wed 18/09/2019

The Culture Show: Lynn Barber's Celebrity Masterclass, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Culture Show: Lynn Barber's Celebrity Masterclass, BBC Two

The Culture Show: Lynn Barber's Celebrity Masterclass, BBC Two

A cosy profile of the celebrity interviewer known for her hatchet jobs

Alan Yentob with Lynn Barber Credit: BBC/Steve Robinson

The best, and funniest, interview I’ve ever read – and I confess it’s attained almost mythic status in my memory – was an interview with the Chapman brothers by Lynn Barber. The brothers notoriously run rings around respectful journalists, but Barber isn’t one of those. So as she tried to elicit some properly confessional stuff from the former YBA artists, the interview got more and more surreal. In fact, it was pretty much a car crash, but a car crash that, through some writerly alchemical process, turned into pure interview gold. 

That interview was genuinely cringe-making, in the best possible way. It was also very revealing, in the way that desperate stand-offs often are. But another, less revealing encounter with an artist proved memorable for a different reason. This one was with the Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy, whose scatological, often very disturbing psychosexual performances have included actions such as vomiting, smearing ketchup over his body and “sexually abusing” a child’s doll before shoving it up his rectum (that was in a 1976 performance called Class Fool, performed in a classroom at the University of California, San Diego). This particular interview stays with me because I’d arranged an interview with him myself a couple of days after Barber’s one, but he promptly cancelled all further interviews because she’d upset him so much.

Barber likes difficult, angry encounters, since that’s where the good copy is

In fact, that encounter left both parties upset – though Barber’s upset was more pragmatic, since it had to do with not getting a money-quote, while McCarthy’s was apparently more shaken, not just by the questions about his father and their relationship – obvious ones really, considering the nature of his work, though I can’t recall anyone ever putting them to him before – but because she seemed not to take him or his work very seriously. Anyway, she managed to sink my interview. 

Barber likes difficult, angry encounters, since that’s where the good copy is. This means someone such as the universally liked Michael Palin is no good. He’s far too nice to be interesting on paper, she told Alan Yentob in this sparky, upbeat Culture Show profile. It was only half an hour long, and I could have happily sat through more, even though Yentob is probably not the most probing of interviewers. He nods sympathetically and makes the interviewee feel loved. Barber specialises in making them feel out of sorts.

But back to the roll-call of celebrities that did make the grade in Barber’s view. Alan Sugar was “rude”, and Jimmy Savile, interviewed just after he’d got his knighthood, elicited the public’s support, with angry letters sent to the Independent on Sunday because she’d dared to ask him whether “he liked little girls”. Meanwhile, Marianne Faithfull "behaved so badly” that Barber said she came out of that encounter “walking on air”. “She gave me hell,” Barber added perkily,  “and I was able to give her hell back in print.”

Barber is, in her own words, “embarrassment proof”. Maybe this had something to do with her father, Yentob gently ventured, since he spent a lot of time shouting at her when she was growing up. Barber agreed that that might have something to do with it, since she feels “quite cosy” about being shouted at, though her non-committal response suggested she’d never actually given the matter a second’s thought. Self-examination is not Barber’s strong suit, which may be just as well, though less for the ease of Barber's conscience and more for the fact we get such cracking interviews.

Self-examination is not Barber’s strong suit, which may be just as well

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