Quentin Letts admits a soft spot for Emma Thompson
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All this week, in extracts from his brilliant new book, Quentin Letts pierces the pretensions of society’s most annoying people. Today, he turns to the luvvies who, as he says, can be hard to love . . .
Dear old Emma Thompson. She’s luvviedom’s head girl and her own greatest performance. In her various roles she gives it her all, widening her eyes, crumpling that pruney chin. Hollywood loves her and pays her accordingly. She is thick into the brass.
But, most of all, Emma cares. She cares so much that tears may soon spring to her spaniel eyes.
Or maybe the moment calls for defiance mode with a jutted jaw and a lashing-out of bad language, substituting her habitual ‘crumbs’ and ‘gollys’ for ‘f*** this’ and ‘f*** that’.
She cares about the planet and the poor. She aches for Labour (been a member ‘all my life’ — which means she backed Foot, then Blair, then Corbyn) and thinks Tories are evil, or something like that. Not evil in a biblical way, of course. She is a ‘libertarian anarchist’ when it comes to religion. As a tub-thumping atheist, she has talked about how some of the Bible offends her and how she ‘refutes’ it.
‘Dear old Emma Thompson. She’s luvviedom’s head girl and her own greatest performance’
Fancy word, refute. It means ‘prove to be wrong’. Millennia of religious teaching are thus overturned with one flick of an overpaid actress’s ash-blonde hair. Emma fights for feminism. When not beating her breast about Palestine or refugees or Aids sufferers or Heathrow airport’s expansion, she campaigns for the Galapagos turtle, even though it looks a bit like Norman Tebbit.
Ems is like that, you see. Forgiving. Big-hearted. So long as you’re not talking about religion.
Anyway, if she met rotten old Tory Tebbit she would probably want to win him over, because actors are like that. They yearn to be loved. So, she would try to josh nasty Norm along and do one of her little self-deprecating routines, which are always so amusing in a middle-class way.
She’s good with people, is Emma. She camouflages her blazing intolerance with English irony. What a star!
Why should we pay her political views any attention? After all, feminism (which seems to be her core belief) is based on egalitarian principles. And if egalitarianism’s logic of one person being no better than the next is to be pursued, why should a la-di-dah celebrity from a posh part of North London be any more worth listening to than a Ukip-supporting council-house knuckle-dragger from Boston, Lincs, or a Trump voter in Tallahassee, or even a turbanned ayatollah in Tehran?
Emma, however, does not see it that way. She argues that ‘anyone with any sort of voice has a duty to plug into what they think needs to be said’. Crumbs. That sounds very much like elitish self-justification — a manifesto for celebrity proselytising — does it not?
Who could begrudge Em her public altruism? She is so valiantly earnest, shoulder-shrugging in an aw-shucks Cambridge Footlights way. (She was at Cambridge with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and porcelain-petite heart-breaker Sandi Toksvig).
‘Emma cares. She cares so much that tears may soon spring to her spaniel eyes’
Those Footlights people perfect the art of being patrician without ever quite seeming it.
The British ruling class is artful at that sort of disguise. It has been perfected over centuries of self-survival, filing down the rough edges of autocracy and throwing in a few jokes so that hoi polloi don’t notice they are jolly well being told what to do by the old boss types.
Life has certainly gone Thompson’s way. She is wonderfully rich, allegedly worth £30 million (though that looks like an accountant’s under-estimate).
A cynic would say she made the money partly by being a brand —lovely, Left-wing Ems, acclaimed by the Beeb and Guardian as a national double-yolker.
That sort of thing is terrific for the bottom line.
Fie such cynicism! We fully accept that Ems is a sincere old biscuit and, come the Corbyn revolution, will happily forgo her holidays on private yachts and will settle for a wet week in a beach-hut in Skeggy.
Emma’s socialism is of the elastic variety. She is a great friend of Prince Charles, has a lovely house in Hampstead and a second in Scotland. Oh, all right, that probably means her carbon footprint is ginormous — a very Emma word — and jetting round the world from film set to film set must positively gobble down the eco-equivalent of acres of Brazilian rainforest, but just look at all the tax she pays.
But she is using her voice, remember. She is ‘doing her duty’.
‘Life has certainly gone Thompson’s way. She is wonderfully rich, allegedly worth £30m’
And yes, she sent her daughter Gaia to a private school (though she left to be home schooled after, she said, she was called a ‘hippy’ by classmates), which might look like stinking hypocrisy given her support for the anti-grammars Labour Party. But at least that opened up another state-school place for a poor person.
Or a refugee. Like the Rwandan child-soldier Emma and her handsome second husband Greg Wise adopted in line with her view that Britain should take in more refugees. ‘We’ve got plenty of room for them,’ she declared.
How would she countenance a temporary refugee camp on Hampstead Heath then? Maybe not so well. When Tesco proposed opening one of its Express mini-supermarkets in nearby Belsize Park, Emma (along with some fellow celebs) campaigned against it, arguing that the shop would blight that ‘villagey’ area. Village? Belsize bloody Park?
Despite her absurdities I still have a soft spot for Emma Thompson. It must be lingering affection for her late father’s voice narrating The Magic Roundabout with Zebedee and Dougal.
Other actors and celebs who follow her lead as a hand-wringing Lefty are not always so likeable, however.
Lily Allen, a pop singer, adopts drearily right-on postures on Brexit, refugees and other matters. Actor Michael Sheen was cross after his home area, South Wales, supported Brexit.
Sherlock star Martin Freeman (an intelligent man) fronted a Labour Party election broadcast in which he bragged that his values were ‘community, compassion, decency’? Good grief, he’ll play St Augustine next.
There is a word for Freeman and Thompson and their ilk. They are known as ‘influentials’, meaning celebrities who can influence the views of their fans.
Advertising agencies will cite statistics showing how sales of a certain brand of scent rise when someone like Helen Mirren stars in advertisements.
Similarly, political strategists insist that voters are influenced when a Martin Freeman or David Tennant presents a party-political broadcast for Labour.
Sherlock star Martin Freeman fronted a Labour Party election broadcast in which he bragged that his values were ‘community, compassion, decency’
Former Doctor Who star Tennant likes to parade his Labour support (‘all my life,’ he says) and desire for Scottish independence. He says Britain is in for a ‘dark time’ outside the EU and he went on American television to describe Donald Trump as a ‘tangerine ballbag’, a ‘wiggy slice’ and a ‘witless f***ing c***splat’.
Before the 2010 general election, Tennant backed Gordon Brown and said: ‘I would rather have a prime minister who is the cleverest person in the room than a prime minister who looks good in a suit. I think David Cameron is a terrifying prospect.’ How good to hear a much-packaged TV star decry image.
But are voters really swayed by celebrity? I find it hard to believe.
Voters did not warm to Jeremy Corbyn because he was supported by the likes of Lily Allen and Steve Coogan. They were attracted to the simplicity of his message and the fact that he seemed to be outside the networky, money-driven System that enriches such luvvies.
I suspect it was the same with the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when London’s club-class elite belatedly woke up to the possibility that Scotland might vote to leave the United Kingdom. People who for years had mocked the Union Jack and had inveighed against Britishness and national institutions now pushed themselves to the fore to say what a terrible thing it would be if the Scots believed the siren lurings of the Scots Nats and opted for self-rule.
The Guardian ran a round-robin billet-doux urging Scots voters: ‘Let’s stay together. What unites us is much greater than what divides us.’
Lord (Chris) Patten, former BBC chairman (not to mention Tory Party chairman, Hong Kong governor and EU commissioner) is condescension made flesh.
He is as puffed up as the most perfect Indian poori, his eyebrows rise like sloths, and out comes a froggy croak: everyone else is wrong, I’m right.
Signatories included: newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch, sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, Olympic runner-turned-motivational-speaker Kriss Akabusi, ‘property porn’ telly presenter Kirstie Allsopp, Sir David Attenborough, Lady (Joan) Bakewell, Wombles theme-tune composer Mike Batt, drag impersonator Stanley Baxter, historians Mary Beard and Antony Beevor, retired cricket umpire Dickie Bird, Cilla Black, Lord (Melvyn) Bragg, Jo Brand, Gyles Brandreth, actor Rob Brydon.
And that was just the As and Bs. The rest of the alphabet followed, culminating in David Walliams and actors Dominic West and Kevin Whately. Did the Guardian letter have any effect on the way Scots voted in the referendum? Who can say?
But what made Tracey Emin, to choose just one of those peaches, think her plea would make a wavering Scottish voter think: I was going to vote Yes to independence, but I am changing my mind because Tracey is such a brilliant artist?
What reasoning led an actor with as slight an artistic pedigree as Stephen Mangan to think, I am loved! I am gorgeous! My voice is bound to carry sway on the housing estates of Dundee? Luvvies, eh? Don’t you love them and their sheer, breath-taking self-importance? Well, since you ask . . .
Loveable? No Alan Bennett’s a liverish old class warrior
‘When it comes to lovability, few can surely compete with playwright Alan Bennett’
When it comes to lovability, few can surely compete with playwright Alan Bennett. With his cardigans and that ooh-Betty Leeds accent, he’s such a dear old thing.
But not to me. With his bellyaching against selective and private education — ‘Not fair!’ he declares, st
amping his foot —he is an acid class-warrior who wants to abolish private schools.
Bennett was once a new-wave satirist. He was part of the Beyond The Fringe team, which in the Sixties helped to rip down the old order, loosening respect for the Church, the Macmillan Tory party, judges and the military. What juicy targets they were, ripe for the plucking.
Not that it was particularly brave work. Those purple-nosed boobies of the bench and those gowned beaks at minor public schools were already on the way out. A really brave satirist is the one who takes on the incoming regime.
In his play Forty Years On (1968), Bennett attacks the past: Empire, tradition, retiring authority. Among his targets are superannuated majors in South Coast guesthouses who still use their military rank despite having long ago left the Army.
To have made that point in the Forties would have been edgy. To have examined it in the early Fifties might have been interesting from a psychological aspect. But to swipe at them in the late Sixties?
Were those ageing chaps really a threat? Or were they not just sad and lonely figures who in their egg-stained regimental ties and hankering for a daily routine were gamely trying to keep body and soul together?
Poet Laureate John Betjeman covered the nostalgia beat with greater charity. He wrote of sun-burnish’d Aldershot beauties and elderly maids contentedly praying in church light scented by lilies.
Bennett writes of timid working-class mams and aunties worried about their Ps and Qs, furtively gossiping about their neighbours.
Both writers peddle memories. Both may be touched by a rueful melancholy. But Betjeman’s verbal watercolours have a faint wash of solidarity whereas Bennett’s words chronicling genteel, lower-middle-class northern ladies are written as though from higher ground.
Where Betjeman sympathises, Bennett surreptitiously places himself above his subjects, even his own flesh and blood.
In his autobiography, Untold Stories, he describes his parents and their social hesitations.
He extracts laughs from their wonderment that he, their Alan, had started mixing with those posh folk down south. Many writers of comic fiction exploit their families, but with Bennett there is bitterness in the ink. At times, it feels distinctly as if he is laughing at his parents.
Betjeman memorialises with benevolence and, for that reason, is less revered by the Left, which wants to attack the past in its quest for constant change. Butcher’s boy Bennett is no longer working class because he went to a grammar school, an elitist establishment, based on selection, and from there to the University of Oxford, another highly selective establishment.
He became a supporter of the Left, much feted by the Arts Council, the public universities and the big prize-giving bodies. The same Left attacked grammar schools out of spite and brought in the comprehensive schools which dumbed down British education for decades.
Although bog-standard comprehensives at last may have been discredited — getting the Left to accept that has been like getting antibiotic tablets down a Doberman — the same educationalist Levellers are now in the process of imposing social-class requirements on our top universities.
Bennett, meanwhile, wants to smash the private sector — smash it until the last neo-classical, Portland-stone frieze of public-school culture lies in splinters, like the monasteries after Henry VIII. ‘Private education is not fair,’ wheedles Bennett, himself childless.
What the hell is fair?
Is it fair that some of us are good at maths and others cannot even count their regrets? Is it fair that Jonny Wilkinson was both brilliant at rugby and wonderfully good-looking? Is it fair that bragging Sir Philip Green is a billionaire?
Bennett is an acid class-warrior who wants to abolish private schools
The answer to those questions is ‘quite possibly’ because their achievements may all, in their way, have involved personal graft and self-discipline.
But is it fair your parents lost their first son in infancy, that your sister died of cancer, that your child has autism? Unfortunately all those things have happened to me, and fairness has bugger all to do with it.
What a pointless, plastic, lazy, Lefty, arrogant word this ‘fair’ is, all the worse when uttered in a maudlin, moany accent.
Does Bennett mean ‘wrong’? There is no right or wrong in providence.
What he probably means by unfair is ‘unequal’ or ‘inegalitarian’, but he is too canny to use those expressions because they would expose him as a droning socialist and that would be bad for his image. It might upset his lawn-mowing, Daily Telegraph-reading fans.
If you want to make something less unfair, it would probably mean taking something away from another person, and how ‘fair’ would that be? A mother has saved to send a little girl to, say, a private dance school where she can do ballet to her heart’s content: are they now to be told that this is illegal?
And what if a father wants to send his youngsters to the school his family has attended for four generations, but is now told the government has nationalised the site and he must instead go to an educational establishment assigned by his local council?
How fair would it be if Eton, perhaps the world’s greatest school, were to be bulldozed in the name of egalitarian ‘fairness’, as demanded by a playwright who made his fortune out of Radio 4 nostalgia but says he is concerned about poor people?
Despite having sent my own children to fee-paying schools, I am not an unalloyed enthusiast for private education. Today’s public schools are appallingly expensive and not as tough as they should be, scholastically and culturally. They have become so internationalist that they have nearly lost the British dimension that was possibly their great attraction.
Yet to demand their abolition simply in the name of social engineering: that is the stance of an acidic and liverish old bastard.
Political bozos who bore me to death
‘Theresa May is so boring that they should use her to dig for shale gas’
As a breed, our politicians are stultifyingly dull. How dare they be? Why do they go into politics if they have nothing electrifying to say?
Theresa May is so boring that they should use her to dig for shale gas.
She would not have prospered in the pre-TV age, when politicians had to quell vast crowds with their election addresses.
Instead she made it to PM without ever hurling herself into a national campaign; when she did try her hand at it in the 2017 general election campaign, she was a dud.
Have you ever sat through a Philip Hammond speech? Your eyelids seem to become laden down by fishing weights.
To watch an audience during a lecture by those Labour plodders Alistair Darling and Patricia Hewitt, or the ex-Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley, is to see a scorpion slowly starved of oxygen in a bell jar.
Onlookers reach the point where they would prefer to sting themselves rather than be suffocated to death by dullness.
We all now know that in private John Major was a hip-jiggling, afternoon copulator, as randy as Russell Brand, but in public Major had the speaking manner of a nasal nerd. It takes a warped audacity to go forth and stultify.
At its root is the casual belief that the audience is peripheral to the process. The people are just bystanders, whereas politics is for the cognoscenti.
Don’t communicate too openly with them, for goodness’ sake.
We don’t want them to develop an unhealthy interest in ideas.
And then these bozos are surprised when a ripsnorter like Nigel Farage or acid Alex Salmond or even Pied Piper Jeremy Corbyn comes along and grabs attention by being different.
- Adapted from Patronising Bastards: How The Elites Betrayed Britain, by Quentin Letts, published by Constable on October 12 at £16.99. © Quentin Letts 2017. To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid until October 14, 2017), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.