Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I found a couple of old photos
the other day. I took them with my old Kodak Instamatic at a summer
fete on Harpenden Common in 1966. They're snapshots of the late
Steptoe & Son star, Harry H. Corbett. For me, at the age of 13,
newly returned to England after two years in Singapore, he was the
most famous person I'd seen in real life, close-up.
I write this because lately,
I've become interested in the changing nature of fame and its
evil-twin, celebrity. Fame, which of recent years has become
another currency, like money and time, isn't quite the same thing as
celebrity. Fame is the public's recognition of an individual or group
of people who've becoming successful at a particular activity. As
likely to come to a sportsman or scientist as to a politician or
artiste, fame can at times be useful for promoting existing products
and helping the creator obtain work.
Celebrity, which is fame with
its flies undone and a drink in each hand, seems fairly useless.
Since cancelling my TV licence two years ago, I hardly have a clue
who the current celebrities are. In a supermarket, I now gaze baffled
at the magazine racks, at least half of which are filled with
celebrity magazines. It's confusing, because the cover pictures often
depict stressed-looking people, usually women, who are mostly pop
stars, models or TV soap actors. Trying to guess whether a
front-page headline such as “Should she go back to him?” refers
to a fictional story-line or a real situation becomes increasingly
difficult as these lines blur. Then there's the question of why the
faces on the magazines covers are famous in the first place. Is that
pouting, pan-sticked beauty a bona fide talent, or simply someone
famous for being famous?
The stories in such mags, often
concern themselves with people, real or fictional, who are undergoing
a crisis of some kind. The moral of the story, if one exists, is that
attaining celebrity status won't necessarily bring you happiness.
language of celebrity constantly struggles under the weight of its
own leaden superlatives. All female singers are now Divas. Anyone
who's lasted longer than two years is an Icon. People no longer have
a story, but a Journey. You only need score one goal or chalk up a
minor chart hit in order to be Living the Dream. The celebrities in
upmarket soaps such as Downton Abbey – an Upstairs Downstairs for
people with short attention spans – probably manage to separate
their on-screen and off-screen personas more successfully than say,
the stars of Geordie
Geordie Shore, which I caught a
soul-corroding ten minutes of recently, was shocking. Not because
of the cast's earthy language, or their strange aspirations but
because the descendants of a breed of once-proud northerners, will
now accept a reptilian TV company's scabrous shilling just to prove
to the world that they can rival their U.S. or Essex counterparts for
sheer gonzoid stupidity.
In the past I have been around
fame quite a bit and to a lesser extent, celebrity.
Fame, should you happen to work
in arts or popular entertainment, can be quite beneficial in small
doses. Taken occasionally, it helps immunise you, against the larger
more toxic dollops of it. Celebrity, on the other hand, which is
what happens when fame overflows, is a mask; a big grinning, winking
mask with a flashing bow tie underneath it. It'll serve you well at
a party or a promotional launch. But when a loved one dies, your
marriage unravels or your child becomes seriously ill, that's when
you'll find that the mask won't come off, no matter how hard you tug
as you lie on your hotel bed in some foreign city, unable to sleep at
4 a.m. knowing that someone will wake you in three hours for a
press-call, fame may not feel quite as zippy. When you finally give
up trying to sleep, you'll switch the TV on and stagger to the
bathroom. Here you may catch yourself unclothed by that weirdly
unflattering light above the shaving mirror. Then you'll hope that
those little electric pains which you've been feeling in your chest
are nothing more exotic than a bit of tour-anxiety. Soon you'll brace
up, pack your bag, adjust the mask and take the lift downstairs in
time for the pick-up. Days later, you'll arrive home tetchy, just in
time to meet the journo and snapper who are doing a three-pager on
your perfect home for Wotcha!
Now, back to Harry H Corbett,
cherished actor, former marine, and all round good bloke. One of my
teenage snapshots shows him smiling as he signs autographs. The other
is darker, more defensive, a thing which probably bypassed your 13
year-old cub reporter at that time.
Corbett, who died of a heart
attack at 57, already shows signs of suffering the dull ache of
celebrity. At the peak of his fame, on a golden Saturday in 1966,
he's working: opening the summer fete on Harpenden Common and signing
autographs. Later he'll fire the starter pistol for the Donkey Derby.
Fame isn't everyone's flute of
Tattinger. But there others, it's said, who'll attend the opening of
a tin of tuna. They never tell you this when you go into showbiz but
it's not actually compulsory to attend the parties or meet the
never do. But then I'm not very famous. Mwah!