When Great Lives grates
Tales of lives lived well, or disgracefully, are always interesting, but what makes a good obit?
This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Everybody loves reading a good “obit”. Tales of lives lived well, or disgracefully, are always interesting, which is why thousands of readers each day turn first to the obituary pages of the Times and the Telegraph. They may chortle, though the most vivid tributes often involve men and women who performed remarkable feats in times of conflict and then slipped gently back into civilian life.
The modern obituary was shaped by Hugh Massingberd of the Telegraph — “Massivesnob”, to the mockers of Private Eye. He did not invent the coded phrases that carry so much freight, the crashing bore “who could be a handful after dinner”, or the tub-thumper “who held firm views”. But, encouraged by his editor, Max Hastings, he added a few of his own. Perhaps the supreme example was the aristocrat, a well-known flasher, who was described as “an uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man”.
The programme tends to find expert witnesses, who can embellish the lives of people they knew well for the benefit of listeners who did not
There are good obits on Radio 4, where Last Word goes out on Friday afternoons. Matthew Bannister makes an ideal presenter, being respectful while introducing, where necessary, a light touch. He mixes the subjects up, moving last month from Lester Piggott to Anne Howells, the superb mezzo-soprano. And the programme tends to find expert witnesses, who can embellish the lives of people they knew well for the benefit of listeners who did not know them, and may never have heard of them.
A recent Last Word featured Kay Mellor, the prolific television dramatist best-known for Band of Gold, the series about Bradford prostitutes. Mellor endured a rough childhood in Yorkshire, and had a child when she was 16. It was a tough start, but she ended her life in triumph, and made a good subject for Bannister and his team.
The other obits show on Radio 4 is Great Lives, presented by Matthew Parris, which goes out on Tuesday afternoons. Parris enjoys a freer hand than Bannister because he asks questions of his guest, who has chosen the subject of “a great life”, and also the person summoned to help justify the selection. Parris can be a bit doubtful at times, which is only right. There’s no point just nodding these folk through nem con.
Judy Garland, chosen recently by Susie Boyt, was hardly a controversial choice. The incomparable Judy was described by Fred Astaire as the greatest entertainer of all. He was slightly mistaken. Astaire himself was surely the greatest star; dancer supreme, and a magnificent, entirely natural singer. “If I want to know whether one of our songs works,” said George Gershwin, “I have only to listen to Fred sing it.”
In the Seventies, when his chat show was going strong, Michael Parkinson had Astaire on. The star turned up for his rehearsal with the band at Maida Vale with the sheet music of “A Foggy Day”. Parky noticed an inscription, and moved closer to read: “To Fred, with love, George”. Gosh. It’s hard not to stifle a blub.
Parris, whose instincts are sound, was unusually indulgent when Terry Christian was invited to talk about his great life, Tony Wilson. Christian, known vaguely three decades ago for hosting television shows for the slow-witted, came across as a preposterous character. With age, his Mancunian accent, which always sounded affected, has become even more exaggerated, so that a simple word like “life” becomes “liiiiife”. It’s a tribute act to a tribute act.
Wilson himself was ridiculous, so it added up, after a fashion. A friend who knew him at Cambridge, where they were contemporaries, said Wilson was an amiable chap, and he was certainly a capable news anchor for Granada Television in the Seventies, even if he had a touch of the Nick Robinsons, thinking that the show was all about himself. Then the rot set in. He hung on to the fag-end of punk rock, recast himself as a middle-aged groover, and was dubbed “Mr Manchester” by the likes of Christian, who said, without a trace of self-mockery, “we were his serfs”.
Parris can be a bit doubtful at times, which is only right. There’s no point just nodding these folk through nem con
This inadvertently amusing half hour brought us, in the expert’s role, Paul Morley, who has been writing about popular culture for four decades without ever persuading readers he can sit on the toilet the right way. The words of Lorenz Hart from Pal Joey spring to mind: “I was reading Schopenhauer last night — and I think that Schopenhauer was right”.
Christian and Morley: what a pair! Warming to the theme of Manchester as a world capital of kulcher, not to mention self-admiration, Morley declared that people in less celebrated cities were envious of what they got up to. It was gruesome stuff , but you had to keep listening, to find out what depths of self-deception they were prepared to plumb.
Parris should really have reached for the cane. Instead, he nodded along, and at the end told them that, all things being equal, he would like to have met the subject of this flatulent hagiography. You wouldn’t, Matthew. You would have found him to be a quasi-intellectual from Bramhall, who paddled in the shallow waters of popular culture, where quoting Matthew Arnold may persuade a few biddable fellow travellers that you are a bit of a “character”. A great life? Nowhere near.
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