Becoming Beyonce – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2015) – A Real Life Review



J. Randy Taraborrelli is a real guilty pleasure of mine. His biographies seem meticulously researched and are very thorough. There is often a slight tension between his fan worship of his subjects and his need to get as much scandal as he can on them and this tension I enjoy. He tells a story well and I’ve yet to read anything by him which has been approved by his subject- his work tends to be “unauthorised”. He is best known for really changing the public perception of Diana Ross from Motown sweetheart to the Ultimate Diva in his “Call Her Miss Ross” (1989), my favourite of his books although I have enjoyed others on Madonna and Michael Jackson and have a so-far unread one on Elizabeth Taylor on my bookshelves. He also has an interest in powerful American families such as The Kennedys and The Hiltons. The family aspect is also very strong in this book as in the process of “becoming Beyoncé”, the Knowles family were extremely involved.

His works generally focus on larger-than-life characters, those who were no strangers to scandal thus producing a lot of copy Taraborrelli could pore over but here there has to be a slightly different emphasis, as scandal on Beyonce Knowles herself is decidedly limited. What we have instead is the just as fascinating question of how a little girl who participated in talent contests and pageant shows became one of the most celebrated and influential women on the planet. Well, the answer to that, you may be disappointed to know is through sheer determination and hard work. Going from a child in an all- girl musical review, to unsuccessful singing act Girls’ Tyme (which brought family members and investors close to bankruptcy), to stardom with Destiny’s Child, a solo career, marriage to one of the most successful all-time rappers, Jay-Z, to motherhood were all achieved by extraordinary single-minded dedication which meant that there has been really little life outside of the business in her attainment of her goals.

Subtitling this “The Untold Story” might get readers searching for juicy titbits but the perennially image conscious and brand aware Beyonce has rarely ever let her guard down long enough for scandal to occur. Her father, however, is a different matter and Mathew Knowles certainly comes under the microscope. As single-minded as his daughter in pursuance of fame, he gave up a profitable job and sunk a small fortune into drilling the group of young girls, shedding those along the way who couldn’t toe the line, there were extra-marital dalliances and the central event in the book comes from 2009 when Beyonce blows the whole thing apart by having her father audited for potential mismanagement of funds. Another incident which generated much media attention was the extraordinary situation in a lift where her sister attacked Beyonce’s husband behind closed doors and all parties emerged as if nothing had happened. Beyonce’s role in this was strangely detached which stimulated much speculation as to what was going on, the incident suggesting a metaphor for public image versus personal life but under analysis there’s not very much that can be actually deducted from this.

There seems little doubt that the development of a public image has caused difficulties for Beyonce’s own identity. This led to a creation of a dauntless confident alter-ego Sasha Fierce to hide the insecurities. Beyonce’s songs feature “independent women” and “survivors” and even though father Mathew was seen to be positioned at the centre of her existence the book gives attention to a group of very strong women who allowed Beyonce to become Beyonce, including early managers and her mother, Tina and sister Solange.

Compared to some of Taraborrelli’s subjects this is a much more low-key affair but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible not to be swept up by such professional self-belief, determination and on-stage charisma.


Becoming Beyonce was published in 2015. I read the Pan paperback edition. Yes I know there should be an acute accent on Beyonce’s name, but the keyboard is not co-operating with that!

Funny Way To Be A Hero – John Fisher (2013) – A Real Life Review



I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.

It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.

Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.

fisher2Dan Leno

The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today would find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.


Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!

fisher4Norman Wisdom

The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actors so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim  etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.

Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.

fisher5Tommy Cooper

It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.

fisher6Hylda Baker

Thank you Mr Fisher for this real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.


This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.

Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review



Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.


Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.

The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen (2017) – A Real Life Review



I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.

gilesandmary2Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.

gilesandmary3Not Giles and Mary

We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.

Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.

It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.


The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017


What Happened, Miss Simone? – Alan Light (Canongate 2016) – A Real Life Review



Music journalist Alan Light has put this biography together using the research material for a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus.  There was obviously a wealth of information on this unique performer and Light has done a very good job in pooling this all together to provide a fascinating biography on a fascinating subject.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymons in 1933, the sixth of eight children from Tryon, North Carolina showed early musical talent playing piano at church and began lessons with the intention of becoming a classical pianist.  Her application for a scholarship at the esteemed Curtis Institute was turned down.  Simone always believed this was because she was a black woman and this rejection became very much a foundation stone for her life and career.  The pop and jazz world beckoned, (requiring a name change so her mother wouldn’t find out), but for Simone, this was always a second-rate choice with second-rate audiences who did not always seem as engrossed as she believed a classical audience would.  A 1959 American hit, a cover of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (amazingly her only US single hit reaching number 18) began a career which encompassed many musical styles and certainly had its highs and lows.  There was a marriage where abuse was commonplace and Simone could not lose the feeling that she was being exploited by those around her personally and professionally.



By the mid 60’s Simone had become highly involved in the civil rights movement  This led to her writing and recording what was termed “The Black National Anthem”, the stupendous “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” (perhaps the greatest protest song of all time).  This together with tracks such as “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Four Women” and an embracing of the Black Power movement and her need to educate her audiences led to her being deemed as a radical which would have been to some detriment to her career in the whites-dominated music industry and led to further disillusionment with her homeland.


Nina struggled with mental-health issues and her reputation for being “difficult”, and in fact quite often terrifying, was down to a severe bipolar disorder.  The increasing need to be medicated and her own reluctance to take this medication at times makes for extraordinarily chilling reading.  An account of her involvement with the Pamplona music festival is fairly mind-blowing.  But, however difficult she might be, you could not ignore the talent and some people did whatever they could to stick with her.  Fans were loyal despite her testing of their patience, through late arrivals, arguments and bad-tempered performances and no-shows and also through the trappings of touring which could easily become too much for her.  Always unpredictable in her repertoire, she had the ability to move an audience to raptures (as well as occasional boos).

The title for both the book and documentary comes from a poem by Maya Angelou. Much of what I read in Light’s biography did not come as too much of a surprise.  Nina’s struggles were well documented in her lifetime.  You can get a great sense of the turmoil in her 1991 autobiography “I Put A Spell On You”, which is both highly readable yet confused and confusing.

She may have been hard to like but it was easy to fall in love with that voice and great talent.  She was a real tour-de-force, a complete one-off who defies categorisation and whose like we will never see again.  Alan Light portrays this clearly and respectfully and aims to illuminate the genius of the performer conflicted with the traumas and tensions of the woman.


What Happened, Miss Simone was published in hardback by Canongate in March 2016  and will be published in paperback in 2017.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Kathy Kirby – Secrets, Loves And Lip Gloss – James Harman (2005)- A Real Life Review



This is a very British tale.  The story of the singer dubbed “The British Marilyn Monroe” who at one point in the mid 1960’s was reputed to be the highest paid woman on UK television – and then it all went wrong.  I think this is what is termed a “published on demand book” (I got my copy from Amazon ) by Harman, a life-long fan who went one step further and for a short time believed he could engineer a comeback when he became Kathy Kirby’s manager.  It didn’t turn out quite the way he planned it.

                                    Kathy Kirby   and Ambrose at the peak of their fame                                                      

 Essex-born Kirby was discovered by Bert Ambrose, a band leader, big in the 1940’s, who by this time was really from another era who saw her as a way of bringing a younger audience to his venues.  Her look, the obvious glamour and the fantastic voice made her a television regular and she was very much a household name even before she began a run of chart hits in 1963-5.  Kirby was very much controlled by the much older Ambrose and they became lovers.  He reputedly financially exploited her, gambling away her money whilst all the time convincing her she was a great star.  When Ambrose died Kathy went into free fall- a catalogue of bankruptcy, incarceration in a mental hospital, inappropriate relationships, attempted comebacks and increasing mental health problems.  For the last years of her life she lived very much as a recluse, shunning the limelight she once craved.  She died in 2011, but throughout Harman’s work there is the hope that she would return and shine in show business again.

The structure of the book is odd.  It begins with an extended series of tributes from those in the business, wishing her well.  Frank Ifield uses it as an excuse to plug his autobiography and when you get to singer from much the same era, Julie Rogers, beginning “Kathy and I never met” you do begin to question this format.  The narrative throughout is brokn up by italicised sections of Harman’s own words and reminiscences, rather needlessly as the whole book is surely his own words and reminiscences.  That aside, this book is a permanent fixture on my bookshelves because of the absolutely fascinating story he tells.  I re-read this to remind myself of some of the incredible things that happened to her before reviewing the Essential CD – The Very Best Of Kathy Kirby.  Kathy was obviously too naive for a life in show-business but kept attempting to bounce back – a real survivor.  She was also too honest for the press and many  way hastened her own “downfall” by the things she told them.  The media treated her very much as the girl who found fame and lost it, creating a self perpetuating myth which got her selling stories but probably didn’t do her much good.  If anyone wanted a view on the fickleness of fame it was Kathy they turned to.  The Sunday press were always keen on stories about her and scandal made good reading- her every mistake and misery was taken apart by the press.

Kathy was really just a victim of changing tastes in popular culture.  By the 1960’s fame was not a life-long thing it had maybe been the generation before  and Kathy became one of the many casualties of changes in pop music at this time and yet she railed against this.  She was determined to remain a star, her legion of fans saw her always as a star but bookings diminished to bingo halls and restaurants as, despite the talent, she was just no longer in vogue and that had a serious effect.  As time went by she became deemed to be“difficult” which further compounded things.

For anyone who wonders “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” Harman’s tale is an eye-opener and very much a tale of the shallow world of showbusiness and the vulnerability of some who rose to the top.


Kathy Kirby- Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss was published by Mediaworld in 2005

Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners – Andy Merriman (2009) – A Real Life Review



Many years ago I read “Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit” (1983) written by “adopted” daughter Dawn Langley Simmons.  This was an extraordinary tale that stayed with me in an unsettling way.  Dawn had started off  life as Gordon, although he had, if I remember the account rightly, both sets of genitalia.  In teenage years Simmons was rushed to hospital in agony with internal bleeding which turned out to be menstruation.  An operation was needed and Gordon was then Dawn and went on to marry and claimed to have had a baby.  Much of this has apparently now been refuted and Simmons called a fantasist and one of a number of people who exploited the naivety of Rutherford and her husband.  Merriman cites the 2004 publication “Peninsula Of Lies” by Edward Ball as the one that shatters the myths and I must seek that book out because this was one of the aspects which still confused me after reading this biography.

Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was one of the greatest British character actors of all time.  I read Merriman’s previous book on Hattie Jacques and that had been a very good read.  This is a man who knows and values his larger than life British character actresses.  This is a book that has been sat on my shelves for some time and I’ve been itching to get round to it.  (The Library Book Bingo I have been participating in gave me the chance).


I think since Rutherford’s death it has been pretty much forgotten just how popular a performer she was and for a long period of time.  Perhaps now she is best remembered as the 1960’s Miss Marple in a series of films which appear quite regularly on television and which Agatha Christie was reputed to hate (fabulous theme music) but she had been a star for at least twenty years before that.  Her breakthrough came as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s play (and subsequent 1945 film) “Blithe Spirit”.  In 1963 she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the Burton/Taylor vehicle “The VIP’s” and in 1967 was made a Dame.


Blithe Spirit

Merriman begins by exploring a family secret which had great repercussions for Rutherford’s outlook on life and her mental health.  He rattles through Margaret’s development as an actor and we get to sympathise that her  looks and appearance ruled out glamorous leading lady roles and throughout the book will on a lady who it seemed rarely said an unkind word to anyone and who was highly respected in the entertainment industry.  Margaret came as part of a double act.  She was married to actor Stringer Davis from 1945 to her death and she had it stipulated in contracts that he be given a part in her productions.  (“Spotting Stringer” is a good game to play in many of her movies.  In the Miss Marple films he was given perhaps his most meaty role of his career with the specially written-in Mr Stringer part).  He was absolutely devoted to her and relished the role of “Mr Rutherford”.  Merriman speculates a little as to whether the Davis/Rutherford match was all that it seemed but generally he’s a sympathetic biographer who mentions but tends to steer clear of stirring up any scandal.


Husband and wife in “Murder Ahoy”

This is a good read and also a touching one.  Rutherford regularly checked herself in for electric shock treatments,  suffered mental health issues throughout her life, was probably manic depressive (bipolar in today’s jargon) and was taken for a ride by some people who managed to get close to her and Stringer.  Add to this her inability to deal with financial matters  and you’ll know that this comic genius had much sadness to endure.


Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners  was published by Aurum in 2009

Mae West: An Icon In Black And White – Jill Watts (OUP 2001)- A Real Life Review



“It isn’t what I do, but how I do it.  It isn’t what I say but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

This, in her own words sums up perfectly the Hollywood legend, Mae West (1893-1981).  It explains why she was successful and also why she encountered problems, particularly with censorship, throughout her career.  It also connects her with, in Jill Watts’ words her links to “African-American tricksterism and signification” (more of this later, although as a British reader of this book I’m still a little vague on the details).


Mae West began on stage at a very young age and alternated between Vaudeville (fairly respectable) and Burlesque (less so).  She created the character of “Mae West”, which cemented herself into American and European culture.  She wrote plays.  “Sex” (1926) landed her in prison for obscenity (after it had been playing for a year).  “Diamond Lil” (1928) established her as a major star.  At one point she was reputed to be the second wealthiest American after William Randolph Hearst.  Hollywood (eventually) beckoned (when she was nearly 40) when old pal George Raft pushed for her to be in his “Night After Night”.  In what must have been one of the rarest and earliest examples of Hollywood reverse inequality Raft starred in the movie for $191 a week whilst West co-starred for $4,000 a week.


Hollywood, initially nervous of her controversial reputation began to see her potential and began greenlighting a series of films which began with “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) her biggest and best during which she wielded extraordinary power for a woman in the Hollywood studio system.


Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”

Nowadays we would find little sexually outrageous in West’s output but she regularly overstepped the boundaries of the Hays Code of censorship, brought in to return respectability to the movie world.  We might, however, express surprise at the existence of her much raided and closed down theatrical show about homosexuality featuring a  cast of drag queens in 1927, as it probably seems at least five decades ahead of its time.  Much of the obscenity was implied (cue much reading of scripts in courtrooms to spot the implications) and was indeed mainly because (back to my opening quote) to how things were said by Mae and what she was doing when she said them.

This is the second book about Mae West I’ve ever read.  Mary Beth Hamilton’s “The Queen Of Camp” didn’t really bring the star to life for me in the way I thought it would.  I enjoyed this more but again have reservations.

Watts begins her very thorough and quite academic study of West’s life and career by citing two rumours that were commonplace during West’s lifetime.  Firstly, that she was actually a man and secondly that she had African-American heritage and was in the terms of the time “passing as white”.  The first rumour was firmly disproved at the time of her death and has probably much to say about how a powerful woman was viewed.  The second hinges on, and this is not known definitively, whether she had an African-American grandfather.  Immaterial of this, Watts argues, is the performer’s  heavy borrowing for her character “Mae West” from African-American traditions and the quips and the use of language for which she became famous is a form of “signification” and that the character is based upon “the trickster” of African-American folk tales.  West’s famous “shimmy dance”, her walk and love of blues were adapted from her experiences in black nightclubs.  Her total acceptance of African-American friends and lovers was unusual at the time and she carried this consistently through her private and professional life.  Her play about mixed relationships even began a tour of the South and led to a lynch mob after her leading male.

