, once you get past the nervous tension and the drama queeniness. But he seems to have little equilibrium, no shame, and no self-control. What he does have is self-pity, self-destructive impulses and delusions of grandeur. He can seem wounded and spoilt, but also, at times, worldly wise. And he is an odd mix of vanity and self-loathing.

Does he feel like a victim? ‘For other people it may look like I was built up to be knocked down, but actually I don’t have that kind of perspective. I was sweeping, now I’m not sweeping. I suppose on the last day I did try to keep my orange jerkin as a souvenir. It was a weird experience and…’ He laughs. ‘Now you are making me think about it!’

But it sounds as if he’s not the sort of person who has regrets. ‘Know what? I have loads. But lately, I’ve been thinking I don’t have to be that person and behave in that way. I’ve never noticed this before in 47 years.’

How has he not? ‘Because there has been too much hairspray in the way. You don’t notice because even when your life is dysfunctional you think that’s normality.’

I begin a sentence about the fame he enjoyed, or endured, in the 1980s, a time when he was one of the most recognisable people on the planet… But he cuts me off… ‘What do you mean “was”? I still am and always will be. Your talking about me as if I’m not here gets on my nerves. I’m here, in your presence!’

Then he redeems himself. ‘I sound like Gloria Swanson, don’t I? Look, no one can take any of that stuff away from me because it’s mine. I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have. My life is amazing. Being Boy George, putting on a hat and make-up, is amazing. And easy. Being George O’Dowd is the f—ing battle. I still moan as much as I always did, but I stop myself now. When things are kicking off, I can tell myself, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be nasty, you don’t have to be an a—h—.”‘

I mention that he seems to have a lot of anger just below his surface. ‘I come from a family that explodes. Mine is the great exploding family.’

Does he enjoy exploding? ‘Actually, I don’t. I don’t find it therapeutic. I’ve come to realise that when I snap at people they get hurt. When you care about someone… which is the difference. I care if it is someone in my family. When it’s someone from the record company it doesn’t mater if I shout, Yahhhbllagghh!!! at them.’

Record company executives don’t have feelings? Or is it more that he doesn’t care if they do? Isn’t that a little selfish? ‘You’re trying to narrow me down to a headline aren’t you? Yes Boy George was selfish, but he’s not now. I was a b——, but I recovered.

‘I need to go out and perform to the people who always forgive me for everything I do and that is the Great British public, God bless them. I go out there and feel so lucky. They still sing along with my songs.

‘To be honest, when I started this tour, I thought: “Who is going to want to come and see me after all this time?” But when you get to Norwich and Newcastle, I mean, all these weird people come along to see you, all these old ladies who dance and sing along to Karma Chameleon and shout [he adopts a Geordie accent], “I f—ing love you George.” In Northampton, there were all these stage-door hangers-on and they were my mum’s age; it was really sweet and really funny. I’ve become Barry Manilow!’

He can laugh at himself, and that is his redeeming feature. As well as being a builder, his father, Jerry, was a boxer, one who used to beat up his wife. By wearing make-up as a teenager, George was rejecting his father’s masculinity, clearly. But he may also have begun wearing black lipstick to get his father’s attention (he was one of six children, after all).

He still craves attention, which may partly explain his almost Tourette’s-like tendency to insult people. ‘It sounds like a name-drop, but Elton John rang me up the other day and it was really exciting,’ he says. ‘Elton John has my number! I had a barney with him a couple of years ago and I loved the fact that I had pissed him off [he had called him a ‘humourless grand old dame’]. I can’t believe I’ve registered with him. He was fuming, “I’m going to kill that Boy George!”‘ A result.

Does he fall in love easily? ‘I fall in lust easily, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in love. I look back and think was that love? But I’ve never been in that stage where I think I don’t want anyone else.’

According to his memoirs, his longest relationship was with Jon Moss, the drummer of Culture Club, who is now married with children. He wrote the band’s first hit Do You Really Want to Hurt Me about Moss. (Actually, it was the other way round. Boy George would throw bottles at Moss and once broke his fingers.) I ask if Moss was the love of his life. ‘I thought so but, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was. He was certainly the great drama of my life, but I’m not sure I love him more than I love my mother. No, I definitely love my mother more. Was it love? I cried. He punched me. There was music.’

Was he ever beaten up because he was gay? ‘By my own brothers. By kids at school, every day from the age of six they would shout “poof” at me. School was a hellhole.’

Did he ever fight back? ‘I can fight but I don’t like fighting. You scratch your nails.’

What about ‘muscle Marys’ such as Rupert Everett: gay men who work out? ‘I’m much tougher than Rupert Everett. I could knock him out in five seconds. Muscled men are the most scared because they are building a wall. We are the only culture who identifies with our persecutors, gay men trying to act straight. The toughest ones are the drag queens. They are the suffragettes. They are the warriors. You ain’t a man till you’ve walked in heels.’

John, his business partner, arrives for a meeting and George asks him if he will do him a favour and go out and get a packet of cigarettes.

‘No,’ John says.

‘You’re vile,’ George says.

A few minutes later the buzzer sounds again. It is someone called Lady Pat, a man, who is also expected at the meeting. ‘Do you smoke?’ George asks before buzzing him in.


‘I hate you.’