Ruth Rogers

Ruth Rogers – co-founder of the River Café and the most well-connected chef in Britain – is celebrating 20 years of serving cucina rustica to London’s politicos, authors and media moguls. But, she tells Nigel Farndale, she’s not power-hungry, just committed to the food revolution, as she demonstrates in the recipes she gives here

Blue carpets are being hoovered. A chrome-plated bar is being polished. Bookings are being taken. It is mid-morning, and the River Café, which this autumn celebrates its 20th anniversary as London’s most innovative and influential Italian restaurant, is humming into life. Sitting at a table alongside the flames of a wood-burning stove is a phlegmatic 59-year-old, one who somehow manages to look elegant in sauce-stained chef’s whites, checked trousers and clogs. She, Ruth Rogers – Ruthie, as she is known – is writing the lunch menu. She will write another tonight. The menus – always cucina rustica – change twice daily according to what fresh produce is available. For lunch today she is including taglierini alla piemontese con tartufi bianchi – fine pasta ribbons with the first of the season’s white truffles from Tuscany. The price seems not only fresh but eye-wateringly precise: £53.50.

‘I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Did I order the parmesan?”’ she says. ‘This is an improvement. I used to have anxiety dreams in which I would come into the kitchen in my pyjamas and it was empty. I would call my husband and say, “There’s nobody here!”’

More often, she has pleasant dreams about food. ‘Last night I dreamt I was cooking corn followed by lobster and clams – I guess because I just came back from a visit to the North Shore.’

That is near where she was born and raised, in bohemian Woodstock, upstate New York. There she would hang out with artists and musicians in cafés. On one occasion she realised Bob Dylan was sipping coffee at the next table. She struck up a conversation with him – such is her social ease, her comfort in her own skin. Her father was a doctor, her mother a trade-union organiser; both filled her head with left-wing liberal values. She arrived in London in 1968, aged 19, to do a BA in design at the London College of Printing. It was the high summer of the counter-culture.

Rogers has large, pale blue eyes, a residual trace of upstate springiness in her voice and a polite but distracted manner. She is telling me why dining at the River Café is a theatrical experience. ‘Dining out used to be scary. You would have to dress up. The wine waiter would make you feel inferior. The restaurant would be hushed. All the drama would be going on behind closed doors in the kitchen. Then in the late 1980s, around the time we opened, there was a shift in attitude. You were allowed to relax. With our open kitchen we brought the drama of cooking into the same space as the diners. Now you can engage more with what you are eating. There is contact. I can see diners from where I’m working over there.’ She wafts a hand in the direction of the serving counter that runs the length of the restaurant. ‘I very often watch when a plate is placed in front of someone. Watch their reaction.’

Watch them thinking, ‘Oh my God, Ruth Rogers is staring at me. Better look as if I’m enjoying it’? ‘I hope not,’ she says with a languid, throaty laugh. ‘I would hate that. I’m careful not to. It is more like a peek behind the curtain… Then there is the drama between the waiter and the customer, and between the customers themselves. People get divorced in restaurants. They get fired. I once had someone order a cake. He was going to propose. By the end of the evening they had cancelled the cake.’ Another laugh. ‘I guess it wasn’t going that well.’

She takes a sip of water, holding the glass in two hands like a schoolgirl. No rings, I notice, but a glittery Rolex that hangs loose on her slim wrist. The River Café, she explains, began life as a glorified works canteen: her husband, the architect Lord (Richard) Rogers, had moved his headquarters into the Thames Wharf complex and realised he and his staff had nowhere to eat. Her co-founder, co-author and co-Michelin-star-winning chef is Rose Gray. The two became friends in the early 1970s: the same dinner parties, the same anti-Vietnam protest marches. Together they wrote those vibrant, million-selling River Café cookbooks that changed the way we eat: all that emphasis on fresh ingredients, and vegetables and fruits harvested in season. You probably have one on your shelves. Their handwriting, I notice from the ingredients order book on the table, is almost identical. ‘Rose and I work together so well,’ Rogers says. ‘She cooked lunch here yesterday. I’m last night and today.’ Although their protégés include Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver – both learnt to cook in the kitchen here – Rogers, like Gray, is not a trained chef herself. More an intuitive cook who learned by watching, that’s how she puts it.

Rogers is appallingly well connected, in part because the River Café quickly established itself as a salon for the left-wing cognoscenti, with leading lights of the literary, media and political worlds turning up in droves. On a typical night you could spot a Salman Rushdie here, an Alan Rusbridger there, and, over by the bar, a Peter Mandelson. Still can, for that matter. ‘I suppose my husband brought some of that. With his connections. It did help in the beginning, but if it was just about being fashionable they wouldn’t have kept coming back. It’s true, we did overlap with the rise of New Labour in the mid 1990s, but we also coincided with a change in national taste. Now sophistication is not just knowing about paintings and the arts, it means knowing about food. When you come back from New York or London the first question used to be, “What plays did you see? What exhibitions?” Now people ask, “Where did you eat?”’

Twenty years is a long time for a restaurant to be in pole position, I note. And so many restaurants fall by the wayside. Did she make a pact with the devil? ‘If there is a secret to the success of the River Café, it is that Rose and I are still so excited by Italy. We go there regularly and we find it inspiring. It’s so regional. Town to town is different. You can go on exploring it for a lifetime. We go over with our chefs. This week it’s the olive-oil trip. It used to be Tuscany, now we are going to Parma. When you take the chefs they are exposed to Italian food and that is so awakening. To see the soil and the weather – how it affects the taste. They come back excited. Someone once said the River Café is another region of Italy, and that’s how we like to think of it.’

When in Italy she goes to small, out-of-the-way restaurants looking for ideas. Is that homage or larceny? ‘It’s interesting about ideas, because sometimes I will come back from Italy and the chef will ask, “Did you get any ideas?” And I go, “You know, what I really learnt from this trip is how simple Italian cooking is, how important fresh ingredients are.” But when you eat something good it does inspire you to come home and try and cook it. Rose lived in Italy for years. My connection is through my husband’s family. His mother came from Trieste, a northern town, though she lived in Florence. She would come in to the River Café and sample things and offer advice, to begin with. I think of her a lot when I am cooking. I hear that little voice. “Don’t put too many herbs on your fish.”’

I ask what advice she now gives aspiring cooks. ‘Don’t go to the market with a shopping list in your head. See what is there, buy it and come back and cook it. That’s the Italian way. Seasonal cooking makes you appreciate food more. When you are saying goodbye to melons you are saying hello to raspberries. Then we say goodbye to raspberries. Can you imagine being a raspberry coming over from New Zealand in a plane for thousands of miles? I know how I feel after a long-haul flight. You would feel a jaded raspberry.’

Rogers learnt to cook as a student. ‘Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was my bible. She will say an eighth of a tablespoon and then tell you the dimension of the spoon. Very precise. Like a science. It gave you confidence because you never had a failure with Julia Child. Discipline gives you freedom.’ Blimey. Sounds like a slogan the Nazis would have used. But compared with Ruthie?’n’?Rose, Julia Child is a hippy. The River Café cookbooks are so uncompromising, so… Germanic in their insistence on expensive, hard-to-obtain ingredients. ‘You must use salted anchovies from Greek, Spanish and Italian delicatessens. Small tins of anchovies soaked in oil are not suitable.’ Rogers doesn’t see it that way. ‘I think a cookbook should be a manual. It should be aspirational. We want to make people want to go out looking for the right ingredients. But, actually, we have done the River Café Cookbook Easy as well, which is less exacting.’

Their most famous recipe is the chocolate ‘nemesis’, which is notorious for refusing to turn out like the one in the picture. ‘You should always have a practice run before a dinner party,’ Rogers says in mitigation. ‘Dinner parties are nerve-racking. I’ve been to those horrible ones where you feel so sorry for the host, who is nervous before and exhausted after.’

Especially if she is one of the guests. ‘I get that line a lot. People say, “Oh, it’s too scary.” But I love to be cooked for. It is such a nice change, so actually I am a fairly generous guest. It is more scary for me to cook, because people come with expectations. I hardly ever do dinner parties any more. It is much scarier cooking a dinner party for eight on your own than for 120 with a team of chefs.’

She and Rose Gray did a television series a few years ago, but weren’t impressed with the medium. Indeed, she is now dismissive of the trivialising effect of televised cooking. ‘On one level, cooking on television has reached the public and got them interested in food. And if a chef becomes a celebrity, that is fine. But cooking as mere entertainment I think is detrimental. It makes for slap-dash or unethical use of out-of-season ingredients. And if you portray chefs as people who are bullying and loud, that doesn’t elevate our profession.’ Is she talking about Gordon Ramsay? ‘I like and respect Gordon, but it might be that he is straying from his passion, being sidetracked by television. Everyone has a different idea of what they want to do.’

Ouch. Her kitchen is known for its calmness. ‘We’ve never gone in for the Gordon Ramsay approach. It’s not our style. Rose and I are quite old-fashioned. I think the way you treat your staff affects the quality of their work. We believe you get the best work out of people by respecting them. Hope is our watchword rather than fear. I don’t think any employer should be abusive. Just because it is stressful, it doesn’t mean you should be rude. Our open kitchen dictates the manners of this restaurant.’

Richard Rogers arrives carrying his cycling helmet. He is just popping into his office, he says, then he will be back for lunch. His office is next door. He comes here for lunch most days. They met at a party when she was 21. He was 15 years her senior, and already married. It is not a subject she likes to dwell upon. ‘Breaking up marriages is a horrible thing,’ she has said in the past. ‘No Julie Andrews movie.’ He has three sons from his first marriage and they have two sons together. ‘It is a family business here,’ she says. ‘It just happens to be Rose’s family, not mine. That’s her son over there, our general manager. My children worked here at times, but they have chosen other careers. My kids eat here a lot.’

Ruth and Richard Rogers pop in and out of each other’s workplaces all day. ‘Often he will call over and say, “Can you come and look at this model?” Or I will ring him and say, “Come down and test this soup.” There is a contact, which is something we both like. We always try in our family to listen to the children, but our work is a constant conversation at home; we never stop talking about work.’ The Millennium Dome: that must have been weird to live through, all that flak? ‘Funnily enough, no, the Dome was just one project, like the Lloyd’s Building or the Pompidou Centre. A one-off. Richard has a big office. Lots of projects.’

She gives me a tour of her (surprisingly small) kitchen. On the way out we pass a waiter prepping the parsley, another doing the spinach. ‘They grill peppers but they don’t make the sauces,’ she says out of the corner of her mouth. ‘So if they are serving salsa verde and they have washed the capers and so on, and a customer asks what is in the sauce, they know. They have to be people who like food. It is more democratic that way, not us and them.’ There is a flash of steeliness – freedom through discipline – as she sees a jumper on the counter-top. ‘Whose is this?’ A waiter stops peeling garlic and says, ‘Sorry, that’s mine.’

I am joined by a friend for lunch. I order the capesante in padella – scallops seared with chicory, polenta, butter and parmesan – and the costoletta di vitello al forno, which, according to the menu, is a grilled-then-roasted veal chop (thick-cut) with salsa verde, dried porcini and sage al forno. Boy is it thick-cut. I must do a double-take because Ruth Rogers comes over laughing and says she was watching my expression from the other side of the restaurant when the plate was placed in front of me. Theatre indeed. A comedy of manners.


Ruth Wilson

The future dame of British theatre on fluffing lines, being a nomad, and those mesmerising eyebrows

On the mantelpiece in Ruth Wilson’s south London flat, alongside an empty bottle of champagne and a black-and-white photograph of her brother in British Army uniform, there is an arrangement of model figures, miniature ones. They appear to be a press scrum, some holding out microphones, others taking photographs, and they are forming a semicircle around an empty space. As if the subject of their attention has simply vanished.

I mean to ask her about them, but she has disappeared herself. That seems to be her way. Not vague exactly − she is known for the intelligence of her theatrical performances − but a little distracted. She talks quickly and describes herself as a bit messy.

“It’s how you prioritise in life. Cleaning isn’t all that interesting to me. I’m disorganised. I do things on a whim.”

She sure does. The 29-year-old star of stage and (small) screen is about to head off to the United States. “Yeahyeahyeah, off there for a few months, well, for a month definitely. I’m going to Minnesota to do a bit of research for Anna Christie. I’ve got four months to fill before we start rehearsing.”

Anna Christie is a little known play written in 1921 by Eugene O’Neill about a former prostitute. Wilson will be playing the title role, opposite Jude Law, when it opens in the summer at the Donmar Warehouse. “Anna is from Minnesota and then moved to the East Coast. So I’m going to try and absorb the accent as it is today and work out what it might have been like in the Twenties.”

She hasn’t met Law yet, but they have spoken on the phone. Indeed he sounded her out about the role before she had been offered it. “He rang to ask me what the director Rob Ashford is like, because I’d worked with him, and I waxed lyrical and he said that there was a play at the Donmar he was thinking of doing with him, he didn’t mention which one.

“A week later I was asked if I’d like to do Anna Christie. I thought it must be the one Rob is directing. So I rang Jude and we both said: ‘I’m in if you’re in’.”

She is certainly conscientious in preparing for her stage roles. For her first, in Gorky’s Philistines at the National in 2007, she learnt the piano. And for her Olivier Award-winning role in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (in which she starred opposite Rachel Weisz) she did a road trip around the Deep South.

“Well, it was New Orleans I wanted to see really because the town is a character in that piece. So it was important for me to soak up that atmosphere. I never go method though because that would be too exhausting and restrictive.”

Before we go further, I think we should address the eyebrow question. Wilson’s eyebrows. Her questioning, dramatic, exquisite eyebrows. They look highly sculpted and teased but apparently they aren’t. “No, they naturally grow at right angles,” says Wilson good-naturedly, “I think they come from my grandma. It’s a distinctive Wilson look.”

There is also the mouth. It is wide and from some angles her top lip is a puffy curve, from others a jutting prow. “Another distinctive feature,” she agrees.

Needless to say, neither of these features are as dramatic in person as they are on screen. But boy, on screen are they mesmerising. (Her own view is that hers is an unusual face, weird and distorted one moment, serene and beautiful the next. But whichever it is, casting directors love it.)

Although she is now being talked about as a future Dame of the theatre, her first role after leaving Lamda in 2005, was in television. A brief stint on a Channel Five sitcom led to her landing the title role of the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre opposite Toby Stephens. Bafta and Golden Globe nominations followed.

Her old drama college friends must have loved her for that, as they followed the more conventional route into acting – signing on. “Actually, I think they were happy for me. At drama school you have great hopes but not everyone gets work. Not everyone even gets an agent because there isn’t enough work to go around.”

Jane Eyre led in turn to another television drama, Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary. Her co-star was Maggie Smith. “Dame Maggie was quite intimidating. Because I was so in awe I didn’t have the guts to ask her advice about acting. But watching the rushes, I was gobsmacked by how on it she was. So professional.”

In that role Wilson had to perform a 45-minute monologue with the camera barely leaving her face. That must have been a doddle. “Yeahyeah,” she says with a laugh. “One of the scariest things I’ve ever done.”

Well, she sure looked confident in that role. “Actually, at one moment during rehearsals I panicked and phoned Stephen and said can you cut some of this and he said: ‘No way, you never ask a writer to cut his work’.”

It was quite a theatrical performance, I note. More about theatre than television, in a funny sort of way.

“Yes, theatre is my first love, I am constantly drawn back to it. I love the medium and I think it has improved me as an actor. I think it gives you more confidence. You learn to be more expressive. Film is more superficial in that it often seems to depend upon your look more than your ability. And they are always looking for, as it were, the next look.”

It must be quite depressing for an actor who thinks they might only have landed a role because of the way they look. “Yes. I was lucky because Jane Eyre was nothing about looks, the opposite in fact.” She certainly inhabited the role, giving a nervy, self-possessed performance.

After it was screened, Wilson was inundated with offers of work, most of which she turned down. And she hasn’t exactly played safe in the roles she has accepted, mostly preferring psychopaths to femme fatales, although she manged to combine the two to great acclaim in the detective drama Luther, alongside The Wire’s Idris Elba.

But her evident abilities aside, she does have presence on screen, that hard to define quality. “Yeah, it’s an odd thing, presence. I think it is biological in some ways, to do with the structure of your face and how you use your eyes.

“I think it’s also to do with an intensity of purpose, something about having the focus of a camera on you. You cannot move too much because you will be out of shot, so it’s quite unreal as a form of performance. More static than on stage where you are using your whole body.”

When she’s on stage, does she find herself able to become the characters she plays completely, or does she become self-conscious and slip out of them? “There are moments when you lose concentration, or are distracted, you can feel as if you are having an out-of-body experience, that is where muscle memory has to kick in.”

Ever blanked? “I learn my lines quite easily but sometimes when you know you have a line coming up you can’t think what it is. My very first line on Through A Glass Darkly I fluffed.

“And it was press night! But after that line it was fine. You get into the moment and you enjoy having an audience watching you. A lot of actors are extroverts.” Is she? “In some ways, yes. I’m quite outgoing and brash and loud. Not shy. I like spending time with a company. All the banter.”

Yet she goes off travelling on her own. “That’s different. I’m not afraid of my own company. I haven’t got a mortgage or kids, so now is the time to explore.” But why alone? There was mention of a boyfriend not long ago, but she doesn’t seen to have any emotional ties now. “I usually travel alone because most of my friends aren’t in the industry and they can’t take chunks of time off in the way I can. I am a bit of a nomad. On your own you have to say yes to things, engage a lot more.”

She certainly seems driven. While she was reading history at Nottingham University she met Carrie Cracknell, who now runs the Gate Theatre in London. They formed a company together and brought a play, The Hush, to the Edinburgh Fringe that ended up being taken to New York and London.

Wilson grew up in Middlesex, with a probation officer mother and a fund manager father. She attributes her confidence to being the younger sister to three brothers. “I must have been a really annoying little sister. Always trying to outdo them. Bit of a tomboy.” Any insecurities at all? “Some, because I’m late twenties and I don’t know what the rest of my life holds. I don’t really plan. I just see what happens.”

And her emotional landscape? “My emotions are contained. I emote in my work but don’t cry much otherwise. I’m level headed, I guess. Someone said last night ‘I can never really work you out. You’re a bit guarded’, but I don’t think I am.”

In Small Island she had to do a sex scene, but made sure it was written into her contract that there would be no nipples in shot. “You have to be careful because those images are on the internet forever. There’s a time and a place for sex scenes, you have to decide whether they are justified.”

Speaking of nudity, she believes you are encouraged to believe that success is associated with fame, wealth and beauty, but it shouldn’t be. “Surveys of schoolgirls show that the person they most want to be is Jordan, but what has her career got to do with creativity or achievement? It’s empty.”

And that, perhaps, explains the arrangement of paparazzi figures on her mantelpiece.


Kirsty Young

On a darkening winter’s afternoon, in a gently lit studio apartment in west London,KirstyYoung sits forward on a sofa looking composed and groomed.The presenter of Desert Island Discs is 41, and today, dressed as she is in black trousers and top, with black varnish on her nails and ash blonde highlights in her shoulderlength hair, she looks like a deftly poured glass of Guinness. In her low and rolling Scottish voice, she is talking about sexual intercourse, for reasons I will explain in a minute.

‘My first boyfriend’s parents had a copy of The Joy of Sex on their shelves,’ she says.’I did look at it, but not properly. I was probably too young to deal with it, even though I thought I was pretty sophisticated. My parents certainly didn’t have a copy.’ By parents she means her mother and the stepfather she has always thought of as her father.They married when she was three. Her biological father, a policeman, walked out on the family when Kirsty was three weeks old. She was born in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, and raised from the age of eight in Stirling, where she attended a coeducational state school.When I ask if she was precocious there, she says:’Yes.Yes I was.’And how old was she when she first had a boyfriend? ‘I suppose my first boyfriend was the one who took me skating, and who walked me home from school. I was 12. I had my first kiss when I was 13. On my parents’ driveway. It was a moment of great magic,actually.’And when she first had sex? How old then? ‘Oh much older. I was a good Protestant girl. I was living in Scotland.Too cold there.You don’t take your vest off until you are 21.’

So she was 21? She laughs.’I’m not telling you how old I was when I lost my virginity!’ So, why are we talking about sex? Well, it is one of the central themes of KirstyYoung’s thought-provoking new four-part documentary series, about to be screened on BBC Two. Called The British Family, it explores the changing nature of the family from the Second World War to the present day, taking in the institution of marriage, the Women’s Liberation Front, contraception, money, divorce, modern parenting and sex.

‘Every generation thinks they invented sex,’ she says.’Yet during the war people were even more promiscuous than they are today. War is very reductive.The prospect of death brings out the most primitive instincts.We look quite puritanical today by comparison.You only need look at the Tiger Woods story to see how puritanical we are.’

The British family is a good subject forYoung because she speaks as a mother (to an eight year-old and a three year-old), a stepmother (to teenage children, 14 and 16) and a daughter of divorce. Did she talk to her mother about what went wrong in her parents’ marriage? ‘When I was very young, my mother told me she had been married before and she must have also told me I was the daughter of that marriage, and so was my sister. She told me again when I was five or six and she said:”Do you remember I told you?” but I didn’t. So she talked about it in a glancing way.We didn’t really talk about it properly until I was in my mid to late teens, but at that age you are only focused on yourself.To her credit, my mother wore her divorce very lightly. It was not her identity. It is not a painful subject for her.’

Even so, there was still a stigma attached to divorce by society at the time. Her mother remembers someone saying ‘and you with those two young girls as well’, as if it was a stain on her character.And if her mother wore her divorce lightly, it may have been for her daughter’s benefit, because, for all her precociousness, the teenage Kirsty did have, as they say nowadays,’issues’.

She suffered from bulimia for a while.Also,you suspect she doesn’t have as much closure on the subject of her parents’ divorce as she claims. ‘Without wishing to sound glib about it, it did happen at a good time for me because I had no memory of it. I never called my dad my stepdad. He feels like my dad. He’s been married to my mother for 37 years. This is the man who walked me up the aisle.The time when it did strike me forcibly was when…’ For a moment she loses her composure. There is a catch in her voice and a wet film appears on her eyes.’When my first daughter was born and she was three weeks old. It seemed a very significant moment, because that was the age I was when my parents split up. I was sitting in the bath wondering how I would feel if my marriage was imploding, when I had this tiny baby in the cot. I felt immensely vulnerable. I thought: “Good God.”‘ She swallows.’The emotional force of it hit me like a ton of bricks.’

One consequence of those formative years is thatYoung now feels she is not judgmental about other people’s circumstances.’People’s lives are full of grey areas. My mother never demonised my biological father, but divorce is full of pain and hurt. It’s traumatic.’ For a father to leave a baby that is just three weeks old, I press, something pretty dramatic must have happened.’I know. My husband was divorced and I am stepmother to his kids and the idea that he would have a life without his older two children is inconceivable.To watch him as a father…’ She trails off. She has said that she has not had ‘a relationship’ with her biological father since he walked out, but inevitably she must have been curious to know what sort of a person he was. Out of loyalty to her stepfather, did she block that curiosity out? ‘Well I did feel that as a teenager. I felt it would be disloyal. But I wasn’t quelling some well of hurt, because I had two parents who loved me.They were very present. I didn’t feel a gaping emotional hole. There were curiosities of course, there reasonably still are. But there weren’t dark moments when I thought I wanted to follow it. I think it is not in my nature to be nostalgic.’ In the documentary,Young has another interesting perspective, that of the self-assured career woman. She explores what she calls ‘the cult of the housewife’ in the Fifties when women were encouraged to think that their main function in life was to do the housework, prepare meals and make babies.As one of her contributors recalled, it left her feeling ‘bored, bored, bored’.

For her own part,Young abandoned her Highers and left school because she felt restless:’As if life was happening elsewhere.’ She sidestepped university and decided to work as an au pair in Spain and Switzerland, before joining STV as a presenter on Scotland Today in 1992.

Five years later she moved south to join the news team on Channel Five, becoming the first British newsreader to perch on her desk. She soon proved herself cool under pressure; reporting the death of Diana, Princess of Wales at 5am, and later, in an epic five-hour live broadcast, covering the events of September 11 for ITV News. She became the first woman to anchor on her own, rather than being alongside a man.

When researching her new documentary, she was intrigued by the advice given by the Marriage Guidance Council in the Fifties.They wanted to promote the idea of a ‘companionable marriage’ and it gave her a new perspective on her own marriage.’Around that time your wife became someone you socialised with.Went for walks in the park with. Before that, men would just go off to the boozer with their mates. It had a big impact. Some 10,000 pubs shut down in the Fifties when men started to stay at home with their wives. My grandparents were married for 60 years and their marriage only ended when my grandfather died. He didn’t drink the money away. He didn’t beat her up. In working-class Glasgow that made him a good husband. Such low expectations.A matter of two generations later what I expect from this same institution – marriage – is almost entirely unrecognisable.’ Her husband is Nick Jones, the multimillionaire businessman who founded Soho House, the private club in London favoured by media types, and Babington House, its country equivalent in Somerset. He went to a boys’ boarding school.’As a consequence,’Young says,’he was about 18 before he worked up the confidence to have a conversation with a girl, which I find charming.’

The world in which they grew up was pretty sexist by today’s standards. One of the most popular programmes on television in the early Seventies was MissWorld.’Can you believe the way they got the contestants to turn around so as they could see their backsides?’Young says. ‘So excruciating. But it was a big event in our house. In fact, we would go next door to watch it because they had a colour television. It was family viewing. I suppose you could say that at least the objectification of woman was all out in the open then. We are not as explicit about it these days.’We are in sensitive territory here, I suspect.Young is a skilful interviewer, but in the past her critics have suggested that, well, her being easy on the eye has not exactly hurt her career.’That’s a hard one for me to judge,’ she says when I ask about this.’I’m perfectly reasonable looking, but I don’t think I am arm candy. It’s certainly not the case that I was such a stratospherically good-looking person that I think they could only have chosen me for my looks. I think I look presentable. But whatever I say on this subject I am only going to end up sounding stupid.’ I ask if she has encountered sexism in her career. ‘Yes, but not badly enough to make me want to throw in the towel. I don’t think it hindered my progress. There were one or two glancing blows perhaps.And there was one occasion when it did bother me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t deal with it particularly well, but I was very young.The flip side is I also gained from being a woman and Scottish. Because I came along at a time when networks were wanting to diversify.Thirty-five years ago, there wouldn’t have been Scottish newsreaders.And you certainly wouldn’t have had a young, female Scottish newsreader. So I think probably I would be kidding myself if I thought my being Scottish and my being a woman hasn’t helped me, if I’m being honest.’ She tells me a story about Michael Heseltine at the 1996 Tory party conference. She was trying to persuade him to appear on Channel Five.’He said:”I’m not going to have some little smartarse in a short skirt get the better of me.” And I thought, how interesting.That made quite an impression on me.

