Bearded wonder

Noel Edmonds: the unauthorised biography

Alison Bowyer <em>Virgin Publishing, 200pp, £14.99</em>

Beards have always been distinctive features, characterising such luminaries of western thought as Marx, Engels, D H Lawrence and Gertrude Stein. Given its high profile on British radio and television over nearly the last 30 years, the beard of Noel Edmonds will now be better known than those of his comrades in facial hair. It is his defining characteristic: a beardless Edmonds is inconceivable. This is quite strange. The philosopher John Locke pointed out that personal identity could not hinge on any physical characteristic: an amputee may have lost a limb, but is not surgically transformed into another person (brain surgery with erasure of memory, learning and experience could possibly do so).

Locke, however, might have had difficulty with the case of Noel Edmonds. Could Edmonds possibly remove his beard and remain the same person? Unlikely. Here personal identity and physical characteristic seem to be one and the same. To be fair to Edmonds, this is true of most television presenters who do not seem to be people so much as cardboard cut-outs that do not undergo change. Witnessed by millions in their social role, they become very difficult to think of as people. This is where the demand for biography of high-profile figures has its roots. The public, sticking its colossal, wartish nose to the shop window of celebrity lives, wants to have Edmonds and his famous ilk revealed as people - without the beard, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, though curiously never on the pan.

Like any showbusiness journalist, Alison Bowyer's ambition is clear: to part the beard, reveal the person and make some cash. As with most ambitions, it's overleapt itself and landed entangled in the thicket of the beard. Unsurprising really, given that the beard is such an inseparable part of Edmonds' person. When Bowyer eventually meets up with the soul of Edmonds in one of the circles of the inferno (Dante would doubtless have put in an extra one for television presenters), she'll find that it will still have a beard.

Facial hair apart, I admit to having little knowledge of Edmonds and his medium. I recall the beard on Top of the Pops in the seventies, surrounded by a gaggle of harpies shipwrecked from ancient Greece, and his performances on a Saturday morning children's show about swapping toys. Having read Bowyer's work, my knowledge is not much greater. I was surprised by his height (5'5"). What else? The following: he had a couple of Great Danes (the vet had to put one down), some fast cars, a helicopter, big country estates; one wife learnt all about sheep, another wore see-through dresses, he shampoos his beard. I've got that learnt.

No, the problem's not with Edmonds. He has enjoyed a sustained and successful media career - if it matters. To do so must require peculiar talent. Why not leave him be, rather than speculate about his motivation, his ambition, his desires, his foibles? It's the foul dust that floats in the wake of famous lives that is so disturbing. Bowyer has dug up a number of former business associates and former close friends (I'm not sure what they are, but I'm glad I don't have any) and tried to present "the darker side" to his character. I don't think she has succeeded: no evidence of ritualised slaughter, devil-worship, vampiric transfiguration here. As with anyone who has enjoyed such success in an environment where personal ambitions are so monstrous, Edmonds must have ridden through the dark valley of recrimination, insult, back-stabbing and intrigue. There must have been unpleasantness somewhere. Yet Bowyer hasn't managed to find it - the beard has done its job. As usual there's substantial speculation and anecdote about Edmonds' life between the sheets. How boring. How much more entertaining if these biographies dealt with other physical activities: enemas, incontinence, tenesmus and so on. Then at least these public figures might become genuine people in a real society.

The question remains: doesn't Bowyer have anything better to write? A cookbook, a guide to mountaineering in the Low Countries, the art of fishing in the Sahara, a history of Chinese Test cricket? Something more instructive and interesting than this lame and irrelevant trivia? It's depressing to see biography fall to its present level. Even in the hands of Plutarch, Boswell and Aubrey, it was never particularly enthralling. But this, Noel Edmonds: the unauthorised biography by Alison Bowyer? One to miss.

Henry Sheen is a philosopher and essayist

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo