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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution