The New Statesman Profile - Lynda Lee-Potter
The Daily Mail institution whose pen drips venom and strikes terror into the hearts of the
For everyone who thinks Class Act an appropriate title for Lynda Lee-Potter's forthcoming semi-autobiographical tome, there will be as many who would prefer something on the lines of Vindictive Harpy. For most of her long career, the Daily Mail columnist has, with the late Jean Rook and their several imitators, acted as a role model for Private Eye's Glenda Slag.
She recognises that it does not matter what opinions you express, whom you choose to hold up to contempt, whose physical appearance and dress sense you mock, so long as you write with verve and venom, especially venom. Consistency? Sweet reason? Humbug!
Although she is well into her sixties, Class Act is Lee-Potter's first venture into hard covers. I was unable to secure a copy while writing this profile (production problems, explained the publisher sheepishly), but according to the blurb on amazon.co.uk, it "mixes autobiography with witty and pungent social analysis, laced with wicked anecdotes about household names throughout the world", among them Hugh Grant, the Duchess of Argyll, the Countess of Wessex and Dudley Moore. I suppose it depends on your household, but in case that eclectic line-up fails to lure NS readers to rush headlong to the nearest Waterstone's, I should add that the title is a cunning play on words, and that the pungent social analysis will include insights into the British class system.
Lee-Potter has reasonable credentials for pontificating about that. Born Lynda Higginson in the 1930s, she was the daughter of a mining family in the Wigan area. In her teens, she moved to London to study drama, and tells friends that she lost her Lancashire accent on the train down. Before long, she had lost something else - her heart, to Jeremy Lee-Potter, a medical student and son of an Air Marshal. They married in 1957 and have three children. Charlie, the younger daughter, is a familiar voice on BBC Radio 4. Jeremy became an eminent consultant haematologist and has held a number of prestigious posts in the British Medical Association and the General Medical Council.
Soon after their marriage, the Lee-Potters went to live in Aden, then a British colony, where Jeremy served in the RAF. Lynda had by now given up thoughts of a stage career - her girlish voice cannot have helped - and began writing a column for the Aden Chronicle. After their return to London, she was hired as a feature writer on the Daily Mail. In 1977, when Jean Rook defected to the Express, the then editor, David English, asked Lee-Potter to plug the gap with what was, in effect, a copycat column. Now she is an institution at Northcliffe House, with a coveted private office on "Mahogany Row" - not a strip of mahogany in sight - alongside senior executives and other seasoned columnists such as Nigel Dempster and Peter McKay.
She and Jeremy live in a large country house at Wareham, Dorset, and have a pied-a-terre just a few minutes' walk from the Mail office in Kensington. An apparently seamless rise, then, from the poverty of the Thirties coalfields to the sunlit pastures of the well-heeled upper middle class. So what has nourished the spite, the anger, the sheer nastiness of Lee-Potter's print persona, as revealed to readers every Wednesday?
Let's wipe the blood from some of her recent victims: Anthea Turner and Grant Bovey for their "greedy, vulgar" wedding; Paul McCartney for his "execrable paintings"; the Beckhams, "a seriously rich couple who turned freeloading into a fine art"; Princess Anne for her "terrible taste in frocks which usually makes her look like a frumpish Sunday school teacher"; Anne Diamond - "chunkier than ever and looks as though she's conceded defeat"; Jerry Hall, with "about as much sexual allure as a plastic doll". Notoriously, Lee-Potter laid into Mo Mowlam for letting her looks go, shortly before it was revealed that she had a brain tumour. She quickly apologised.
It is not so much a question of hitting people when they are down; more of singling out the softest targets and subjecting them to withering scorn and personal criticism, unsupported by anything except her prejudices. Even the dead are not immune. Last month, she delivered a mean attack on Sir Robin Day when his corpse was barely cool: "vain, irascible, unreasonable . . . fundamentally, he was a bully".
There was an element of revenge in that: she had past form with Day, one of her few victims with the gumption to fight back. She has a long memory and is unforgiving. In 1991, snide and sometimes gratuitous references to Elaine Paige suddenly began cropping up in the column. For instance, an item about Ken Russell concluded that "a man who thinks Elaine Paige is frightful - and frequently says so - can't be all bad". The following year, a "friend" (who needs enemies?) explained to a Daily Telegraph profile writer: "She once had to ghost a series on Elaine Paige, who treated her like a skivvy. Lynda did the job without saying a word, but has since pursued Paige at every opportunity."
"Frightful" is a useful word in the Lee-Potter vocabulary of spite: a generalised term of abuse that does not have to be supported by argument and is often deployed to describe how a person looks or dresses. "Frumpy" is another favourite, used about Sarah Macaulay ("a natural spinster") on her marriage to Gordon Brown. The terror that her judgements strike into the hearts of our leaders was revealed last year when Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street spokesman, defended Cherie Blair against charges that she spent too lavishly on her wardrobe with the excuse: "She knows that, unless she looks good, Lynda Lee- Potter will slag her off for looking frumpy."
Lee-Potter was one of several columnists who used to snipe at Princess Diana's fashion sense and personal appearance, eagerly taking part in the debate over whether there were signs of cellulite on her thighs. After Diana's death, Paul Dacre, the editor of the Mail, wrote of how the Princess had rung him at the height of the controversy and crowed: "I've just seen your Ms Lee-Potter in Marks & Spencer. I bet she's got cellulite!" Like most columnists, Lee-Potter detected great virtues in Diana after she died, writing: "She made a difference to sad lives."
What does this feared arbiter of fashion look like herself? Demure, rather birdlike, often dressed in black. She looks and talks like a Home Counties sweetie, a brick, a thoroughly good egg, unfailingly charming and polite.
"Oh, crikey! Oh my!" was her jolly hockey-sticks reaction when I phoned to ask for an interview, before she giggled and under-took to call back. (She later changed her mind, saying "I'll leave it to you", and giggled again.) Colleagues describe her as a thorough professional - not to say a class act - and add that she always affects to be mortified when anybody is upset about what she has written. She is a warm and relaxed public speaker, with a fund of anecdotes.
The disarming image is an invaluable tool in the big interviews that she conducts for the Mail in addition to her Wednesday dose of vitriol. These are not killer interviews in the tradition of Lynn Barber and her acolytes. Instead, Lee-Potter uses her sympathetic manner to worm her way beneath her subjects' defences, sometimes to great effect. She is especially good at getting them to reveal intimate secrets about their loved ones, as she showed in her weepy encounter last week with the newly widowed Esther Rantzen: "Desmond knew he was dying, so he took off his oxygen mask, gave me a passionate kiss, and said: 'I adore you.'"
If Desmond Wilcox emerged as a romantic hero, the results of a Lee-Potter interview can often be less benign, especially on the subject of matrimony. In 1994, she coaxed the actress Lizzie Power into talking in excruciating detail about her crumbling marriage to Michael Aspel, to what must have been his lasting embarrassment. Lee-Potter spoke to another actress, Gillian Taylforth, about her tempestuous life with her boyfriend Geoff Knights, shortly before he went on trial in 1995 for allegedly wounding a cab driver. The judge, Roger Sanders, was forced to scrap the trial because the interview, along with other press reports about the case, would have been prejudicial. "To many," he commented, "it may seem that Ms Lee-Potter has written the next episode of EastEnders."
Her political views are hard to codify, and occasionally reveal a streak of radicalism, as in an article last year that laid into the Queen Mother for overspending. Lee-Potter was awarded the OBE in Tony Blair's first New Year's honours list in 1998, probably more because he coveted the support of the Mail than because he took her to be a Labour sympathiser. She is a favourite target of one leftish organ, the Guardian, a search of whose website reveals 42 mentions of her, mostly mocking, in the past 22 months.
To judge from the publisher's blurb, her book is unlikely to contain many profound insights into class. It will address such questions as: Does class matter? Are the royal family posh? What are the giveaways to your social background? Can you move across class? It will also include quizzes (are you a snob?) and lists (ten giveaway hobbies). She gave a taster in a recent column, writing about a doctor at Winchester prison who had fallen in love with one of her patients, an armed robber.
"Class differences don't matter in the first flush of physical attraction," Lee-Potter ruled. "But they matter in the end." That does not apply, apparently, to her own enduring cross-class marriage. When the Telegraph interviewer asked her in 1992 for the secret of her wedded bliss, she replied: "You just wander through it, really."
So do as I say, not as I do. No doubt Lee-Potter can stay immune from the weaknesses and misjudgements of mere mortals as she sits magisterially in Mahogany Row, dressed in executioner's black, oozing charm from her lips and poison from her word processor, fulfilling her mission to make life miserable for Elaine Paige, Anthea Turner, Princess Michael ("pretty contemptible"), Prince Andrew ("porky, boring"), Germaine Greer ("muscly, greying and scrawny, with a skin like leather") and a host of others. The smiler with the knife. The hooded avenger. But avenging what, exactly?
Class Act is published by Metro Books (£17.99)