Bob Hoskins

The actor Bob Hoskins, once likened to ‘a testicle on legs’, is very much in touch with his feminine side. In fact, it could be the only thing keeping him sane…

Lovely scented soap, that’s what Bob Hoskins likes about this restaurant around the corner from his house in North London. I know this because when he returns from what Americans call the bathroom he says: ‘They have lovely scented soap ’ere.’ He doesn’t call it a bathroom, by the way, even though he has spent a lot of time in Hollywood working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone.

‘I reached a point where they said you may as well live here, Bob. It’s where the work is. Where the money is. Get yourself a nice house with a swimming pool. It was an attractive offer but I couldn’t possibly have brought my kids up there.’

Though he does a decent American accent, notably in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, you only have to hear him say a couple of words in his natural speaking voice to know that he is as cockney as jellied eels. He couldn’t live full time anywhere other than London – even his country retreat in East Sussex, an oast house.

Today he is sitting in an enormous, high-backed chair which seems to emphasise his height, or lack of it. He is 5ft 6in. Pauline Kael, the film critic, once compared him to ‘a testicle on legs’. For his part he describes himself as a cube and says that ‘not even my mum would call me pretty’.

But the camera loves him. He grips you with his eyes as he talks. And he has a mischievous grin, which he deploys generously.

Where were we? Scented soap. I was about to explain why this observation was telling. Hoskins, for all the high testosterone of The Long Good Friday, his unforgettable film debut in 1980, is oddly in touch with his feminine side. You could see it in his first television drama, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven in 1978. He did a rather delicate, skippy little dance in that.

‘The choreographer got me to rehearse in a room without mirrors and convinced me I was Fred Astaire. Then when I saw the film there was this little hippopotamus running around.’

Getting in touch with his feminine side came as a revelation to Hoskins. ‘I realised one day that men are emotional cripples. We can’t express ourselves emotionally, we can only do it with anger and humour. Emotional stability and expression comes from women. When they have babies they say “hello, you’re welcome” and they mean it. It is an emotional honesty.

‘I started my career by becoming a stalker, watching women in the street, the way they greet each other. I thought if I could capture some of that expression, that depth of emotion, it will make me interesting to watch as an actor.’

What is he like now, away from the camera? Can he express emotion in private?

‘No, I’m terrible. I can only do it on screen. My dad died recently at the age of 93 and I found myself crying, then I stopped and thought this is acting. This isn’t honest. You’re not giving him the honest emotions he deserves. But the truth is, I didn’t know how to anymore. I was completely confused. It had become a curse. I can turn the tears on professionally.

‘When my dad died I thought I’m doing this for the people around me rather than for myself.’ And when he was on his own? ‘Didn’t cry. Partly because whenever I remembered my dad I grinned. He was a funny old stick.’

Hoskins’s father was a shy man, a bookkeeper; his mother, a nursery school cook, was more of an extrovert. Bob was their only child, born in 1942 and he perhaps felt he missed having siblings, given that he went on to have four children himself, two from his first marriage, two from his second.

He has been with Linda, his second wife, for 28 years and is devoted to her to the point of being uxorious. He has suffered from depression in the past and when he is feeling ‘fragile and pathetic’ only a cuddle from his wife will help.

I ask if he ever catches himself using his actorly skills with her, manipulating emotions to win an argument, say. ‘You do sometimes think, Oh, I could pull one here. But I’m not going to give you specific examples because my wife will kill me when she reads this.

‘One of the things I’ve realised is that I am very simple. My wife asked me once if I loved her. I said: “Look love, I’m a simple man. I love you. End of story.” But I guess you gotta keep saying it with women. I guess she needed reassurance. Blokes are very arrogant, they always assume the woman still loves them.’

Hoskins left school at 15 with one O-level and drifted from job to job: porter, lorry-driver, window cleaner. He then did a three-year accountancy course but dropped out.

His life changed dramatically in 1968 when he accompanied a friend to an audition and got mistaken for a candidate. He was asked to read for a part and ended up being given the lead. As soon as he started acting he knew it was for him.

‘I fit into this business like a sore foot into a soft shoe. But when I started I thought, Christ I ought to learn to act now I’m doing this for a living. I was a completely untrained, ill-educated idiot. So I read Stanislavski, but I thought it was all so obvious. Same with Strasberg. He just seemed to be saying look busy. Impress the boss. I soon realised actors are just entertainers, even the serious ones. That’s all an actor is. He’s like a serious Bruce Forsyth.’

The other great turning point in his career was when he realised that the camera could read his mind. It was when he was playing the doomed London gangland boss in The Long Good Friday. In the film’s closing scene his character realises he is being driven to his death. In two long minutes, without a word, Hoskins moves with measured facial gestures from shock to terror to wry acceptance.

‘For that last shot,’ he says, ‘John Mackenzie said I’m going to put the camera on your face Bob for five minutes and I want you to just think your way through the film. I said “you’re f—ing joking, ain’t you?” So I thought my way through the film and there you see it in the final edit.

‘We drove all round London for that scene. What I learnt from that was that if you was thinking the thoughts of your character, whatever you are doing is right, it is conveyed in your eyes and body language. The camera can see your mind. It takes quite a bit of concentration. You feel exhausted afterwards. But it’s worth it.’

Sometimes though, the camera delved too far into his mind. His latest film is Disney’s long-awaited Christmas Carol. It stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit. Hoskins plays Old Fezziwig, to whom Scrooge was apprenticed as a young man.

The film uses ‘digital performance capture’ technology which captures the movements of the actor on computerised cameras in a full 360 degrees. It also uses groundbreaking 3D technology and animation.

Endearingly, when I mention this, Hoskins says he hadn’t realised the film was in 3D.

The director is Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump. He also made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That film left Hoskins feeling very odd indeed. His doctor told him he should have a five month rest after that.

‘I think I went a bit mad while working on that. Lost my mind. The voice of the rabbit was there just behind the camera all the time. You had to know where the rabbit would be at every angle. Then there was Jessica Rabbit and all these weasels. The trouble was, I had learnt how to hallucinate. My daughter had an invisible friend called Jeffrey and I played with her and this invisible friend until one day I actually saw the friend.

‘I was following where she was seeing it. If you do that for eight months it becomes hard to get rid of. I went to this one do where I got talking to a very county lady with a big hat and there was this weasel in her hat with a big pr–k!’

Does he think now that he did actually go insane around that time? ‘My daughter, when I came back from filming in San Francisco, she said “Dad, slow down, slow down. You’re going barmy, mate.” And I was.’

He was hyperactive? ‘Probably talking too much, yeah. The character that frightened me most though was when I did Felicia’s Journey. I played a serial killer in that. Two weeks after filming, Linda said: “Bob, you do realise you are being very strange don’t you?” And I thought, Oh f— I’ve still got a killer inside me.’

Another psychological tipping point had been the break-up of his first marriage. In the aftermath his first wife accused him of being violent, though he denies it.

He now says he simply wasn’t mature enough to be married. He had a nervous breakdown, he says. ‘And funnily enough theatre cured it. I used to go to see a psychiatrist in Harley Street but then my friend Verity said if you are going to have a nervous breakdown you should do it on stage as a one man show instead, so I did.

‘I wrote a play called The Bystander about a bloke looking through a hole in the wall and talking to pot plants. On the first day, when the tickets had been sold and I was supposed to be on stage, I wondered off in a trance and Verity had to come and find me. I was talking to the ducks on the pond. She said: “There is not one f—ing duck here who has paid for a ticket. I’ve got a full theatre waiting for you get yourself in there.”

She grabbed hold of me and dragged me down the stage in front of the audience. I did the show and when the audience applauded at the end it was like something popping. I was fine after that. Verity opened a bottle of champagne and said: “Welcome back to sanity”.’

After his first marriage failed he assumed marriage wasn’t for him. ‘But obviously it was. I thought: what would my ideal wife be? I made this woman up in my head and on the Royal wedding day in 1981, when they kept pubs open to midnight, she walked in and I thought that’s her. Sweetheart, you don’t stand a chance.’

He claps his hands and grins. ‘I didn’t need to project. She was what I wanted. That’ll do. I’m very romantic. I’ve emptied flower shops.’

How important has his second marriage been to his mental health? Does Linda keep him grounded? Tease him? ‘Yeah. She will say, all right, you’ve done well, but remember you live here with a family and two kids. That’s more important than your work.’

I ask what he is like as a father. ‘I had quite a lot of time away from them, but Linda always used to bring the kids out with me on location. With my first kids it was difficult because I didn’t see as much of them growing up as I would have liked.’ Fame puts a strain on relationships, he says, because one person has a lot of attention and the other doesn’t.

‘But it also puts a lot of pressure on you. It separates you from the human race a bit because you can’t talk to anybody about anything apart from your career and who you know. That is all anybody wants to ask you about. You can’t have a normal conversation.

‘I just want to say: “F— my career, how’s your life?” I met a little old fella in Regent’s Park when I was walking a character around. He said: “You are who you are, ain’t you?” and I said: “Yeah, I am who I am.” And he said: “That’s good. I grow roses.” And we sat talking about roses all afternoon. It was wonderful.’

There have been occasions, though, when the attention from the public has become tiresome and he has lost his temper. Linda gets quite embarrassed when this happens, he says.

‘The thing is, when the kids were babies I used to take them up the park. There was one occasion when this group of people started pointing and if you have two kids you have to give them your full concentration and so I said: “Sorry I’m with my kids today” and this woman said: “Without your fans where would you be?” And I lost it and told her to f— off. I said: “I don’t need you. If you’re a fan then pick someone else.”’

The majority of people don’t see him as a celebrity, though, he reckons. ‘They think they know me. I was in Marks & Spencer the other day when this woman said “Bob, where’s the tea?” and I showed her and she said: “No, not that fancy organic tea. Real tea, the sort of tea we drink. PG Tips. Typhoo.”’

Although Hoskins has had requests from publishers to write his memoirs, he says he hasn’t got the memory for it. He has no film posters in his house, not even for Mona Lisa, the 1986 film for which he was Oscar nominated.

‘Dementia will be a friend. It will grin at me and say: “How you going son?” I’ll be like my dad. He phoned me up one day and said: “The mafia is laundering money through my bank account.” I shot round there and realised it was the pocket money I was giving him. “You prat,” I said. “It’s the money I’ve been paying into your account.”’

I suggest that he could always have told his father: ‘The mafia? I s–t em.’ He rolls his eyes, recognising the line from The Long Good Friday.

‘Yeah I suppose I could,’ he says. ‘I still get people coming up to me and quoting lines from that film. They will say “Cut ’im” and I wonder what the hell they are talking about because I haven’t seen it for years.’

He rarely watches the films he has starred in and having made more than 80, he often can’t even remember which ones he has been in. ‘I’ll be watching a film on television at home and then realise with a shock that I’m in it.’ That’ll be the dementia kicking in, I say. ‘Yeah,’ he says with a grin.

‘I’ll be ringing my son up and telling him the mafia are using my bank account to launder money next.’


Bill Nighy

He’s a maniacal texter who doesn’t own a computer and has a profound fear of daylight and shorts. Is Bill Nighy, star of Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked, just another oddball actor, or one of the last great British eccentrics? Judge for yourself.

He’s one distracted man, Bill Nighy. ‘Just… need… to… finish… ‘The sentence trails off as his crooked fingers move over the buttons on his phone. Texting is an obsession of his, he says (distractedly), because he doesn’t use email, having… no… um… computer. Friends and colleagues of his receive dozens a day, apparently – pithy observations, apercus, updates about his daily goings-on. He invented the concept of twitter long before it had an official name.

Another of his obsessions is going on in his head, and in mine – Bob Dylan. Though we are upstairs in the green room of someone else’s photography studio, it is his music we are listening to. He always has his own with him and it is nearly always Dylan. The actor listens to the singer every day.

Dylan, indeed, is the soundtrack to his life and has been since he first heard him in the early Sixties. This either shows a wilful lack of imagination, or an impressive streak of loyalty, I can’t decide which. What I do know is that when I correctly identify the album, a fairly obscure one from the late Seventies called Slow Train Coming, my stock rises instantly. ‘Oh,’ he says, looking up from his text. ‘You know your Dylan.’

Bill Nighy is a tall and spidery 59-year-old in thick-rimmed, Eric Morecambe glasses, a silk scarf and a tailor-made suit. Though he is easy company – we have met before, in a pub in Norfolk, through a mutual friend – he is, shall we say, a complex fellow. A borderline eccentric, in truth, not only obsessed with Dylan and texting but also with the weather and football (he is a fanatical Crystal Palace supporter).

When in a hotel he likes to keep the curtains closed, even when there is a view to enjoy, and he has what amounts to a phobia about wearing shorts. ‘There are only two people in the world who look good in shorts,’ he says, ‘and I’m not one of them.’

The two being? ‘Brad Pitt and Barack Obama. Summer trousers are cooler than shorts anyway and you don’t have to smear stuff on your legs. I go pink and septic in the sun if I don’t smear. The other problem I have with summer is that I don’t like linen, but I do like to wear a jacket. And I like to wear a jacket because I don’t like my shape. So even in the sun without a jacket I feel… ‘ Pause. A sweeping, off-the-shoulder gesture. ‘… lost.’

Nighy has a pleasingly dry sense of humour and is a fine anecdotalist, telling self-deprecating stories in a deadpan voice so mellow people assume he has just woken up when he answers the phone. He is also refreshingly unpretentious about the business of acting, saying that he loves it when a director gives him something to do with his hands, or, better still, a limp. That time in the pub he entertained us with stories about the drinking culture among the actors of the Seventies and Eighties – the Harrises, the Hurts, the O’Tooles.

I only realised afterwards that he wasn’t drinking himself. That had to go in 1992, or rather be replaced with an addiction to Diet Coke, fruit gums and builder’s tea. He doesn’t like to talk on the record about that period of his life, feeling he has nothing to add to a comment he once made about his ‘unhealthy relationship’ with alcohol, how he ‘drank for England, Scotland and Wales’ and how he never had a button other people seem to possess which tells you when to stop.

Although he has earned a decent living as an actor for almost 40 years – the David Hare and Tom Stoppard plays at the National, the Stephen Poliakoff dramas for the BBC – it wasn’t until his Bafta award-winning performance in Love Actually (2003), the Richard Curtis film in which he played an ageing rock star, that he really tasted stardom.

Since then he has been much in demand, everything from the stepfather in Shaun of the Dead, to the cuckolded husband in Notes on a Scandal and the tentacled Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. At the moment – the past and coming year – he is appearing in seven films, which rather suggests he finds it hard to say no.

‘There is that,’ he says, leaning forward to fidget with my notes. ‘All actors who have been around for a long time, which I have, and have been skint for long periods, which I have, find it difficult to turn down jobs. If I turn anything down my stomach turns over. I feel sick. It feels like gambling.’

He is teaming up with Richard Curtis again next month for The Boat that Rocked, a comedy about the pirate radio of the Sixties (his co-stars include Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh). ‘One Boat. Eight DJs. No morals’ – that’s how it is being sold on the posters. ‘Whatever else the film might be,’ Nighy says, ‘it was mainly an excuse for Richard to play all the songs from that period, the Who, the Small Faces, the Kinks. He is a slave to them. It’s funny but at the time, 1966, I just accepted that there was all this good music around. I thought that was the norm but, in retrospect, I realise that it was an extraordinary time for music. Extraordinary.’

The film captures the duality of 1966 Britain well – while some men experimented with sideburns, felt trousers and afghan coats, others were still wearing pin stripes and bowler hats. I ask Nighy how he dressed at that time. ‘I was never a hippy, per se. I just helped them out when they were busy. But yes, we did look very different. I would be refused in pubs for the way I dressed. Other customers found the sight of long hair on men unsettling. I was routinely pulled on my way home. The police would put their hands in my pockets.’

Did he ever get the rubber glove treatment? ‘On one occasion, I’m afraid so. The finger up the… whatever.’ Really? In London? ‘Cornwall. A detective was crawling over my half of the tent looking for drugs and I was protesting that he was wasting his time.’

Was he wasting his time? ‘Nothing was found, certainly not up there. I was never that ingenious. It was an occupational hazard being searched. Nothing remarkable about it. You’d expect trouble.’

As far as I know there is nothing on the record about him taking drugs, but that appears to be what he is talking about. Does he remember his first spliff? ‘I smoked marijuana for the first time on a beach in Folkestone with a bloke I had never seen before and have never seen since. It was big and it made me feel sick and if I’d had any sense I would have left it there. I didn’t. I don’t do it anymore. We’re at liberty to change our minds, if you will pardon the pun.’

But at the time it must have seemed like us and them, as the Pink Floyd song puts it. ‘Yes, we used to divide the world up into straights and heads. We were the heads, the freaks. If anyone got a new girlfriend in our gang, the first question was “is she a head?” And if she wasn’t, there would be a problem.’ How old was he when he realised his ambition to become a bohemian? ‘Wow, that’s a nice way of putting it. You’re right, I did aspire to a bohemian life. I wanted to live like a writer. A bohemian writer. I knew that was what I wanted from an early age, my mid teens probably. But I didn’t feel sure enough about myself to know what I was looking for. What could you call it, self-expression? I thought that sounded too posh.’

I ask whether he can see the Counter Culture more from the perspective of the Establishment – the straights – now that he is older. Surely they had good reason to worry that a student revolution might flare up at any moment – it did in Paris – and their sense that the moral fabric of the nation was being eroded was, if nothing else, well intentioned. Wasn’t that why the government wanted to close Radio Caroline down?

‘Certainly the subversion was all to do with music. Radio Caroline was seen as a threat and was chased all over the seas. The best thing about them was they had a good signal. Radio Luxembourg was great but it would always drift off the signal. I would listen to it on a beautiful old wireless that I kept by my bed. It gave off heat. But it was also the television. I remember sitting in front of Top of the Pops and Like a Rolling Stone came on. I found it breathtaking. My dad just shook his head. It was beyond his comprehension. I wanted him to understand because he was a good man, and we would talk about music. We often had the Bing v Frank debate. But this was too far, he couldn’t get it. Now I am older I can see why he didn’t get it.’

His father ran a garage and died of a heart attack when Nighy was in his twenties. It left him with a sense of ‘something missing’. His mother was a nurse and the family – he was one of three children – lived in the suburbs (Caterham, Surrey). He left school shortly before he turned 16. ‘I was into soul and Motown and the Stones, but Dylan was the one who changed my life. I left home on the strength of Dylan.’

Did he buy a guitar and harmonica? ‘No, too lazy. I did pick up a guitar once, but the strings hurt my fingers so I put it down again. Anything I had to work at I abandoned. Actually I’m grateful I didn’t learn because I’ve got funny hands.’ His condition is called Dupuytren’s contracture. It causes some of his fingers to bend in towards the palm. He holds them up to show me. ‘I know some guitar players who have the same condition and they find it deeply irritating. It’s hereditary. My mum had it. I first became affected by it in my twenties. There are two glamorous facts about it. It only affects people with Viking blood and Frank Sinatra had it in one hand.’

He did join a garage band at one point, as the singer, ‘but it was all too scary’. His hair was partly to blame for his shaken confidence. ‘I had a catastrophe when I hit puberty in that my hair went violently curly. I tried putting some gunk on it to keep it down but nothing worked. One day a teacher pulled me by my hair to the front of the class and let go, saying: “Nighy, what horrible hair!” ‘ Pause. Gloomy face. ‘The whole class thought it was Christmas. I was called Horrible Hair after that. No one cool had curly hair. This was a disaster because it meant any prospect of my joining the Rolling Stones was gone forever.’

Could have joined the Who, I point out. Look at the footage of Roger Daltrey at Woodstock. ‘Yeah but his curls fell. They looked great. They had movement. Mine went sideways and up. It wasn’t a good look, trust me.’

Looks pretty straight now, his hair. ‘It’s funny, I can’t remember when it went back, yet it must have been one of the best days of my life.’ He brushes his hand over the crown of his head. ‘Even if it had been straight then I would still have been disabled with self-consciousness. I used to walk the dog a lot, that was how I tackled my self-consciousness. He was called Riff. It legitimised my late night walks. I found it easier to be on my own.’

So, hang on, as an 18 year-old crippled with self-consciousness, he decided to go on the stage? ‘One of the things that is assumed about actors is that they are extrovert, which is almost never the case, in my experience. Anyway, I didn’t really decide to be an actor. My plan was to become a writer like my hero Hemingway, but I didn’t have the courage.’ Though he threw away his underwear – because that was what Hemingway did – and left home with the intension of reaching Persia, he only got as far as France. Part of his problem, he reckons, is that he has always been ‘a world-class procrastinator’.

He doesn’t think he is an introvert, though. ‘Not exactly, and shy doesn’t quite cover it, because that suggests a degree of arrogance, a mixture of extreme vanity and self-disgust. No, acting for me wasn’t so much a matter of knowing what I wanted to do, it was more about knowing what I didn’t want to do.’

Which was? ‘Work hard in a nine-to-five job. Now I come to think of it, when people warned me that there would be long periods out of work if I became an actor I couldn’t keep a straight face because that was exactly what I had in mind. Yeah baby. That sounded like a result. And you could go around saying: “I am an actor but I’m not currently working.” Result again.’

Although Nighy manages to make everything seem light and effortless in conversation, he does suffer from nerves and his repertoire of twitches tells a different story. He says he has to mug for photographs, deflecting attention away from himself and from his anxiousness. He is often mistaken for someone who is relaxed, he adds, which is hardly ever the case. And he accepts that, with his quirks and compulsions, he is probably not the easiest person to live with.

Nevertheless, for 27 years, he did live with the actress Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary (who is in her early twenties and an actress). They separated last year and nowadays he seems to prefer his own company. Tellingly, he often seems to combine contradiction in his roles, between swagger and bathos, between tension and relaxation. And when he is standing on a stage his abiding feeling is one of – a curious choice of word this – ‘shame’. As for the inevitable rejection that comes with being an actor, ‘you don’t know about it till it starts happening, then you do get used to it. If you are lucky you are seen for 50 jobs a year and you get five of them’.

Nighy found himself working for the Everyman Theatre Company in Liverpool in the mid Seventies, alongside several of the subsequently famous: Pete Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale. He remembers his time there fondly. The drama was edgy and experimental and he thinks it is harder for theatre companies to shock these days. Certainly the f-word has lost its power. ‘Certain people have a gift for saying it well. I’m not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that people say it in public more now. I imagine it is probably best kept for certain occasions. Writers who are brilliant know how much more powerful – and often how much more comic – the f-word is if it is used sparingly. It can be deeply satisfying, especially if you are the one saying it on stage.’

Like he did in Love Actually, when his character was doing a live radio interview. ‘Exactly,’ he gives a slow and deep chuckle at the memory. ‘I used to be quite bullish about its use when I was younger but now I take that view that if the word offends people then it offends them. There is no point saying to people you shouldn’t be offended… Can you believe it is more than 30 years since Kenneth Tynan first said the f-word on air?’

He is not very good on his decades. ‘Oh yes, sorry, I tend to miss out the Eighties, so I think everything was 30 years ago when actually it was 40 years ago. I went to drama school in, when, 1968? It was the Summer of Love, apparently. It won’t have been a freak who came up with that description, it must have been a newspaper editor.

‘I wish someone had told me it was the Summer of Love at the time because I don’t think I was particularly promiscuous. I certainly thought everyone else was at it though. It was another example of men getting away with it, as Martin Amis would say. We would always turn to our girlfriends, or the girls we wanted to sleep with, and say “baby, be cool”. It was a scoundrel’s remark, like “don’t be paranoid”. You can’t deny being paranoid because the minute you deny it you sound paranoid. If your girlfriend had caught you in bed with her best friend you would say “baby, don’t be paranoid”.’

What about all that public nudity in the Summer of Love? Presumably, given his aversion to wearing shorts, he wasn’t all that keen. ‘It was a tough time to be young, having to take your clothes off and be cool about it. I didn’t have the shape so nothing would have persuaded me to do it.’

Didn’t he strip off in Gideon’s Daughter? ‘Did I? Oh yeah, I did have to take my top off. It was a lonely moment, I tell you. I had to lie on top of a naked Ronni Ancona. Had to simulate passion with noises. You wake up and think, “Ah, what am I doing today? Oh yes, today I have to simulate passion with noises.” It’s never a good start to the day. It’s very exposing to make noises because you never know what noises other people make. It’s bonkers. Ludicrous.

‘The only way to get through it is to think that your job is to look after the girl – that is your responsibility, protect her from the crew, obscure parts of her body. The trouble is, you end up in positions from which it is impossible to make lurve. But playing the gentleman helps take your mind off your own predicament, off your puny body and your non-existent genitalia. Having someone making up your bum with half a dozen sparks watching is not my idea of eroticism.’

Sounds like the stuff of anxiety dreams. ‘Oh man. And it’s always so unnecessary. There is never a justification for it in the plot. It is all to do with budget and having a chance to show breasts.’

He once had to do a naked scene on stage, he says with a shake of his head. ‘That was even worse. The deep winter in the Hampstead Theatre Club which had no central heating and I was supposed to come on as if emerging from a shower. One of the female stage hands had to pour a bucket of water over me just before I came on, and the water was always ice cold. What there was of my manhood would retreat into my torso. In the matinee you could hear the audience talking and one day I distinctly heard a woman say: “Oh no, that’s disgusting!” ‘ Couldn’t he have objected? ‘Yeah, but they would have told me I was being paranoid. Too right I’m paranoid. I’ve nothing on and there are 200 people staring at me.’

Baby, be cool? ‘Exactly. Baby, be cool.’


Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci – co-creator of The Day Today, Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, and now In The Loop – is an erudite classical music aficionado who raised the bar for swearing on the BBC. Yet no one (except Alastair Campbell) has a bad word to say about him

It is five minutes past nine in the morning, though you wouldn’t know it from the clocks in the Iannucci household. The one in the kitchen is ten minutes fast, in order to fool the children into not being late for school. The one in the study is an hour slow, or rather it has stopped, the time frozen until someone changes the battery. It seems an uncharacteristically nonchalant oversight.

Armando Iannucci – a busy, busy man – lives in a small village in Buckinghamshire with his wife, three children and two dogs. He has an office at the BBC – where he is a prolific producer of comedies – but it is here that he does his writing. The study is a wooden shed and, to reach it, you pass a trampoline in the garden. He overheard his middle child swear while playing on it a few months ago with a couple of friends – ‘This is f—ing great!’ Iannucci had to poke his head around the shed door and give it a stern shake, followed by a frown.

This may sound hypocritical given that, as the writer and director of the political satire The Thick of It, Iannucci is directly responsible for 93 per cent of the entire BBC output of the ‘f-word’. But he insists that the swearing in that comedy is not gratuitous. He wanted it to have a ‘realistic, documentary feel’ and all his research, talking to new Labour insiders, reading published diaries, revealed that this is how people in politics talk these days. ‘Besides, it’s not like anything else I write has swearing. There’s none in I’m Alan Partridge.’

And besides (again), the swearing in The Thick of It is funny, especially when Malcolm Tucker, the very angry and very Scottish spin-doctor based on Alastair Campbell and played by Peter Capaldi, does it. His most memorable line is: ‘Come the f— in or f— the f— off.’

Nevertheless, Iannucci found the experience of watching The Thick of It with his son Emilio, then 13, a little strange. ‘He laughed and then stopped because he thought he might be laughing at something I would disapprove of. It was slightly uncomfortable and confusing for both of us. He kept looking across at me to see whether I disapproved, sort of forgetting I had written it.

And I was feeling embarrassed about the language. We’d flipped roles.’

Alongside Peter Cook and John Cleese, Iannucci has been one of the most influential and innovative figures in British television comedy, first making his mark in 1991 when he assembled the team – including Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Rebecca Front – that made the news spoof On The Hour on Radio 4. When it was transferred to television as The Day Today it became an electrifying and withering parody of television news. (‘Those were the headlines. Happy now?’)

It was also surreal. Chris Morris, who seemed more like Jeremy Paxman than Jeremy Paxman, would speak in headlines: ‘On The Hour and I am Christopher Morris – for it is I. Tonight’s sizey stories: Nineteen in fogbound bakery collision; Dinosaurs died out on a Tuesday claim experts; And where now for 107 of Ridley’s children?’

Iannucci, this giant of comedy, is not a tall man. At 44 he is wiry, balding and in possession of a fine set of dark and animated eyebrows. In repose he has an earnest expression which every so often, when you least expect it, is transformed by a toothy smile. He once described himself as a ‘big-nosed Jock wop’ – his father having been an Italian immigrant who came to live in Glasgow where he set up a pizza company. Though he is easy company and unspools articulate sentences in a mild and measured Glaswegian caw, Iannucci does have a tendency to say ‘yeahyeahyeah’ impatiently, when acknowledging a point.

His study-cum-shed reflects his three passions beyond comedy – classical music, the romantic poets and politics. The CD boxes on the shelves behind his desk all have the names of composers on their spines. (Somehow he has found the time to co-compose an operetta, which was recently performed by Opera North.)

The books on other shelves include some on Milton, who lived in a cottage 100 yards from here. (Iannucci is working on a documentary for BBC Two about Paradise Lost, which was also the subject of a PhD he began at Oxford but did not finish.) There is also a doll of George W. Bush on the shelves, one that spouts Bushisms when its string is pulled. Iannucci was given it by his wife [a former NHS therapist whom he met at university] while he was researching In the Loop, a film version of The Thick of It, partly set in Washington.

Simon Foster, a mild-mannered British minister played by Tom Hollander, inadvertently backs a war on prime-time television, bringing down on his head the wrath of Malcolm Tucker. Like all Iannucci’s Labour politicians, Foster is self-pitying, dissembling and vacillating, but not unsympathetic. In Washington, where a US General (James Gandolfini from The Sopranos) is trying to prevent the war, he rapidly finds himself out of his depth.

A crucial vote is pending at the UN Security Council. A dodgy dossier appears. Everyone stabs everyone else in the back…

When I ask if Iannucci’s observations about office politics are based on his experiences of working for the BBC, he shakes his head. ‘Actually they are based on my experience of the studio system in LA. You go there with high expectation and you think everyone sounds impressive but you soon realise that they don’t really know what they are doing either, you’re all bluffing but being paid vast sums to bluff.’

The film had its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Festival and, such was the critical acclaim with which it was greeted, it was soon signed up for US-wide distribution, thus exposing Iannucci to the full glare of Hollywood ingratiation. But all that means in practice, he reckons, is that you get a lot of fruit baskets delivered to your hotel room.

Another thing he based his observations on is the way people in television are impressed by those who can make decisions quickly. ‘Unimportant decisions like which of five suitcases to use as a prop, and I think a lot of that must go on higher up. The busier you are the less time you have to make decisions. A minister will get a five-minute brief in the back of a car and then he will have to come up with a policy.’

The big question is whether The Thick of It, which began as six half-hour episodes and two specials from 2005 to 2007, will translate into a full hour-and-a-half feature film. In my opinion it does, hilariously. The cameras still skitter restlessly from character to character. And visually, it still has a news-as-it-is-happening feel, where actors are often only half in the frame or partly obscured while reciting a line of dialogue. But it has more variety of pace than the television version – more non-verbal cues, little looks, sighs – and that is as it should be.

But Alastair Campbell, who has also seen a preview, has dismissed the film as ‘unrealistic and unfunny’. He was, he said, ‘too bored to be offended,’ adding that he despairs of Iannucci’s cynicism, and wonders whether the satirist really thinks all politics is basically crass, all politicians venal. Campbell twists the knife by suggesting that Iannucci ‘like Rory Bremner’, is becoming less funny the more serious his subject matter gets.

Ouch. But he would say that, wouldn’t he. And anyway, Iannucci doesn’t think he is being cynical. ‘We try to show the politicians not as evil, but as morally tortured and compromised. I find that more interesting than goodies and baddies. The audience wonders whether they would do the same. I suppose delusion is better than cynicism.

‘Clare Short really believed she was doing the right thing in the run up to the Iraq war and managed to convince herself that it was better not to resign. There is a scene in the film in which the minister does something similar, trying to convince himself that war can sometimes be a good thing. What about the Crimean War? We got nurses out of the Crimean War.’

And, to be fair, Iannucci always does his homework. He established via research trips to the Pentagon and the CIA’s HQ in Virginia, for example, that a lot of Washington is run by ‘very intelligent but fairly un-streetwise 23-year-olds with degrees in Terrorism Strategy Studies’.

Though he is fascinated by politics, he doesn’t think he is a political animal as such. ‘I hate the idea of labels and saying you are member of one party or another and signing up to all sorts of policies that you don’t have a view on or don’t believe in. Because I’m not a politician I don’t have to be consistent in what I say and how I behave.’

The media, I point out, is always accused of undermining the political process, but surely comedies such as his are much worse offenders, undermining and ridiculing in a much more ruthless and efficient way. ‘Yeahyeahyeah, I know.

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Hazel Blears said a few months ago that The Thick of It put people off politics and why can’t we make the West Wing? Show our British politicians being noble? But I think people would laugh at that for the wrong reason, because they wouldn’t believe it. It’s to do with our natural default position of disbelief and cynicism.’

Though The Thick of It was a critical hit, plans for a second series were derailed when the deadpan actor at its centre, Chris Langham, was arrested and charged with possession of indecent photographs of children. ‘My instant reaction was to think about Chris and how I could be supportive,’ Iannucci says now. ‘Not, oh, what will this mean for the project? It was more puzzlement than frustration. I didn’t want to do any more of the series until we knew the outcome of his trial.

‘We were able to do a couple of one-off specials which didn’t write Chris’s character out of the script but said he was in Australia.’ The two met up just before Christmas and would like to work together again, but not on The Thick of It. The BBC won’t even show repeats of the first series. Both accept that Langham’s rehabilitation will be a long, slow process.

When I ring round a few of Iannucci’s friends and colleagues, several mention his loyalty. Rebecca Front, who has known him since Oxford, says she has never seen him lose his temper. ‘If he ever gets frustrated he hides it – he doesn’t like conflict. He’s easy going but he will let you know when he doesn’t like something you’ve written, and he’ll do it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling offended, which is a great skill. There is an “Armando Way”, an “Armando House Style”, and he tends to work with people he feels can deliver it. He tends to lose interest rather than lose his temper.

‘We had him and his family around for lunch the other day with some other friends of ours and they remarked afterwards about how low key he was. I think they had expected this full-on King of Satire to walk in.’

The playwright Patrick Marber was also one of the Day Today team. ‘I feel I owe my whole career to him because he saw things in me which I couldn’t see in myself,’ he says. ‘I think he’s like a good football manager, a Cloughie figure. Not a great praiser but he wouldn’t diminish you either.’

Iannucci is a fastidious man who worries about his diet: he won’t eat carbs at lunch, as he is convinced that they sap his energy levels. He admits to a certain physical awkwardness, saying that he finds kicking a ball and trying to look cool impossible, but reckons that he has become much more comfortable in his skin since turning 40 – he had always felt that was his natural age.

‘Armando always looked and behaved as if he couldn’t wait to turn 40,’ confirms Chris Morris, who then does an uncanny impression of his friend for me. Back in 1990, he says, Iannucci approached him and the two drove round and round in a car talking through their ideas for a new and experimental type of comedy.

‘What we both liked was the idea of delivering absurdity in an authoritative voice. Making the ridiculous appear sensible. Sometimes Armando would be downcast when he felt things on The Day Today were too floppily formed and needed tightening, but he was always able to make subtle-minded decisions that were, in the best sense of the word, cool.’

Iannucci doesn’t know whether this is a product of being not quite Italian and not quite Scottish, but he has always felt slightly detached from whatever community he is in. ‘Without being weird,’ he adds, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a sick loner.’ Though he was a studious child who immersed himself in the world of books and classical music, he got the comedy bug at an early age. ‘I started quite young at school,’ he says, ‘compeering a charity event at an old people’s home. I would do stand up and impressions and enjoyed the laughter. It’s very addictive. It’s a lovely sensation to say something and hear a whole room laugh.’

Though he likes to leave comic acting to ‘proper comic actors’, he does perform himself from time to time, fronting some of the shows with which his name is associated, such as The Friday Night Armistice, or The Charm Offensive on Radio 4. ‘I was aware when we were doing The Day Today that if it was successful the public would home in on the cast rather than the creators,’ he says now, ‘and I did agonise a little with Chris over whether I should be in it. But then I realised I simply wouldn’t have been good enough compared to him or Rebecca or Steve.’

He knew he had found a gem in Alan Partridge on the first day working on The Day Today. ‘As soon as Steve did that voice we knew this Partridge would fly. It was very much Alan in the room, not Steve. Steve doesn’t write at a laptop, he paces up and down. So it was me and Peter Baynham taking turns on the computer, writing ideas down while Steve stayed in character. The trouble was he would keep it up all day. He would be Alan all day.’

That must have been a laugh, I say. ‘You’d think so but after eight months of it I just wanted to kill him. I remember thinking “I’ve been in a room with f—ing Alan Partridge for eight months. Won’t someone just shoot him.”’

When he and Baynham (who co-wrote Borat) get together with Coogan they often find themselves wondering what Partridge would be up to now. ‘I think Alan is desperate to get on one of these has-been celebrity reality shows,’ Iannucci says. ‘I think he’s feeling bitter about being so low status he hasn’t been asked on one. I think he is cornering the producers to get on living TV or Bravo.’ He claps his hands. ‘Ghost Hunt! That’s what Alan would like to be in at the moment.’

Steve Coogan has a reputation as a party animal – the drink, the drugs, the womanising – whereas Iannucci is, by his own admission, more a cardigan and comfortable shoes type. ‘I would never give Steve advice about his lifestyle. It is so alien to me. He knows that and I know that there is nothing in my life I could compare his situation to. We have a great relationship that tends to be very much about work. But I think recently his experiences have… well, he has turned a corner, as he puts it. Put it like this, I don’t counsel him, nor do I think he would accept counselling.’

When I ring Coogan, who is on tour in Australia at the moment, he describes Iannucci as a private person, not overly demonstrative or theatrical. ‘He’s not given to grand gesticulations and is economical with his emotions,’ he says. ‘But I think what we have in common is that we both like to expose the underbelly of things and prick pomposity.

Coogan says he always felt protected by Iannucci, who acted as a ‘buffer’ between him and the bureaucrats at the BBC. ‘He is the senior party, he’s like the sensible older brother,’ says Coogan. ‘Our relationship has never been about who is the funniest. I was more instinctive, he was more intellectual. My creativity was directionless so he could always rein me in and give me a focus.’

Coogan says the Day Today team knew right from the moment Iannucci gathered them all together in a studio that what they were doing was cutting edge and uncompromising. ‘He sort of unleashed us. In a way it was anti-comedy, not chasing the laughs, not doing comedy to win the approval of the audience. There was an attractive coldness to it. I think Armando’s taste has evolved since then. There is a painful vulnerability to his characters that wasn’t there before.’

Though his work can be politically attuned and socially topical, it can be whimsical and absurd, too. In his brilliant 2006 television series Time Trumpet, a nostalgic ‘list show’ set 30 years in the future, Charlotte Church vomits herself inside out while exploring the outer limits of binge-drinking, Tony Blair pays television cameramen to expose themselves while filming Gordon Brown, thus causing him to lose the thread of his argument, and Tesco mounts an invasion of Denmark.

Comedian David Baddiel first met Iannucci on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1989. ‘Armando has never given up on the idea that comedy, as well as being silly and making you laugh, should also be an intellectual pursuit at some level,’ he says. ‘His linguistic humour was apparent, he was always coming up with new words that seemed somehow right, like “mentalist”. I love the way he uses the

f-word in The Thick of It. There is a real poetry to it. You know like, “what’s the story in Bala-f—ing-mory?” The “f—ing” is so well placed there, giving an almost Rabelaisian lyricism to the obscenity.’

Though Iannucci is associated with what is known as ‘the comedy of embarrassment’, there also seems to be an anger behind his comedy. I ask him if he worries that as he gets older and more comfortable he will lose his edge? ‘Not really. I have never felt as angry about anything in my life as I felt about the invasion of Iraq. I went on the march and took the train from Gerard’s Cross, which is in the stockbroker belt, and to my surprise it was packed with protesters with lunch boxes and sturdy walking boots, and polite notices like “Really, Mr Blair, think again”.’

He was 17 when his father died, did that leave him angry, thinking ‘why me?’ ‘Yes, but it’s more I…’ He hesitates. ‘He died the summer before I went to Oxford and he was so pleased… He had this van he drove around in and he said he was going to drive down to Oxford and see me… So the immediate thing was sorrow that he never got to see that moment happen. He hadn’t been to university himself. He had been 16 in the war and joined the partisans and left afterwards to come here. Just got on a boat.’

There was no swearing at home when Iannucci was growing up in Glasgow. ‘Well, there was some swearing, from my dad. But it was in Italian. Because he was always working hard, it tended to be more my mum that I saw and it’s nice that she was able to come to the premiere of In the Loop in Glasgow, with two of my aunts. She was used to the swearing, having seen The Thick of It, but still, we have this photo of three little old ladies in the front row watching a 40ft Malcolm swearing his head off and…’ he gives an embarrassed shrug and his unexpected, toothy smile.


Annie Nightingale

At an age when other DJs have been put out to pasture, Radio 1’s Annie Nightingale is still discovering new talent and partying till dawn – all because she’s terrified of looking back. Nigel Farndale meets a reluctant ‘melancholic’ with low self-esteem but masses of stamina

Before I meet Annie Nightingale, or rather ‘the legendary Annie Nightingale’, as she is styled on the Radio 1 website, I look for her on a group photograph of current Radio 1 DJs and staff. It is hanging on the wall of the meeting room at the Radio 1 building in London.

She is not hard to spot with her bottle-blond hair and sunglasses (she is one of the few non-blind people in the world who can carry off wearing sunglasses indoors). Also she is the oldest in the group by, I would say, 25 years. Not that she looks old. In fact, she looks pretty much as she did when she first posed for a group photograph of Radio 1 presenters back in 1970, the year she became the station’s first female DJ.

I hear her before I see her, greeting staff, air-kissing the station’s controller, passing through the open-plan office, with its plastic cups and stained carpets, like a visiting dignitary to a third-world country. The door opens and she teeters in on stacked heels, shouldering a bag, wearing a plunging neckline, her words tumbling out. Sorry she’s late. Been at the dentist. Implants. Oh, the traffic.

In contrast with her laid-back, confidential, husky-voiced radio style she talks quickly. And there is an air of mild chaos about her. I have read that her record and CD collection is split between her office here and her home a ten-minute drive away – and she’s not organised enough to know what is where. Also we had planned to meet in Brighton the previous week for dinner before one of her DJ-ing gigs (she is doing a national tour of clubs, playing the breakbeat music she specialises in; that and presenting new DJs as part of the BBC Introducing talent search), but I had to cancel, and now she says that this was just as well because before she set off from London that day she lost her purse, and her credit cards, and had to ring the promoter to lend her some money and…

We are getting ahead of ourselves. She mentioned implants. Is that cosmetic dentistry? She waves the question away. ‘Oh, implants were just a good solution to something. Anyway – would you believe it? – my dentist asked me to put him on the guest list. I sometimes think I was put on this earth to put people on guest lists.’

I am meeting her the day before her birthday, but when I check that this means she will be 66 she waves this away, too. ‘I don’t ever confirm or deny my age. Not important.’ It is hard to disagree with her. She does, after all, do a show on Radio 1 that goes out at 5am on a Saturday morning – a graveyard slot you might suppose but, actually, club culture being what it is, the show is one of the station’s most listened-to worldwide, especially since the ‘listen again’ facility came in. ‘The audience is between 18 and 25,’ she says breathily. ‘It’s very strange but they couldn’t care less how old I am. I had an email from a listener the other day saying, “I don’t know how you stay up so late, Annie. I can’t manage it and I’m 17 years old.”‘

She does the show live? I had imagined it was pre-recorded. ‘Sometimes. But I stay up late anyway. I’m not a morning person. Never have been. I’m always on New York time. It’s difficult for me to get going until about five in the afternoon. I did the breakfast show once on millennium day and never again. Today I got up at 11, which was early for me.’ (It is 2pm now.) Presumably her listeners can stay up only with the help of drugs? ‘Yeah, but it wouldn’t make any difference. This music isn’t particularly about that. A lot of music has been associated with a particular stimulant. Punk and speed. Acid and E. With breakbeat I think it is more drink culture.’

The music she plays is not to everyone’s taste: it’s hard to hum any of the tracks once they are over as they all seem to merge into one pounding, electronic swirl. Do her friends – friends her own age, I mean – share her taste in music? She laughs. ‘One came round the other day and I was listening to some stuff and she said, “This is like root-canal work to me.” Trouble is, I don’t want to play more mainstream stuff at home because that could have been time spent listening to new stuff. I get sent it constantly, on CD, vinyl, MP3s, digital downloads. If I’ve been away for two days it will take a long time to catch up.’

Does she ever listen to mainstream music? ‘You do try and stay in touch with what is happening in the charts. Even if you are a specialist.’ Can she name the top five songs in the charts at the moment? She laughs again. ‘I can for the DJ download breaks chart.’ What about the music she used to listen to when she started out as a DJ? She must still enjoy some of that, surely? ‘Unless I’m in a taxi which has an oldies station on I never hear it. Anyway, it’s a bad thing. I’m scared of nostalgia. You can’t go back. It’s in its box. I get terribly affected by music and if it’s a tune that I associate with something bad happening in my life… Well, I was once diagnosed as melancholic, which is a posh name for depression, I think. As a matter of self-preservation I will only listen to up music. I don’t like to wallow in self-pity.’ Didn’t she used to play the Smiths? ‘Yeah, but they had great melodies and great lyrics as well.’

Presumably the ‘bad things’ she refers to include the break-up of her two marriages? ‘Yes, well… sure. It’s hard to say. I’ve never been particularly good at relationships.’ Her first marriage, to a Fleet Street reporter, was brief. He is the father of her two grown children, Alex and Lucy. Her second marriage lasted longer, ten years. But the rock ‘n’ roll life she was leading, the endless partying and accompanying bands such as the Police on tours, meant that relationship was doomed as well. ‘I just couldn’t do this housewife business, being locked at home.’ As soon as they were old enough she would take her children with her to festivals and to the studio.

Other bad times include her childhood. She was chronically insecure, she says, and utterly lacking in self-esteem, especially about her looks. She says she still lacked confidence even when she became a successful broadcaster on television as well as radio (she used to host The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2). Strangely, when she was mugged in Havana in 1996 her confidence improved. ‘He came up behind me. My automatic response, my mistake, was to try and hang on to my bag. I sustained multiple injuries, including a broken leg. Six months later I still didn’t know whether I would ever walk again. I was on crutches. I felt low. But then I decided it had to be a positive thing. I thought, “If I can get through this it will make me a stronger person and I will not take any nonsense from anybody.” I think until then I had been too easy-going.’ Even so, it was after that incident that the dark glasses became a permanent fixture.

The failed marriages, unhappy childhood and mugging apart, when you ask her to reminisce, most of her memories are fond. She was a trusted friend of the Beatles, for example, and spent many hours sitting around the Apple offices, often happily stoned. ‘Yeah, people like Lauren Bacall would drop in at Apple and one day a gang of hell’s angels came in and they ended up staying for three months. There was a thing of trust there. The Beatles knew I wasn’t going to drop them in it. I was very sad about Neil Aspinall [the Beatles’ road manager], who died the other week. He held it together. Very unimpressed by all the fame, he was.’

As for others of that era: Jimi Hendrix was ‘charming’, Jim Morrison ‘a bit of an arse’, Marc Bolan ‘hilarious’. Many of the big names came to the epic parties she held at her house in Brighton. Keith Moon and Pete Townshend were regulars, as were Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. In later years bands like the Happy Mondays would come along. In 1992 she hosted a rave there that lasted six days. All those stars, I say, all those drugs. Weren’t they nervous she would compromise them? ‘There has to be an element of trust,’ she says. ‘There were a lot of casualties in those early days. You feel sad when you think of the people who died young, but what can you do? I still think they’re around. That I’ll bump into them. We never thought Keith Moon was going to live to 70 anyway.’