‘So after that I decided to wear trouser suits and speak their language. I made sure I wasn’t projecting a leggy lovely image. I became more conscious of what the clothes I was wearing communicated.’ She reckons that what people remember from the news is the weather, the sport and what she was wearing.’You are lucky if they can tell you the top three stories. It’s what you expect. It’s a visual medium. I’m working in radio now where none of that matters. As long as the voice doesn’t go. I was thrown out of the choir at school for having too deep a voice.They called me old man river.’

As well as Desert Island Discs and her documentaries, Young also has a nice little sideline as one of the regular hosts on Have I Got News ForYou. She comes across as sardonic and knowing, delivering her scripted lines with a poker face and great comic timing.’I get a real buzz from doing that. I realised early on that it is Ian and Paul’s job to be funny and anything else the host does, any ad libs, are a bonus.’ In person she has a dry sense of humour and a gift for impersonation. Her Celia Johnson is spot on and when we talk about the film Anchorman she even captures Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy:'”Go f—yourself, San Diego [pause] One of the best yet.”When I was watching it with my brother and my husband I had tears rolling down my cheeks.They were looking at me and saying,”It’s quite funny, but not that funny.”‘ She could also relate to Broadcast News, even the moment where the anchor gets the sweats. ‘Yes. It’s a fish in water thing; there are people in a studio who just belong there.They are made better by a studio and I think I’m one of them. And there are people who just shouldn’t be there, who get the sweats and, for different reasons, it is a pleasure to watch both. I was nervous the first time I read the news in Scotland. So nervous I got big spots in front of my eyes and I thought I was going to pass out. But I learnt to love it and I don’t understand why people who are perpetually nervous continue to do it.

‘You have to ride the wave of live television and be enough of a perverse creature to enjoy it, because the opportunity to come a cropper is there.The great thing about news is that you never have to watch yourself.You do it and it’s gone. Watching yourself is rarely a pleasure.’

Is there anything about her own appearance she dislikes? ‘Yes, but women look at themselves so much they no longer see themselves. Most women spend time every day doing their hair and make-up and they just don’t see themselves any more. I can only see the faults when I look at my face. I think I look like I’ve got capped teeth and I don’t. I hate that. Don’t like that.’They are certainly very white.’I know.And I’ve never had them bleached.Yet when I see pictures of myself I think:”Ah, the woman with the fake teeth.” I don’t think it’s why I’m employed. People do refer to you as “blonde”, but all I ever tried to do in my job was look polished and presentable. I don’t think my editors chose me for the job because I was blonde.They chose me because I was a good live performer. I could keep my cool.’ She thinks part of the reason she has composure is that she has perspective.

‘All that can go wrong in a studio is that you make a prize a—of yourself. It’s not like you are doing surgery where other people’s lives are affected.As I get older I’m more happy to admit to gaps in my knowledge, because I regard myself as a reasonably well-informed individual. I think when you are 22 and you are trying to prove yourself, it’s different. I’m more relaxed now. A prime example was Morrissey the other day.On Desert Island Discs he read something out in German, Der Nussbaum, and I translated it asThe Walnut Tree and he said:”You read that!”And I said I didn’t. I happened to know it.Twenty years ago I would have been wrong footed.’

There is no denyingYoung’s powers of empathy as an interviewer, or her ability to inspire candour.The comedian DavidWalliams admitted to her that he had questioned his sexuality and battled with depression. Yoko Ono revealed that she had allowed John Lennon to decide whether or not to abort their son Sean.And David Cameron spoke movingly about his severely disabled son, Ivan.

She is into her fourth season of the show now, having been given a rough ride by the critics in the first few months.’I took it quite personally,’ she says.’But now I feel I can do Desert Island Discs without worrying about what people think. I feel I’m doing it justice.And broadcasting on the radio means you don’t have to watch yourself.You are judged only on the strength of your words, the tone of your voice, the sharpness of your mind.’There was another film we could have discussed, To Die For. In that, the ambitious weathergirl played by Nicole Kidman says:’You aren’t really anyone unless you are on TV.’ KirstyYoung became someone by being ‘on TV’, but she now seems to prefer being ‘on radio’. Perhaps ‘on radio’ she feels she is not only doing justice to Desert Island Discs, but also to herself.


Tom Stoppard

Britain’s most infamous playwright talks politics, famous muses and the true meaning of ‘Stoppardian’.

The tall, hunched figure smoking on the roof terrace of the National Theatre has his back to me, but his Wildean mien, and indeed mane, makes him unmistakable.

As he smokes, he contemplates the inky clouds over the equally black Thames and, for a moment, I contemplate him. If only he had a silk scarf draped over his shoulder, this tableau vivant would be complete.

Sir Tom Stoppard’s face, when he turns, is still, at 72, as brooding and handsome as ever. In his youth he was compared with Mick Jagger, because of his pout, but a better comparison would be with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

That a playwright should be compared with a pop star at all is revealing. There was always something quite rock and roll about Sir Tom.

That, indeed, was the title of his most recent play, written in 2006, the one about the role of pop music in the emergence of democracy in Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

His new play, or rather the new National Theatre revival of his old play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), features music too, a full orchestra, with a score written by Andre Previn, and we shall come to that.

Few contemporary playwrights have a style so distinctive that their surname enters the language as an adjective. There’s Pinteresque and Stoppardian and, well, that’s about it.

Stoppardian seems to mean dealing with philosophical concepts in a witty, ironic and linguistically complex way, usually with multiple timelines and visual humour.

A good example is Arcadia (1993), a bittersweet country-house comedy that sweeps between Regency England and today, taking in discussions of romanticism, classicism and thermodynamics.

But what does he think it means? I imagine he is going to groan and say he hates the word, but he shrugs.

‘It doesn’t mean anything as bounded as other epithets made from surnames do. I don’t think Stoppardian has a precise definition.

‘For me, personally, it means something different to what others mean by it. To me it means another hapless, feckless, fatuous episode in my life, brought on by my own forgetfulness or incompetence.’

Example? He thinks. ‘Well, last month I found myself waiting for an electric train in Tokyo, unable to read any of the signs. I was standing on the platform with two cases and this bag,’ he lifts up a bulging, brown leather shoulder bag.

‘It had my passport in it, as well as my money, credit cards, everything. A train arrived early and, as they are incredibly punctual about everything there, I figured it couldn’t be mine. But to make sure, I got on the train to find a guard to show my ticket to.

‘Then I heard a hiss and a clunk behind me and the doors were closing and the train was moving off, with my bags still on the platform. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’m f—ed”.’

This being Japan he got off at the next station, phoned the agent he is with in Japan and his bags were duly collected and sent to meet him on the next train. ‘Anyway, the point of that story is that Stoppardian for me means the ability to cock things up.’

What do we know about Sir Tom Stoppard? He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His family moved to Singapore, where his father was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. His mother remarried a British Army major.

He went to an English public school in the North of England, Pocklington, and instead of going to university, went into journalism, working as a reporter and theatre critic for a Bristol newspaper. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was written in 1966 and proved a critical and box office success.

He married, had two children, got divorced, remarried and had two more children, one of whom, Ed, has become a successful actor.

During his second marriage, to the television presenter, agony aunt and anti-smoking campaigner Dr Miriam Stoppard, he had an affair with Felicity Kendall, the actress he considered his muse. He now lives alone in Chelsea Harbour.

He has written some fine Hollywood screenplays, including Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar, and some average ones such as K-19: The Widowmaker. And he has never stopped having hit plays, though they have become less absurdist and more political over the years.

Sir Tom is hard to place politically. He campaigns about human rights, which is usually a left-leaning cause, but he tells me his impression of David Cameron is that he is ‘an intelligent politician’.

Thatcher, meanwhile, took a shine to him and they met on a few occasions. ‘But I remember feeling out of my depth with her because I’m not a political animal and I shouldn’t have been there. I listened mostly.’

I ask him what he imagines the first line of his obituary will be. He thinks again. ‘Tom Stoppard, the father of the actor Ed Stoppard, has died.’

And when the obituary gives three examples of his plays, what does he suppose they will be? ‘Hmm. I wouldn’t deny you an answer, but I don’t have favourites. I would say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia and the one I am writing now, which I haven’t started.’

Sir Tom likes being sidetracked and he won’t be rushed. Having seen nearly all his plays and rarely been disappointed by them, I expect the rub to be that I will be disappointed by him in person. I am not.

His conversation, as he maunders through linguistics, Cold War politics and aesthetics, is as rich and multilayered as you would hope. ‘I could go on chattering in this garrulous way for hours,’ he says at one point.

Curiously, he seems to swing from insouciance to vague insecurity, from self-deprecation to recognition of the regard in which others hold him.

He also has a love of cheap gags.‘The days of the digital watch are numbered.’ Or: ‘If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music and of aviation.’

There is a typical example in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. A doctor says of a psychiatric patient: ‘Yes, he has an identity problem. I forget his name.’

Sir Tom is cerebral and autodidactic but not, he protests, academic even though his plays are studied in universities.

Has his lifelong intellectual energy and curiosity been a compensation for leaving school at 17?

‘Depends whether you mean compensating for it consciously or unconsciously. Certainly, I didn’t even think of it as a deprivation. I was delighted to not go to university. I couldn’t wait to be out of education. I wanted to be a reporter and I had a wonderful time doing it.

‘It was years and years before I felt a sense that I had missed out on something. I began to have certain kinds of regret about it, but that was partly to do with not having had time to read the stuff that everyone assumed I must have read because everyone has, and partly because those friends of mine who had got to know each other at university I felt were part of some stimulating, linked group and that was enviable. I didn’t feel part of that.’

Perhaps he was liberated by not having gone?

‘I think if I had it would have affected my work. I can imagine that I would not have become a writer at all, or if I had, a different type of writer.

‘I don’t, by the way, look back in poignancy about all that, I don’t worry about it. You deal with what you’ve got. And there are probably aspects to the autodidact life that compensate. They take me into areas where I wouldn’t have had time to go at all.

‘As a playwright, you can cover a lot of waterfront without being able to hold your own against an expert in any of those areas. I have no illusions about that.’

I ask what is it like having experts and academics analyse his work. ‘The thing that happens remarkably often is that the people who are writing a dissertation believe they need to speak to me in order to do their dissertation. They need to interview me,’ Sir Tom says.

‘I have a stock reply which is that “the examiner wants to know what you think, not what I think”. I write polite little notes, which say: “Honestly, you do not need me, you think you do but I am irrelevant to what you are doing.” Obviously, the yes or no factual questions I can answer, but the interpretations…’

He shakes his head. ‘The whole thing derives from a misapprehension about creative writing, which is that the writer is working from a set of principles or a thesis and the play is the end product of that predisposition, but, actually, the idea turns out to be the end product of the play, and the less I know about this play I am trying to write, the better.

‘The more doors there are for you to open, the better the play. Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, if the metaphor had been specific, the play would not have had the freedom to go where it wanted. Some students don’t see it as a metaphor but a puzzle to which I have the answer, and if only I would impart it they would get an alpha.’

He pushes the door ajar and, without rising from the sofa, lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out.

‘A friend of a reporter I knew from the Daily Sketch came to the first night and he said it was about “two reporters on a story that doesn’t stand up”, which was about right.’

We talk about Degas’s tendency to rework his completed works, taking them off the walls and then destroying them by reworking.

‘I would be the other kind of painter, taking paint off rather than adding. I’m not a theoretician about playwriting but I have a strong sense that plays have to be pitched, the scene, the line, the word, at the exact point where the audience has just the right amount of information. It’s like Occam’s razor.’

Of course it is. And as I wrack my brains to think of what Occam’s razor is (something about the simplest explanation being the best one?) I am reminded of something a friend said when I told him I was interviewing Sir Tom: that he always comes out of his plays with a headache. The friend also spoke of Sir Tom’s plays being ‘emotionally cold’.

I don’t see this myself, but it is revealing how divisive a playwright Sir Tom can be. I find his plays warm, but then that warmth may be to do with their humour rather than their emotional texture.

Sir Tom reckons you can ‘miss the laugh’ in two polar ways. ‘You can miss it by giving the audience too much information, so they have no work to do, or you can miss it by not giving them enough.

‘This applies to every line, so it is not a generality about how oblique, or opaque, or transparent the play ought to be. It is a moment-to-moment decision you are making when you are writing the play, rehearsing it and acting it. The perfect play is when the audience has to reach to pick it up.’

He taps a support holding up the shelf behind him. ‘If you take this as the line, with the audience on one side and the author on the other, you have a dead moment if you only get this far.’ He taps the wall on one side of the support. ‘Or if you overshoot to here.’ He taps the other side.

One of the best lines in The Real Thing is spoken by a writer. He is comparing a good script to a cricket bat that is ‘sprung, like a dance floor’. If you hit the ball properly with it it will ‘travel 200 yards in four seconds’ and make a noise ‘like a trout taking a fly’.

If you write a bad script, or hit a ball with an ordinary plank of wood, it will travel about 10ft and you’ll drop the bat and dance about ‘with your hands stuck into your armpits’.

It’s a lovely metaphor and it seems to be about the music of language. Sir Tom lights up another cigarette, nudges the terrace door open a little wider.

‘An actor asked me this morning: “What does this word mean?” and I couldn’t really answer, because the character was in a riff. His words have their value in their sound and their imagery; it didn’t have any logical place in the sentence he was speaking.

‘It’s probably an aspect of the cricket bat speech. The information itself isn’t enough, which is why I am half in terror of being translated because they miss the sound. I think that is the writer’s metaphorical signature you were asking about.’

Sir Tom has translated Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, among other plays, and a few months ago he visited Chekhov’s house near Moscow for the first time and sat in the chair where he wrote The Seagull. ‘It got to me. The chair, the table, the inkpots. I’m susceptible to that kind of romanticism.’

Is there a desk in his own study that he imagines people will one day want to sit at and hold his pen? ‘This is a lose-lose question, because I’m not proud of self-deprecation, even when it is sincere. I cannot think of myself as that sort of person in literary history, and I don’t, actually…’

At this point I interrupt, filling the pause, and he loses his train of thought.

A grin. ‘Perhaps that was God telling me to shut up. For a long time I managed to think two things simultaneously, that I am actually a good playwright, and that the next time I write a play I will be revealed as someone who is no good at all.

‘Part of me wants to avoid revivals because I think people will realise they have been fooled. The scales will fall from their eyes. So, in other words, I don’t have this centre of gravity at all about how good I am or how long I will last and it is better to be circumspect about that.’

While Pinter seemed austere and serious in his black polonecks, Sir Tom always seemed to cut a more romantic, amused, bohemian figure: the windswept hair, the scarves, the muse.

We are on the subject of Felicity Kendall. ‘Yes, she was my muse, in a sense. It’s a funny word. I’m not sure it’s the same as having an actual muse. But wanting to write for particular actors, such as her, goes back to the first time I worked with actors.

‘I wrote Jumpers for John Wood. I loved him as an actor and wanted to write for him. I don’t think the muse was a personification. She was more the spirit of inspiration and I could do with one now. I was thinking the other day, how did I begin last time? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think how I did it.’

For the first time, Sir Tom seems suddenly maudlin. I suggest the way to get around his block might be to write a memoir. Does he keep a diary?

‘No. And here’s a piece of self-analysis for you, I think I am mostly, unconsciously, trying not to co-operate with posterity. I am trying to destroy my papers.’

He sighs. ‘I keep some letters. I have a couple from Laurence Olivier and one from John Steinbeck. But the rest of my life I destroy as I go along.’

With this, he slowly lights up another cigarette and, as if sighing, blows the smoke out into the dark, London air.


Abi Morgan

The terrible actress turned terrific screenwriter, on creating the ‘British Mad Men’ and admiring Thatcher

Having only ever seen a photograph of Abi Morgan before, I find her height comes as something of a surprise. I’m not sure why I imagined she would be a bit taller – something to do with the strength of her voice as a scriptwriter perhaps – but it is only when she sits down, perching on a seat in a London brasserie, that the rules of perspective seem to apply and she looks like she is occupying a space commensurate with her reputation.

She has alert and watchful eyes, a full mouth and cropped hair. And though she is 42, she has the speech habit of a much younger person, raising the intonation at the end of a thought, making her sentences sound like questions. She talks quickly, meanwhile, as if trying to keep up with the activity of her mind.

Morgan first came to prominence with Sex Traffic, her gruelling 2004 drama about prostitution. It won eight Baftas. A number of successes have followed, including Royal Wedding and Brick Lane, and now she is back with The Hour, a six-part Cold War espionage drama set in a 1956 television newsroom. It follows a love triangle between a glamorous producer (played by Romola Garai), a smooth anchorman (Dominic West) and a maverick reporter (Ben Whishaw). And, with its retro stylishness and exploration of sexual politics in a competitive workplace, it has been billed as Britain’s answer to Mad Men.

No pressure, then.

“Yes, I’ve heard of the Mad Men comparisons but I like to think The Hour has its own distinctive voice,” says Morgan. “Although it is set in 1956, I have tried to give it a contemporary edge, and its themes of love, passion, romance, fury, professional jealousy and personal failure are universal, I think. I was particularly keen to give it quick-fire dialogue. For inspiration, I watched His Girl Friday and The Apartment again, films where the dialogue is so elegant and heightened and yet quick-fire. I also wanted to write a group of characters who could return week by week.”

Before she discovered her talent for writing stage plays as well as multi-award-winning screenplays for film and television, Morgan had ambitions to be an actor, like her sister. But she was told to forget it because she was too short. She was also told, by her mother, the actress Pat England, that, even if she were taller, a career as an actor wasn’t going to work out. “My mother came to see me in a play when I was a student,” she says, “and afterwards I asked her what she thought. She said: ‘Honest opinion? No.’”

She was reading drama and literature at Exeter University at the time and the brutal-but-honest assessment proved a blessing. “I wrote a monologue and had a few people come up to me and say: ‘Have you considered writing for a living?’”

She had done little writing up to that point. “Just one rubbish poem when I was 15. But I was an appalling liar as a child, so I think I did have an active imagination. Something interesting may have happened to me, but I would always have to exaggerate it. If I got a bargain for £3, I would have to say I got it for two. I would say my dad was a policeman when he wasn’t. Or that we had a swimming pool at home.”

Clearly, the BBC has high hopes for The Hour; as Morgan says she’s already started work on the second series. In some ways the series is about the BBC itself, the moment it decided it needed more independence from the government, especially in its news coverage. “That was one of the main reasons I chose 1956,” Morgan says. “It was the year of the Suez Crisis. I wanted it to reflect the end of British imperialism and colonialism and show the transition of power between the old establishment and the new order.”

When doing her research, was she surprised by the casual sexism of the Fifties? “That was the hardest thing for me to write because I couldn’t quite believe how bad it was. I know that half the world today is still very patriarchal but, as a relatively independent woman who has been able to combine a career with raising a family, I couldn’t relate to it. I did my research but kept thinking: is this too much? Were they really like that? I asked my mum and she said it was normal to be felt up by your boss in the lift and nothing would be said about it.”

In The Hour, Bel Rowley, a spirited and ambitious television producer played by Garai, encounters sexism on a daily basis. Has Morgan ever experienced it herself? “Of course I am aware that there is a level of sexism in any large institution, but I find in television and film most of the producers are women. The producer on The Hour was a woman, the director was a woman, the script editor was a woman and the writer was a woman. And the head of BBC Two is a woman. But I think that may be about being in an arts community. It may also be I don’t acknowledge it, I don’t allow it to exist in my world.”

Is that to do with being raised by a mother who was liberal-minded? “I think so. I try to be a liberal mother, too. I have a son who is nine and a daughter who is seven and I am often struck by how much spirit and independence my daughter has. She plays football and drums and has no sense of inequality in the way I might have done.”

Although she likes to write on trains and planes, Morgan works mostly from her home in north London. “The children are around, but I have a wonderfully supportive husband [Jacob Krichefski]. He’s an actor so is often at home. I think my children understand that when Mummy’s door is closed, she is working.” She must have a strong work ethic. Mental discipline and all that. “I can be really disciplined and I can be really lazy. I can be walking around M&S at three in the afternoon and take a call and say ‘Yeah, I’m just working on the script now, just looking over the last third,’ while actually I’m looking at what vegetables I’m going to buy. I never get writer’s block, but I do have days where I crawl under the duvet.”

Morgan’s parents met at drama school. Her father, now dead, wasn’t a policeman but rather the director of the Gulbenkian Theatre in Newcastle. After they split up when she was 11, it was acrimonious, with her father taking the furniture. She was raised by her mother, who was always moving around the country in repertory theatre, from Wales to Stoke on Trent. “It was a bohemian life, certainly,” she says. “We were always broke. My mum would find work where she could. It gave me a sense of how powerless an actor is. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a writer instead, to have some control over my life, some security. My memories of my mother are of her arriving home at midnight with actor friends and saying: ‘Come on! Get up! Let’s have a party!’ As a sleepy child I would observe these actors and admire their vitality but also think: don’t they get tired? I appreciate actors more now than I did then.”

As one of the most in-demand scriptwriters in the country, Morgan has quite a few other projects in the pipeline. Indeed, she is booked up for the next seven years. She has two stage plays on this year, a film about the suffragettes and an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens’s secret lover.

And finally, after numerous failed attempts by various scriptwriters, a BBC adaptation of Birdsong. It will be in two parts, 90 minutes each. Shooting starts this summer. “I’ve been working on it for a long time. Birdsong has certainly had a journey.” Does Sebastian Faulks approve? “I think so.” She sounds cautious, as well she might, given that the novelist once said: “I would be happy if Birdsong is never made into a film.”

Her other big project, due out early next year, is The Iron Lady, a feature film about Baroness Thatcher (who is played by Meryl Streep, no less). Already it is swirling in controversy, not least because Thatcher’s children, Mark and Carol, have said: “It sounds like some Left-wing fantasy.” When I ask about it, Morgan says quickly: “For contractual reasons I can’t talk about it, I’m afraid.”

There were rumours that it had to be rewritten a lot. “Yeah, it did a bit.” Because it was too much of a “Left-wing fantasy”? “I’m not going to comment on it.” The stills from the movie look great, I say. Thanks to a skilful make-up artist, Streep’s eyes have been made to look downturned, exactly like Thatcher’s. It’s uncanny. How did Morgan feel when she heard Streep had agreed to take on the role? “So delighted. Dream casting. She was my first choice. Look, all I will say about it at this stage is that I think Thatcher fans will be pleasantly surprised.”

Morgan – a Guardian reader – once said she qualified as a “Thatcher youth” because she grew up in fear of poverty. She also said: “If there was one thing I admired about Maggie, it was her certainty. But that was also what I disliked about her.”

So what might we expect of The Iron Lady? Well, her drama Royal Wedding might give a clue. Set in 1981, it examines the effects of Thatcher’s policies on a small working-class community in south Wales, contrasting the fairy-tale fantasy that was the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer with the grim reality of lay-offs at the local factory.

Is it fair to say there is often social realism in her writing? “I think I’m always interested in the relationship of the personal and the political,” she says carefully. “I was very inspired, growing up in the north, by Ken Loach, Jack Rosenthal and Mike Leigh.” All the usual right-wing suspects. She laughs. “Yeah, right.” So she could be described as a left-winger? “Yes, in terms of my influences, but actually I think I’m a chameleon.”

It is time for her to be photographed. As we go in search of the photographer, there comes an uncharacteristic hint of vulnerability, but also the “control” of which she has spoken. “Please don’t make me sound like an idiot,” she says. She need not worry on that score.


Alexander Armstrong

Daytime TV, Saturday night talent shows, ads for shopping centres in Durham: is there nothing the more puppyish half of Armstrong & Miller won’t do?

In one crucial respect, Alexander Armstrong, Xander to his friends, is not your typical comedian. I’ve met a few and they can be quite hard work. Introverted. A little awkward socially. Generally pretty miserable. But Armstrong is, by his own admission, “dementedly optimistic” and “a slightly irritating enthusiast” who is happiest first thing in the morning, opening curtains, and waking his three young children up so that he can play with them. He is also an extrovert, according to his comedy partner Ben Miller (who, let the record show, conforms to type by describing himself as “an introvert”).

Perhaps it is because Armstrong is also an actor and television presenter. At the moment he is on our screens co-presenting a series for the BBC called The Great British Weather, and in the autumn he will be back on the BBC hosting Epic Win, a prime-time Saturday night game show that is intended to rival The X Factor. You see the enthusiasm, warmth and social confidence as soon as Armstrong bounds into the subterranean bar in London where we meet, all crinkly smiles and handshakes, like a big friendly labrador. This is in contrast to the slightly arch and deadpan persona he has when he presents Have I Got News For You.

Though at 6ft 3in he is “the tall one” out of Armstrong & Miller, in person he is somehow not as tall as you expect. And though it is not visible from the front, at 41, his hair is heading the way of a monkish tonsure at the back. He has a mobile face and, generally, with his linen suit and pink gingham shirt, he looks like he has stepped out of a Boden catalogue.

His manner is slightly distracted (he is pretty hopeless at remembering names) and as a colleague he says he can be impatient and a dilettante. He is the one who paces back and forth while Miller sits at the keyboard and does the writing. “I’m a great believer in standing up and pacing,” he says. “It gives you a psychological advantage over the person sitting down. The trade off is the writer does most of the editing.” Although he is recognisable, he accepts he is not as recognisable as Miller. “I have these massive ears,” he says, “which I suppose make me stand out. But for a long time Ben was always the one who was recognised, partly because of his bleached hair, which, thank God, he doesn’t have anymore. People would shout out ‘Ben! Ben!’ and I would stand there drumming my fingers.”

When he was the subject of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? last year, Armstrong got to see portraits of his illustrious forebears; his big ears are genetic. Though his father, now retired, was a GP in rural Northumberland, his ancestors were somewhat grand.

