She's a celebrity, get me out of here

Beware: this hour and a half of luvvie talk is only for the bravest of listeners

If there's a more terrifying 90 minutes on national radio than Elaine Page on Sunday (weekly, 1pm, Radio 2) then I'd like to hear it. Single-handedly perpetuating the stereotype that there are no people like show people, the diva's slot opened this week festooned with a burst of EP singing fruitily over the soundtrack to The Boy Friend. "Tuum tum teee . . . and that was from the marvellous 1971 version of the musical starring Twiggy and directed by the marvellous - d'you know what? I've had a thought! The marvellous Barbara Windsor was in that! Why don't we get Barbara in some day! Better write that down, Malcolm, else I'll forget . . ."

Malcolm is EP's producer/gimp, who occasionally pipes up from beneath the mountain of Matt Monro to confirm that Elaine is indeed being marvellous. "I'm just writing it down," hurries Malcolm, "what a marvellous idea!"

Elaine laughs. How to describe the deep, deep unconscious aggression of this laugh? A laugh that would doubtless describe itself as "appreciative" or possibly even "lushly upholstered", it believes it's simply drinking in all the marvellousness of the world, but actually throws up an image of Elaine lying back on a cream sofa in a Wimpole Street mews and opening a Blockbuster-Night-In-sized pack of Maltesers, then proceeding to make a series of extremely violent crank calls. The merest hint of this truly shivers the timbers, and whenever it bursts forth, one senses an electricity in the room, the stunned determination of other people in the vicinity to just see it through, that it will end soon.

After several long, extraordinary moments Elaine now welcomes this week's guest, her dear friend Don Black, the most successful lyricist of all time, who has written songs for Lulu, Michael Jackson, and, of course, her. "Hello, Don, marvellous to see you." "Marvellous to see you too, my darling." "Don, let's talk movies."

Elaine is particularly keen to get under the skin of what makes a good Bond theme song. Are there special demands made on the composer, for instance? "Oh, yes," allows Don, "it's got to have irony and the whiff of the boudoir! In my opinion Shirley should sing all of them." Elaine lets this pass and sharpens her voice, determined to whip up an intellectual storm in Don's cortex with a really tough question: has the style of the Bond theme songs changed at all? Don pauses. "I think they've gone more contemporary . . ." he says perspicaciously, ". . . with Madonna and what have you. But 'Diamonds Are Forever' still gives you such a tinkly feeling!"

EP cedes Don's radical theory by permitting Malcolm to play a burst of Shirley being marvellous, but she was clearly keen to get to the bit where she could reminisce about her own turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, "the role that first took me to Broadway". "And you were marvellous, darling!" confirms Don. "Your opening in New York was stunning." Elaine sighs. "That was a night to remember, wasn't it," she nods triumphantly. "I was sitting next to Ruthie. . ." continued Don, warming to his task ("Dear Ruthie," murmurs EP) ". . . and there were just tears running down our faces. . ." And so on, until Elaine was simply forced to commit the uncoolest crime on radio and play herself singing something. Sort it out, Malc.

Pick of the week

Jon Ronson and the Quest for the Aryan Cow
10 February, 11am, Radio 4
The peerless Ronson investigates a Nazi zoo.

The Essay: Darwin’s Children

9-13 February, 11am, Radio 3
The link from Darwin to online social networks is pure chimp.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State