February 1 2015 Latest news:
Friday, May 23, 2014
When I started in journalism, I wanted to grow up to be Lynda Lee-Potter (RIP) or Lynn Barber. And now that I’m 20 years into the business, I still do.
The Culture Show: Lynn Barber’s Celebrity Masterclass, BBC2, Monday:
It says much for my obvious lack of culture that I think this is the first time I’ve ever watched The Culture Show and that’s DESPITE the fact that it clashed with Made in Chelsea on E4. What greater mark of respect could there be for my heroine?
“Lynn Barber has been interviewing celebrities for over three decades,” said Alan Yentob, who had the unenviable task of interviewing the interviewer, “her revealing, audacious articles have made her one of the most admired and feared journalists in the country.”
Indulge me in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing review or, if you will, an interviewer reviewing an interviewer reviewing an interviewer: not just any interviewer, mind, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, no less.
Barber is famous for her hatchet jobs on celebrities she takes a dislike to. She’s torn into Meat Loaf, gave Jimmy Savile grief before – rather than after – he died, debunked the myth that Rafael Nadal is the perfect gentleman, unveiled the vanity of Melvyn Bragg and confirmed what we’d always privately thought: that Alan Sugar is “staggeringly rude”.
Lynn’s route into journalism was somewhat unconventional: instead of slogging it out on a tiny provincial newspaper doing the rounds at flower shows, village fetes and parish council meetings, she started at Penthouse, interviewing people about their unusual bedroom habits.
“It was important not to show disgust or embarrassment,” she noted, which probably came in handy for that later interview with Savile.
She interviewed Salvador Dali and Gore Vidal, wrote a book called How to Improve Your Man In Bed, had a family and then started talking to celebrities about matters that didn’t solely involve their rude bits.
And what a list of celebrities it is: pop stars, politicians, actors, sports stars, presenters, artists, authors, fashion designers…doesn’t she ever fancy interviewing “real people”? Yentob asked. No, she replied, she wants glamour and scandal and intrigue: “don’t YOU like reading about scandal?” she asks him in turn. Don’t we all?
As a fellow interviewer, I couldn’t help but sit back and nod practically every time Barber opened her mouth, other than when she was chain-smoking, which was a lot. The woman must have kippered her insides bright yellow.
Actors, she said, are by far the most boring celebrities to interview because they are 90 per cent anecdote, 10 per cent interest (true), nice, friendly celebrities normally make yawn-inducing copy (true) and the best interviewers are incredibly nosey (true).
You should always interview people in their own homes if possible (true) and take the opportunity to visit their bathroom for a gratuitous snout in the medicine cabinet (no comment), it’s a good idea to write down some questions in case you forget who you’re interviewing halfway through (this happens more times than I care to admit) and smoking helps if you’re interviewing another smoker (true, but it will kill you both eventually).
Barber is enchanted by badly-behaved interviewees because they gift her a story that will be eagerly consumed by a public bored of sanitised, copy-approved PR tripe.
She returned from an interview with Marianne Faithfull “walking on air” because she couldn’t wait to document everything that had happened in an interview that had seen Faithfull bellow at Barber, Faithfull’s boyfriend bellow at Barber and both of them bellow at waiters.
“She gave me hell,” said Barber, with obvious delight, “and I was able to give her hell back in print.”
Interestingly (for me anyway, seeing as I am one) Barber credits being an only child as the reason for her inherent nosiness and claims she feels “quite cosy” being shouted at after years having her ear bent by her father.
Throughout it all, the chain-smoking and the unabashed joy at the shallow nature of the celebrity interview, Yentob was determinedly gentle and probing questions were decidedly absent.
I kept wondering what Lynn Barber would ask Lynn Barber and what questions she’d have to ask herself in order to prompt a Barber v Barber screaming row – something about misjudging Meat Loaf, perhaps. She thought he’d be fascinating: “boy was I wrong. The grumpy old codger barely sat down before launching into a diatribe about how British journalists always got their facts wrong.”
It’s a brave (and stupid) man who criticises the interviewer before they’ve started interviewing. It reminds me of the time a famous light entertainer asked me why the paper had sent a woman to do a man’s job.
“They just sent the best,” I told him, spectacularly modestly, “so, about this problem you have with women...” Don’t mess with the interviewers, celebrities.