There were a few barons on his father’s side that he already knew about, but what came as a surprise to him during filming was the scattering of dukes on his mother’s. “Perhaps it did pander to some desperate source of pride in me. ‘Of course, of course,’ I thought. ‘It all makes sense now, that’s why I am like I am.’” The expert from Burke’s Peerage toyed with him a bit. “There was something about his tone when he pushed a book across the table showing my immediate Irish side of the family and he said, ‘Quite grand but small fry in aristocratic terms.’ It was just enough to peak me and I must have looked slightly hurt. He knew what was to come.”

Though he admits to a palpable feeling of relief that the programme revealed that his illusions of grandeur weren’t delusions, he says the thing he would have most liked to have inherited is his father’s patience.

After public school (Durham), Alexander Henry Fenwick Armstrong went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read English (on a choral scholarship, incongruously enough). Though he, like Miller, joined the Footlights, they didn’t meet properly until they moved to London after graduation. He has hardly had any fallow periods in his career since then.

He taps the table. “Yes, touch wood. Johnny Depp says there is no formula for success, it is all dumb luck and he is right. But what he should have added is that there is most definitely a formula for luck and that is simply to make sure you are ready when opportunity calls.” So for him, then, the opportunity came 18 years ago when he found the right comedy partner in Miller? And that meant being ruthless because he was already in a comedy partnership?

“Yes, my double act partner at the time was David Wolstencroft, who had been at Cambridge with me. But, as a performing double act, I didn’t think we were the best pairing and so I started working with Ben. Though when I started with Ben I hadn’t told David, and Ben and I bumped into him in the King’s Road and we had our arms full of comedy props we had just bought. David said: ‘What are you doing?’ It was an awful moment.” Have they talked about it since? “We have, but I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me. David went on to write Spooks, so he’s done incredibly well and it’s all down to me!”

It hasn’t always been smooth going with Miller either. Armstrong and Miller had a bit of a falling out in 2002, both longing for some creative freedom to build separate careers.

One of their strengths as a comedy partnership, he thinks, is that they are equal – there isn’t a Morecambe to the other’s Wise – but it does mean that “we squabble over parts. And some parts are obviously better than others.” Tellingly, they share the lead role in their most popular recurring sketch, that of the two Second World War RAF pilots who trade cut-glass chit-chat in “street” language. “That’s so unfair,” one says to the other. “That is so massively disrespecting of your trousers.” “I know, blood. Isn’t it, and everything?”

The “isn’t it” instead of “innit” is the closest they have to a catchphrase. “Yes, and when we first started doing it I didn’t realise it had caught on. I was filling up with petrol in Northumberland and the guy behind the till looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t it? Isn’t it?’ I couldn’t work out what he meant, then I finally got it.”

Though they are “on a break” from the sketch show, they are working on other Armstrong and Miller projects. “We’ve just piloted a sitcom for Channel 4 that is written by Simon Nye and we’ve been developing a comedy drama for the BBC written by Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford.

“The script is being written as we speak, 18 months down the line. But I’m not really allowed to say what it’s about yet.” Oh go on. “Oh, OK. The idea is that Ben and I are two Cambridge graduates who had been in the Footlights together but are now working at the Foreign Office. In their downtime they are still doing the comedy circuit and when their big break comes at the Foreign Office, an undercover assignment for MI6, that is the day they are also told they have a Saturday night show on television, so they lead this ridiculous double life.” I ask about his own time with the Footlights. Did it mean he had a ready made network when he came down to London?

“It wasn’t really like that. I came down in ’92 and had four years of living in a garret. It was one of those times when the BBC was agonising over its colonial past, having a purge against Oxbridge. They actually had an active non-Oxbridge policy in BBC light entertainment because it was thought too heavily biased towards Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue. We were told, ‘Sorry, we can’t have any more toffs at the BBC.’” Couldn’t he have put on his famous Durham accent? “Aye man, what y’ talking aboot?”

Did he feel an outsider at boarding school in Durham because of his plummy accent?

“When we were at Rothbury [primary] school we did slip in to an accent as soon as we said goodbye to our parents. At birthday parties I didn’t know what voice to speak in. It was about fitting in, because you didn’t want to get beaten up. But when I got to Durham School I held my nerve and talked as we did at home. That said, there were lots of ‘poshos’ there, like Hugo Massingberg Mundy, who ended up adopting a Durham accent. It’s like the Geordie accent. So much emotion. So earnest. Like Cheryl Cole. She’s the best. Such a warm voice.”

Well, he might be working with her if the rumours are true that she is moving over to the BBC for Saturday nights. “Well I would like that. I love her on The X Factor.”

So his new show, Epic Win, is being billed as “the first Saturday night format to marry the worlds of panel-show comedy with talent-show entertainment”. It will include a Smurf collector who can recognise any figurine by its silhouette and a man who can read hundreds of bar codes. “Yes it’s quite quirky. Doing Pointless [another game show he presents] on daytime television has been a revelation for me, because, obviously, it being daytime and a game show, I had misgivings about it. But it was such a winning formula. You just get drawn into it. There is room to make it into something else and I think Epic Win will be like that. Eccentrics showing their skills.”

And The Great British Weather? “Yes, very timely, because it’s been such a weird year for weather so far. We talk to experts like Michael Fish and Bill Giles and we get Freddie Flintoff to explain how moisture in the air affects the swing of the ball. Things like that. And we talk about how the weather affected history. The Spanish Armada seen off because of the weather and so on.”

He is certainly eclectic in his television work, and positively promiscuous when it comes to his advertising. He is best known for the Pimm’s adverts but once found himself doing a voice-over for a shopping centre and did stop and think: “Why am I doing this?” Actually, he was probably doing it because comedy is such a fickle profession. “It can be insecure,” he says. “I used to regularly wake up and start doing sums in my head. Oh lord, I’ve got to pay this and this and I think I’ve got that coming in and then I have to deduct agent’s fees and tax.”

Well, he seems comfortable enough now. With that, off he goes, glad-handing the photographer and his assistant, all smiles and bustling enthusiasm, the Labrador once more.


Andrew Marr

On my way to meet Andrew Marr, I get a call from him. A meeting has finished earlier than he expected so could we bring our interview forward by half an hour? Such is his frenetic life. It is Monday afternoon. This morning, he hosted Start the Week on Radio 4. Yesterday he presented his weekly political show on BBC1. On Thursday (tonight) his latest documentary series, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, will begin on BBC2. Oh, and he’s just delivered the manuscript for the second volume of his best-selling History of Modern Britain. I imagine it is another doorstopper, the first having weighed in at about 30 lbs.

He will be 50 in July, which makes him too old to be having a mid-life crisis. So what is it all about, this freakish workload?

When he arrives at our rendezvous in Holborn, holding a BlackBerry to his ear and carrying a framed painting he has just bought (those spare minutes weren’t wasted), I ask him. “It’s fear of laziness,” he says. “I have an indolent streak and would lie around on a sofa eating chocolate all day if I didn’t fill up every minute. It’s also that I have an unbelievably short attention span. A grasshopper mind. Spending time focusing on one thing drives me nuts with boredom.”

Bet he’s relaxing company at home. “I am capable of relaxing. I run. Is running eight miles a week relaxing? I don’t know.” Well it’s not exactly standing and staring. “OK, I draw and paint.”

Activity again. “Yes, I suppose it is doing something, rather than relaxing in the sense of doing nothing. Um, um, OK, I drink. And eat chocolate.”

What’s slightly galling about all this activity, this quantity of work, is that it has real quality. His new documentary not only has the production values of an Attenborough wildlife programme, there is also an original and thought-provoking thesis behind it. Over three, hour-long episodes, Marr explores Darwin’s influence on thinkers as diverse as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

The Freudian ideas, especially, seem poignant in light of our discussion about Marr’s restlessness and drive. He reckons that Darwin inspired Freud when he concluded that all human behaviour could be explained in terms of our sexuality.

“Not all, most,” Marr corrects now. “There are other things going on for Freud. Fear of death. Primal things. Competitive issues. But certainly in terms of showing off, the peacock aspects, yes. It’s all about sex.”

Marr has form on the subject of Darwin, having championed him in 2002 for the poll to name the Greatest Briton. (He is also the president of the Galapagos Conservation Trust.) But it seems everyone wants a piece of Old Beardie now, and it’s not just to do with the anniversary of his birth. I mean, we’re talking about a cult here, aren’t we?

Marr nods earnestly. “Yes, thanks to popularisers such as Richard Dawkins. The cult of Darwin is also to do with the recent leaps in our understanding of genetics and climate change. They have made an interest in biology a crucial area of debate. There is a danger in Darwin becoming an ersatz deity, though. I thought of that going into the Natural History Museum. It’s like a Gothic cathedral. There Darwin is, where the altar would be, with his god-like beard and domed head. He’s got his bishops and there have been schisms.”

While Darwin was agnostic, his disciple, Marr, is a full-on atheist. He was brought up a Christian, but at the age of 15 had “a blinding moment of disbelief”.

Marr was born in Scotland and went to boarding school there – “all Latin, the cane and unheated swimming pools” – before going to Cambridge, where he took a first in English. His intellectual confidence; was it nature or nurture? “I don’t know. My parents were bright. My mother went to Cambridge and my father was an investment trust manager. At my first school, I was an academic catastrophe, so my parents took me out at the age of eight or nine and sent me to a boarding school. I was a daydreamer there. And an obsessive bookworm.”

In the introduction to his book My Trade (2004) he writes that he couldn’t sing, act, tell jokes, play an instrument, catch a ball or speak another language, “and I had the iron determination of a butterfly. Journalism seemed the only option”. It is nice self-deprecation, I say, but disingenuous surely.

“Actually, there was some truth to that. I remember applying for a job in a second-hand bookshop and not getting it.” He went on to become an award-winning columnist and, in 1996, the editor of The Independent. But his time in newspapers also represented a moment of failure for him. “Absolutely. I was sacked. Twice. From the same job. A rare distinction.”

How did his ego recover? “It was a big blow because I was relatively young, late thirties, and I had had a seamless, upward trajectory and was bumptiously self-confident. It was fairly brutal – the bin bag at the bottom of the stairs. But the thing about being an editor is that it turns your head. Everyone defers to you. I was probably quite difficult to deal with, because I thought I was so clever.”

Then the BBC picked up the phone and he became political editor? “More or less. As one eminent newscaster said to me, ‘Don’t worry, think of it as a conversation – a conversation with five million people and everyone wants you to screw it up.’ My knees were trembling and my palms were sweating for the first few months. I did once go blank. I wanted to say, ‘Blair picked up a stick and jabbed it into the middle of an anthill.’ What I actually said was he jabbed it ‘into the middle of a hill of… flying flies.’
I crept away, thinking I was going to be fired. No one said anything until the next morning, when the gatekeeper at Millbank looked over her glasses and said, ‘Hmm, a little bit Salvador Dali last night, Andrew.'”

I ask him what morale is like at the BBC these days. From the outside, it looks like the place has had a collective loss of nerve. “I think that when the Jonathan Ross salary thing came up it was too much for some people. There is an element of 1789 and the tumbrils about what is going on. But in our defence, I would say the BBC was never intended to be all things to all people.”

His own BBC salary must be quite sizeable; is it the money that motivates him to take on so much work? “No. Though I do have certain financial responsibilities as a father.”

Marr lives in East Sheen with his wife Jackie Ashley, the political columnist, and their three teenage children. As one of his daughters is coming back from holiday today and he would like to see her “before she crashes out”, we call it a day and share a taxi to Waterloo. Seems he’s a wage slave like the rest of us, I say, but what about if he won the Lottery? “I would become a full-time painter.”

Really? Surely he would go mad with boredom. He laughs. “Possibly. Yes, possibly you’re right.”


Bette Midler

The woman who began her career singing in seedy bath-houses is now the star of the biggest, brashest, lewdest show Vegas has ever seen. Why then, does she still feel like an impostor?

The prima donna-ish behaviour is there in the subtext, between the lines of those around her, in the way the air seems to tighten before she enters a room. I’ve been told, for example, that it is ‘very’ important that I arrive on time – 3pm sharp – because ‘Miss Midler likes things to run smoothly’. Best to get there 15 minutes early, actually.

As it happens, train times dictate that I am there an hour early, but I figure the foyer of the Connaught hotel is as nice a place as any to kill time. I’m just settling into a book when the air tightens and a strong-voiced American asks who is joining her for lunch. I look up to see Bette Midler, all 5ft 1in of her, with a green pashmina draped theatrically over her shoulder. Three men and a woman are hovering around her, a dance of attendance. The singer/actress/comedienne is 63, but the blondeness of her hair and the smoothness of her skin says 10 years younger. Certainly she is recognisable. The high cheek bones, the full mouth, the chin like the prow of a ship. Once she and her entourage have taken their seats in the restaurant, a couple of the waiters nudge each other and whisper her name.

I get a message to say what I already know, that Elvis, as it were, has entered the building. It also says that she is ‘in good spirits’. Well, phew to that. She can be very difficult, with one interviewer describing her ‘terrifying gaze that threatens to turn you to stone’. Strong photographers have been reduced to tears, apparently, and one boyfriend who crossed her found that his car had been crashed into. She tells the story herself. She was in a Jaguar that was insured. He was driving an Oldsmobile that wasn’t. You don’t mess with Midler. You arrive on time.