Her best-known show – the Sunday-night request show, broadcast just after the top 40 – began its 12-year run in 1982. One gimmick was to allow the intro of the first song to play uninterrupted, then she would say ‘Hi’ at the very last second before the vocals started. ‘That was simply because I followed the chart show and we had to think of a way to keep people listening,’ she says. ‘People would hang around because they knew I did this thing and they would try and guess when I was going to say hi… I kept thinking they would take that show off because it was too weird, but people like Irvine Welsh and Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] have since said to me how much it meant to them. There’s something very intimate about the radio mike, I think. It feels one-to-one. It’s like phoning friends and saying, “I’ve heard this song. See what you think.”‘

It is strange to think that this is the woman I listened to as a teenager. Even stranger to think she has a son who is older than me. She had him when she was 19. He used to manage Primal Scream and is now the Chemical Brothers’ agent. She must, I suggest, have been a cool mother. ‘Actually, I think Alex found me an embarrassment. We have great arguments about music. I will say, “Have you heard of so and so?” It is sort of competitive. More like sibling rivalry.’

Nightingale’s name is often mentioned in the same breath as the late John Peel’s, partly because they worked at Radio 1 longer than anyone else, partly because they managed to retain their enthusiasm for new music. ‘You can’t fake it. John was the same. He would get passionate about something new and have to keep playing it. I miss him a lot because he was the only person here I could really relate to. I’m trying to fly the flag for him.’

From its start in 1967 Radio 1 always seems to have had an identity crisis. In the 1970s its stars were the likes of Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, Smashie and Nicey types. Yet all the while there were cooler DJs there as well, the Peels and the Nightingales. ‘Well,’ she says with an arch of her eyebrow, ‘we used to say of Radio 1 that it was figures by day, reputation by night.’

As we part I say I will try to see her at the White House in London, where she is introducing a DJ called J Mecca. Perhaps she could put me on the guest list. What time is she on? ‘Midnight.’ When she sees the look of horror on my face she laughs and says: ‘It’s all right, you don’t have to come. I’ll understand.’


Bryan Ferry

Bryan Ferry is our unflappable king of cool, so stylish it’s said he should be hanging in the Tate. Then last year he was accused – wrongly – of praising the Third Reich. ‘It was very scary, and very ugly,’ he tells Nigel Farndale.

The fastidiousness should not surprise, yet somehow it does. When two mugs of tea are placed on the wooden table in front of him, Bryan Ferry leans forward and lifts them straight off again. ‘Can we get a couple of magazines to put these on?’ he says to his assistant in his wispy, halting voice. ‘Or some pads. Thick ones. This table has got some rings on it already.’ He is fussing, in other words, even though his manner and speech could not be more languid. And, though I don’t know much about furniture, I’m pretty sure the table he is fussing about is fairly ordinary, not obviously antique.

The reason it shouldn’t surprise, of course, is that this particular rock star is known for his exacting taste in, well, everything – suits, paintings, cars, women, houses, wine, even interior design (Nicky Haslam once said that Ferry was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it). And he is capable of making grown producers cry with his, shall we say, attention to detail in the studio (his album ‘Mamouna’, released in 1994, featured 112 musicians and took five years to complete). Also, he is quite a strict and controlling father to his four grown-up sons (his words not mine). He is traditional, believes manners maketh man and likes to have the dinner table set properly.

Age doesn’t seem to have mellowed him, or left its patina. He is 62 and still looks as he has always looked – tall, lean and lupine with his floppy, side-parted hair still (suspiciously?) dark. When I suggest he hasn’t changed much, he sucks in air and says, ‘I don’t know. There are days when I look in the mirror and see the picture of Dorian Gray.’

Yes, but he’s not exactly rock-star addled is he? He’s no Keith Richards. ‘Mm, mm. I suppose when I started I was 25. Fairly grown up. I was never a wild, teenage pop-star type.’

Perhaps he simply cared too much about how he looked in those narcissistic and, at times, epicene early years: the eye patch and shoulder pads, the pencil moustache, the dinner jacket and studiously undone black tie. Tom Ford, the designer behind the Gucci brand, once said that Ferry was the ultimate style icon. And Peter York once memorably said that Ferry had led such an avant garde ‘art-directed existence’ he should be hanging in the Tate. He must love that quote, I say. He smiles shyly, avoids eye contact and hunches his broad shoulders as if drawing himself in. ‘I tend to be rather downplayed in real life, compared to my on-stage life. Quite self-contained. But I think my life has been interesting, for sure. Whether it is an artwork, I couldn’t say. Certainly, I’ve no intention of pinning myself to an art gallery wall. It’s a funny thing being such a shy person yet being a singer in a rock band. It’s a sort of contradiction.’

He certainly enjoyed his reputation as an aesthete, an exquisite, a dandy. But he thinks in retrospect that the emerald-green eye-shadow and the fake leopard-skin jackets of his early Roxy Music days were a mask to hide behind. ‘I felt I was playing a role. I felt the music was me, but the presentation wasn’t, necessarily. The spotlight can be a real handicap. It’s one of the reasons I like being in a band. Safety in numbers. I suppose it is quite hard to get on stage for the first time and so the clothes and the make-up helped. It can still be quite hard even now, when I’m not in the mood. You know, I think, “What are you staring at?”‘

We are in a high-ceilinged room above his recording studio near Earl’s Court, the one he once jokingly referred to as his Führerbunker, to his later regret. The walls are white-painted brick, the rugs Arts and Crafts. There are dustsheets over the furniture and, on the walls, paintings and prints by his friends and mentors the pop artists Richard Hamilton and Mark Lancaster. He knows a lot about fine art, does Ferry. Collects it. Has spent a lifetime studying it. Even did a degree in it in the mid-Sixties at Newcastle University, near to where he grew up in County Durham.

His father was a miner there, in charge of the pit ponies. It was a life of tin baths and outside privies. The contrast with his adult life in the South could not be greater: the aristocratic friends, the sons at Eton and Marlborough, the imposing country house near Petworth in West Sussex, the elegant town house in Chelsea (the one with the Bentley parked outside). There is still a trace of the North East in his vowels, but it is like ink that has faded in the sunlight. When you ask a question, he will murmur agreement softly under his breath, ‘mm mm’, and just when you think that’s all you’re getting, out will waft his answer.

The career shift from artist to musician seems to have been unplanned. ‘After graduating, I moved to London and found work as a supply teacher. Then I kind of drifted into music. I remember discussing it with Mark Lancaster. After he went to live and work with Jasper Johns, he told me it was much cooler to be an artist than a rock star. I’m not really sure why I didn’t take his advice.’

Instead of taking his easel to a garret, Ferry taught himself the piano and began to write music. He teamed up with five other musicians, including Brian Eno, he of the peacock-feather collars and synthesiser, to form Roxy Music. They also worked with the fashion designer Anthony Price to combine the look of glam rock with edgy, intelligent lyrics, innovative electronic music and highly stylised vocals. Their first single, Virginia Plain, came out in 1972. After that the hits kept coming: Let’s Stick Together, Do the Strand, More Than This, Love is the Drug, Avalon…

But Ferry’s love of art never went away and now he thinks not pursuing art as a first career has meant it has retained its allure for him. ‘The art world today is very social. I’m always going to dinners and openings. I have quite a few friends who are artists and dealers. I’m much more at home in that world than the music world. More comfortable.’

It was his aesthetic sensibility that landed him in trouble last year. In an interview with a German magazine, he described Albert Speer’s buildings and Leni Riefenstahl’s movies as ‘beautiful’. The tabloids savaged him and he apologised, explaining that his comments had been taken out of context and that they did not mean that he approved of the Nazi regime. On the contrary, he found it ‘abhorrent’. The Mirror in turn had to apologise to Ferry for misleading its readers in its reporting of this story. Among other things, the paper admitted that Ferry hadn’t even mentioned the word Nazi in the original interview. I’m glad The Mirror apologised. I remember thinking at the time that the press were being unfair to him. He was, after all, merely echoing a legitimate and respectable academic view that, as the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, ‘Fascism is the aestheticisation of politics.’ Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings were beautiful. It was their context that was ugly. When I raise this subject, Ferry folds his arms and rocks forward as if in a straitjacket. ‘Ah. Please don’t draw me into this again. So boring.’

OK, I say, but I want him to tell me what it felt like to be monstered by the media after so many years of enjoying a good relationship with it. ‘It was like being in some film noir. Bizarre. Very scary actually. And very ugly. There was a feeding frenzy and because there is 24-hour media now…’ He trails off. ‘I’m sort of speechless about it. I don’t want to say anything because… You could be in disguise. One becomes totally untrusting.’ He sighs. ‘It was all so…’ He sighs again. ‘It was so absurd. Anyone who knew me would tell you it was… ridiculous.’ He looks over his shoulder to the table behind him, searching for something. ‘I have this letter about it from a friend. A film-maker… Actually, can we change the subject please?’

OK again. In 2000, Ferry, his wife, Lucy, and two of their sons, were flying from London to Nairobi in a Boeing 747 when a mentally ill passenger dashed into the cockpit and grabbed the controls, forcing the aircraft to plummet. Is it true he told his son off for swearing as the plane plunged? He smiles. ‘Oh yeah. Wouldn’t you? I sort of woke up to hear my son.’

In those seconds when he thought he was going to die, what went through his mind? ‘Did I contemplate my own mortality, you mean? It all happened too quickly for that. The pilot said afterwards we were five seconds away from death. It was the co-pilot who pulled us out, while the pilot was fighting with the intruder. After that, I did consider life was beautiful and rich and in glorious Technicolor. You have to savour every moment. When I’m on a plane now I feel much easier about it because I can’t believe lightning will strike twice. Also, since that episode, I have tried to get a better balance in my life, between work and everything else. But it’s a struggle. Last year, I think I toured too much. The ‘Dylanesque’ album. I was on the road for nine months, on and off. My real life got left behind.’

‘Real life’ meaning? ‘Well, I’m quite curious. I like going to galleries and things. I go out a lot. Not an at-home type. I don’t cook. I like to be entertained.’ While he has been talking the intercom has been buzzing and the phone has been ringing. He now says to the intercom: ‘Hello? Hello I’m busy!’ The phone rings and this time he crosses the room and picks it up. ‘Hi, someone keeps buzzing me and I’m in the middle of an interview. Could you, kind of, shoot them? Thanks.’

An engineer and a producer are waiting for him in the studio, it seems. ‘We’re just working on something; building it up around a piano motif I’ve recorded. Some of the best things I do are where I think I’m not being recorded, so you almost have to trick yourself into recording.’ He’s always making notes for lyrics, he adds. Has notebooks scattered around. ‘I suppose if I ever stop doing it, it will be a sign I’ve grown up.’

He folds and refolds a piece of paper as he talks. He smoothes the table with the side of his hand. He doodles and fidgets. Endearingly, he is not really sure why he has agreed to this interview, as he doesn’t have an album or a tour to promote. But there is a reason of sorts, the film Flashbacks of a Fool. It is directed by Baillie Walsh and stars Daniel Craig as Joe Scott, a decadent English film star who is suddenly tipped into a mid-life crisis by the death of a childhood friend. The flashback of the title is to the early 1970s, with one particular Roxy Music track acting as a trigger to memory in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When Ferry saw a preview of it, he was moved to tears. When he realises I won’t be seeing the film myself for another few days, he asks, fastidious man that he is, if I would like to meet up again afterwards so that I can tell him what I made of it.

And so we do, at his house just off Sloane Square. In the intervening days, another example of his attention to detail, he has sent me a copy of a book I was asking about: Re-make/Re-model, by Michael Bracewell, a history of the cultural influences that led to the formation of Roxy Music. I tell him I liked the film, by the way. It is intelligent, subtle, funny and, above all, evocative. It had me dabbing my eyes, too. Along with David Bowie and George Best, Bryan Ferry seemed to epitomise that glamorous period. ‘I think the girl in the film who mimes to one of my songs was a great improvement on the original,’ he says. ‘I found that quite touching, actually. She looked very good, very much like an idealised Roxy fan with the make-up and the clothes.’

In the film, the teenage Joe has eye-shadow applied by this girl, so that he will look like Ferry. I ask what Ferry’s father, the Durham miner, made of the eye-shadow. He laughs. ‘Not sure, actually. We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t see a lot of my parents around that time. They didn’t move down from the North until about 1976, when I bought my place in Sussex. I was away all the time, so they moved in there and had a new lease of life. They didn’t drive, poor things, so they were kind of stuck there. But they liked to walk and they thought it was paradise, which it was, which it is. The South Downs are beautiful. I don’t think my dad felt uprooted. For him, the world was wherever he was. A vegetable garden was his world. He wasn’t interested in flying to New York or Paris. He was quite a solitary figure. A real one-off. My mother was much more gregarious. She used the telephone.’

Does he look like his father? ‘A bit. I’ve come to resemble him more as I’ve got older. It’s like when I see pictures of my sons and I think they look just like me, or how I did at a certain age.’

He says it is a mild regret to him that his sons don’t know the meaning of hardship; don’t have anything to compare their comfortable lives to, as he does. ‘It’s good to have layers in your life. If I’m in a limousine on the way to the airport, I still haven’t forgotten what it is like to stand in the rain at a north-eastern bus stop for hours. I do have memories of deprivation, but I don’t carry them around like some bitter, Left-wing hammer to beat people on the head with. The human experience is all about contrast.’

He concedes that he made a conscious effort to bury his old identity and invent a new one. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you see the house I was born in. It wasn’t very nice. And the fact that I wasn’t born into a house with tapestries and paintings makes me appreciate these things more. I do like to surround myself with beautiful things. I’m not into cash or stocks and shares and markets. All I’m interested in are things. Art. They are very important to me.’

This time he makes the tea, a pot of it. As he pours we talk about the book he sent me. In one passage it notes how many gay men there were in ‘the Roxy circle’. Ferry went for an androgynous look, of course, like Bowie. Did he ever find himself questioning his sexuality? ‘Oh God, no, but the art world, the Seventies world, was such a gay world. One of the principal architects of Roxy, that whole movement, was Anthony Price and he never married. He designed the first album cover and was very influential. He’s still a dear friend. Quite a character. That was the time a lot of people like him were coming out. I’m not sure Roxy had much of a gay following though. I think that was more Bowie. Roxy was a group of straight guys from the North with girlfriends.’ He gives his shy grin, eyes downcast. ‘I’m not trying to apologise for being straight, but I did go to co-ed schools. That might have had an influence on me. I think a lot of my gay friends went to single-sex schools.’

And, of course, the album covers were the stuff of heterosexual teenage fantasy. One, ‘Country Life’, featured two scantily clad models. It had feminists in an uproar, resulting in it being sold under brown-paper covers in America. But in Britain people were pretty relaxed about it. I remember it well. Many was the teenage hour I would contemplate it. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘it’s remarkable how liberated the climate was then. There is much more political correctness around today. What you can and cannot say. As I discovered last year. In a way it was much freer in those days. You could speak your mind. You certainly wouldn’t have got told off for talking about Albert Speer’s buildings in the 1970s.’

His main collection of Bloomsbury paintings is in his Sussex house, but he does have some here. ‘That’s a Wyndham Lewis,’ he says, when I ask about them. He stands up and leads the way out into the hall. ‘And that’s a Duncan Grant. Through this is a Paul Nash.’ We talk about Nash’s letters from Passchendaele and discover that both our grandfathers fought there, both for Yorkshire regiments. Mine survived. His died there. ‘I found his name at dusk on a memorial in Belgium,’ Ferry says. ‘It was freezing cold. So many dead. Awful. I became really tearful. I just stood there sobbing.’

In the drawing-room there are pots containing dozens of neatly sharpened pencils. There are pads of paper fanned out, art books and brocaded cushions. Everything is tidy. I don’t see any photographs of the women who have been in his life, but I suppose you need only look at the Roxy album covers for them: Playboy playmate Marilyn Cole, supermodels Amanda Lear (who would later date David Bowie) and Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger in 1977). The album cover girl he married was Lucy Helmore. That was in 1982. She was the one he had the four sons with. When they divorced, 20 years later, he cited her adultery. She was nevertheless awarded £10million in the settlement, or so the reports said at the time.

Since 2003, he has had been with Katie Turner, who is 35 years his junior. The relationship seems to have been on-off – off last month but apparently on again this, according to the tabloids. The trouble, reportedly, was that she wanted children, whereas he felt he was too old to go through all that again. How’s his love life at the moment, I ask? He laughs and groans and says something that should be quoted only in the context of our previous conversation: ‘Oh dear. I should have been gay, shouldn’t I?’

So the story in the papers? ‘Oh, I didn’t read it. Presumably, it was asking: Will they, won’t they? Don’t know, is the answer. Saw a friend for lunch today who said there was something horrible reported. A friend of mine said… A friend of Katie’s said… But they never reveal who these friends are. Hope your love life is more straightforward than mine.’

Well I married a Catholic, I say, so yes. ‘I was married to a Catholic for 20 years,’ he counters. ‘Didn’t stop our marriage ending in divorce.’

He worries about the effect his divorce might have had on his children, not least because they don’t have one place to go to that they can call home. He was lucky, he says, because he grew up always knowing where his parents were. He is taking two of his sons to Seville tomorrow morning to watch a bullfight. ‘It’s quite festive. You feel in contact with Spanish culture. They respect the bull. Admire it and yet fight it. Very similar to people who hunt foxes. They respect them.’ He grins. ‘I’ve suddenly realised this is a controversial thing to say. I don’t want to be controversial.’

Bryan Ferry controversial? Never! ‘Well, nowadays, it doesn’t take much.’ He folds his arms and puts his feet on the coffee table at the same time, the self-conscious man trying to be open and relaxed. Parking charges and speed cameras are his biggest bugbears at the moment. It’s not that he has become a grumpy old man, he says. He was a grumpy young man. Certainly, there is a contrariness to him, an understated wilfulness. His eldest son, Otis, seems to have inherited it. He was the one who broke into the House of Commons to protest against Labour’s ban on hunting. ‘People usually come up to me and say your son is a hero, give him a hug for me. People like a rebel, I suppose. The hunting ban was mean-spirited. And futile. Because it has made hunting cool.’

He is proud of his son, he adds. But what is it like, after all these years of having the attention himself, suddenly getting his toes trodden on by his son? ‘Very annoying! Especially for someone who has come from the “me” profession. Forget him. What about me!’ The comment suggests that while Ferry may be a reserved man he is not without a dry sense of humour. I ask if he is a Conservative. ‘Never was anything really. Never really voted. Always lived in a huge majority where I don’t think my vote would have made much difference. Where I was born it was a 23,000 Labour majority and now I live in a similar Tory majority. But yes, I am conservative by nature so it would be fair to say I was supporting them now. That said, I always felt politics and art don’t mix very well.’

Not since the Nazis tried it, right? He looks puzzled for a moment then rolls his eyes. ‘Oh. I see. Politics and art. Right, right.’


Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The runaway international success of ‘TheShadow of theWind’ has made Carlos Ruiz Zafón rich, sought-after and deeply uneasy. In his first British interview, he tells Nigel Farndale why

As the shadows lengthen over the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, one symbol of the city, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, stands on his balcony contemplating another, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Zafón’s fifth-floor studio is two blocks away from the cathedral and so affords extravagant, eye-level views of its spires. In silhouette, they look like melting chocolate. ‘I grew up in its shadow,’ Zafón says, gesturing at the cathedral, ‘but I can’t say I feel at home here. I’ve always felt like an outsider in Barcelona. Out of place.’

It is a curious comment when you consider that Zafón, a tall, thickset 40-year-old with a ‘comic-book guy’ goatee and narrow eyes, has become synonymous with the city – not least because part of the phenomenal international appeal of his novel, The Shadow of the Wind, is its setting: 1940s Barcelona. There are, indeed, three-hour walking tours (in English) of ‘Zafón’s Barcelona’, in the convention of Dickens’s London and Joyce’s Dublin. Zafón shrugs and says, in his fluent, high-registered English: ‘When a book gets under your skin, I guess you want to see the places described in it.’

The Shadow of the Wind has certainly got under people’s skin. Since it was launched in Spain, three years ago, it has swept like a contagion across continents. The English translation reached these shores last January and it hasn’t left the bestseller lists since, clocking up sales of close to a million. It is, as Zafón tells me, now the most successful Spanish novel ever published (Don Quixote must have slipped his mind). Yet the only country where it received a lukewarm reception was Spain. ‘Nobody got the book here,’ Zafón says. ‘In every other country it got reviews, usually good reviews, in the first couple of weeks. In Spain, I have only had two reviews. I think it was perceived as an anti-Spanish book; certainly, in terms of style, it was contrary to commercial fashion.’

He leads the way inside, entering what he calls the ‘dragon’s lair’, a room lined with bookshelves – and toy dragons. (He has collected 400 of them, or been given them by friends – his nickname being The Dragon.) ‘Sometimes,’ he says, handing me a bottle of beer, ‘I feel as if I have created a monster with this book, the way it jumps from country to country, I mean. It has been published in 40 countries now. I have more control over it than I did but, at one point, I felt I had mortgaged my entire life two years ahead.

‘Before it was even translated into a country’s language, I would be signed up to give a talk in that country, then I would forget that I had agreed, and the time would come and I would have to say, “Actually, I won’t be free until February 2008.” What the hell? It’s absurd. I sound like an opera diva. I feel drained by all the travel.’

This may sound as if Zafón is complaining, but his manner is gentle, friendly and engaging and he is, of course, delighted with the success of his debut ‘literary’ novel (he has written four others, but they were marketed as novels for ‘young adults’.) ‘The problem,’ he clarifies, ‘is that all I really ever want to do is write and I can’t write when I am travelling.’

At the moment, he is at work on a second novel set in Barcelona under the Franco regime – he envisages a ‘cycle’ of four. ‘I like to work at night and disappear from the world. I write from midnight to sunrise. It is my vampire time. I don’t like mornings. It is a metabolic function: my brain doesn’t really work then. I like the silence at night and the idea that the city is asleep. I find it easier to concentrate. The phone doesn’t ring.’

Does this routine make him difficult to live with? ‘My wife is also a night person. We go to bed really, really late. She is used to me. She is a translator and she likes to work on her translations into the night.’ The couple met 20 years ago, when they were both working in television advertising. They married in 1993 and, soon afterwards, moved to California, where they lived for 11 years and where Zafón worked as a scriptwriter.

He thinks the mass appeal of The Shadow of the Wind may have something to do with his cinematic approach to writing. In a methodical way, he studied directors as well as writers – ‘from Dickens to Cervantes to Orson Welles to Japanese animation’. He analysed the structure of narratives – ‘without prejudice of what is highbrow or lowbrow’ – to find the ingredients of storytelling. ‘I tend to think in images. My storytelling has much to do with film and with the grammar of images and sounds, but it always comes back to books. I am a keen collector of books. After writing, my great pleasure is reading.’

In The Shadow of the Wind characters often read deep into the night, enthralled, only for the sun to come up on cue as the last page is reached: the whole universe, it suggests, is at the service of the act of reading. In this respect, Zafón’s novel has been compared to Umberto Eco’s bestseller The Name of the Rose, a sophisticated but readable thriller that turned on the civilising qualities of stories themselves. The Shadow of the Wind, indeed, is the story of a novel called The Shadow of the Wind, which languishes, like thousands of others, in a labyrinthine mausoleum for out-of-print works, known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The Cemetery was not only a place of forgotten or neglected books, but of forgotten ideas and people; a metaphor for the systematic destruction of memory and history under Franco. The narrator of Zafón’s novel, Daniel Sempere, tries to find out what happened to the author of The Shadow of the Wind, Julián Carax. Carax’s books are hard to find, not least because a shadowy collector has been buying them up and burning them, one by one.

I ask Zafón what he thinks is the secret of his book’s popularity? ‘As readers, we want not only a strong story, but also characters we can relate to, characters that feel real. We have to find something of ourselves in them. Each character, even those only there to serve the mechanics of the plot, should have a number of layers. The entire world you are stepping into as a reader must feel real. It must have resonance, you must be able to touch the light; smell the smells.

‘You have to work hard to create this illusion. You have to seduce the reader, manipulate their mind and heart, listen to the music of language. I sometimes think of prose as music, in terms of its rhythms and dynamics, the way you compress and expand the attention of a reader over a sentence, the way the tempo pushes you towards an image or sensation. We want an intense experience, so that we can forget ourselves when we enter the world of the book. When you are reading, the physical object of the book should disappear from your hands. The writer must subjugate his ego: not advertise himself by saying “look how clever this sentence is”. That’s bullshit. You read that kind of fiction and you get bored by page three. It’s a pose. Difficult for difficult’s sake.’ A grin. ‘But the real secret? I re-rewrite to death.’

Zafón feels it is enough for him to know that his book is being enjoyed now – he has no interest in posterity. ‘I don’t care what happens in 100 years. I won’t be around.’ This indifference applies to children, too. ‘For some reason, I never felt the need to have kids. My wife feels the same. We don’t feel a void. I don’t think they would give my life meaning. I do think of the books as my children, though. Whatever is inside of me, I put into my books. After I’m gone, who knows? It might be in the third-hand bin. The way I like to live, working at night, hopping from country to country, disappearing for six months, it doesn’t suit children. When you decide to become a writer, you have to accept that you will have to be a bit selfish.’

Does his wife keep his feet on the ground, I ask, regarding the success of his novel? ‘I don’t think she has to. A big success can be very confusing if it comes too early in your life. When you are young, you are more vulnerable to vanity. I was 36 when I wrote The Shadow of the Wind and the success of it was very gradual. If you have this kind of success straight off, I think there is a danger you can become an idiot, because you don’t have a perspective. It hasn’t changed me a lot. I fly first class now. But those things don’t change you. If I am pretentious, I was before, I haven’t changed. The only thing is, I am less anxious now.’

What about his friends? Has he detected any jealousy among them? ‘You know who your true friends are when things go wrong for you, but the opposite is also true. When things go well, the people who really love you are happy. Only once has a friend been unhappy with my success. He become extremely uncomfortable within his perception of what he thought was my big success. I thought, “Hey man, calm down.”‘ Being a writer, Zafón adds, can be a lonely business. ‘You are on your own. You have to have self-belief.’

He did not lack for it as a child. Aged 13, he wrote an 800-page novel which he sent off to a number of publishers, without any takers. ‘It was a huge, gothic, bloody book. At the time, I thought it was the best thing ever.’ He was precocious, in a word. ‘I was very bored at school. I found it very easy and slow and grey. My teachers didn’t really know how to handle me, because I was very sarcastic. I was over-confident, arrogant, a typical youngest child [he has two older brothers]. I went through periods of withdrawing into myself and school psychologists tried to figure me out, work out why I didn’t fit in. I found that irritating, too.’

His father was an insurance salesman. ‘He had a hard life. He was a child in the Spanish civil war and grew up in poverty. Struggled all his life. He always said he would have liked to have been a poet, but life didn’t hand him the cards. I suspect I have always been a mystery to my parents. They never knew where I was coming from. I’m different from my brothers. I’m an anomaly. I’ve always been told I was strange. The things that interested me were different. I was interested in books, music and films. They were an escape for me, from an environment that I found boring and where I didn’t feel I fitted in.’

It is a haunting comment, one that is poignantly illustrated the following day when Carlos Ruiz Zafón poses for our photographer in the narrow, cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter. No passers-by recognise him – even those, presumably, doing the three-hour tour of ‘Zafón’s Barcelona’. ‘When I think of home, I think of California,’ he tells me. ‘My wife and I were never happy here. Spain can be narrow-minded, and provincial. In LA you don’t have to justify yourself. I think I will leave here again soon and move back there.’


Carly Simon

Coming around again: the Seventies songstress on famous friendships, affairs and therapy.

As Carly Simon is showing me around her house on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, she mentions, matter-of-factly, that it is haunted. Guests in the spare bedroom always hear the same conversation, apparently, about a record deal.

At 64 she seems little changed from her Seventies heyday, a rangy blonde in a rah-rah skirt and knee-length snakeskin boots. And those teeth still have you shielding your eyes.

Indeed, such is the warmth of her wide and white smile, I resist the urge to point out that ghosts do not exist. Besides, even a sceptic like me cannot deny that there is a metaphorical presence in this house, the ghost of a man not yet dead.

I refer to James Taylor, her ex-husband and fellow singer-songwriter and guitarist. Fellow legend, too, for the couple were rock nobility who used to hang out with film stars and presidents, who topped the charts, who appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone.

‘James built this house in 1969,’ she says, showing me old photographs of the building site. ‘It was just a cabin in the wood and we would sleep on a pull-out couch over there.’

The house has expanded a great deal since then. It now has a recording studio, library, tennis court and a 45ft-tall watchtower that you reach by a nautical-style spiral staircase.

Today, with a dusting of snow on the surrounding fields, it feels cosy. There are candles everywhere, a log fire crackling in the grate and lentil soup cooking on the stove.

The room we are sitting in is dominated by a baby grand piano. There is a chessboard set up and an acoustic guitar propped against a rocking chair.

Her friends on the island have included Jackie Onassis and Bill Clinton. There are photographs of them but none of James Taylor that I can see.

‘James who?’ she says with a laugh.

Their marriage was one of the most glamorous, high-profile pairings of the Seventies, but it was pushed to the limits by his heroin addiction and infidelities.

When he picked up a venereal disease while on tour – ‘a road accident’, as the euphemism had it – he told her in this room.

Understandably, she didn’t take it well and swung at him with the nearest thing to hand, a guitar. When she calmed down she told him she had some news, too. She was pregnant.

They divorced in 1983 after 10 years and two children. He remarried, twice. She once, to a poet.

When I meet Ben, their 33-year-old son, I see James Taylor haunts his features, too. The resemblance is uncanny, even with his Mormon beard and beanie hat.

Ben Taylor lives in a cottage in the grounds here, but still sees a lot of his father. He is even closer to his mother, but he doesn’t exactly act as a go-between, because the two do not talk.

I get the impression Ben cannot even mention his mother’s name in his father’s company.

‘It is so important that Ben has a good relationship with his father,’ Simon says. ‘Given my druthers I would have a good relationship with him, too. But I don’t seem to have any druthers about me!’


‘Oh, is that an Americanism? It means given what I would rather have, I would rather have any relationship with James – be it frustrating, mediocre, whatever – than no relationship at all, than what we have now, which is a long empty alleyway of memories leading up to a big wall of silence.’

Blimey. You can tell she wrote her own lyrics, can’t you? Ben is a musician who has the same vocal style as his father.

‘Actually, I think the more Ben sings, the less like James he sounds,’ Simon says. ‘He is an interesting combination of the two of us. His voice box is more like mine but the way his tongue sits in his mouth, and the way he pronounces words, is just like James.’

Ben has performed on and co-produced his mother’s new album. It features a couple of new songs but is mostly new acoustic versions of her old songs, reinterpreted for a voice that is about half an octave lower than it used to be.

It includes Anticipation, Coming Around Again and – how could it not? – You’re So Vain, the original of which had Mick Jagger on backing vocals and was one of the biggest-selling singles of the Seventies.

If her ex-husband haunts this house, that song must haunt her. But she doesn’t seem to mind talking about it. Indeed, it was so cold when I arrived she poured shots of apricot cognac and sang, ‘Her cognac was apricot!’ which is a decent joke, if you recall the lyrics to You’re So Vain.

There is a website dedicated to that song which lists the dozens of times she has been asked by journalists over the years who, among her many former lovers, the song was written about. Cat Stevens? Kris Kristofferson? Mick Jagger?

The usual assumption is that it is Warren Beatty. The actor did, after all, ring her to thank her for the song, because he was so vain he thought it was about him.

At the time they had their affair, she has said, Beatty was still relatively undiscovered as a Don Juan. She felt she was one among thousands – ‘It hadn’t reached, you know, the populations of small countries.’

She has always refused to say who You’re So Vain is about, quite rightly arguing that people don’t really want the truth, they prefer the riddle. I tell her I am going to be the first journalist in almost 40 years not to ask her, because I’ve already worked out the answer. It’s about Willie Donaldson, isn’t it?

She laughs. ‘Yeah, that’s it. You’ve got it! Actually, I suppose it could have been about him, in that the time period would have been accurate, and a lot of the specifics in the story might have been embellished. I mean, the Leer jet could have been a Falcon. I don’t think Willie flew by Leer jet.’

Willie Donaldson was her least-likely conquest, or rather she was his. He was perhaps best known as the satirical author of The Henry Root Letters and the man who first staged Beyond the Fringe, but he was also a serial bankrupt, crack addict and pimp, one who ended up dying in a seedy London bedsit, his computer still logged onto a lesbian porn site.

But when they met he was a glamorous, Cambridge-educated playboy and impresario who had inherited a fortune and was going out with the actress Sarah Miles.

It was 1966. London was swinging. Carly Simon was 20. Donaldson described her as ‘the answer to any sane man’s prayers; funny, quick, erotic, extravagantly talented’.

Sadly for both of them, he wasn’t exactly a sane man. Eccentric would be a better word. They got engaged, then he dumped her.

‘I was madly in love with him,’ she says now. ‘And after he broke my heart I couldn’t regain my interest in men for four years. I kept trying to understand why I found him so exotic. It wasn’t just because he had an English accent.

‘We met on July 8 and by July 20 he had moved out of his place with Sarah Miles and had moved in with me at Wilton Place. We went up to the Portobello Road to buy tea sets. It was gangbusters. Then the Dear John letter came on October 24.

‘We started to communicate again once I was married to James and he wrote back saying: “There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought of you.” All this tenderness poured out of him, when I was at a safe distance!’

Is it possible that he was being kind when he left, because he knew how self-destructive he was?

‘I don’t think so. I think in retrospect it was a good thing that I didn’t marry Willie but it wasn’t that he was being kind. I think he knew his ways were too perverse for me, that I was too much of a prude.

‘There was a story he told of my taking a bath then lying naked on the bed and saying: “What do you think?” That never happened. I have no idea why he felt the need to project that. He didn’t even have a bath tub!’

He used to call her Little Frog Footman. ‘I think it was from Cinderella. He did appreciate me. I don’t think I could have loved him as much as I did if he hadn’t brought out something that I really loved about myself. My boyfriend Richard, who you met earlier, he’s like that. He makes me feel so good about myself.’

Richard is a surgeon, a veteran of the first Gulf War, and a divorcee 10 years her junior.

He is handsome in an all-American, flinty-jawed way, and when we met he told me that, because his operations often take several hours, he likes to have music playing in the operating theatre – and yes, there is some Carly Simon on the playlist. And no, he’s not that kind of surgeon and that wasn’t how they met.

He is a leading specialist in laparoscopic surgery. Simon has had breast surgery, but it was reconstructive, following a mastectomy in the late Nineties. That must have concentrated her mind, I say, given her a stark intimation of her own mortality.

‘It sure did,’ she says. ‘One of the things about creativity is you can be in denial about these things. When I found out I had cancer, there were four hours in which I was pounding my head on the marble kitchen top saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” But then I felt as if this little army in uniform was flooding me. They had come to help me fight it. I felt really strong about it after that. It was one of the strongest periods of my life.’

There is a new biography of Warren Beatty, by Peter Biskind, which suggests that when he met Carly Simon in a bar and she told him about her breast cancer he looked uncomfortable and ran off. She has a copy of it on her bookshelf.

‘Oh God!’ she says, rocking back on her sofa. ‘I meant to hide that before you got here!’

The book quotes Beatty as saying he has slept with more than 12,000 women. That must make his ex-lovers feel pretty special!

‘You think? You know what? I’ve been flirting with the idea of writing an autobiography because I was talking to Mike Nichols about all these biographies coming out and he said I should never co-operate with them because look what they’ve done to Warren.

‘That book is full of inaccuracies. I haven’t read it myself but Richard read out some passages, one of them saying I cut a swathe through the famous and notorious men of my generation. A swathe? I know exactly what I did every single day because I kept a daily diary from the age of seven until 1983 when I broke up with James.’

Was it therapeutic?

‘I needed much more therapy than that!’

Simon had a nervous breakdown in the early Sixties, one brought on by a wine allergy. She has been seeing therapists ever since and, to this day, suffers from a debilitating stage fright, which means she hardly ever performs in public.

‘When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I do find it helps to reach for a pen and paper. There is something about writing things down, that hand-eye combination, that makes me feel calmer.

‘Seeing things that are bothering you written down takes away their power. It gives you a perspective. Helps you contain them. The other day I was feeling so terrified and sad I had to pull the sheets over my head. I think Richard was a little shocked by my behaviour.’

Her parents seem to have been part of the problem. Her father, also called Richard, was a wealthy publisher, the Simon of Simon and Schuster. The young Carly grew up among the rich and famous of Manhattan. Not only Rodgers and Hammerstein but also George Gershwin were regular guests at the family home.

Her father died in 1960 when she was 15. ‘It was a difficult age. There was an emotional numbness surrounding his death for me that hasn’t been broken through yet. I had an even bigger reaction when I was 10 and I found out he had had his first heart attack. That demolished me. So freaked out.

‘I would knock on wood 500 times every night thinking that would keep him from dying. Compulsive behaviour. The fact that he didn’t die the first night I did it meant I had to keep doing it. I was so scared. I eventually began knocking less, getting it down to 300, then 100 in the last year, then he died.’

There were unresolved issues. ‘I wanted him to live longer so that I could see him and my mother really love each other. I couldn’t bear the thought that they didn’t have the perfect marriage, with the perfect house, and the perfect car and the perfect apple pie cooling on the window ledge.

‘My mother fell in love with someone else, you see. And when my sisters told me when I was 12 that my parents didn’t love each other, that was when I started having serious anxiety attacks.’

Did that memory impinge upon her own marriage?

‘I think we do compensate by going off in the opposite direction. You can repeat the mistakes of your parents’ marriage or you can go out of your way not to repeat them.

‘I heard Ben say the other day that he really doesn’t want to repeat what he saw in the relationship between myself and James. Yet those little repetitions sneak up on you from behind and there you are doing the same things your mother did to your father.’

She sounds like a hopeless romantic.

‘I am. As a child I used to read Gone with the Wind over and over again. I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara. I never wanted to believe that it was possible that there could be infidelity. I never wanted to be believe that it was even possible for a man to look another way, even for a moment. My bubble of monogamy was pierced in a harsh way.’

Speaking of biographies, there was an excellent triple one which came out not long ago called Girls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. It portrayed them as feminist icons, yet that is not how Simon saw herself at the time.

‘I wanted to be the little woman behind the man leading the academic life,’ she says. ‘I was too shy to be front of stage.

‘The other day I came across a recording I made of a night at my apartment when I was living with Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan had been around earlier and we were all passing around the guitar. Whenever it came to my turn I would run into the kitchen and say I’d left the coffee on the stove or something. Shyness. Scared to perform.’

Shyness? Really? Wasn’t she shy and confident at the same time? Driving with her foot on the break and the accelerator?

‘Yes, but with me it goes from one extreme to the other like a pendulum, until I become the hum of the pendulum. I stole that line from Mike Nichols. If I say anything good, I’ve probably ripped it off. You’ve got to hear this recording. Can I play it for you?’

She goes upstairs, returns with a MacBook Pro and finds the sound file. Kris Kristofferson sounds drunk when he is talking but when he is playing his guitar and singing he sounds pretty good.

Was it only the guitar they were passing around?

‘As I recall, it was more about booze that night. I did used to smoke grass though. There was a time for about two years when I would roll myself a joint every morning when I woke up.’

Not good.


Ending the day with a joint, maybe. But starting it? Surely that’s a slippery slope.

‘But you get used to it. I guess I was stoned as much of the waking hour as I wasn’t stoned. I stopped it all very suddenly when I was pregnant with Sally.’

Simon began her career as part of a double act with her sister Lucy. They were called the Simon Sisters and on the cabaret circuit they opened for Woody Allen, among others.

They split up when Lucy married a psychiatrist and had a child. They still sometimes duet on the phone but it must have been hard for Lucy to watch as her sister’s solo career took off?

‘I guess it was but if she felt that, she had the good grace not to show it. She was never going to say to me, “Damn you and your number one singles”. That said, my family were all pretty piqued around the time I married James. That seemed too much for us to all of a sudden become like this royal couple. Yet it was never discussed. I still feel a little guilty about it.’


‘Because I wasn’t the one who wanted fame, but got it anyway.’

Famous people had always surrounded her, though. Is that why the Clintons and Jackie Onassis found it easy to be in her company? Because she wasn’t star struck?

‘Probably. I remember with Jackie especially…’ She trails off.

‘Sorry, but she was Jackie to me. To try and be coy about it would be even more obnoxious than sounding as if I was name-dropping. I used to take great pleasure in being relaxed in front of her and think she appreciated that because she always seemed relaxed with me.

‘I think a lot of the people in her life were emotionally uptight and not willing to share. We had a similar sense of humour and were attracted to a lot of the same people. We loved each other and I remember one of the first times we had lunch together I was really nervous because she was half an hour late.

‘She had been stuck in the elevator but she turned up as calm as anything and I was the one who was hyperventilating. I had to take a Valium washed down with gin. She thought this was funny and told me I was like a thoroughbred racehorse. High strung. Which is true.’

It is nearly dusk and Richard comes in from outside. He has been clearing wood and now has a bonfire going. Simon suggests we all go out and roast marshmallows on it. She puts on a black velvet frock-coat with a furry collar and, carrying a packet of marshmallows in one hand, picks up a guitar in the other.

Well, it is a campfire and she is Carly Simon. Somehow she manages to strum while wearing long, white silk evening gloves. A thoroughbred racehorse, indeed.


Melvyn Bragg

Pavarotti wanted new boots; Elizabeth Taylor, dim lighting; Francis Bacon, drink – lots of it. As ‘The South Bank Show’ celebrates its 30th birthday, Nigel Farndale meets its presiding genius, Melvyn Bragg – and talks to some of his best-known friends, fans and critics

When The South Bank Show was first broadcast 30 years ago this month, The Daily Telegraph was less than ecstatic. ‘The title does not inspire confidence,’ the paper sniffed. ‘It sounds like yet another addition to ITV’s endless song-and-dance spectaculars.’ Having dug this particular cutting out of the archive, I figure it would be rude not to show it to the man who has presented the programme from the start, Melvyn Bragg; Lord Bragg as he has become.

He laughs the laugh of the vindicated. ‘Actually the word “show” was slapped on the end by Michael Grade when he commissioned the first series. We had slogged away for months trying to find a title. I had wanted to call it Imagine, but we couldn’t get the rights to the Lennon song, so we had to think again.’

Bragg, 68, is sitting in The South Bank Show’s office at the top of the ITV tower on… the South Bank. He is wearing startlingly red socks which seem to be an apology for the greyness of his suit. Behind his desk is a framed poster for a Constable exhibition, which is what you would expect. A nearby shelf displays some of the 120 awards the show has won over the years – and that, too, might be what you’d expect. It could be the subliminal association one has with the word ‘brag’, but you suspect the man’s ego is stout. It’s not, as it turns out, but we shall come to that.

For now we are both admiring the extravagant views over the Thames, with St Paul’s to one side and the London Eye to the other. ‘It was this location that inspired the title,’ Bragg says with a neat circle of his wrist. ‘I was opening the Sunday arts sections looking for ideas and all the reviews seemed to say “on the South Bank”. That’s where we are, so I thought, why not? By that time we already had our signature tune with its 16-beat opening – bom, bom, bom – that fit precisely with the 16 letters of the title, so for the graphic artist Pat Gavin it was a gift. Each letter had a beat.’

The music he refers to is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations (on a theme by Paganini), which is as much a part of the show’s identity as Bragg himself. The composer had first played it to Bragg on a tape recorder when he was in the process of moving house and, to Bragg, it seemed to fill the empty and echoey room in which they were both standing. Until that moment he had been toying with the idea of using Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

Move over, Ingmar Bergman

Bragg was a fresh-faced 38 then – the Express described him as the ‘Thinking girl’s Michael Parkinson.’ He had a rugged, working-class background – his father being a publican in Cumberland – a grammar school education and, as well as a history degree from Oxford, 15 years’ experience in arts television (having worked on Monitor and Read all About It for the BBC). He also had eight well-regarded novels to his name (that total has now gone up to 19, with another one out this spring).

He has two regrets about the launch of the show. The first was that the format was wrong. Although then, as now, it was an hour long, the first half-hour was given over to arts reviews while the second half was a film profile. ‘After six weeks I went to Michael [Grade, then chairman of ITV] and said I want to go on-screen – “give us another six weeks and we’ll get it right.” One hour-long profile.And so we did.’

The second regret concerns the subject of those profiles, or rather the manifesto Bragg wrote, the one that argued that the singing of Elvis Presley was as interesting as the singing of Pavarotti. To drive the point home, he featured Paul McCartney on the first show, even though he had profiles of Ingmar Bergman and Herbert von Karajan ready to be broadcast (they were aired at later dates). The arts critics were horrified. The Telegraph’s arts correspondent declared: ‘My own definition of the arts would stop short of Lennon-McCartney ballads.’

Nowadays, of course, no one would take issue with the cultural significance of The Beatles. Even so, ‘I’ve never done a manifesto since,’ Bragg says. ‘It was stupid of me. The trouble was, I was in an evangelical mood. I had accepted through university that quite a few of the things I enjoyed, such as the blues and radio drama, were not “the arts”. The arts were opera and ballet and so on. But I had begun to realise that this was not the case. I thought, why not treat high culture and popular culture equally? It doesn’t always work, because popular literature, for me, doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as popular music. But still, the critics hated that idea, like your man there in the Telegraph. We got roughed up and I wondered how long I was going to last.’

But the show soon found its feet. There was some shrewd talent-spotting in the first few seasons: up-and-coming writers such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan were featured, as well as the relatively unknown Dennis Potter (it was a first for an arts programme to take television drama seriously in this way). There were also plenty of the more traditional heavyweight arts figures featured, such as Tippett, Auerbach, Truffaut, Hockney and Kurosawa.

We talk about some of the more memorable profiles over the years – there have been more than 800 in all. Olivier was like an onion. ‘Peel off one skin and you found another below. I knew about the rages, but there was no way we were going to get them on camera, even with fly on the wall, because Olivier could sense a camera 600 yards away.’ Pinter, meanwhile, behaved like a character from one of his own plays. ‘All the pauses, all the awkwardness. I was tempted to cut myself out of it, but I’m glad I left it in. I thought, f— it, I’m not going to be intimidated.’ Elizabeth Taylor would not appear until she had had all the lighting rearranged, which took longer than the interview itself. ‘She directed the whole film.’ And Pavarotti liked Bragg’s boots so much, Bragg offered to have some made for him. The opera singer stood on a piece of paper while Bragg drew round his feet.

Darkness on the South Bank

Some golden moments then, but this is not to say the detractors went away. Private Eye lampooned Bragg as ‘the unavoidable Barg’ and later as ‘Lord Barg of Ubiquity’. I asked Richard Ingrams, then editor of the Eye, why this was. ‘I suppose because The South Bank Show seemed pretentious compared with Monitor, which had been the best arts programme up to that point. It is the grovelling to artistic folk one finds objectionable. Pop stars, I mean. The show wants to elevate pop to the cultural level of classical, and plainly it doesn’t belong there. But hats off to old Barg. He’s got staying power.’

This is the recurring theme when you talk to people about the show. Even the director Ken Russell, who is a friend of Bragg’s, takes this line. Russell worked on the show many times over the years, beginning with a profile of Elgar. More recently he was seen and heard drunkenly heckling at the South Bank Show Awards. ‘Melvyn’s heart is in the right place. If he goes, that will be the end of arts programming in this country – because the BBC has already gone. How has it changed over the years? I think they do more fluffy stuff than they did. McCartney was fine because he is a real star. But Dusty Springfield? Too slight.’

Actually, the number of pop acts has always been about the same. It’s the calibre of them that seems to have changed. The Tom Robinson Band was fair enough because, as Bragg says, ‘they represented a phenomenon; the increasing influence of gay performers in the arts.’ George Michael and Annie Lennox also made for fascinating profiles, not least because they were articulate in the way they analysed their own work. (The Michael one caused a stir because he was filmed smoking a joint.) But as one goes through the programme lists over the years, certain less weighty pop acts do leap out: Hot Chocolate, Barry Manilow, Craig David, Lulu…

Bragg looks puzzled, then his face clears. ‘No, no. That’s Lulu, the opera by Alban Berg.’

How embarrassing. OK, maybe not Lulu then, but what about other lightweight ‘arts’ subjects such as Norman Wisdom? Barbara Cartland? Michael Crawford? Charlotte Church? And, most notoriously, the glam rock band The Darkness? Remember them? Exactly.

‘Yep. Yep. The Darkness were a ship that passed in the night,’ Bragg says. ‘But when I get enthusiasm from a very good producer in an area where I feel uncertain… I thought Susan [Shaw] had a good shot at it, but there you are.’ He clicks his fingers, a habit of his.

