Addicted to fame

Television - Andrew Billen on an unsavoury story of celebrity nasal fixation

Gripped by Grange Hill envy, seven-year-old Danniella Westbrook, from Woodford in Essex, decided she wanted to be famous as soon as possible. A bad fairy, reading her mind, granted her wish. At 16, she won a role on EastEnders as Sam, the surly teenage off-cut of the Mitchell clan. By her early twenties she was a soap celeb, a coke-snorting, Hello!-featured, first-night party ligger, if still not quite yet a household name.

Fame waited until she was 26 before it tossed its final garlands at her feet. Lurching out of an awards ceremony, she was photographed by a newspaper snapper from an unfortunately revealing angle. "The awful truth about Danniella's drug damage" was revealed: the membrane that divides most noses into two chambers had literally been blown away - in her case, by all the cocaine. Now everyone knew her name.

Flash forward two years to now. One can only imagine Westbrook's delight at finding herself the subject of a 60-minute documentary on Channel 4 - not a tribute that the station has paid, in my memory, to any other of the great living British actresses of our time, and certainly to no other 28-year-old former soap star. The accolade seems to have been conditional on one thing only, that she would talk at as great a length as required about her nose, or what was left of it. And talk she did, even answering politely and in the affirmative the director's final question: "Do you still pick your nose?" For Danniella Westbrook: my nose and me (22 May, 10pm, Channel 4), the subject gave her ruthlessly self-deprecating all.

Oh yes, rock-bottom candour was this documentary's middle name, yet everyone still spoke in borrowed words. Some contributors spoke tabloid, others therapy-speak, still others as if they were in EastEnders. Only Danniella, however, mastered all three voices. "I made a perfectly functional family dysfunctional," she said, explaining, apropos her brother: "I shat on him, really." Her mistake was to believe that "I needed cocaine more than I needed to breathe". When her conchae ("not me septum", she corrected her ignorant tabloid commentators) fell out after a particularly vigorous encounter with her hanky, her only thought was: "Great, I can get even more up there now." It was not until she realised she had been watching ITV for 24 hours solid and that Richard and Judy had come round again that she noticed she was in drug hell.

As addicts go, up until then she had been an entertainingly erratic one, a "bitch" and a "shit", by her own estimation, but creative with it. When her relationship with her then fiance wobbled, she slashed his tyres, threw bricks through his windows and, one time, drove the Porsche he had given her on Valentine's Day through the doors of his pub. In rehab in Arizona, she may have learned that many a cokehead turns paranoid schizophrenic when high; but few, surely, have been just as great drama queens.

The supporting actors in her tragicomedy were well cast. Her mother, Sue, who looks just like Danniella, except slightly younger, curled up on something luxurious from Sofa World and rationalised that her daughter's atrocious temper, as exemplified by her threat to kill her, was merely "the Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that goes with a drug addict". Her Irish therapist, named, unless I misheard, Beachy Berkeley, recalled telling her to "take the cotton wool out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth". In a fabulous cameo, her agent was revealed as none other than Mrs Michael Barrymore. Even her son, by a car salesman called Robert Fernandez, delivered his lines perfectly. Little boys have in the past been known to ask for two front teeth for Christmas, but Kai repeatedly asked his mum to get herself a nose.

Interestingly, this was the one thing which, by the end of the documentary, she had failed to do. Excuses were offered, but the likely reason was only too obvious, if not to her. When you are famous because your nose is famous and when, as Danniella admitted, "being famous is part of [your] addiction", the last thing you are going to do is to render your infamous nose unfamous again. Danniella's nose is her USP. Nosewise, her only rivals are Pinocchio and Cyrano de Bergerac.

The phrase "on the nose", Hollywood jargon for a screenplay whose message is over-signposted, could have been coined for this sordid masterpiece, produced and directed by Jo Scarratt. There has not been such a festival of inappropriate nasal fixation since Freud's pal Wilhelm Fliess stuffed gorse up his female patients' nostrils in a vain attempt to bring order to their vaginas. In a way, I do not blame the programme-makers for what they produced, only those in Horseferry Road who greenlighted the idea in the first place. A rounded portrait of this nonentity, with analysis of her acting or her charity work (if any) would have been hypocritical. Scarratt rightly assessed that Westbrook's freak-show snout was her sole distinguishing feature. This is precisely why the programme should not have been commissioned, why, once commissioned, it should not have been made, and why, once it had been made, it should not have been shown.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times