True, nowadays, we can cite racism in her films which cast African-American actresses as her maids but their relationship was different to most films and something bordering on equality was often implied if not explicitly stated and she was known to be adamant in her support for casting even within the limits which mainstream Hollywood set.  There’s also the issue that for a time in her early career she performed in “blackface” in an act termed as a “coon shouter”.


Mae West, Gertrude Howard and Hattie McDaniel

It is these issues which makes up the “Icon In Black And White”of Watts’  subtitle and provides the focus for her work.  It is all very interesting but perhaps I should have read a more general biography first.  Watts, however, does not stint on biographical detail.  We end up knowing as much about West’s private life as she chose to reveal (actually very little despite her continual sexual witticisms and bravado), there’s quite thorough break-d0wn of the plot of her films and we get a good sense of Mae West the person, the character and the star.

This was one extraordinary lady and I think perhaps over the last generation her star has waned a little.  “She Done Him Wrong” is a superb movie and at the other end of her career there’s much entertainment to be had (most of it unintentional, or was it?) in her last film, the pretty disastrous “Sextette” (1979) with Mae’s final outing as an 86 year old sex goddess.  I want to read more about her thanks to Watt’s depiction of a woman born both decades ahead of her time and yet very much part of it.


Mae West and friends in “Sextette”


Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.

100 Essential Books – Toast – Nigel Slater (2003)


When I first read this book when it was first published I had really only a vague idea as to who Nigel Slater was. I had his “Real Fast” cookbooks which I used a lot but he hadn’t become the very recognisable TV cook of recent years. I’m not sure if I would have got a different impression of this had I read this more recently after seeing him so much on TV presenting his reassuring, comforting cookery programmes and food documentaries.  Perhaps I would have found this memoir more of a shock. A very watchable TV adaptation was made with Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) as Nigel and Helena Bonham-Carter as his step-mum but reading the book is the more valuable experience by far. I re-read this whenever I want a fast read which will have me laughing out loud and a few minutes later feeling close to tears. However well-written Nigel’s cookbooks are they do not have the same effect on me as this.

There’s a marvellous line from a review on the paperback copy from the Independent which claims Slater as the “Proust of the Nesquik era”. It was famously a Madeleine sponge cake that got Proust reminiscing at great length (haven’t read that and probably now unlikely to) and that is so appropriate as nothing kickstarts the old nostalgia like food (except perhaps music) and Slater cleverly uses this to provide the structure for his reminiscences.   As his childhood was in the late 60’s/early 70’s (he was born in 1958) his memories are evoked by such joys as Arctic Roll, Cream Soda, Space Dust and Grilled Grapefruit. He tells his story through his hunger and does so admirably. The era is marvellously conjured up through his examination of his life through the foods we ate. It also contains in the section “Spaghetti Bolognaise” perhaps one of the most laugh-out-loud funny pieces of writing ever. I am grinning as I recall it as it is so close to my first experience of spaghetti. It is hard to believe that in the late 60’s pasta would be deemed to be something almost inedible to the British palate packaged in its “blue sugar paper that looks for all the world like a great long firework.” We Brits were not used to food that had to be forced into the pan and once cooked;

“We all sit there staring at our tumbling plates of pasta on our glass Pyrex plates. ‘Oh Kathleen, I don’t think I can,’ sobs Aunt Fanny, who then picks up a long sticky strand with her fingers and pops it into her mouth from which it hangs all the way down to her lap.” 

Now in my household and my first introduction to spaghetti that is exactly how we ate it – plain and unadorned and I must say it was some years later before the experience was repeated. I’m really not sure why we did that- My Mum used to make Macaroni Cheese so must have known that it needed something on it. Luckily, in the Slater household they had a tin of “a slurry of reddy-brown mince that smells ‘foreign’”. With that addition things seem to be picking up, indeed the impressionable Nigel thinks he “wouldn’t mind eating this every day”, until that is, Dad remembers the drum of grated Parmesan cheese that he has been advised by a sophisticated friend to sprinkle on top.

“Daddy, this cheese smells like sick,” I tell him.

“I know it does, son, don’t eat it. I think it must be off.”