Needless to say, it is 3.45 before the interview starts. We are upstairs in her suite, a suite with several doors leading off it. She has entered through one of them, having changed out of what Americans call slacks into a just-above-the-knees skirt, high heels and a bright red top that shows her cleavage. She now has big eyelashes, two black butterflies resting on her cheeks. Show time.

‘I hear you’re in good spirits,’ I say.

‘And if I wasn’t I would know how to pretend,’ she says crisply.

And presumably if you pretend to be happy, you become happy. ‘Exactly, I try to be upbeat and that can be self-fulfilling. It is about acting “as if”. Act as if everything is just great. Things lighten up when you do that. It’s about stepping into character.’

Let’s address this character she steps into first, then. It, she, ‘The Divine Miss M’ as she used to style herself, is warm, funny and camp. To emphasise a point she rolls her eyes and pulls faces. She is or was (she always wore wigs on stage) a larger-than-life, wisecracking redhead who could be bawdy and insinuating one moment and then sing a tender ballad the next. A fairly gentle example of her humour is what she once said in her act about Madonna: ‘Pity the poor soul who has to rinse out that gal’s lingerie.’ But actually her comedy route was so spectacularly lewd, even now, 30 or so years on, I struggle to find an example I can quote or even allude to in a family paper. Think cunnilingus, erections, flatulence…

One of the alter egos she does in her show is a mermaid in a wheelchair. That says it all really. ‘I didn’t invent tack,’ she once said. ‘But I definitely brought it to its present high popularity.’

As a film star, her most memorable characters were versions of herself, from the self-destructive rock star in her Oscar-nominated film The Rose (1979), to those string of comedies in the mid-Eighties – Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People (in which she played an obnoxious wife opposite Danny DeVito, one who became more sympathetic as the film progressed) and The First Wives Club.

She was good, too, opposite Woody Allen in Scenes from a Mall – again, a version of her own character. In truth, she was so charismatic playing herself that it was hard to cast her as anyone else.

There is something very glitzy and Vegas about this character, then.

Very Caesar’s Palace. She is doing a two-year residency there at the moment – performing about 200 days, in rotation with Cher and Elton John. She got off lightly. Celine Dion had to do five years before she was given parole. They do it for the money. Midler is reportedly being paid $150 million. Her show is called The Showgirl Must Go On and everything about it is big, big, big. Twenty high-kicking showgirls.

More sequins and feather boas than the imagination can cope with. Midler describes it as ‘not only the biggest show of my career but the biggest show in the history of showbusiness’.

We talk about how Las Vegas has its origins in the Great Depression. The town wouldn’t have been built there in the desert had it not been for the construction of the Hoover Dam, that towering symbol of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It soon became a place for people to escape the doom and gloom, live out their fantasies. Presumably she is noticing history repeat itself at the moment? ‘Definitely, my audiences want spectacle and glitter. They want escapism and I give it to ’em, right between the eyes. That’s what entertainment is, escapism. People in my profession give themselves airs and graces, but essentially it is about entertaining, helping people forget their lives. I used to be mortified in the Sixties at the thought that that was what I was. I didn’t want to be known as this kind of entertainer, I wanted to be a serious actress, a serious singer, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised an entertainer is not such a bad thing to be. I’m kind of proud that I’ve survived and that I’m good at what I do. I must have had some talent and done something right to be still doing it. Most of the kids I started with have given up.’

This sounds modest enough, it is even said with a slight stutter, but when she returns to this theme, as she does from time to time, she speaks more quickly and her resolve hardens. Increasingly, she bigs herself up, tells me several times about how proud she is of her achievements. But the secret, she reckons, is to think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread but know you’re not. With Midler, it seems, there is a mask of confidence covering her insecurities. Is that fair? ‘Sure I feel like an impostor sometimes. Everyone does. I’m a worrier.’ It’s a Jewish thing, she adds. Worry, worry, worry. She’s a bit of a hypochondriac, for example. And she says that however confident you are about your skills, you are never quite sure how divine you actually are.

But is she happy more often than she is unhappy? ‘I’m happy at the moment. Happy that I’m not touring because the market has fallen out of that for a lot of people and being in one location, Vegas, is a good alternative. The population there changes every three days. They want to see the one big show. They are laughing and crying and it is therapeutic. They come away feeling buoyant. My husband stands back and sobs openly.’

Oh come on, she’s not that bad… (No, I didn’t really say that. Of course I didn’t. She means her husband Martin von Haselberg weeps with pride.) Is that when she sings Wind Beneath My Wings? ‘He loves the flights of fancy in the show. He likes the wackiness. He thinks that’s inspired. He loves it back stage. But yeah, when I sing Wind Beneath My Wings, that’s my guy.’

Because? ‘When I was on the road and on location he had to pick up the slack with our daughter. He sacrificed a lot. He kept her on the straight and narrow, knew how to reel her in.’

Their daughter was a handful? ‘No, it was more my daughter never wanted to hear any advice, always wanted to go her own way. You know, she was like, “If you say that one more time I’ll never speak to you again”.’

Sophie, their daughter, looks spookily like her mother. Midler calls her Mini-me. She has just graduated from Yale. Now that must have made her proud. ‘Hey, we must have done something right. We were proud, so proud. One of the best days of my life. She read Chinese at university. She lives in China now. Martin taught her German and she is trilingual.’

Midler went to Hawaii University. Read drama. She had grown up there, the third of four children and had worked in a pineapple-canning factory. While she sorted she sang ‘at the top of my lungs’ and no one could hear. She reckons this is the reasons her lungs ‘are made of leather’. She has said that nothing beats working in a pineapple factory. It was one of the happiest jobs she had, along with go-go dancing. For all this happiness, though, she was desperate to leave the island. Now she says that her fellow citizen of Hawaii, Barack Obama, has made much better peace with the place than she has.

The problem was she grew up in what she describes as ‘dire poverty’. Her father ‘worked like a dog all his life’ as a painter for the Navy. Her mother was a seamstress. Her parents weren’t very demonstrative. They showed her ‘plenty of emotion’, but they didn’t give ‘much love’. ‘There was a lot of yelling going on. It made me self-centred, a result of not getting any attention as a child. If you are neglected, you go for it elsewhere.’

I ask whether, as a mother to Sophie, she has consciously tried to avoid being like her own mother was with her. ‘My mother didn’t know we were there. She was in her own world trying to make ends meet. I was more hands-on, trying to make a well-rounded person. But it was Martin who provided Sophie with everything she needed, when I wasn’t there.’

It is touching the way she refers to her husband. She uses words such as ‘cosy’. Talks about how they ‘suit’ each other. Says their relationship is nothing to do with drugs and alcohol or having a ‘whoopee life’. She is the breadwinner. He does the cooking. He used to be a commodity broker, and some-time performance artist. That was how they met. Their marriage got off to an unconventional start. It was in Vegas. An Elvis impersonator conducted the service. ‘Yeah,’ she says now. ‘We only got our wedding pictures back last year after 24 years. Got a letter from a guy saying, “I’m closing my chapel and I thought you would like these”.

‘He sent us our pictures and we looked like children, even though we were quite old. I was 37, Martin was a couple of years younger, and all his hair is dark, no grey hairs. I’m a redhead. My hair is silver now, but you can’t tell. It was frivolous to do it there with an Elvis impersonator but it was a whim.’ It took them a long time to get to know each other properly, she adds. All their friends said it wouldn’t last.

She shakes her head, gives her easy smile. ‘Boy, the time. Time used to be so sleepy and slow. I swear they have cut an hour down to 15 minutes.’

How does she keep the spark in her marriage alive? ‘We don’t always. There were plenty of times we felt like throwing in the towel because it was so hard, with my working. But we kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was hard. We kept plodding along and each success you have within the framework of the marriage you build on.’

They live in New York but her husband goes with her to Vegas for her residencies. Does she have homely touches in their rooms there – family photos, ornaments, flying ducks? ‘No, we live in the hotel and it’s OK now that I have moved rooms. I was getting distressed because everything in the suite they gave me was grey. Grey walls, grey rugs, grey furniture. Grey, grey, grey and right across the road they were putting this new tower up, so for the first 77 shows I was tearing out my hair. I’m an artist so I’m sensitive to colour and light. I was getting depressed. Getting the blues. I begged them to move me and they gave me the Asian suite which is where all the high-rollers from Asia stay… It has doors and you can breathe the air and that has made such a difference.’

The worst part of success, she reckons, is finding someone who is happy for you. She has a new album out, a collection called Best Bette, and it shows her range – pop, jazz, soul, swing, music hall. Since its release in this country it has sold 400,000 copies. I’m happy for her, I say. ‘Thank you, thank you. This album has taken me by surprise. No one ever told me I had so many fans here! It’s strange to find this out at my age, but then everything surprises me about getting old. I’ve never been this old before. I never thought I’d feel this good.’

Her career began in earnest on Broadway in the late Sixties when she starred in Fiddler on the Roof. One of her two sisters was killed by a taxi on her way to see the show and it took Midler a long time to recover her equilibrium, and career. In the early Seventies she reinvented herself as Bathhouse Bette, a cabaret act singing in New York’s bathhouses, a meeting place for gay men. Her accompanist on piano was one Barry Manilow. ‘It was such a fun time,’ she recalls. ‘Camp. Frivolous. I was getting a chance to do all the things I dreamed of. It was kind of a wave you rode. You didn’t want to look too closely. I didn’t think it would ever end. I’m happy I didn’t know better. If I had known then what I know now, what a struggle it can be, I might not have done it.’ She adopts a squeaky voice: ‘How did I get so far on sooo little?’ But when she takes stock now, does she feel fulfilled? I mean, isn’t the fact that she hasn’t got performing out of her system yet tantamount to a kind of failure? ‘When I was 50 I had a big party and I looked back and felt good about it. It hadn’t all been for me, me, me. I had done stuff for other people. Yes, I had done some beautiful shows and I had sung some beautiful music, but sometimes I was in too much of a hurry. On the whole, I was very proud of myself.’

And her film career? ‘Yes, I’m very proud of that, too.’

Even Jinxed!, the 1982 film that received such poisonous reviews it nearly finished her career for good? It bombed. Everybody blamed her.

She didn’t work again for a couple of years. ‘No, Jinxed! was a turkey.’

She flutters her hand, waving the memory away. ‘People ask if I’m pissed off I don’t make pictures any more but I’m not. I had a good run. You have to make your peace with that and not cling. You know, you can’t keep saying, ”Why isn’t it me, goddamit.” You can’t be bitter.’

Sounds like something she might have been told in therapy, something she doesn’t entirely believe. Still, what about her life generally? Has she done things she is ashamed of? She gasps. ‘Oh! SO many things. I can’t even talk about it. I wake up screaming in the night. Some things, I’m so appalled at the way I behaved!’ I lean forward. Like what? Like what? ‘I really can’t talk about it, but I was cruel more than once. I never wanted to be like that but the DEVIL made me do it. Even I was disturbed by my behaviour. I felt ashamed. I still wake up shivering. But I feel I have done enough good to balance it out.’

Blimey. Does she sleep well? ‘I don’t sleep at all. Sleep really badly. Always exhausted. It’s a function of getting old. No more melatonin. No more hormones. I have to do a lot of exercise. That helps a bit. But I still sleep badly.’

Bette Midler is more delicate and dignified than I had imagined. She has better posture, too, sitting straight-spined in her chair, her hands cupped demurely in her lap. And while it’s true that, as someone once wrote, she always looks like she is on the brink of an amusing rebuttal, she is, actually, for all the cheerful brassiness of her stage persona, quite ladylike.

She says she would never discuss money because she is ‘a lady’. It’s meant as a joke but you suspect she thinks that a lady is exactly what she is, or would like to be. She mocks herself, her shallowness, says she is like a magpie because she loves ‘shiny stuff’, but you suspect this is a defence mechanism, that she is saying it before someone else does. She wishes she had been taken more seriously, especially in her film career.

One of her most memorable roles, after all, was not a comedy but a weepy – Beaches. Hers was an odd film career. She began to think Hollywood was out to get her, but in fairness she did make some bad calls – she turned down the lead role in Misery, and despite the fact that Sister Act was written for her, she turned that down, too.

She admits she does still call around from time to time. ‘I get on the phone and I ask people, “Is there anything out there?”‘ And when she quickly adds that she has no regrets now and that she accepts her film career is over, you know that she protests too much.

Is she any good at switching off, chilling out? ‘The trouble is I overcommit myself. I just keep thinking I don’t have much time left! There are so many things I haven’t done that I wanted to do. Darn, I should have learned French.’

Does she keep a diary? People find that therapeutic. ‘I don’t, no. But I have started photographing everything. If I don’t photograph everything there are months when I don’t know what I’ve done. My memory is so shabby. I put the photographs in a scrapbook then I have a record of my life. It’s a full life, no question, but it’s not all meaningful. There is a lot of crap. There are highs but then there is also garbage, garbage, garbage.’

She sits up and widens her eyes. ‘Shall I take your picture? May I take your picture? Ken! Ken!’ A member of her entourage appears from behind a door. ‘Ken. Take his picture.’ She bounds over from her chair and cuddles up next to me on the sofa. I battle momentarily with my English reserve then put my arm around her. Click.

When Ken turns the digital camera to show us the picture, we are both grinning like lunatics.