Later, when I put this same point to Michael Grade, who recently came back to ITV as chairman, he said: ‘But you have to remember that is how the show was pitched to me. It was meant to be iconoclastic and contemporary. Sometimes that means taking a punt on something which may not last. Beside, when I look back over the 30 years of the show, the landmarks are not the profiles of pop stars but programmes such as the making of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. It was groundbreaking and beautiful. It attracted the highest audience ballet has ever had on television.’

(In terms of viewing figures, The South Bank Show rarely dips below a million, which is about on a par with Newsnight, and it has been as high as eight million for – sigh – Michael Flatley. That’s popular culture for you.)

Bragg bites back

Another recurring theme as you look back through the archives has been Bragg’s stiff letters to editors. There were dozens of them. When, for example, Giles Smith wrote in the Independent in 1992 that ‘everyone agrees The South Bank Show has gone down market’ our man couldn’t contain himself. ‘I think this falls into the category of factual error,’ he wrote to the paper. ‘I’d be intrigued to know your definition of down market. Does it include David Lodge, Heinrich Schiff, Arthur Miller, José Carreras… There were indeed intelligent essays by Lenny Henry on funk and The Pet Shop Boys on pop, but these more popular subjects came well within traditional South Bank Show parameters.’

So. The letters. Is it that he’s easily wounded? ‘Yeah, I used to get very pissed off, but I’ve stopped doing that now.’ He grins. ‘Actually that’s not quite true because I just sent one off to the Express the other day. I do reach for the pen. Actually the number of letters I don’t write shows great restraint.’ He only remembered the bad reviews, he adds. ‘I will say, “Did you read what that bastard said in the Croydon Herald?” Of course no one has read it.’ It was telling that when I mentioned the Telegraph article of 30 years ago he immediately said, ‘Do you mean the one by Sean Day-Lewis?’ I didn’t, but I duly dug it up and it described Bragg as ‘a neurotic workaholic quite unlike the relaxed and affable (or smug and self-satisfied, as some see him) Bragg who appears on and off the screen.’

Love the film, darling

Another recurring theme is what Richard Ingrams calls the grovelling. The danger is that his subjects agree to be profiled because they have new work to plug and when the work turns out to be a turkey, as with Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, it can be discomforting. This was why The Sunday Times in 1994 described the show as the Hello! of the arts. ‘The marquessa (alias Melvyn Bragg) tends to ask his interviewees to agree with his impression that they and their latest products are absolutely marvellous.’

A case in point was the recent South Bank Show profile of the airport novelist Ken Follett. It did rather take him at his own estimation. ‘Actually, I don’t think it did,’ Bragg counters. ‘We wanted to go behind the scenes to watch a big bestseller being written and marketed. That approach hadn’t been tried before. Follett went to his American agent and asked if it was OK and was told, “No, Ken, you’ve got to have sex in it. And dogs.” Then he went to a historian for advice and so on. I suppose we risked it becoming an advertisement for the new book.’

So does he think he sometimes gives people an easy ride, avoiding the awkward issues? ‘I’ve never – maybe once or twice, but accidentally – talked about people’s private lives. You could say that is a mistake, but I haven’t. I didn’t talk to Mailer about his six wives because I wanted to talk to him about his work – Gary Gilmour and reincarnation and crime. That was the deal in my mind. Always thought, let’s go for the work and the rest will somehow come out. The face and gesture will reveal the rest. Television is like a lie detector in that respect. My view is that the audience can make up their own minds. We did Kevin Spacey the other night and reviewers asked why we didn’t ask him why his early plays had failed, but I knew what he would say. That his plays have a right to fail. Why should we spend 14 weeks making a programme in order to demolish someone’s reputation? What is the point? What’s in it for us? Besides, we would end up not being able to get anyone to appear on the show. Authors, especially, can be pretty precious and paranoid. I could name a few, but I won’t.’

Did he wonder whether he was exploiting the painter Francis Bacon by showing him drunk? ‘But we were both drunk! Plastered. By the end of the day the room was spinning. We had started drinking at 9am when he came out with Bollinger, then we carried on drinking and filming over lunch and into the evening. But curiously I was asking things that were OK. I looked like, well, what I looked like, but I thought keep it in, keep it in.’

Melvyn and his mates

Bacon was a friend of his. Does he ever feel compromised by moving in the same circles as these people – dinner parties, book launches and so on – chatting cosily with his chums Martin, Harold and Salman one day, then making films about them the next? ‘I don’t move in those circles as much as you might think. I bet I don’t go to more than four literary parties a year and they will be for friends, Howard Jacobson or Martin [Amis]. Actually, there is sometimes a sense of me putting my own ego under the heel and pressing it down.’

Because he is more famous than the people he is interviewing? ‘Sometimes I feel it gets in the way of my own reputation because I am always associated with interviewing other people. I write my own novels and here I am interviewing other novelists. But there it is.’ Another click of the finger. ‘That is the career I’ve chosen.’

Novelists lead isolated lives and Bragg discovered early on that his appetite for solitude was limited. In fact it brought about acute depression. I ask whether he craves office life now almost as a survival mechanism. ‘Running this office has saved me, in a way. You think, it has happened twice, it could happen again.’

It? ‘For about a year, when I was 13 and 14, I had a massive breakdown. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Out-of-body experiences a dozen times a day. Terrible depression. I got through that by working very hard at school. Ridiculously hard. And I loved it. Work was a liberation. At the end of my twenties I had another very serious crack-up. I got through that period by working hard, too. Keeping busy.’

That was when his first wife, Lisa, killed herself after a long struggle with mental and physical illness. They had one child. (Two years after her death, in 1973, Bragg married the writer and film-maker Cate Haste. They have two grown-up children.)

I ask if his depression gave him an empathetic advantage with certain interviewees, such as Victoria Wood. ‘Not really, but what I think I do have is a nervousness around my edges, which I think can be reassuring for the people I am talking to. It’s a sort of self-consciousness. You’ll be surprised to hear I cut myself out of films a lot.’

Is that insecurity or vanity? ‘Um, I think a touch of both. Nearly always though it is to speed the programme up. Speaking of which…’

While he goes off to do a voice-over for a forthcoming profile of the pianist Lang Lang, I have a wander around the offices and meet some of his team, such as Jack, a callow youth who has just joined as a runner. Archie Powell, who did a South Bank Show film on Alan Bennett, started as a runner, it seems. Another step onto the ladder is to become a researcher. I meet Jonathan Levi, a former researcher who is now, at 29, a producer. He had been Bragg’s researcher on the always edifying In Our Time. ‘Melvyn has been a mentor,’ he says. ‘He has taught me so much. If you come to him with the right idea he will let you get on with it.’ At the moment he is working on profiles of Simon Cowell, Gore Vidal and Ronnie Corbett. As well as Ken Russell, James Ivory and Ken Loach have also worked as directors on the show. Loach had a contretemps with Bragg when a film he made about the miners’ strike was pulled on the grounds that it was too political. Bragg persuaded Channel 4 to air it instead. ‘He’s always quite defensive about that,’ Loach says of Bragg. ‘He was very fair, but it was a shocking story.’ Not all the alumni have been as distinguished as this. One ex-producer ended up a mini-cab driver, but no one on the staff will tell me his name.

Last autumn the number of full-time staff was reduced from 12 to four and the department was restructured as ‘specialist factual and arts for ITV Productions.’ But, unusually for an arts programme, The South Bank Show has just been given the thumbs-up for at least the next three years, a re-commission that coincided with the return to ITV of Michael Grade.

I meet one of the longest-serving producers, Susan Shaw – blonde hair, black clothes, degree from Oxford. She has worked on the show since 1989. ‘We are all expected to be as conversant with the works of Stravinsky as Kylie,’ she says. They have been trying to get Kylie, it transpires. And Madonna and Robbie Williams. But isn’t Kylie, lovable though she is, borderline Justin Hawkins?

‘Oh my God!’ Shaw claps a hand over her mouth. ‘The Darkness was one of mine! I will admit that that was a problematic show, because viewers expect a degree of gravitas. My point of view as the director was that it would be ludicrous to try and bring gravitas to The Darkness. I didn’t want them to be interviewed by Melvyn because they weren’t big enough or serious enough. But they wanted the Melvyn interview for the kudos. They wanted the furrowed brow. They don’t feel it’s a proper SBS unless they’ve had Melvyn.’

Big boss man

Sometimes, it should be explained, the producers make the films and do the interviews and Bragg just does the introduction. Still, it raises an interesting point. Is The South Bank Show actually the Melvyn Bragg show? Shaw is unequivocal. ‘I think The South Bank Show without Melvyn would be a hollow construct. It would have to be reinvented, given a new name. I hope there will be a future for arts programming at ITV but in my view, without Melvyn, The South Bank Show as a brand no longer exists. He’s the one who has held it together. You would not believe the amount of politicking and corporate manoeuvring he has had to do over the years. Innumerable times he has had to bear his teeth to protect the show against cuts or takeovers. He can be quite a bruiser. There is no one in ITV who can challenge his authority.’

This is a view echoed by Michael Grade. ‘He’s untouchable at ITV. His position here is more secure than mine as chairman.’

It is said that Bragg makes sure he is in charge financially, politically and emotionally. I ask Shaw if this means he is a control freak? ‘On the management side he has to pay such close attention to which way the sands are shifting I would say he is a control freak, but not while we are making the films. He gives you autonomy once you have sold your idea to him and got your budget agreed. He will then leave you to get on with it, until the rough-cut stage. At that moment he really becomes hands-on. If you haven’t delivered what you told him you would deliver, there will be blood on the walls. You may never work for him again.’

Another producer, 32-year-old Matt Cain – a Cambridge graduate who started off in television making soft porn – says that one of the misconceptions about the show is that every programme is made in the same way. ‘Actually, every film is different. For my first one, for example, Melvyn sent me off with a camera for a year to do a video diary with Ian McKellen.’ He grins. ‘You want the dirt on Melvyn? There isn’t any! He’s really sweet and daddyish. He’s a patriarch. He looks after us. As to whether he is The South Bank Show, well, you couldn’t have Coronation Street without Ken Barlow.’

When Nick Park was profiled on the show, he spent two weeks modelling and filming a Plasticine model of Bragg – toothy, crow’s feet, broken nose. It was a funny episode. I look around the office for the model. When Bragg returns for an ideas meeting, I ask if he has it. ‘No, Nick probably put it in a dustbin somewhere.’

Hey, good looking

How does Bragg feel about being caricatured? ‘Some are quite good. But you do wince. We used to follow Spitting Image and one really cracked me up.’ He does an impersonation of himself with a nasal voice: ‘And now The South Bank Show. Please do not forget to turn off your sets.’

He says of his nasal delivery, ‘It’s not adenoids, it’s sinus trouble. I’ve had it since I was 17. My nose was broken. It gives me crippling headaches. I’ve had operations every five years or so.’

The other trademark, of course, is the luxuriant hair. He sighs. ‘I know, I know. I don’t get to the barber’s often enough, that’s the trouble. I do sometimes think, oh not again, when people go on about it. You get a preview of something you have worked on for three months and it’s seven lines long and most of the words are taken up with the f—ing hair. Such a bore. Lazy journalists.’ Does he dye it? ‘Dye it! You must be crackers. Course not. I would never dream of dyeing it. Nor would I have anything done to my increasingly jailbird face. I had a passport photo done this morning and I looked like Magwitch.’

And on that literary allusion, I take my leave. Dickens was a populist, of course. Like Bragg, he had the common touch. As I’m walking back along the South Bank, I reflect on how strange it is that populism in the arts can still be a sensitive subject, even after 30 years of Bragg’s tele-evangelism. It is a remarkable achievement, whichever way you slice it. No one has presented a British TV programme for longer. More importantly, no one has done more to make people in this country think about the arts and question their own prejudices. Does pop deserve a place on the arts spectrum? The South Bank Show is still asking that question. It is the secret of its longevity and success, the reason it still gets talked about. That and the hair. Right, Melvyn?


Michael Portillo

A former contender to the Tory crown – and eventually beaten by Iain Duncan Smith… – Michael Portillo has now turned his attention to fist-fighting

With his arms not so much folded as wrapped around himself, Michael Portillo looks as if he is being restrained by an invisible straitjacket. This turns out to be more about physical discomfort than defensiveness; a “dickie tummy”, as he calls it.

He has just returned from a research trip to Basra where he ate something he shouldn’t – and he is looking gaunt anyway, thanks to the diet he is on (“being fat” is what he dislikes most about his appearance). The man with the great political future behind him, as he likes to joke, dresses well, but his hunched posture spoils the lines of his finely tailored suit.

He was feeling similarly ill when he filmed an extraordinary scene in his latest documentary, Horizon: How Violent Are You? To find out if we all have an innate propensity for violence, he travelled to the Bolivian Andes to take part in the Tinku, a strange annual fighting ritual among villagers. Dressed in tribal costume and with coloured straps around his knuckles, he has a fist fight with a shortish man who looks old enough to be his father.

Portillo doesn’t appear to relish the confrontation – indeed, he looks rather appalled at the indignity of it – but he nevertheless gets stuck in and lands a couple of tasty punches. “I must say I wasn’t in the mood because I had altitude sickness. It was a revealing exercise, though, because I had never had a fist fight in my life and assumed I would not enjoy the experience.”

And he has a taste for it now? “I did get some satisfaction from knocking the man to the ground. I have always been a passive person, but it taught me something about myself – that I can be physically aggressive. I can be fairly aggressive speaking to people, but that is different.

“I’m not saying I now enjoy violence,” he continues. “For 55 years I haven’t, so that wasn’t going to change in five minutes of beating up some poor Bolivian fellow at 9,000 feet.”

The conclusion Portillo draws is that we all have a capacity to enjoy violence. “It’s to do with the release of dopamine – the same powerful chemical reaction that makes us enjoy sex. I spoke to a football hooligan who really got off on violence and had been addicted to it for that reason. He couldn’t wait for the next Saturday.”

While Portillo admits that he sometimes pouts, slams doors and thumps computers, the equivalent adrenalin rush for him is more likely to come from public speaking.

“People don’t understand it, but the most intense occasions in the House of Commons were the ones I enjoyed most. When events could go either way and you could find yourself out of a job by the end of the day; those were the times when you were most on a high. Tony Blair used to get a real buzz from emerging from difficulty unscathed.”

Portillo would be inhuman, I suggest, if he didn’t now look at David Cameron, the Tory prime minister-in-waiting, and think: that could have been me. “Yes, but I’m relaxed about that,” he says. “I know him very well and always thought him impressive. I’m pretty sure that when I first met him in 1991 I thought that Cameron might one day be leader of the Conservative Party.”

After Portillo? “I wasn’t as intent on being leader as people thought, actually. I felt other people were more intent on my behalf. When I stood for leader in 2001, I was feeling pretty disillusioned. I was flattered into it by colleagues.”

In the end he lost… to Iain Duncan Smith! Was that a humiliation too far? “I don’t think I’ve got a thick skin, but I’ve not felt particularly humiliated by the things which people think I would have felt humiliated by, such as losing my seat in 1997 and not being elected leader in 2001. In the second case, I felt relieved.”

It got personal. Chief among his detractors was Norman Tebbit, who told me around that time that Portillo made his “toes curl”. How rude was that? “Tebbit was rude, it’s true. He said the Tories should vote for a family man, and when I dropped out of the contest it had just been announced that Gordon Brown’s wife was expecting a baby; sadly, the one they lost. Gordon was Chancellor then and I was his shadow, so in my last appearance at the Dispatch Box I said: ‘Congratulations on your wife’s impending baby. I know Lord Tebbit will be thrilled.’ ”

Portillo and Carolyn, his wife of 26 years, do not have children. She is a headhunter for an international firm, a job that involves a fair amount of travelling. “When I was Minister of Defence she used to accompany me on foreign trips. I suppose that would be thought disgraceful now. Now, it is more often the case that I will go along as a spouse when she is the one on business trips. She didn’t come to Basra, because that was all flak jackets and helmets.”

Back home, umbrellas might seem more appropriate, for their marriage does seem to have weathered some storms. Four years ago, a client of Max Clifford’s claimed she had had an affair with Portillo and, though he declined to comment, Portillo did give an intriguing answer to a newspaper. Q: “To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?” A: “She knows who she is and why.” Q: “Which living person do you most despise, and why?” A: “She knows who she is

and why.”

And, in 1999, Portillo admitted in an interview that he had had homosexual experiences as a student. There was a certain awkwardness to his public persona before then; was that because he knew this subject would one day have to be confronted? “Well, yes. I chose the timing of it because I was fed up with the innuendo. Outrageous things were being said and printed, so I thought, when I get the opportunity I will put that record straight.” He laughs darkly. “This was not a brilliant decision.”

