Lynn Barber at the premierer of "An Education" in 2009. Photo: Getty
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A Curious Career: learning Lynn Barber's rules for celebrity interviews

Lynn Barber's A Curious Career is a curious concoction, a mixture of retold stories and reprinted interviews from a writer who has always been better at writing about other people rather than herself.

A Curious Career 
Lynn Barber
Bloomsbury, 211pp, £16.99

The rules of the celebrity interview can be pretty plainly stated, according to Lynn Barber in her new memoir, A Curious Career. Both participants – interviewer and interviewee – “know that this is a transaction in which we both hope to get something more than we intend to give. The celebrity hopes for maximum publicity for their book or film or whatever they are plugging in return for minimal self-exposure. The journalist delivers the publicity but aims to wrest a few revealing remarks from the celebrity along the way.”

How do you go about that wresting? Chapter three of this book, “On Interviewing”, provides a handy instruction manual – you’d think almost anyone could do it. Do your research. Arrive on time. Make sure your tape recorder is working. Hope your front tooth doesn’t fall out (this happened to Barber when she was interviewing Oliver Stone; apparently he was a gent about the whole business). See if you can persuade your subjects to allow you into their home. Ask open-ended questions: you can’t go wrong with: “Why?” I’ve done a fair bit of interviewing along the way, and I can vouch for the quality and usefulness of this advice: I even allowed myself to be pleased to discover that Barber hates listening to her own voice on her recordings just as much as I hate listening to mine.

Whom better to take advice from in this regard? Soon to be 70, Barber is the doyenne of celebrity interviewers. She got her start at Oxford, writing for Cherwell, the student paper, where she had the good fortune to interview Bob Guccione, who was just about to launch Penthouse to rival Playboy. She ended up working for him for £16 a week: “not bad for those days – enough to buy a new outfit every week at Biba”. She wrote a couple of books (the title of the first, How to Improve Your Man in Bed, has a perfect Mad Men ring to it) and eventually joined the Sunday Express Magazine, where (once again interviewing her old pal Guccione) she started writing her pieces in the first person, which wasn’t the custom then. The “Demon Barber” was born.

Now, perhaps all this sounds a little familiar to you. Much of this information – and much of interest that’s in this book – can be found written more carefully, and certainly at greater depth, in An Education. This first memoir was published in 2009 to wide acclaim, and its central story of the teenage Barber’s relationship with Simon, a much older man, was made into a fine film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. If you haven’t read An Education, that’s the place to start – for A Curious Career is a curious concoction, an odd and, finally, not very satisfying mix of retold stories, reprinted interviews and hasty recollection.

By now the tale of Barber lying to Julie Andrews when the actress asked if she had children (Barber denied the existence of her daughters to save precious interviewing time) has been recounted often; but it’s presented here rather as if it were brand new. Interviews that can easily be found online (with Marianne Faithfull, with Martin Clunes) are reproduced in their entirety for no better reason, one feels, than to pad out the book; interviews that are less easily accessible (with James Stewart, with Muriel Spark) are, alas, not included – but then if they were the reader might not purchase the author’s earlier collections of interviews. Clever old Lynn.

There is also a sense that, in the end, Barber isn’t really a natural memoirist. Towards the close of the book she reveals that she discovered, after An Education had been published, what happened in the end to Simon – “my conman”, she calls him. As he was so much older, it is unsurprising to learn that he died. Barber’s reaction is a pretty brisk “Phew!”.

Other people are her game. “To be a good interviewer you have to know yourself pretty well,” she writes: and in the most important sense at least, she does. She is “exceptionally nosy”, she tells us; but this applies best to her subjects. Introspective she is not. Over the long course of her remarkable, and curious, career, that nosiness has been served her – and us – pretty well. 

Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era