Julie and the scriptwriter
Suzanne Moore on the fantasy world of the columnist whose best creation is herself.
I like a woman with an ego, so I've always liked Julie Burchill. It's the same with Jeanette Winterson. When, in one of those tedious "best books of the year" lists, Winterson recommended one of her own novels, I just cheered. In these days of supposedly comic self-deprecation, we are in dire need of such women.
There is no one bigger or better at blowing her own trumpet than our Julie. Since she moved to the Guardian, it is now acceptable to read her aloud over the baguettes and then write a letter in protest at the size of her swimming pool, the number of abortions she's had or her penchant for capital punishment. This is a fine arrangement for all concerned. It has also brought her an entirely new generation of readers who don't know or care about all that hip young gunslinger NME stuff or even about her marriages. Cue one of her best lines: on "losing her looks" - "When I was younger I was the sweetest chick in town, I had a 38-inch chest and a waist like this [handspan] and what did it get me? Tony Parsons."
It wasn't always this way, though. When I interviewed her in her favourite decade - the Eighties - for a left-wing magazine, I was reviled for even talking to such a Thatcherite beast. Men from radical publishing companies explained that I was not sufficiently informed to comprehend such evil. Strange to see that they have now been joined by the Daily Mail in their mutual horror of this creature. Anyway, it was obvious that we would become some kind of friends, though Miss Julie claims in public not to "do friends" or even "empathy". So, to see her Alice-in-Wonderland living room on stage was unnerving.
Tim Fountain's new play, Julie Burchill is Away, is a one-woman show - what else could it be? - starring Jackie Clunes, whose impersonation of Julie is quite something. As Julie, in typically pre- emptive strike, has already pointed out, Clunes is considerably lighter and younger than the columnist herself. Clunes captures Julie's need for a reaction, the glint in her eye as she scans the audience for a response. This is Julie as stand-up, with the little voice even littler when it needs to be. This is Julie on a column day, longing to escape, avoiding her editor, musing on the greatest escape of all - her entire life. She was destined for nothing and she became something. She is, as the song says, her "own special creation".
One can see why Fountain was drawn to her after writing Resident Alien, his brilliant play about Quentin Crisp. Who is the real Quentin Crisp? What is Julie Burchill really like? Where do you go to, my lovely, when you're alone in your bed? These personae are impenetrable. They are fictional characters who just happen to have doppelgangers in what we call the real world. They are self-fulfiling prophesies.
Julie lives in Julie Land and makes everything up as she goes along: her opinions; her lovers; her feuds. And as it's all made up in the first place, she can leave any of it at any time just by changing her mind.
Fountain has her moving from titillation to venom, from bravado to sentimentality. What is not conveyed though, and this is a problem, is that what she does is write. To make this interior process dramatic or explicable is essentially impossible.
How is it that she is able to tune in with her readers in the way she does, when she has so little contact with the outside world? Even those who loathe her must recognise her fantastic journalistic instinct. When she is right about something, she is more right than anyone else. Unhampered by a university education, she never worries about being consistent. She flaunts her contradictions, instead of apologising for them, which is why she is such a great liberal baiter. She knows for sure that God is a man and that she will go to Heaven. She is kind to animals and cruel to men. She is right about the working class, new Labour, Diana, domestic goddesses and domestic violence. As for feminism - she walks it like she talks it - she supports up-and-coming young women.
I always said that she is an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense - she says I'm just showing off. Maybe. I don't suppose Gramsci would have said, when I was complaining about morning sickness: "Well, Suzanne, don't you think that it is just nature's way of telling you to have an abortion?"
The Daily Mail may have called her the worst mother in Britain, but for many she is a kind of fairy godmother. She lives now as you would have wanted to live when you were a little girl - in a pink and yellow house with a swimming pool with bowls of sweets and fairy lights everywhere.
For the begrudgers, this is all too much. After all, everyone thinks they have a column inside them. Indeed, many people do - just the one. Few could keep it up for as long as she has. Or make us laugh and wince as she does. Fountain gives us a flattering portrait - a fantasy Julie Burchill.
Fantasy is her forte, after all. Once, we took our kids to Disneyland in Paris. We had already exhausted the possibilities of Thorpe Park. Julie cried because they would not open the minibar, even though she had umpteen platinum credit cards. My youngest referred to the whole trip as being in NeuroDisney. This is as good description as any of being with her.
This play gives you that sense of the Julie Experience. Wired, unreal, manipulative, full of Technicolor thrills that can still get the punters queuing even when they know they are being conned - a theme park of bile, wit, truth, lies, impossible sweetness and all-round entertainment. Jackie Clunes is magnificent as Julie. As for the woman herself . . . well, she remains as ever . . . away. Somewhere else . . . somewhere quite unreachable.