Ghost story: Hillary Clinton at a book signing. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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Mark Lawson on the ghostwriter who popularised the misery memoir

Plus “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” at the National Portrait Gallery.

The departure of top politicians generally creates one job for their successor and another for whoever is hired to ghostwrite their memoirs. But William Hague, who resigned from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 14 July, will be expected, as a published author of political biographies, to tell the story himself. Hired typing fingers, however, are unlikely to be left idle. Four of the top six titles in the most recent Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list are ghosted memoirs (including those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joey from The Only Way Is Essex) and as one of the other books is the biography of a dog, only Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century contains no element of creative seance. Assisted life-writing is a flourishing art and a science for which a fascinating and engaging textbook is now available.

Confessions of a Ghostwriter reveals the secrets of Andrew Crofts, who helped to popularise the “misery memoir” by putting in the heavy word work for books including Stuart Howarth’s Please, Daddy, No. A complete list of his 80-plus projects is impossible because, as he explains, ghostwriters are increasingly required by their contracts to delete their own name. Even when writing about aborted commissions, he must keep an eye over his shoulder for a wigged figure. In a chapter magnificently titled “Sacked by a Glove Puppet”, Crofts is legally unable to identify the TV character whose handlers he antagonised with a too-frank manuscript.

Most often, withheld identities have no effect on the heft of the anecdotes. Crofts was twice asked to write autobiographies with an intended print run of one: the authors were a dying man wanting to leave an account for his future grandson and a divorcing wife who planned to pressure her husband into paying more alimony by threatening publication of the book.

When he does drop names, we get the startling revelation that Crofts was a prospective Boswell to both the Marcoses and the Mubaraks, although respective revolutions in the Philippines and Egypt prevented anything reaching the shelf. Flirtations with such work inevitably raise the question – the subject of Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost, which was partly inspired by Crofts’s career – of whether the life-assister needs to approve of the life. With impressive candour, he admits that he might well have been tempted, journalistically, not politically, by an offer to co-operate on Mein Kampf. Ghosting can open doors closed to reporters and diplomats.

As Confessions of a Ghostwriter is an example of the ventriloquist chucking aside the doll and delivering a monologue, unusual attention is focused on the authorial voice. On this evidence, that voice is bluffly clubbable – publishers are “such august folk”; a book “has sailed out into the world” – but culturally intelligent. Intriguingly, Crofts identifies The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway and Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited, voyeuristic plodders who seek access to great houses, as prototypes of ghostwriters.

I turned next to Joey Essex’s Being Reem (a spectral bestseller), which represents an unusually severe test for the memoir form, as the subject became famous for inarticulacy and a lack of self-knowledge, or indeed of much knowledge at all, having once on television mixed up Jesus Christ and Guy Fawkes. But the acknowledgements page makes unexpectedly compelling reading. “Firstly,” Essex notes, “I’d like to thank Lucie Cave for helping me turn my life into words you can read and enjoy. I don’t know why she’s called a ghostwriter, she’s not actually a ghost, she’s a real person!” The tone of moronic bonhomie passes the first test of assisted life-writing – it certainly sounds like Joey.

Haunted canvas

Another type of literary ghost is the image of a writer stamped upon pos­terity through the portraits chosen for the cover of biographies. Hermione Lee’s life of Virginia Woolf nodded to the subject’s modernism by opting for a 1925 Vogue photograph, while Alexandra Harris’s biography went, more conventionally, for a Roger Fry painting.

Originals of both can be seen in the thoughtful exhibition “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” at the National Portrait Gallery, among other less familiar images, such as a 1924 Lady Ottoline Morrell photo of T S Eliot and Woolf sitting in front of a fireplace, staring at the camera with expressions of such solemn apprehension that they resemble a couple about to receive marriage counselling from the Spanish Inquisition.

In almost every other image – by Morrell or anyone else – Woolf is sideways on: Man Ray and Gisèle Freund photograph her in such severe profile that her sharp nose seems to be trying to trim the margin of the print. Vanessa Bell, though, paints Virginia front on and softens and broadens the face. An act of sisterly kindness, I suspect.

“Confessions of a Ghostwriter” is published by the Friday Project on 14 August

“Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until 26 October

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

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