Pants man: Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna in the 1979 London stage version of The King and I. Photo: Getty
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As Ian Hislop once told me, name-droppers have a distorted sense of their own importance

It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway.

It was leaving drinks for the Yank the other day at the Uxbridge Arms. For those who missed her earlier appearances in this column, I summarise: New Yorker, loud, funny, often moved to sarcasm (“Oh really?” sounds very good with a Noo Yoik twang), fond of a drinkie, and for a few months a traumatised resident of the Hovel. (It’s like being a ring-bearer. However briefly you carried the burden, you are in an exclusive club, and can be taken to Elvenhome when you’re about to pop your clogs by way of recompense.)

Anyway, all was going swimmingly, until I heard someone at a table not far from me – the Yank, being popular, had managed to pack out one of the pub’s bars – make a joke, or shall we say an observation, that revolved around my being something of a name-dropper.

This rather dented my enjoyment of the evening, for I like to think of myself as not so much a name-dropper as the sprinkler of a little minor-celebrity fairy-dust in order to put a little sparkle into other people’s lives. It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway. I would, every so often, in that charming way children have of loving to hear a favourite tale repeated, ask her to tell me again about the time Yul Brynner chased her around her dressing room in his underpants when they were both appearing in The King and I. (To tell the truth, I was never entirely convinced of the veracity of this anecdote until I saw on the family shelves a copy of Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor: on the Technique of Acting, preface by Yul Brynner, and with a very large and bold inscription to my mother from the bald thespian himself, in handwriting that seemed, all these years down the line, to be still chasing her round the room, in its underpants.)

Also: I liked the way that this column’s godfather, Jeffrey Bernard’s Low Life, would drop the odd name from time to time; when Bernard mentioned the actor Tom Baker (and his very sensible idea that the NHS should be allowed to prescribe money as well as medicines) I thrilled to the knowledge that this man might have been a miserable alcoholic perpetually on the edge of destitution, but he knew Doctor Who. I never thought, “Huh, show-off.”

As it is, the number of names I can drop isn’t that very many, and as they’re almost all writers I have come to know after 20-odd years in the biz, they shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. And anyway, the man who made the remark about me should count himself extremely lucky to be at liberty to have made it on licensed premises two and a half miles from Wormwood Scrubs, rather than imprisoned within it, for he has done far worse things than name-drop, and for once I do not exaggerate for comic effect in the slightest.

But the problem that name-dropping reveals of the character of the droppers is the false estimation they have of their own importance in the grand scheme of things. This is all part of the fun.

Which is all by way of long explanation for the excitement I felt the other day when I got a phone call from Ian Hislop’s assistant, checking she had the right number for me, and could Ian call me soon? Now, I do know Mr Hislop well enough to go up to him at a party, say “Hello, Ian” and not actually be met with a blank look, but we are not quite on calling-each-other-up terms. So my thoughts ran in this order: 1. Private Eye has discovered The Awful Truth about me, and Ian is telling me that now might be a good time to flee the country. 2. Something awful has happened to Francis Wheen. And 3, which I decided in the end was the one I liked the sound of most, Mr Hislop has seen what was in front of his eyes all along and wants me to appear on Have I Got News For You. In which case my long struggle against alcoholic destitution will be over and my burgeoning TV career will sort out any financial unpleasantnesses for the rest of my life. In the bath, as I waited for his call, I fine-tuned my screen persona and frame of topical reference. Would I, though, do an ad for butter, like John Lydon? I don’t know. It would depend on the script.

Later on I learned that all he’d wanted was Laurie Penny’s email address. A small world crashed. But did I ever mention that I know Laurie Penny?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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7 things we learned from the Comic Relief Love, Actually sequel

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.

After weeks of hype, the Love, Actually Comic Relief short sequel, Red Nose Day, Actually, finally aired tonight. It might not compare to Stephen’s version of events, but was exactly what you’d expect, really – the most memorable elements of each plotline recreated and recycled, with lots of jokes about the charity added in. So what did Red Nose Day, Actually actually teach us?

Andrew Lincoln’s character was always a creep

It was weird to show up outside Keira Knightley’s house in 2003, and it’s even weirder now, when you haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Please stop.

It’s also really weird to bring your supermodel wife purely to show her off like a trophy. She doesn’t even know these people. She must be really confused. Let her go home, “Mark”.

Kate Moss is forever a great sport

Judging by the staggering number of appearances she makes at these things, Kate Moss has never said no to a charity appearance, even when she’s asked to do the most ridiculous and frankly insulting things, like pretend she would ever voluntarily have sex with “Mark”.

Self-service machines are a gift and a curse

In reality, Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping enthusiast would have lasted about one hour in Sainsbury’s before being replaced by a machine.

Colin Firth’s character is an utter embarrassment, pull yourself together man

You’re a writer, Colin. You make a living out of paying attention to language and words. You’ve been married to your Portuguese-speaking wife for almost fourteen years. You learned enough to make a terrible proposal all those years ago. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t learned enough to sustain a single conversation with your family? Do you hate them? Kind of seems that way, Colin.

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed

As Eleanor Margolis reminds us, a deleted storyline from the original Love, Actually was one in which “the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid).” Of course, even in deleted scenes, gay love stories can only end in death, especially in 2003. The same applies to 2017’s Red Nose Day actually. Many fans speculated that Bill Nighy’s character was in romantic love with his manager, Joe – so, reliably, Joe has met a tragic end by the time the sequel rolls around.  

Hugh Grant is a fantasy Prime Minister for 2017

Telling a predatory POTUS to fuck off despite the pressure to preserve good relations with the USA? Inspirational. No wonder he’s held on to office this long, despite only demonstrating skills of “swearing”, “possibly harassing junior staff members” and “somewhat rousing narration”.

If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.

Even if you’ve spent nearly fourteen years clinging onto public office. Even if you were a literal child when you met. Even if you hate your wife so much you refuse to learn her first language.

Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.