Adventures in La-La Land

Simon Callow reviews A Fate Worse than Hollywood by David Ambrose


As trenchantly described in the pages of David Ambrose’s highly entertaining, if occasionally mordant and finally rather haunting, memoir, there is in fact no fate worse than Hollywood. Certainly not for a writer. As it happens, it all started marvellously for him, buoyed up as he was by the sensational success of Alternative 3, the now legendary spoof science documentary programme he had written for British television, which presciently this was 1977 posited the colonisation of Mars by human beings because the earth was dying of man-made pollution. “The biggest hoax in television drama,” the Guinness Book of Records pronounced it; elsewhere it was gratifyingly described as “the most dangerous programme ever made”.

A Fate Worse Than Hollywood by David Ambrose, Zuleika, £25

On the strength of it, an American agent urged Ambrose to take his chances in Los Angeles. With the luck that has characterised a great deal of his life as recounted in these pages, he almost immediately found himself working not for some corporate monstrosity of a studio, but for a crown prince of Hollywood: Peter Douglas, in partnership with his father Kirk.

The Douglases were obsessive and demanding, but they knew what they wanted. Increasingly, though, Ambrose like all writers in Hollywood was at the mercy of know-nothings terrified that if they were to make a firm decision they would be held responsible for the outcome. Instead, the screenplay is submitted by the baby executives in charge to a never-ending succession of rewrites, exiling the powerless authors to the gulag known in the trade as Development Hell.

There were, of course, consolations: Ambrose was as susceptible as the next man to the poolside dolce far niente, the stars, the balmy climate, the restaurants, the tokes, the pokes. But for all the incidental pleasures and the generous emolument, he was frustrated.

It took Peter Douglas, now fascinated by psychological profiling in the form of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to identify his malaise: “Main thing that shows up is nobody better fuck with your freedom.” He knew he must up sticks and leave La La Land. At a party he found himself rejecting Hollywood’s core philosophy: his fellow-guests, all frantically pursuing their careers and their appetites, all ending in therapy, were bewailing their unhappiness. This, he told his somewhat shocked companions, was an American expectation, to the extent of being enshrined in the constitution, whereas Europeans regarded happiness “as a pleasurable and often surprising encounter to be enjoyed while it lasted but not hankered after when it had passed”.

It is hard to imagine a less acceptable idea in the city of perpetual illusions. He had to get out. “In this town you have to consider yourself lucky to be working with thieves and liars, because the alternative is idiots.” The line is from a story he wrote: it was called “Hollywood Lies”. Soon enough he gave up the whole rackety business of providing fodder for the dream factory, and became a best-selling novelist.

The title of his first book was The Man Who Turned Into Himself, the autobiographical overtones of which he freely acknowledges. Something was wrong at the core. Despite the wonderfully enjoyable glimpses of a life in film, television and the theatre including exquisitely distilled vignettes of the remarkable people with whom he has worked, Laurence Harvey “who would have had sex with a porcupine if it advanced his career”, Alastair Sim, creeping about “like a lugubrious Nosferatu”, and Orson Welles, of whom he paints a uniquely human and sympathetic portrait there runs through the book a compelling thread of melancholy, of alienation, even.

Its source is very clear. The first 50 pages are a devastatingly unsparing account of his early years, above all of his sense of utter disconnection from his doggedly unimaginative, joyless and moralistic parents. “It is generally acknowledged that the fastest way to empty a room,” he says, “is to recount your childhood memories in lengthy detail. So I will try to keep this short: I hated my childhood.” He felt no human warmth from his mother and father in their grim northern industrial town. His parents had social aspirations, so when a toff came round for tea, and Ambrose’s father asked David to pass the cruet, and he didn’t know what that was, he was reproached afterwards. “Showing us up like that,” said his mother, bitterly. “I didn’t know where to look.” But he had learned a lesson: “I could see clearly . . . how preferable it was to be the distinguished visitor in life rather than his anxious and self-humbling hosts.”

He decided to undertake “a radical overhaul” of himself. He uprooted his northern accent, gave himself over to intensive exercise and fashioned himself into “some Rank Charm School product of the Forties” at exactly the time when a new wave of actors like Albert Finney and Alan Bates were boldly asserting their regional backgrounds. “Who did I think I was?” he asks. His answer is devastating: “I think I wanted to be the opposite of who I was afraid I was.”

The possibility that he might somehow find a voice of his own was unexpectedly presented to him when his schoolteacher at the grammar school to which he had won a scholarship commented on a short story he had written, casually remarking “you could be a writer” … “as though idly speculating on nothing more important than whether it may or may not rain later on”.

This admirable man put the young Ambrose through his paces, and opened him up to a world of ideas. At Oxford he studied law as little as he could and plunged into theatre. And sex. Bringing his girlfriend home and sharing a bed with her brought a horrified reaction from his parents; his mother later made a remark of such savage moralism that it put her forever beyond the pale for him. “The decoupling from my parents was now complete … never again would I regard them as people with whom I could share any kind of understanding or anything approaching friendship.” The shocking unnegotiability of this passage is characteristic of the precision and force of Ambrose’s prose. By the end of the book, he has achieved closure of sorts: his mother is deep in Alzheimer’s but his father offers him a grudging compliment: “You’ve done well.” It’s not much, but he has at least turned into himself.

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