Because he didn’t need to? “Exactly.”

Just as Cameron decided he did not need to answer the question about whether he took cocaine as a student? “Well, there you go. Perhaps I helped show Cameron how to play these things.”

He does still miss politics. “To be in the media is to be in the wings. Being in politics is being on the stage. It is so exciting. If we’d had a happier time in that shadow Cabinet, I might have stayed. But I felt I had come back into a very poisonous atmosphere. William Hague’s staff had identified me as the enemy and made life very difficult for me from the beginning. It was tiresome.”

But surely he was always plotting against Hague? “No, I think that rumour was unjustified, though in the end things did get tit for tat. I still think William wanted to do to the party what Cameron has since done, but he lost his nerve.”

Portillo’s body language when he announced he was standing down suggested ennui. “Ennui is quite a good word for what I felt. I had grown tired of collective responsibility, not being able to speak my mind. Tired and bored. I also found it stressful and the occasional highs were no longer compensating for that stress. You need staying power and evidently I didn’t have it.”

And there was also, perhaps, a little self-loathing. The trait he most deplores in himself is, after all, self-satisfaction. And his greatest regret is his “who dares wins” speech to conference – he shivers with embarrassment whenever he recalls it. He has also talked about a certain stiffness in the way he holds himself and walks. “But I think I was worse when I was a politician. Whenever I was being Paxo‑ed, I always looked tense, sitting back in my chair.”

He adds that when he left politics and reinvented himself as a documentary-maker, he had to change his relationship with the lens. “The camera had become a thing to be feared. I always admired the ability of Blair and Cameron to look relaxed on camera when under pressure. I only found that level of comfort in front of the lens once I had left politics.”

Well, up to a point. In another experiment for his new documentary, Portillo is deprived of sleep for two days – kept awake by recordings of a crying baby and then forced to work a stressful shift in a busy kitchen to see if he will lose his temper. “Sleep deprivation over quite a short period of time can make you paranoid,” he says. “If it had gone on longer, it would have driven me to violence, I think. I was becoming very edgy and paranoid about the whole experiment and quite aggressive to the people, the programme-makers, who I saw as my tormentors. I felt persecuted.”

On the subject of paranoia, I wonder how he felt about having Max Clifford breathing down his neck all those years. It wasn’t paranoia, of course; the Tory-hating publicist really was out to get him. Was he aware of that at the time? “Not particularly.” He gives a rubbery smile that makes his eyes disappear; it doesn’t reassure so much as chill.

When I tell him about the time the publicist boasted to me about a “Portillo story” he would make public if Portillo became leader, he wraps his arms around himself again and says: “People like him like to say things like that.”

To big themselves up? A shrug. “I guess.”


Ricky Gervais

How would he like to die? What’s happening with The Men From The Pru? And why is he wearing pyjamas in a graveyard? Our greatest comedy misery-guts reveals all

As well as being a protection from the unsettling glare of his fame, the Giorgio Armani sunglasses Ricky Gervais wears are a concession, a hint at his status as the British comedian, writer and director who went to America and came back with an armful of Emmys, Golden Globes and Hollywood contracts. But at least he is not wearing them indoors. We are wandering through a dappled churchyard not far from his house (and his office) in Hampstead, and the sun is shining.

Gervais couldn’t be accused of dressing like a star, though. Tramp would be closer to the mark – a 47-year-old tramp who hasn’t shaved for days and is wearing trainers, a cord coat and what looks like a pair of the pyjamas they give you when you fly long haul in first class.

At the mention of these I get to hear the manic Gervais laugh that is familiar to fans of his podcasts. ‘They are pyjamas! But I got them from M&S. I do wear the ones with the v-neck that you get on airlines. I walk around the house in them looking like William Shatner as he is now, not how he was in Star Trek. I always choose what to wear based on how soft and comfortable the clothes are. There’s no point killing yourself.’

When we come to a bench which has a slat missing on one side, Gervais half-heartedly offers me the good side, but having just listened to him explain how important comfort is to him, I insist on taking the bad. He quickly agrees, on condition that I mention that he offered.

We sit down and contemplate the gravestones, some gothic, some lichen covered, some at strange angles, thanks to subsidence. Shelley would have approved. He was never far from a graveyard. Nothing he liked better than a memento mori.

On the subject of which, there is a photograph of Gervais taken years ago when he was the epicene singer in a new romantic band. Does he contemplate that photograph now and weep for his lost youth? ‘No, but whenever it is brought out I do groan, not because I’m embarrassed at how I looked then but about how I look now. I had great cheekbones then. I removed all the mirrors from my house in about 1990.’

Gervais likes this graveyard, but not out of religious sentiment. Indeed he is a patron of the National Secular Society. ‘I feel angry that I even have to say I am atheist. The alternative is so ludicrous to me. I don’t want to dignify the idea of religion by saying that. The burden of proof should be on their side, not mine. I feel like saying to Richard Dawkins: “Don’t bother. Not worth it.” I know there is no God more than I know anything else in this world.’

Gervais became an atheist at the age of eight when Bob, his older brother by 11 years, asked him why he believed in God. ‘My mother went “Bob!” and that was it. I knew she was hiding something and he was telling the truth. My tool to understanding throughout my life has been non-verbal communication, observing the minutia of human behaviour. It’s in my acting and my writing and that was where it began.’

I ask if he is familiar with an Arthur Miller quote about mankind’s craving for immortality – that it is as futile as scratching your name on a cube of ice on a hot July afternoon. ‘No, but I like that. I would like The Office to be still considered good in 20 years’ time, but after I’m dead I don’t care. I don’t care what it says on my gravestone.’

How will the papers report his death, does he suppose? ‘It depends how I die. I might have won an Oscar and found the cure for Aids but if I die by slipping and landing on a giant spike, the headline will be “Man Dies From Spike Up A—.”‘ He’s laughing again now, as am I. ‘The awful thing will be the funeral when people who haven’t read the papers ask how I died and when they are told they will get the giggles.’

Gervais met his partner, Jane Fallon, when they were at University College, London. They decided not to have children but to concentrate on their careers instead (she is a television producer and a novelist).

I ask what he makes of the idea that there is a form of immortality in passing on your DNA. ‘That’s just scratching your name in a cube of ice in a very cold country,’ he says. ‘It’s not real immortality. There are loads of reasons why people have children. You think it will be nice and good and worth the hassle. But in human terms, procreation hasn’t been about propagating the species for years. We’re safe. The human race is good.

‘So I don’t think the genetic legacy idea works. I don’t think people on their deathbeds go: “At least half my DNA is still walking around.” They say: “Can you remove this spike from my a—, please. Say it went through my head and it happened while I was saving a child from a burning building. And it wasn’t even my child”.’

Gervais stretches out on the bench. There is a chinking sound of coins falling on the ground. ‘My money has fallen out! Now you’re going to see me scrabbling around in an undignified way in case it’s a pound. If it’s 20p I’ll leave it. That’s the problem with wearing pyjamas.’ He gives up looking. ‘Karl says you’re alright, by the way. That’s high praise from him. That’s like getting six out of 10 from a teacher who never normally gives more than three.’

Karl is Karl Pilkington and two and a half years ago I became the first journalist in the world to interview him. I don’t imagine he has done many interviews since because he is a man completely lacking in ambition and, as Gervais regularly points out, he is ‘f—ing lazy’. Pilkington acts as a deadpan muse to Gervais and his writing partner Steve Merchant. The three do podcasts together, the most listened to podcasts in podcast history, and lately they have been bringing out a series of downloadable audiobooks, too, called The Ricky Gervais Guide to…

So far they have done guides to the arts, medicine, natural history and philosophy, clocking up around three million sales per episode. The latest, available from next week, is The Ricky Gervais Guide to… The English. Later, when I email Karl to tell him how it went with Gervais, he replies: ‘People always say he’s nice but that’s cos he doesn’t try squeezing your head.’

‘Me and Steve treat Karl like an experiment,’ he says now. ‘We’re a couple of chancers going around 19th-century America with a thing in a cage.’

For all the abuse Gervais directs at Pilkington, he loves him really and the two talk on the phone several times a day. In fact, if you want to know the real Ricky Gervais you could do worse than see him through the strange prism of Karl Pilkington. ‘Karl is a lovely man with unexpected talents such as dancing, editing and illustrating. He’s an idiot savant who will make you see a subject in a way you have never seen it before. He’s a friend first and foremost, but, well I know how to work him, get the best out of him. He’s the funniest bloke I know, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.’

On the podcasts, Pilkington will say something so unexpected Gervais will lose his breath as he giggles like a hyena and says: ‘I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!’ Pilkington, he reckons, inhabits a cartoon world. ‘He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. Completely unpretentious. Pretension is a concept that doesn’t exist in his world. He’s not comfortable when things go right. It’s like he feels guilty about the audio books doing so well because he doesn’t consider them a proper job. He goes down to Kent and does painting and decorating as well because that feels more like real work. He feels guilty about how easy the podcasts are. I’ve gone through the same thing, to an extent.’

There is nothing Pilkington wants, he adds. ‘And I’m a bit like that. I didn’t want fame and neither does he. And we are both creatures of habit. The only difference between us is formal education. I’m not ambitious in the sense that I will be prepared to compromise to get an extra million viewers. It’s like if they say there is a red carpet event I should attend because it will help the film I refuse to go. They are saying the wrong thing to me. They are always saying the wrong thing.’

Who ‘they’ are is not clear but you suspect it is uncreative people, administrators, conformists. Gervais doesn’t seem to hang out with other celebrities much. He prefers staying in watching television to going out. But Pilkington reckons there is more to it than that. He doesn’t use the word ‘misanthrope’, but that is what he means. He points to the fact that Gervais can’t bear hearing people chewing, for example. ‘I don’t know whether it’s a phobia or a neurosis,’ Gervais now says, ‘but it’s often justified. The sound of traffic, mating geese, thunderstorms, no problem. But if there is someone next door with their telly on too loud I want to go around and kill them.’

As for his other flaws, Gervais admits he has the attention span of a toddler and can be grumpy, too. ‘When it comes to creativity I’m ready for war. I’ll square up if someone says they have “notes” on something I’ve written. Steve will say: “Calm down, Rick, calm down.” He’s a very calm person. When Steve was 23 he was 52.’

They met in 1997 when Gervais was presenting a radio show on the music station Xfm. He needed an assistant and hired Merchant, a man 13 years younger than him, and a foot taller. Gervais would make Merchant laugh with a character he called Seedy Boss. One day Merchant filmed him for fun and, after that, they began writing a comedy around the character.

The BBC commissioned a pilot and, in 2001, it broadcast the first episode of The Office, with Seedy Boss now called David Brent. A new genre was born, the comedy of embarrassment, and… we know the rest. The Office has now been shown in 70 countries worldwide and has been remade eight times, the latest being the Israeli version. India is also planning a version and Gervais and Merchant think they might be hands on with that one, executive producing it as they did for the US version.

Extras, their follow up to The Office, explored the world of a bit-part actor, Andy Millman. It managed to be just as funny and even more moving, yet could not have been more different in approach – a testament to their confidence as writers. Now they are working on a film together, set in Seventies Reading and involving the aspirational yet ultimately frustrated lives of men working in insurance, one of whom will be played by Ralph Fiennes. It was to have been called The Men From the Pru but the real men from the Pru read the script and decided that, er, on balance they didn’t want their company name used in the title. Gervais now wants to call it Cemetery Junction after a place in Reading, but Merchant has doubts, saying he thinks it sounds too depressing.

Meanwhile, Gervais has just finished This Side of the Truth, a film he has written, directed and starred in, and which is due for release in September. The cast list reads like a Who’s Who of US comedy talent: Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Guest… Such is his control freakery he has the final edit – the only other directors who get away with this are Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino – and the film will not be tested on audiences.

Although he starred in last autumn’s box office hit Ghost Town, Gervais did not consider that film ‘his baby’ because someone else wrote it, albeit with Gervais in mind. ‘This one is definitely my baby,’ he says. ‘It’s set in a world where humans haven’t evolved the gene for lying. I play a loser, and when I discover I can lie it becomes like a superpower.’

A couple walk past and do a double take when they see Gervais. ‘Round here people tend not to bother me,’ he says. ‘When I’m in the sticks, it’s a bit hairier. People behave as if an alien has landed. First time people started looking at me I didn’t know what they were looking at, then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I’m on the telly.”

‘The first time I was asked for my autograph I said: “Really?” and they looked hurt, like I had insulted them. Now I’m more polite. But my dread is missing a train because someone wants an autograph and I don’t want them to think I am being rude. I can’t even send my soup back now. Before I would have sent it back for being too cold but now I have to be gracious. It’s exhausting.’ He grins his fangy grin to show he’s joking. ‘It’s like I had to offer you the nice seat. And now I have to pretend that I don’t mind I’ve lost that pound coin that might only be 20p. I’m going to come back after you’ve gone and have a proper look for it.’

What do people normally shout when they see him then? ‘Well I don’t have a catchphrase so what they tend to do is the David Brent robot dance instead. What I don’t like is when people take sly pictures without asking. It’s just a matter of politeness. I don’t mind if they ask.’

What about if they were to take a photograph of him when he was out jogging? ‘I don’t care. What are they going to say? That I look fat and sweaty? I’m a comedian running. I’m not a model. What bothers me is intrusion. It would give me the creeps if someone went through my rubbish, and actually my shutters are always down to avoid long lenses. I live in a giant panic room.’

If he met his 20-year-old self right now, would he find him gauche and embarrassing? ‘I would. He was cocky. I’ve got less cocky as I’ve got older. But that 20-year-old me was only cocky because he found everything too easy. He felt sorry for kids who weren’t as clever as him. He played his cleverness down. Up until about 25, I prided myself on getting the best mark possible without trying.’

Being seen not to try, of course, gets to the heart of Englishness. So does the class system. Gervais grew up on a council estate in Reading. His father was a labourer. ‘I think class is more significant than race or sex,’ he says. ‘To this day, in a room full of overprivileged Oxbridge graduates I feel them giving me a sideways look.’

Meaning? ‘Perhaps I’m being paranoid but I do feel that they are saying: “We know… We know that eventually you are going to let yourself down. Eventually you are going to make a faux pas at this dinner party.e_SDRq’ That’s awful. ‘I don’t care. I quite like it because I’m not going to make the faux pas at this dinner party unless I mean to – you know, using the wrong knife deliberately.’

This paranoia surprises me because I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone with an ego as healthy as his – anyone less insecure, I mean. But then perhaps there is a pattern here. When I interviewed Stephen Merchant a couple of years ago he told me: ‘Ricky has an incredible memory and a natural intelligence but is happy for people to think he is an oik from Reading.’ He also said that Gervais didn’t realise his background was working class until he went to UCL to read philosophy.

‘That’s true,’ Gervais now says. ‘I don’t think we even had a middle-class teacher at my school. I could read as well as I can now at three. I lost that art at the age of four. Got bored. I had better things to do. At the age of five I would be outside all the time turning over leaves to find a stag beetle.’

Did his father advise him not to become a labourer? ‘No, I always knew I would move away from home at 18 and go to university and everything would be all right. Blind optimism.’ A Candide figure, perhaps. But it was Mike Leigh, not Voltaire, who was the biggest influence on his formative years. ‘I remember seeing Abigail’s Party when I was 14. I loved it but hated it at the same time, because the mockery of working class aspiration was a mockery of my family. I’m a snob when it matters. Snobbery can be a shot at excellence. But if someone mocks people for breaches in etiquette, I hate that.’

I ask Gervais about his relationship with Merchant, who, though younger, seems to be the more mature of the two, or at least the less frivolous. ‘It’s us against the world. You have to be complete fascists when it comes to art. There is no room for democracy. We don’t want anyone else’s opinion. I don’t know about Steve but I do this for the fun, for the creative process, not to see my fat face on the telly. It’s about bringing something into the world. All my DNA is in the work that I’ve done.’ He stops. Shakes his head. Looks worried. ‘I ended on a pretentious note. I’d been doing well until then. F—ing hell. I also said we ended and that sounds rude, like I’m cutting the interview off… So now I’m worried about two things. I’ve been pretentious and I’ve been rude. F—! And now I’ve sworn again.’