Private Eye’s celebrity diarist Craig Brown reveals tricks of satirist’s trade
- Credit: Archant
For the last 25 years, some of the biggest names in celebrity culture have graced Private Eye, lending their life experiences to its celebrated diary column. A typical entry might include Gwyneth Paltrow suggesting women rub olive oil onto their tights, or Prince Charles protesting about the London Eye being shaped as a “modish circle”.
Regrettably, these revealing peculiarities don’t derive from the pens of the icons themselves, but rather from professional satirist Craig Brown, who conjures them up through his astute observations of a celebrity’s public persona.
And an audience at St Mary’s in Primrose Hill will get the opportunity to hear him perform them out loud on Wednesday (July 9) as part of the church’s annual lecture series.
“Have you ever been to one of these before?” the 57-year-old asks at the start of our interview. “I was interested because it takes place in a church – so I was wondering how fruity the language can be. I might have to tone it down a bit.”
If audiences can make their peace with not seeing a Gordon Ramsay impression, the night will be a fascinating – and, of course, comic – insight into the nature of celebrity and the insanity it often seems to cultivate.
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Reflecting on the landmark anniversary of his Private Eye column, Brown explains that, while “it must be one of the longest columns there’s been”, it is also going stronger than ever.
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“With this great celebrity mountain that we have now, there are always new people popping up. What’s odd, when looking back at the early ones, is that there are quite a lot of people you can barely remember – especially politicians.
“In a funny way, pop stars are more permanent than politicians now. Someone like Stephen Byers – he was some Blair cabinet member and you vaguely remember some scandal – are huge news for a year and then they disappear. You hope that the joke about them is conveyed within the script and they become in a way like fictitious characters so the parody can stand on its own two feet.”
After graduating from Bristol University 37 years ago, Brown began to establish himself as a freelance journalist, but found his talents particularly suited to parody. He is, to his recollection, the person who invented the idea of a joke column written under a fake name; he established such credentials particularly with the creation of Bel Littlejohn – a hipster New Labour character – for The Guardian, and Wallace Arnold – an overtly reactionary Conservative – for The Telegraph.
Poking fun at everyone from Jordan to John Major, his observations are the result of meticulous research: “I am quite pedantic in a way, I get lots of interviews or books if they’ve written them and try to underline key phrases. I write then all down and then try to get into their speech rhythm without using the notes.
“Afterwards I’ll look at the notes and, quite often, you see the expression they use is better than the one you’ve invented for them. Occasionally, if someone is so absurd in reality, you have to make them less absurd in print otherwise people will think you’ve gone too far. If someone’s quite difficult like that, you just juxtapose them with some peculiar operation; I had Farage’s tips on how to put up a cupboard the other day for instance.”
Does this not offend certain people along the way, though? “Oh god, there’s been quite a lot. Offhand, the ones I can think of are Mohamed Al-Fayed – usually it’s the people you want to offend.
“Alan Sugar was definitely upset because, well, bullies don’t like being bullied. I only found out, from Ian Hislop actually, that he was booked to appear on Have I Got News For You that week and pulled out, citing my parody as the reason!”
The Bloomsbury resident adds that Janet Street-Porter once booed him during an award ceremony but, hopefully, the Primrose Hill audience will be more appreciative.
“With literary festivals, I don’t like people either reading or talking about themselves – you can read at home and who wants to hear about the author? So what I do is performances of my parodies; I’m not a particularly gifted impressionist but I try to give it a wholehearted performance.
“Having done it for such a long time, I’ve got a huge amount of things I can fall back on. So I tend to duck and dive and, if something’s going well, I just build on that. I’m like a human jukebox.”
Craig Brown is at the Primrose Hill Lecture series on July 9. Tickets are £12 and all profits go towards St Mary’s Church. Visit stmarysprimrosehill.com.