Entirely bare: Sacha Baron Cohen

The comedian's first-ever British interview as himself.

Cruise-deck sunbathing and babes with machine guns – MailOnline has been all over the stunts for upcoming film The Dictator at Cannes this week. Photos of Admiral General Aladeen cavorting with bikini-clad models, driving a Lamborghini to the red carpet and tossing body bags overboard from a ship have constituted the promotional work of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest creation. The behaviour's no more outlandish than that of his characters Borat, Bruno and Ali G from his TV show and movies.

An out-of-character appearance by the actor and comedian, then, is less audacious but far more intriguing. In his first broadcast interview given in the UK, Baron Cohen has spoken on Radio 4 to the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz about Jews and comedy, the "hilarious" appeal of Colonel Gaddafi and a rather sinister concession made by the UN"We asked to shoot inside the United Nations," Baron Cohen says of the making of The Dictator, but "they actually refused":

We said, "Why? This is a pro-democracy movie." They said, "That's the problem. We represent a lot of dictators and they're going to be very angry at this portrayal of them. You can't shoot in here"

Baron Cohen says that in his latest film, he wanted to make clear it was "in no way an attack or comment on Arabs" but rather "an attack and parody of dictators". The only people who would be offended by it are those "dictators and fans of dictatorships". But he admits to "[drawing] a certain amount of pleasure from riling up bigots".

Asked by Gompertz why he hasn't spoken publicly about himself or his work before, the Bafta and Golden Globe winner says it was to "protect the comedy and protect the movie" – that if, during Da Ali G Show days, he was recognisable, "there was a chance that the interviewee would see [me] and withdraw consent for the TV show":

I remember sitting on the tube and people would talk about Ali G while sitting next to me. One time I was dressed as Borat before anyone had seen [the film]. I was standing by an Ali G DVD stand in HMV on Oxford Street, all the Ali G fans were around and no one knew it was me. There was always a certain satisfaction. I enjoyed being anonymous.

Gaddafi wannabe: Sacha Baron Cohen as "The Dictator". Photograph: Getty Images

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser