When Laurie Taylor was teaching sociology at the University of York and also presenting a television programme called The Great British Drink Test in the 1970s, he tells us in his new book, it led to a run-in with York’s senior professor of philosophy: “‘Caught that programme the other night,’ he said with the tone of a man who’d inadvertently trodden in something unpleasant. ‘You know, you’re getting to be a bit of a celebrity’.”
Professor Taylor continues: “His face told me that he could think of no more ignominious fate…When I thought about it later, [the episode] seemed to capture something critical about the nature of celebrity.”
In Confidence: Talking Frankly about Fame, which Professor Taylor wrote with his wife Sally Feldman, senior fellow in creative industries and former dean of media, arts and design at the University of Westminster, offers both great anecdotes and considered reflections on “the nature of celebrity”.
Jazz singer Cleo Laine describes growing up as the daughter of an eccentric Jamaican father who “used to dress like Anthony Eden with the hat, the striped trousers and so on” – and how she falls back on her own invented version of Hungarian when she forgets the words of a song. Actor Tom Baker loves the fact that he is “worshipped” by Doctor Who fans and that a very old woman once told him that “I knew you were special because my titties began to tingle”. And conductor and composer André Previn is the proud owner of an edition of Mozart’s letters signed by Lenny Bruce – which the comedian stole for him, despite being on parole and so risking prison.
Yet the book is far more than a collection of great stories. It arose out of 60 one-hour interviews – with everyone from Lily Allen to Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Winner to Jonathan Miller, Tracey Emin to John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) – that Professor Taylor recorded for Sky Arts between 2009 and 2013.
“When the transcripts arrived,” he told Karen Shook in a Times Higher Education books podcast, “we suddenly saw what a wealth of material we had – why not do something more with them? We have a wonderful collection of what people say about celebrity.”
Almost all the interviews were recorded in a studio on Westminster’s campus, noted Ms Feldman. Students were used as technicians, and, she said, “one of the really telling things was how the celebrities treated them”. The students were enthralled by the enthusiasm and practical guidance offered by David Attenborough and Terry Gilliam, and almost every Irish person working in the building looked in on the recording of former president Mary Robinson.
Who can they trust?
Professor Taylor and Ms Feldman soon discovered that certain themes kept recurring. Many of the interviews, he recalled, touched on “how women make it in the world; how people cope with talking about their youth – if you’re a celebrity, you have to invent a story of where you came from”. There is also “the issue of who you can trust” if you are “thousands of times richer and better known” than the people who want to be friends with you, he added.
The chapter on celebrities’ friendships takes him back to “the cocaine-fuelled antics at several well-known private London clubs in the 1980s. There was usually a recognisable group: one or two celebrities, a clutch of lesser stars, and three or four nonentities who were desperately eager to be accepted as full participants. Even from a distance it was easy to see that there would be casualties amongst these extras…When the star left the room, these ‘friends’ were exposed as nothing of the sort.”
In Confidence also tracks the recent rise and current ubiquity of the celebrity interview. During Ms Feldman’s time as editor of the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman’s Hour, she once “sent an interviewer to do a vox pop among the toddlers in the BBC crèche”. Even a 3-year-old was sufficiently media-savvy to ask: “This isn’t live, is it?”
Professor Taylor agreed that celebrities and civilians alike “now know what is expected of us in an interview”, although he remembers a time when he was doing ethnographic research in the criminal underworld and was firmly told by one crook: “‘I don’t do questions’…[Such people live] in a non-question world, where you don’t ask ‘What have you been doing today?’ or ‘Where have you been the last five years?’”
Is there still a value in celebrity interviews, asked Ms Shook, in an age when publicists attempt to control every utterance and stars go direct to the public via social media outlets such as Twitter to burnish their own preferred image of themselves?
Ms Feldman suggested a parallel with the changes seen in war reporting: “More and more we have embedded journalists, who are with the army and with the tanks, and getting an entirely biased view of whatever the war is – and the heroines and the heroes are the ones who go behind the lines and get the stories themselves.”
In the same way, there would always be a market for interviews that delivered Jeremy Paxman’s ideal of, as Ms Feldman put it, “getting the bastard to tell me something he’s lying about”.
There are relatively few genuine academic celebrities, although Professor Taylor found David Starkey “very interesting – he relished having sold out…He relished the money and the rings and the success”. He paraphrased Dr Starkey’s view: “If I’m going to be a public academic, I will jolly well be a public academic. I won’t do any of the self-deprecating bit at all. I will hurl myself into it the way I hurled myself into my joyous gay encounters on Hampstead Heath.”
And what of Professor Taylor’s own celebrity? The host of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed and author of THE’s long-running satirical feature The Poppletonian admitted that he is “a bit famous” and had briefly been “a bit of a rent-a-gob” on chat shows such as Kilroy. However, “after a time, although it’s mildly gratifying to be recognised in the coffee shop, you really do recognise the banality and insincerity of this area of celebrity”.
The study of celebrity is now an established academic discipline, although Professor Taylor claimed “there is not one book on the subject I kept returning to”.
He said he suspected that many academics haven’t “engaged with celebrities in their own lives quite enough”. In much scholarly writing on the subject, “there was too much of an assumption that all celebrities – all people in this caste – somehow corresponded to each other”.
Professor Taylor added: “I wanted to correct a slight imbalance and focus on ‘negotiating celebrity’, how celebrities manage this position…How does this vast new class exist? What are its parameters? What are its problems? What does it have to negotiate? What are its dilemmas? I think this is the first book which looks at celebrity in that way.”