‘Celebrity’ comes at a high price

Just as I was beginning to suspect that I lacked the divine ignorance required of a columnist, reassurance came, not once, but twice. After lamenting that, unlike those two masters of the art, Keith Waterhouse and Auberon Waugh, neither of whom had heard of Jill Dando or Helen Rollason, I was sadly, and against my will, im-mersed in popular culture, at least as far as the waist, I discovered two celebrities whose names meant nothing to me. This was deeply reassuring. The first, to judge by his picture in the Daily Mail, is a pasty-faced and unprepossessing young man called Frank Skinner. I have no idea what he does, or how he does it, but according to the story, he feels he does it so well that the BBC should pay him many millions of pounds, and threatens that, should it refuse, he will do it elsewhere. Surprisingly, the corporation seems unwilling to load a pantechnicon with crisp fivers and dispatch it to wherever this Skinner lives. This is out of character. Since when has the BBC worried about throwing money away? Owing to its unique funding by a compulsory and ruthlessly enforced tax on every household that owns a television, its income, currently &£2.2bn a year, is guaranteed and may therefore be tossed around at will. All that Skinner requires to meet his outgoings, which must be considerable, is that the BBC should give to him a tiny fraction of the money it extorts from the public. What possible harm can there be in that? It seems that he will get his way. According to a nameless insider, there is intense pressure within the BBC to secure the services, whatever they might be, of Skinner. “There is a sense of panic within the higher echelons,” says the insider. “Losing Des Lynam was a crushing blow. The last thing they want now is for another star to defect.” If a pillar of public service broadcasting, a venerable institution that is the envy of civilised people the world over, a shining beacon of free speech and humane values, can be dealt a crushing blow by the departure of an engagingly sardonic, whiskered old sports buffer, is it not time to wind the whole thing up? The second person of whom I had previously heard nothing is one Penny Smith. Now I know the Earth is positively alive with Smiths and one cannot possibly be acquainted with them all, but somehow this semi-famous one had passed me by until an entire page of The Daily Telegraph was devoted to telling the reader far more than he or she could possibly want to know about Penny. The writer, Elizabeth Grice, tell us that Smith is an early morning presenter for GMTV, which goes a long way to explaining why she has failed to seep into my ken. Unfortunately, she tells us much, much more. For instance, Penny lives alone in a minimalist flat in West London containing a sofa, a bed, a glass and metal table and a six-foot metal lizard. “Each night she lays a banana on the top step of her wooden staircase… to remind her to take a yogurt to work when she hurtles out at 4am.” I should have thought that if she is truly capable of laying bananas she ought to be reminding herself to see a doctor.There’s more. Penny tells Elizabeth that she (Penny) “sleeps deeply unattractively – in pyjamas and eye shades with a hotwater bottle almost the entire year round”. Elizabeth notes that Penny is wearing a wispy little beaded grey chiffon skirt and skimpy cardigan printed all over with rosebuds. “When she gesticulates, which she does a lot, the skirt and the cardy part company, revealing a cappuccino-coloured navel.” I am sorry, this won’t do. Which part of the cappuccino, the frothy top or the liquid beneath, matches the colour of Penny’s navel? And is it her navel alone that bears this resemblance to Italian coffee, a tiny coloured island in a sea of some other coloured stomach? “Penny inhales deeply from a cup of rhubarb, mandarin and and rosehip tea, smoothes her beaded thigh and tugs at the rogue cardigan.” If tug at her cardy is all she does, she is a remarkable woman. I should have thought that anyone who inhaled tea, rather than imbibed it, would quickly be clutching at her throat and vomiting onto the carpet. Later in the week, Elizabeth was at it again, this time interviewing at a full page’s length someone called Greg Martin who had apparently been jilted by someone else called Tara. He paused in his grief to tell Elizabeth that his abandonment had left him feeling, well, abandoned.Elizabeth found him in his Knightsbridge flat “steadying himself with a bottle of Perrier”. (My God, were things that bad?) “There are people who do not want me to be happy,” he tells her, knuckles whitening around his glass. Who might they be? muses Elizabeth. “A relative perhaps? A colleague?” “I don’t know. Mind if I smoke?” I cannot go on. There is only one explanation for this kind of journalism that I can think of. It is that the Telegraph feels it must entertain women readers. If I am right, the decline of a once great newspaper is the most serious effect of the feminist movement yet recorded.

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