So you can almost forget everything I wrote above about people’s conversational gambits, because a conversation is a rarity these days. Today it’s the crushing embarrassment of standing in the street like a gibbon while a total stranger accosts other total strangers and asks them to take a photograph. Crowds gather, what could have been a quick anonymous chat has become a full-on photo-op. ‘Me too!’ ‘Hold still!’ ‘Oh, and can you do a General Melchett “Baaah!” so I can use it as a ring tone? Hang on, where’s the recording app?’ ‘Say hello to my girlfriend, she doesn’t believe I’m talking to you.’ ‘Could you say in a Jeeves voice, “this is Kevin’s phone, the master is out so would you please be kind enough to leave a message?” Blinder!’ etc.
Oh, bring back the days of the simple autograph.
Your Friends If I were to ask one thing of people in their interaction with the famous it is this: consider the companions. Imagine what it is like to be in the company of a well-known person, a person who could be your brother, sister, mother, life-partner, school-friend, client, patient. You’re chatting away and someone barges in on your conversation. They completely ignore you, indeed often literally elbow you out of the way, planting their back in your face. You patiently stare into your soup and watch as your famous friend/lover deals with them charmingly and eventually manages to end the exchange. Who has suffered most? The famous person? No, he or she knows perfectly well how to deal with this, has accustomed themselves to these encounters and is, after all, usually the beneficiary, is made to feel important. But the companion! They are made to feel the opposite of important. They are at best ignored and at worst resented for taking up the time and conversation of the famous person in the first place. “Who do you think you are, dining with them as if you owned them?” It is awful, awful, awful having to accompany a well-known person in public. On the first few occasions it might be instructive and interesting to a student of social anthropology, but in the end it’s a pain, a real pain. So if you ever do go up to someone well known, consider that point.
Watching fame happen I have grown well-known in my own land, and slightly known in other lands, and I have watched others grow very well known indeed. When I made Wilde in 1996 I was much better known that my co-star Jude Law who is now internationally famous as a film star in a way I will never be. When I directed James Mcavoy and David Tennant in Bright Young Things they were complete newcomers. I am proud, if that doesn’t sound possessive, of the splendid way they have dealt with their very fast leap up the ladder of fame. They have the advantage of very considerable talent, of course. To be famous and talentless, that is the curse. If you are rich and feel uncomfortable with the money, you can give it away in one stroke. To lose your fame takes time.
The plus side How graceless I sound, listing all these negatives. Do forgive me. I completely understand that to be well-known is to be blessed with all kinds of advantages. I completely understand that fame is something that many, if not all, hunt after in their lives. I know that fame usually suggests the accompaniment of money, admiration, opportunity, an easy acquaintanceship with interesting and extraordinary people, tickets to hot events, freebies and all the rest of it. I know that some people value all these things above rubies and that they yearn for fame and its accoutrements more than they yearn for the talent or achievement that might bring them in the first place. Nothing I can say about fame’s drawbacks (and we haven’t even started on what harm fame may or may not do to one’s soul) will sound anything other than curmudgeonly and ungrateful to many people reading this. Which is why no one usually talks about the experience of fame at all. It’s best to shut up about it. Plenty of people talk about “the celebrity culture” but very few discuss fame itself as an experience. If there are a few wasps at the fame picnic – paparazzi, mean people, those determined to misunderstand you, those who embarrass you, stalk you, plague you – it is still a picnic and it doesn’t do to moan. I hope you’ll understand that nothing I’ve written so far is a moan: just a few observations I thought it worth sharing. I’ll be misunderstood, misinterpreted, of course I will. That’s another of the wasps. But the pork pies, chicken leg and white wine still make the whole fete champetre entirely worth while.