I used to be a journalist

While researching Norman Cook at the Library today – ie. trawling through the internet – I happened upon this article I wrote for The Observer, Sunday 4 July 1999, about the media’s fascination with asking famous people mundane questions. I reprint it here partly because it is quite prescient in places, partly because it contains a number of references which seem antique (such as Adam and Joe having their own C4 show – if only!), and partly because I can barely believe that the Observer was giving me so many words to play with at their expense in 1999. It’s also very unlikely that I’d have been able to research the piece by trawling the internet at that time. I didn’t even have a modem connection in 1998 and was still keeping an alphabetised cuttings library at this time. I’m not even sure if the Observer had a website? My guess is that I researched it old school! Them were the days.

Ask A Silly Question …
What’s in your pockets right now? I’ll tell you what’s in mine. Some small change, a clean hankie, door keys, a Cartman keyring, some Fisherman’s Friends and an asthma inhaler. How revealing. From the contents of my pockets, you, the pop psychologist, have ascertained that I suffer from asthma, follow South Park and have a front door. It really is astounding what you can find out about somebody from their belongings. Now, if I were famous, you’d have a scoop, a telling insight into my character, for we live in forensic times, when the scrutiny of celebrity has reached the invasive intensity of keyhole surgery. While unscrupulous tabloid journalists go through your dustbins round the back, the more resourceful detective will be at the front door, asking you straight out: what’s in your fridge, what’s on your mantelpiece, or – perhaps most revealing of all – what’s on your record player?

Channel 4 has just launched All Back To Mine, a pally, televisual take on Desert Island Discs, in which pop celebs talk us through their record collection, selecting key tunes that theoretically shine a light into their soul, but in reality will have been hand-picked by the programme’s producer to provide an ‘eclectic’ menu of musical clips (in the first programme, Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook picked out one punk record, one soul record, one acid house record and so on). Though the title has been underhandedly ‘adapted’ from Mojo magazine’s All Back To My Place (a revealing steal, since popular television is turning into one long magazine), Desert Island Discs is the template to which All Back To Mine owes its commission.

But with respect to Roy Plomley, the idea of the questionnaire as key to the soul was not new when he invented the programme. Marcel Proust famously filled in a questionnaire at a friend’s birthday party in 1884. Proving himself a horribly precocious 13-year-old, to the question ‘Where would you like to live?’ he wrote: ‘In the country of the Ideal, or rather, of my ideal.’ In response to ‘Who would you have liked to be?’, he parried: ‘Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it.’ Seven years later, Proust submitted to another questionnaire, sealing its respectability forever. Favourite painters: Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt. Favourite poets: Baudelaire, Alfred de Vigny. Favourite colour: ‘Beauty lies not in colours but in their harmony.’

Desert Island Discs is, however, by far the best-established clinic specialising in ‘favourite things’ psychoanalysis. Pillars of society have, for 57 years, been selecting eight pieces of music, providing eight biographical jumping-off points for Plomley, Michael Parkinson and latterly Sue Lawley. While most guests are candid enough to select truthful, representative cues, some politicians shamelessly exploit a golden opportunity to paint themselves as the fully-rounded human beings they so obviously are not. In 1996, Tony Blair’s list was, typically, all things to all voters: The Beatles, Debussy, Robert Johnson, Bruce Springsteen, Classic FM fave Samuel Barber and – here’s the curve ball – ‘Cancel Today’ by obscure Latin guitar duo Ezio. (Perhaps Tony had heard them on the radio in Tuscany. Or perhaps Alastair Campbell had.)

Such calculating dishonesty exposes the ‘favourite things’ approach as flawed – although who can blame Tony for trying it on? When you or I are asked, in real life, to name our favourite music, we reply: ‘Oh, all sorts really, a bit of anything.’ It’s a conversation-stopper, so the advanced social animal will instead reel off a prepared list of artists who make them sound effortlessly cool and knowledgeable (‘The Beta Band, early Roy Budd, Basement Jaxx, Giant Sand, The Delfonics, Mercury Rev before they got on the cover of the NME‘). When, in 1086, King William conducted the first survey of England, you can bet one bright spark tried to outwit the Domesday Book auditors by claiming to have a much cooler breed of pig than he actually had.

On Channel 4’s The Adam And Joe Show, the DIY duo subverted the endlessly corruptible Desert Island Discs format by arriving at a celebrity’s house by the back door and ruthlessly ransacking their actual record collection for the specific purposes of ridicule. The slot is called Vinyl Justice.

But such investigative rigour is usually deemed out of bounds in this cosy shopping-list world where every radio station worth its salt has its own pipe-and-slippers variation on Plomley’s brainchild: Radio 1’s My Top Ten, Radio 2’s Personal Choice, Radio 3’s Private Passions, Radio 4’s The Tingle Factor (tunes that make the hair on the back of the neck stick up). In the Eighties, the BBC ran the TV series My Favourite Things, expanding the brief from music to, well, everything. Margaret Thatcher eulogised a hideous ceramic figurine commemorating the Falklands based on the flag-raising at Iwo Jima – and how much more human it made her seem! In these days of fragmented scheduling, celebrity’s choices makes an ideal 10-minute filler, be it My Monet, Music for the Millennium, or The Nation’s Favourite Comic Poem. If anyone from a TV production company is reading, My Ugliest Ceramic Ornament remains up for grabs.

What makes us so fascinated with the mundane tastes of the rich and famous? Does it bring John Redwood closer to us if we learn, as we did in one newspaper’s weekly Fridge File, that his Zanussi contains Heinz Weight-Watcher’s Dressing, red pesto and Waitrose jam? (His press advisers clearly think that it does.) Is it a worrying side-effect of Hello!-mania, where a star’s new baby or toy boy is now only marginally more interesting to us than what make of toaster they have? A more practical answer is that there are simply too many celebrities now, and without the available quality time in which to truly get to know them, we must rely on the diagnostic shorthand of what’s-your-favourite-colour?

This vapid questionnaire-culture cuts society up into small, bite-sized pieces and spoon-feeds it to us. It elevates the mundane to an unwarranted level of import (the Eighties pop singer Howard Jones keeps three Toblerones in his fridge) while reducing valuable insight to trivia (in Woman’s Own‘s Loves And Hates, we learn that Chris Tarrant hates Americans). What’s worse is that the format knows no bounds; fridge-inspection can be found in every publication from highbrow to no-brow. One broadsheet supplement invites celebrities to Show Us Your Pants.

In an effort to restore some intellectual ballast to this brain-bypassing approach to journalism, Vanity Fair has been publishing its Proust Questionnaire since 1993, a 25-question census which – in name chiefly – reminds us that the clipboard model is not a new one. Proustians on the staff of Vanity Fair, including London editor Henry Porter, thought that naming their questionnaire after him was a splendid wheeze. But forget the fancy literary back story – questionnaires are a great fallback for magazines because they can be done by fax. And publicists love them because they’re quick, and if push comes to shove, they can fill them in themselves.

Whether discovering that Anne Widdecombe enjoys listening to the recorded sounds of hippos for relaxation (as we did on Desert Island Discs last week), that Joanna Trollope’s greatest extravagance is ‘posh soap’ (the Guardian Questionnaire), or that TV’s Gail Porter’s number one smell is Gaultier Le Male (Passions in Now magazine), this is psychological profiling by way of the playground, and no more reliable a judge of character than the unthumbed copy of that Isaiah Berlin biography ‘left out’ on someone’s coffee table, or the casually draped John Coltrane album atop their hi-fi. And yet, it seems, everybody’s at it, pushing us, like pressurised players in a docusoap, to make ourselves sound far more exotic and interesting than we really are.

Now, in my other pocket, I have a loaded pistol and tickets to an Ezio gig

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