Charley Boorman

Charley Boorman held Angelina Jolie as a baby and had starred in several Hollywood films before he left school. Yet today he’s best known as Ewan McGregor’s globe-trotting wing man. How will he fare travelling the world on his own? Nigel Farndale joins him in Nepal to find out

Kathmandu has its own gravitational pull, for Western backpackers at least. They come to get stoned and sit on the steps of the temples, as their hippy forebears did, though nowadays they do it wearing Fat Face fleeces and listening to iPods. I am here to meet Charley Boorman and accompany him on the next leg of his round-the-world journey – into the foothills of the Himalayas – and I have been tracking his progress, mobile signals permitting, as he was himself pulled into Kathmandu’s orbit, crossing the border into Nepal from India on a tractor, covering ground on an elephant, paddling in a dugout canoe down a river. Adventurous stuff. Travel by any means.

This is the name of his latest conceit: By Any Means. It follows the runaway success of Long Way Round, in which he and Ewan McGregor circumnavigated the globe on their motorbikes, and Long Way Down in which they rode from John O’Groats to Cape Town. The idea, this time, is that Boorman will travel from Ireland, where he grew up, to Australia, using any means of transport other than commercial aircraft. This trip will take about four months, and is the subject of a BBC documentary series and a book.

Pretty much what he was doing on his previous trips with McGregor, then. Except there is no McGregor this time. The actor is filming in LA. Boorman is on foot and on his own, apart from his producer, Russ Malkin, and his cameraman, both of whom worked on the earlier trips. And the big question is, will viewers want to watch Boorman without McGregor? The success of the previous trips was to do with there being a double act. Banter between two bikers in sweaty leathers. And it didn’t hurt that one of the bikers was a Hollywood star.

Boorman’s journey so far has taken him across the English Channel in a dinghy (he found the shipping lanes ‘scary’), from Paris to Venice by Orient Express (‘nice’), through Croatia, Serbia and Turkey on trucks and buses (‘amazing’), across Georgia in a sidecar (before the Russian invasion), and from Iran by container ship across to Bombay (‘surprisingly safe’). I am meeting him two months into the journey, the halfway point. Almost 10,000 miles have been covered.

It is dusk. The cicadas are singing. And my first sight of Boorman is of him barrelling across the springy lawn of a house where we are meeting for dinner, guests of the head of Unicef in Nepal. He has a tan, which he never had on the bike trips because of his helmet and visor. ‘I look healthy now rather than pasty faced,’ he says, all big-lipped, gap-toothed smiles and pale, bulging eyes framed by equally pale lashes – a big friendly labrador. He has a Van Dyke moustache and beard, as well as ambitious sideburns and long flowing hair which, at 41, is showing no signs of going grey. I tell him I’m surprised that he hasn’t grown a full beard. Isn’t that what travellers do? ‘That’s Ewan. Any excuse and he will grow one,’ he says, pronouncing his ‘r’ as a ‘w’. ‘I think it’s a Scottish thing.’

As with the previous films, nothing is scripted, but narratives do seem to unfold of their own accord. His original cameraman damaged his knee a few weeks into the trip and had to be flown back to England. And there is trouble brewing here in the capital of Nepal. A political coup is in the offing, of which more later.

The dinner is lavish, more like a banquet. ‘The food has been delicious all the way,’ Boorman says. ‘Russ and I put on so much weight in Turkey. Good thing about travelling this way is you don’t get jet lag and you don’t get squits so much because your stomach has time to adjust to food as you’re travelling. That said, I did have the s—s two nights ago.’

Such is his laddish bluntness. Seeing him lying on his back in a field in France so that he could light his own flatus was one of the more memorable scenes on Long Way Down. Not everyone finds such laddishness endearing, though. One critic, writing for The Times, was unambiguous in her review of the first episode of that series. ‘Boorman comes across as a copper-bottomed, ocean-going, 24-carat prick,’ she wrote. ‘You can only hope he gets raped by a lion. In a bad way.’

Now, now. Boorman may be high-spirited but he is also polite and earnest. McGregor refers to his ‘in-your-face affability’ and that is about right. And his heart does seem to be in the right place. On this trip he will be looking at Unicef projects in Borneo, in his capacity as a Unicef ‘high-profile fundraiser and campaigner’, and in Nepal he will be helping deliver vaccines for children in remote villages.

‘Yes. I got it,’ he says when the head of Unicef asks him whether he has read the material on Unicef’s work in Nepal. ‘But I haven’t read it. I like to be surprised.’

But there is another reason he hasn’t read the brief, and we will come to that later. At the dinner, Boorman introduces himself to some of the local Unicef workers and when they ask what he does he tells them he’s an actor. Actually, he has more or less given up on acting, not least because acting has more or less given up on him. Before Long Way Round, his main source of income was painting and decorating. Since then he has been making decent money from after-dinner speaking, as well as from the television repeats of the two series, and the DVD sales of them.

As for his acting: well, let’s say Boorman peaked early. He had a part in the 1972 classic Deliverance, starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. ‘Not the banjo player, before you ask. I was only three.’ His father, John, was the director and Boorman served as a pageboy at the wedding of Voight and Marcheline Bertrand during the shoot. When Bertrand gave birth to Angelina Jolie, Boorman was eight and was one of the first people to hold the baby. He also appeared in Excalibur, The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory, all directed by his father.

Boorman and McGregor first met on the set of The Serpent’s Kiss (1997). When they discovered they shared a passion for motorbikes, their friendship was sealed: they got on so well that by the end of the wrap party McGregor had asked Boorman to be godfather to his daughter, Clara.

Next day we set off in a white Land Cruiser which has UN written in blue letters on its bonnet and side. As well as the two-man film crew there are half a dozen Unicef workers and an official sent by the Nepalese government to keep an eye on us (he looks like Captain Mainwaring and snores like a chainsaw). Not everyone can fit in, so a minibus with inadequate suspension is also found.

There is inhospitable terrain to cross, steep ravines, rackety bridges and terraced paddy fields carved into the hillside. We are to follow what is known as the ‘cold chain’ up into the foothills and stay in a remote village, in order to get a sense of the authentic journey, as taken each month by the Unicef workers. They use the public buses as far as they will go and then complete the journey on foot. It’s heroic stuff, actually. Unsung and humbling. The ‘cold’ refers to the cool boxes full of vaccines they carry from medical post to medical post.

The ‘chain’ begins at a depot housing 10 freezers. Boorman does a piece to camera about the vaccines. Though he may not have read his brief, he does prove himself adept at assimilating the information that is fed to him off camera. This cold box, he explains, contains enough vaccine for a 1,000 children and costs just £12. Unicef provides 40 per cent of the world’s vaccines for children and relies on donations. The pitch done, they cover the cool box in By Any Means stickers. There is nothing you can teach these men about branding.

Because the public bus we are using is overloaded to axle-breaking point, each hairpin bend makes us feel as if we are in a tumble-drier. A couple of hours later, back in the UN trucks and winding through a forest, the vehicles belly on the road and we have to get out and push, just as a deluge starts.

Spattered with mud, we eventually reach a village where young mothers are waiting with their babies in a surgery with a tin roof. Their colourful saris are in contrast to the darkness and pokiness of the medical centre (there is no electricity here). ‘We have a team which goes ahead of us raising and widening doors so that we can get Charley’s head through them,’ Malkin says in an aside to me. Boorman is doing his bit for camera again, carrying the cool box in through the low door. A nurse opens it and gets to work vaccinating the babies. They all scream when jabbed and this seems to move Boorman, reminding him of taking his two daughters for their vaccinations.

We walk and climb the next leg of the journey, to the village we will be staying in. The Land Cruiser and the minibus are waiting for us at the top again. Hurray! Several hours and several pushes later, we reach the village, to find the womenfolk waiting to greet us and put bougainvillea garlands around our necks and vermilion powder on our cheeks.

Boorman and I sit down next to a water pump. As the shadows lengthen, his pale eyes seem to become more luminous. He doesn’t get homesick, he says. ‘Done this all my life. Since I was three. Because we were always travelling with my father.’

How is it being away from his wife? ‘I talk to her every day. The thing is, this is what I do for a living now. I’ve known Ollie since I was 17. Before we had children she used to come with me.’

I ask why McGregor’s wife came out for a leg of Long Way Down but his didn’t. ‘Ollie and I are a very tight family and we don’t have help. We do everything ourselves. It is hard for her to come out with me because the dates are always changing. She has a company… so she is busy and we don’t want to take the kids out of school, and the money has to come from somewhere, and this is what I’ve always done, acting or dossing round on bikes.’

They seem to take a professional attitude to it all. In the first episode of Long Way Down, Boorman leaves despite his wife being in hospital with pneumonia and a collapsed lung. He said he would be happy to postpone it, but she said he should go, because otherwise that would put her under more stress. ‘The thing that annoys me is when people say, “How did your wife let you do it?”‘ he says. ‘I always think that a bit sad – that people think their wives would stop them doing what they wanted to do. It wasn’t as if I had sprung it on her. It was months and months of planning.’

But is it awkward with Ollie at first when he goes back after these trips? ‘If you jump straight back into the domestic thing…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The best thing is to go off for a weekend somewhere so there is some neutral ground where you can get together again, so that you’re not straight back into bills and washing up. After Long Way Down we went with the girls for a three-week holiday to Kenya so that when we got back it was all normal again. Whenever I get home the house becomes messy and chaotic. Kinvara, my daughter, said, “Mummy, do you like it when Daddy is away, because the house is nice and clean?”‘

Does he wish he had sons as well, so that he could pass on his passion for motorbikes? ‘My daughters have to, 100 per cent, take their bike test, even if they don’t want to.’

Bikes gave Boorman a confidence he lacked – a result of his severe dyslexia. ‘As an actor it is really difficult for castings, sometimes you have to sight-read and that can be embarrassing. Before the days of chip-and-pin I would always have to ask how to spell the shop name when writing out a cheque… I always compensated by being the clown in class.’

Is the travelling anything to do with mid-life crisis? A need to prove himself as a man perhaps? ‘I don’t think so. I’m competitive but I’m not butch. I don’t have to win at tennis. I have a friend who is so competitive at tennis I sometimes throw a game because I know it means so much to him… manliness and travelling? Hadn’t really thought of it like that. I do get itchy feet when I am in one place for too long.’

The success of Long Way Round and Long Way Down had much to do with the sense of male bonding it conveyed. Boorman describes McGregor as his ‘best mate’, and having met McGregor on a couple of occasions, I know the feeling is mutual. But what is the nature of that friendship? ‘I think we are both quite different. He’s great at being able to see the bigger picture and he’s very loyal, fiercely loyal, and protective and funny. Funny guy to be with.’ So, by implication he, Boorman, thinks he is none of those things? ‘No, it’s not that; it’s more… we feel comfortable with each other.’

It is an unequal relationship? ‘I’ve always been involved in the film world so I’m not star-struck or anything. I just see Ewan as Ewan. I don’t see him as this A-list guy. I think we benefit a lot from the relationship, a good solid relationship. It’s almost like a marriage when we are travelling together.’

We now come to a more delicate matter. After The Serpent’s Kiss, McGregor made Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman, while Boorman took up decorating. Did that disparity put a strain on their friendship? ‘I think Ewan does consciously play it down. He never really talks about the films he has done or the ones he has coming up, unless I ask. But he is a family person and loves his family unity and in that way lives a simple life.’

If there is a certain gaucheness to Boorman he makes up for it with his tender side, especially on the subject of McGregor. ‘I have a lot to thank him for. When we did Long Way Round, the original plan was for us to just go off and do it on our own anonymously, but I couldn’t afford to so he suggested a book or a television series to fund it. You know, using his name to get the funds. I think he did it for me.’

As it is now inky black and we don’t have torches with us, we decide to head back to where the vehicles are parked and find the others for some lentils and rice. As we grope sightlessly, he tells me that if he had to describe himself in two words they would be ‘lazy’ and ‘shallow’. I like him for that. Later, Malkin tells me Boorman is sulking because he forgot to bring his silk-lined sleeping bag.

That night the villagers put us up in their damp, flagged-floored houses and we sleep in rented sleeping bags on hard board beds without mattresses and with pillows that seemed to be filled with walnuts. Boorman manages to sleep well.

Back in Kathmandu there are police checkpoints. In the evening, as we sit in a bar, three homemade bombs go off not far away – not very effective bombs, it has to be said, though one person is injured. Things are hotting up and Malkin and Boorman plan how they will get some footage. It should make for a good narrative. A genuine coup d’état. The following afternoon is the vote to decide whether the king should be thrown out of his palace. Crowds gather and swell the streets. There are several thousand marching people, all waving red hammer and sickle flags. Tanks appear on the streets and the tension is building. Malkin and Boorman get in among them with their cameraman. A risky move this, given the mood of the crowd.

As it turns out, the coup happens fairly peacefully, only a few arrests and injuries. It is time for Boorman and Malkin to head off to Laos. They have just heard that for the final leg of the journey to Australia they might be able to hitch a ride on a submarine. After that? Well, when the dust has settled and Charlie and Ollie have had their weekend away together, and re-engaged with their domestic life for a year or so, he is, he says, planning a Long Way Up through South America. With McGregor and two motorbikes.