We never had spaghetti bolognaise or Parmesan cheese again. Or for that matter, ever even talked about it.”

I have laughed the whole time I have been typing this. I’m sure it will do the same to you when you read it. It’s not all fun in the Slater household, however. His mother dies when he is young (her memory kept alive poignantly by marshmallows on his bed-side table) and there is subsequently a difficult relationship with his step-mum. His almost obsessive interest in food begins to form itself into a potential career. It is a very British book, I’m not sure how well its sheer Britishness would translate for an international audience. This section sums up Nigel’s relationship with his father but the sensory value may be lost if these words do not sum up the same sensations;

“He always had something disgusting in his mouth, a Setler, a glug of kaolin and morphine, his pipe. When it wasn’t one of those it would be a Senior Service or a Mannekin. I flinched on the rare occasion he kissed me, even though I wanted him to.”

There is a danger to consider this to be a  “celebrity biography” because to a point that is exactly what it is, but it is far more than that. This is Literature. It stands head and shoulders above most contemporary autobiographies because it is so well written and because of its disarming honesty. Family tensions and a coming to terms with his sexuality are all beautifully handled. It manages to be both touching and outrageous and was a highly deserved British Book Awards Biography of the Year Winner. A couple of years back it was one of the selected books to give out on World Book Night and I would have loved to have had a few copies to pass around. It also seems to be appearing as a book that is studied in schools and colleges and I am thrilled by that as it is truly a modern classic. Butterscotch Angel Delight anyone? fivestars

“Toast” was published in paperback in 2004 by Harper Perennial

Passion For Life (2013) – Joan Collins – A Chick-lit from a Male Point of View Review


Okay, I know I’m pushing my boundaries a bit here by categorising this memoir as chick-lit but I have been thinking a bit recently about the novels of Joan Collins (prompted by a conversation on this blog) which I always had a sneaking affection for. I find sister Jackie’s novels somewhat over-blown but Joan (and I hoped she actually wrote her novels- I’m sure she did) seemed to perfectly capture the brittle world of celebrity and 80’s glamour. We didn’t call it “chick-lit” in the days when these were first published but they are more likely to attract a female readership.   I’ve just looked them up on Amazon and they are available on Kindle, but with my to-be-read pile slightly groaning at the moment they may have to wait some time for a re-read. The two I particularly remember are “Prime Time”(1988) and “Love And Desire And Hate” (1990) and there are certainly two I know I haven’t read “Star Quality” (2002) and “Misfortune’s Daughters” (2004). Anyway, those thoughts got me digging out Joan’s latest book “Passion For Life” (2013) which I was sent for  review purposes when it was first published.

I do think Joan Collins’ previous two autobiographies are probably up there amongst the best celebrity biogs. She has the knack of giving the reader exactly what is wanted – a perfect combination of fact, analysis, outrageousness and gossip and she’s had quite a life.  I read a library copy of “Past Imperfect” (1978) when it first came out when I was an impressionable teenager and had really read nothing like it. I remember renewing it quite a few times! At this point “Dynasty” was quite a few years away and Joan was best known to me as a guest star in TV programmes such as “Batman” and “Star Trek”. In 1978 the year she published “Past Imperfect”, a bit of a golden year for La Collins, she took the lead role in the film version of sister Jackie’s “The Stud”, began a series of much-loved Cinzano adverts with Leonard Rossiter and never looked back. Her career switched up a gear which would lead to her become a worldwide household name a few years later when the role of Alexis Carrington came along. The height of this renewed fame is covered in the aptly titled “Second Act” (1996) which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

With this third instalment of her life story and with the passing of the years, a slowing down of career and greater stability in married and family life Joan has opted for a more laid-back memoir approach, sorted in themes with a lot of pictures.  The reproduction of photos in this hardback edition is top quality and Joan writes in a clear, identifiable voice.   Fans could not really hope for more. By its very structure it obviously has less depth than the previous two autobiographies but it still gives me the same sense of guilty pleasure. threestars

“Passion For Life” was published in the UK in 2013 by Constable.