Elton John: Uncensored: a strange case of openness without candour

It’s true that he was happy to discuss everything from drugs to cancer, but Elton John’s answers were accompanied by neither feeling nor reflection.

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Elton John had a hair transplant back in what he describes as the “Louis Pasteur phase” of this particular trichological development: the procedure was more rudimentary than now, and didn’t work for him. Seemingly tiring of hats, he next tried wigs, with varying results; going for a public school boy look with a floppy fringe, he looked as if he had a “dead squirrel” on his head. These days, then, he tends to plump for a toupee, though to what such a weave might be attached exactly, I’m not quite sure.

In Elton John: Uncensored (28 November, 9pm), an hour-long interview conducted by Graham Norton at the singer’s home in the south of France, the toupee in question was a strawberry blond bouffant that clashed rather unhappily with his lilac-tinted glasses. Not that it was the strangest thing about him. In fact, all the physical details pretty quickly stopped seeming peculiar: the tight, sore-looking lips, which he kept licking; the face, waxy and bloated; the patterned suit, which had a strong whiff of the Boden catalogue about it; the trainers, docked beneath his armchair like two vast ocean liners.

Ultimately, it was his manner that was most weird. An overexcited Norton remarked on John’s willingness to be open, and it’s true that he was happy to discuss both his 16-year-long drug habit and the fact that recent surgery for prostate cancer left him temporarily incontinent. Somehow, though, none of this felt much like candour. If Norton’s questions were far from searching, John’s answers were accompanied by neither feeling nor reflection. He gave us the “what”, but never the “why”. At times, the result was almost as excruciatingly boring as listening to “Sacrifice” on a loop.

As I watched, I thought about Prince Andrew’s TV interview almost two weeks before. Comparisons may be unfair: HRH was in front of the camera to answer serious allegations; John was there for no other reason than to entertain (and to promote his recent biography). Even so, there was no getting away from the contrast between Emily Maitlis’s fearlessness and refusal to ingratiate herself with HRH, and Norton’s tittering nervousness, his trickier questions always carefully wrapped in a compliment.

In truth, I couldn’t understand it. You could hardly slip a sheet of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics between the way Norton and John talked of, say, the singer’s more ridiculous costumes – the purple Mozart wig; the Donald Duck outfit that meant he could not sit at his piano – and such things as his alcoholism, his bulimia and his difficult relationship with his mother. John isn’t remotely funny in conversation (only the unfunny ostentatiously refer, as he did, to their sense of humour), but nor is he much good at describing pain or loss. Every emotion, whether grave or delightful, received an equal weighting, as if it was just another Gucci shirt or Versace tie, to be bought in every colour and then put away in a drawer.

I suppose this is the blankness that comes with fame and a certain kind of secluded privilege. We heard it in some of what Prince Andrew said, and we heard it here, too. Towards the end of their kissy-kissy encounter, Norton invited John to describe the time his now husband, David Furnish, first met his mother. At this, John didn’t perk up exactly; he never did that, not even when describing how he and John Lennon refused to answer the door to Andy Warhol during a cocaine binge. But yes, he admitted, it was a bit traumatic for poor David: not only was his mother in attendance, but Michael Jackson came along, too.

What? I waited for Norton to push him on this, just as I’d waited for him to push on John’s first marriage (to Renate Blauel), on his bankruptcy in the Nineties (just the £300,000 annual bill for flowers), and on the precise nature of the “hole in his doughnut” (this, we learn, is how recovering addicts refer to the mournful and dangerous new opening they must fill in sobriety). But Norton only giggled and nodded. He was simply glad to have his so-called scoop, and looking forward to seeing Sir Elton – emphasis on the “Sir” – when his 300-date farewell tour finally reaches London next year. 

Elton John: Uncensored
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question