Chris Moyles

Off air Chris Moyles, the headline-grabbing, over-paid Radio 1 DJ you love to hate, is reserved, likeable and – he says – worth every penny

Though the London sky is sagging with rain, Chris Moyles is sitting outside at a pavement table. He has just finished his breakfast show on Radio 1 and is in desperate need of a smoke. With his baseball cap pulled down and the collar of his adidas top zipped up, he looks more like a bouncer than one of the highest paid presenters at the BBC, but I suspect he tucks his neck in like this more out of self consciousness than an urge to present himself as a hard man.

For his is a friendly, ursine face, with big brown eyes that are slightly divergent and front teeth that have an uneven bite. His greying suggestion of a beard, meanwhile, makes him look older than his 35 years. But then he probably feels quite old, given that the target audience for Radio 1 is aged 15 to 29.

Half-an-hour ago, I’d been watching him at work in his studio, from behind the glass of the production booth and when he noticed me he went into one of his riffs, imagining what my opening line might be: something about a posh, broadsheet journalist slumming it for the day in the dingy hovel that is Radio 1. He stands at a console as he speaks into his microphone: doing his song parodies, interviewing his celebrity guests (Lewis Hamilton and Katy Perry today) and bantering with his team which includes ‘Comedy Dave’, producers Rachel and Aled, newsreader Dom, and sports correspondent Carrie. All part of the shouty, free-form, irreverent chatter with which Moyles entertains some 7.7 million listeners every morning between 6.30 and 10. In terms of ratings, Sir Terry Wogan over on Radio 2 is still The Daddy. But the gap appears to be narrowing.

This comes as a surprise to anyone – which is pretty much everyone – who dismissed Moyles as an uncouth, Northern yob when he took over the Breakfast Show in 2004. The previous incumbent, Sara Cox, had been haemorrhaging listeners at the rate of half-a-million a year. ‘I joined Radio 1 at a good time,’ Moyles admits. ‘It wasn’t completely on its a— but it was struggling.’

Not only did he not lose listeners, he started to pile them on, billing himself modestly as the saviour of Radio 1. ‘The saviour line was a gimmick,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be like the Spice Girls where they genuinely started discussing girl power.’ This September he will have been doing the show for five years, beating Tony Blackburn’s record.

And it is telling that when the BBC recently announced that its stars would be taking pay cuts, Moyles wasn’t among them. He must have felt the repercussions of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair though, like Ross, he was deemed to be extremely well paid and somewhat controversial. He rolls his eyes, ‘Oh, I get dragged into everything. I think if you look hard enough you will see I am responsible for the Tube strike.’

Presumably he was told to tone it down, though; curb his edginess? ‘That episode was very scary. I was sitting at home when Jonathan’s suspension was announced and I stood in the kitchen watching the television with my mouth open. Sophie [his girlfriend of seven years, a freelance television producer] just stared at me. The bottom line is that the rules have changed. It is similar to when Janet Jackson’s boob popped out accidentally on purpose – it changed the rules for the media in America.’

He thinks the episode demonstrated a loss of nerve by the BBC. ‘I would like the BBC to stick up for itself better. The one line that I get a lot is: “We pay your wages with our licence fee money.” Well, you know what? It’s my licence fee money as well, and I pay for it out of my wage, too. I don’t know how the BBC works but it just does. Leave it alone.’

But it was being left alone, I say, that’s what caused the problem, surely. The public couldn’t stomach the idea of an old person being bullied. ‘Look, not everything on the BBC is for everybody. I personally don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing. It’s not for me, so I don’t care what they do on that show. I don’t watch Country File but I love the fact that it is still on. So that is what the BBC is about. I imagine that 99 per cent of the people who complained about the Jonathan Ross thing didn’t hear it and would probably hate the show anyway. Russell Brand’s show is supposed to be outrageous, that is why it was on late at night on a Saturday. If it had been on Terry’s show it would be the end of the world.’

But is the Jonathan Ross incident not the price the BBC must pay for being subsidised by the public? There has to be more accountability. That is why we know what his salary is, for example. ‘You think you know. The BBC has never released that figure.’ £630,000? ‘That is what they say.’ So there is this feeling that we, the public, are funding radio and television stars like him, therefore we have a stake in what he does.

‘I can understand that. Look, I hate to break the news to everybody, but the entertainment industry is smoke and mirrors. It’s showbiz. Albert Square is not in the East End of London. The Queen Vic is not a real pub. I think a lot of that has been ruined now because there are certain ways of doing radio that I have done my entire career but now people are going, “You can’t do that. You can’t have competitions.” There is even paperwork for the competitions we do where we give away nothing. The next thing, there will be complaints about the number of people employed to monitor these things.’

Moyles may be the recipient of three Sony Radio Awards but his tenure has not been without its controversies. Like the occasion when he mocked the gay singer Will Young in a high-pitched, effeminate voice – prompting the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to rule that Moyles had ‘promoted and condoned certain negative stereotypes based on sexual orientation’. Then there was the time when, on Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday, he offered to ‘lead her through the forest of her sexuality’ and the time he had to apologise for causing ‘unintentional offence’ after he said that ‘if you’re Polish, you’re very good at ironing and prostitution’. Then there was his use of the f-word.

‘Contrary to popular belief I don’t swear on the air,’ he says now, ‘certainly not deliberately. I said f— once. Whenever that story is dragged up, it always gets misquoted because what they don’t say is that I apologised profusely. Immediately.’ He has sworn several times in this interview; does he find it hard to check himself on air? ‘No, it’s easy to check yourself. It’s like meeting your girlfriend’s parents – you can stop yourself swearing in front of them. Honestly, I am not going to go on the air and say f— deliberately. I am not out of my mind. I love my job and I have a mortgage.’

He’s unsackable surely? ‘I think the BBC would accept that mistakes happen. I’ve been on Radio 1 for 12 years and have said f— once during a comedy rant. My hand flew up and covered my mouth like in a Carry On movie. I went white and felt extremely cold. I said, “I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”’

The lobby group Stonewall, meanwhile, organised a march demanding his sacking after he described a ringtone as ‘gay’; the BBC governors subsequently ruled that in modern youth-speak, the word ‘gay’ could simply mean lame. Quite something that, I say, officially redefining a word. ‘I can reel off a list of TV shows that have used it in the same sense – The Simpsons, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks – as I used it once. Often there seems to be one rule for me and one for everyone else. One individual from Stonewall [Ben Summerskill] went to town on it. He called me homophobic but also called me fat and told me I should go down to the gym and I thought, hang on a second, so it’s OK to pick on me for being fat?’

What is his definition of a homophobe? ‘Someone who has a phobia about gay people. But the term is thrown around next to my name quite freely and it makes me very uncomfortable. It’s very awkward because what happens is that people say because I used the word gay therefore I must be homophobic. Then people start writing about “the homophobic Chris Moyles” and it is ridiculous.’ He rubs the back of his neck.

‘Look, I’m not homophobic. What does he want me to say? “Yes I am homophobic? I hate the gays?” Such a ludicrous thing. I made that point on air and next day Ben Summerskill writes in the Guardian that I had admitted on air that I was homophobic and I thought, What a scummy, low life thing to do. You little s—. You know I didn’t say it like that. That is very naughty to take it out of context. But I am a walking headline for lazy journalists.’

And the Halle Berry thing? (During a skit with the actress, Moyles said, ‘I’m a big fat American black guy,’ to explain who he was playing, because he is ‘rubbish at accents’.) ‘We still live in a society where when someone uses the word racist everyone goes quiet and gulps,’ he says now. ‘So a black woman says to a white man: “Are we having a racist moment here?” and I remember thinking, No. I said, “No!” Sadly, because it was my show and me it got picked up.’

This is a recurring theme of his, a slight victim mentality that he is being singled out for criticism. From his perspective it must look as if he is merely reflecting the values of his listeners. Politically, I would say he is right of centre. Possibly a Thatcherite. After all, he describes himself as being ‘rich working class’, is against the euro and is dismissive of the global warming lobby.

Yet his paranoia doesn’t seem entirely justified. Even some of Moyles’s harshest critics admit that he has an energy and a presence; that he is a natural broadcaster. Nevertheless, Moyles is twitchy about the press, which is why he rarely gives interviews. ‘There are people who profess to hate me who have never heard the show,’ he says at one point. ‘I find this hilarious and frustrating at the same time. What can I do?’

I ask him what it feels like to be hated. ‘It’s not personal. I read about myself in the papers and I don’t recognise that person they are talking about because what I do on the radio is an exaggerated version of who I am. I’m less gobby in real life. I get most words out between 6.30 and 10 and after that I don’t say much. I don’t have a lot to say. I am socially inept and awkward. I come out of my box on the radio. So when I read about this racist, sexist, homophobic man who is a disgrace to the airwaves, I just think, well, hang on, I am none of those things but what I am is a f—— brilliant broadcaster.’

A flower van drives past the café with a familiar name on its side. ‘Look!’ he says, pointing. ‘Moyles Flowers! By appointment to the Prince of Wales. Got to make the money up you know, there’s a recession on.’ He certainly made up the money with his best-selling autobiography, The Gospel According To Chris Moyles. It charts how he was born in Leeds to a postman father and an Irish housewife mother. School, it seems, failed to engage him. He enjoyed it until he got bored with it all and he has since said, ‘I’m pretty much thick as —-. But I’m very confident in my ignorance.’

As to his psychological landscape, his greatest fear is spiders and ‘flies that make the same noises wasps make. What is all that about? That’s not right. That’s evil’. In terms of his professional career, the memoir relates how he started volunteering on hospital radio in his early teens, then went to local radio upon leaving school. At 21, he joined Capital, before moving to Radio 1 a couple of years later. He has been single minded, if nothing else. And he has never tired of his favourite subject, himself.

His show is self-referential, to say the least, but presumably he has a cut off point about how much he will reveal about himself? ‘For a while it was every element of my life on air. Now I hold back on certain things because my privacy has become massively important to me. I think I’ve earned that right. I give enough five days a week and three-and-a-half hours a day on the show. It can be a pain. When I was house hunting I couldn’t mention it because I knew I would be followed by paparazzi and the price would go up. Where I used to live, opposite Kate Winslet, the paps were there all the time. Then she moved, which was great because I thought, no more disturbance. But then Gwyneth Paltrow moved in.’

That said, he finds it liberating being open about himself on air. ‘Sometimes it’s like being on the psychiatrist’s couch, because you get stuff out of your system. It’s liberating to say, “Hey, guess what, I’m fat”. No one knows how much I weigh. In the press it’s between 15 stone and 20 stone, so that’s great.’ Does he know? ‘Yes.’ How much then? ‘I‘m not saying. I’m trying to lose two stone.’ He has a personal trainer? ‘Yeah, and I’ve been running since just before Christmas.’

There seems to be an angry twist to some of his comedy; does he have an unresolved anger in him? ‘Not an angry man. Very relaxed and chilled. I think I’m fairly easy to work with. I don’t throw many tantrums and when I do I am generally right and the team would agree. I get angry when I know we are better than that.’ What makes him insecure? ‘Everything. When I look in the mirror. Everything. But on the radio I feel supremely confident because that is what I am good at. That is my canvas, my football pitch, my operating theatre.’

Tears fall more readily down the Moyles cheek than you would imagine. ‘The last time I cried was when I did that mountain climb [up Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief]. I was an emotional wreck for a week. I had one dark day where I couldn’t stop crying and it was almost a joke. I was like a heavily pregnant woman. I discovered I have great legs and I can’t control my emotions. I wasn’t sad, I was exhausted. I could hear Gary [Barlow] and Ronan [Keating] on the phone to their kids.’ He impersonates them both for me now. Most convincingly.

So did he come home to Sophie and say I think it’s time we had some children? ‘No, I came home and said to her I think it’s time we had a Chinese and lots of beer.’ He hasn’t made an honest woman of her yet? ‘I think I need to make an honest man of myself first.’ What does his Catholic mother think of that? ‘She’s happy. I bought her a house. She can pipe down. Gave my old car to my dad. He’s all right.’ He cried again when his ancestors were traced for an upcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are? There is a moving scene in which he goes over to Ypres and cries when he is told the details of how his great grandfather died in the trenches. ‘And all I do for a living is play records and talk a lot,’ he reflects.

Needless to say he managed to cause a stir when he joked during filming that he was going off to Ireland to trace his ancestors rather than Auschwitz. ‘Pretty much everyone goes there whether or not they are Jewish. They just seem to pass through on their way to Florida.’ But actually his family history was a pretty grim story anyway, of the work house and early death from TB.

When he hears that his grandmother’s family of five lived in one room of a house they shared with five other families, and that that house had to share two outside lavatories with six other houses that were similarly overcrowded, he says with good timing, ‘Well, it could have been worse.’ He has come a long way from those humble origins. He even has his own BBC driver who picks him up at 5.30 every morning. ‘In a VW Passat. None of the licence fee gets wasted on luxurious cars for me.’

We say our goodbyes and I go in search of a taxi, but because of the Tube strike there are none. Ten minutes later I bump into Moyles again. He is leaning against a wall, shoulders hunched, having a last Marlboro Light before heading back to the smoke-free Radio 1. ‘Filming Who Do You Think You Are? was fascinating,’ he says between jabs. ‘The producers don’t tell you in advance what they have found because they want to film your reaction when you find out. The biggest surprise for me was that it turns out I’m black!’