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13 November 2000

Nonentities here, but big abroad

Heard of Freddie Frinton? The Germans love him, while Norman Wisdom wows Albania. Tim Luckhurst on o

By Tim Luckhurst

Andy Warhol had his say about the transient nature of fame. Bob Dylan said it better. “I know every scene by heart,/They all went by so fast.” Dylan was right. The quicker the better. Modern fame is ephemeral. Endurance isn’t cool. Warhol and Dylan missed a bit, however. They didn’t notice that fame functions on a geographical plane, too. To appreciate this, take a warm Liebfraumilch, put some Lebanese in the hookah, and watch the greatest rockumentary ever made. I refer, needless to say, to This Is Spinal Tap.

The real genius of Spinal Tap is the band’s recognition that fame’s temporal transience can be overcome, with the right marketing, by a willingness to travel. Reduced to obscure penury in the US of A? Sidelined by superficial sugar-pop? No matter. Part of the world can still be your winkle. This band has taken Japan by storm – and their triumph is a lesson that all hungry egos will take to heart.

And Spinal Tap is not alone.

Rinas airport, Tirana, Albania. Thursday 22 January 1995. A passenger airliner in the colours of Austrian Airlines taxies to a halt on the tarmac and purrs gently towards the shabby terminal building. A crowd of thousands waits with barely hushed excitement for the door to open. “The event of the year” – the first ever state visit to Albania by Norman “Pitkin” Wisdom – is about to begin.

Wisdom, virtually unheard of in Britain since his attempted conversion to serious acting collapsed with the abject failure of There Was a Crooked Man in 1960, really is bigger than Jesus in Albania. At the height of his powers, he may even have been bigger than Enver Hoxha.

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During the Hoxha years, Albanian state broadcasting was more rigorously controlled than anywhere else. Somehow, Wisdom’s “Pitkin” films escaped the censors. Perhaps it was because, to the central committee, Wisdom appeared to represent a proletarian hero constantly ridiculed and impoverished by capitalist injustice. Perhaps the plot lines were just so innocuous that even Hoxha’s legendary paranoia was not alerted. Whatever the reason, Albanians huddled around the few television sets that existed and watched Wisdom in action again and again and again.

The diminutive octogenarian has been rewarded with dinner at Hoxha’s villa, meetings with the Albanian minister of culture and evenings of dedicated entertainment at the Academy of Fine Arts. Similar treats are reserved for him in Ukraine.

Wisdom is one of a select band of heroes for whom fame is now an almost entirely expatriate phenomenon. But he did make a name for himself at home first. Some of the most astonishing examples of Big Over There syndrome did not bother.

Have you ever spent New Year’s Eve in Germany? If you have, you will have encountered the work of Germany’s favourite Brit. He is Freddie Frinton. On 31 December 1999, Frinton’s now legendary television sketch was broadcast ten times on ten separate television channels. The sketch is called Dinner for One. Frinton plays an inebriated butler, James, who serves dinner to his superannuated boss “Miss Sophie” and her guests Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and “dear Mr Winterbottom”. The humour is leaden. It depends almost entirely on the phrase: “Same procedure as every year, James.” This is not Fawlty Towers. It is not even The Morecambe and Wise Show. It is dreadful. Yet Germans have been watching it with religious concentration every year since 1963. Germans write books about Freddie, and about his sketch. If you read German, try Verlag Lutz Schulenburg’s Dinner for One (Edition Nautilus, ISBN 3-89401-268-4).

Frinton’s status in Germany invites, and deserves, comparison with the American broadcaster Willis Conover. Despite a career that lasted for more than four decades, Conover was completely anonymous in the United States. His fame depended on the show Music, USA, which was broadcast throughout the eastern bloc by Voice of America.

When Conover visited Poland in 1959, he was met at the airport by a crowd of admirers, including young women with garlands of flowers, and a cortege of bicycles and motorbikes that followed him all the way into the centre of Warsaw.

On a trip to Russia in 1982, he was kissed on the hand by a young Muscovite who declared: “If there is a god of jazz, it is you.” The Armenian pianist David Azarian once told Down Beat magazine: “When you are in a jail, that music made you wonder what kind of country produced it. I tell you, Conover was America’s best weapon to destroy socialism and communism.” His name is revered wherever his rich, sonorous voice was heard.

There is a serious side to the nature of overseas fame. Brits who have retained or built their standing abroad illustrate it well. Much as we may long to be perceived as a cutting-edge home of contemporary style in every department of the arts – and in politics, too – it is often our more “traditional” attributes that continue to enthral and engage.

Diana and Wills have their international fan base. So, too, do actors such as Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart. But Britain’s most persistently successful cultural export is The Benny Hill Show. The adolescent, seaside humour we grew out of decades ago remains prime-time viewing in 109 countries. It is our own fault. We even invented a name for it – this is that appalling confection we call “heritage”.

And it doesn’t limit its achieve-ments to the world of entertainment. In politics, as in sitcoms, the old ones appear to travel best. In the US, Margaret Thatcher remains more widely recognised than Tony Blair; and as for William Hague, he does not register. Last autumn, the British Council polled Poles and other nationals to discover which names they recognised on a list of 20 prominent Brits. The questionnaire included the name Stephen Shaw. Don’t be surprised if you have never heard of him – his name was included as a control. But more Poles thought they recognised his name than seemed to know the name of the leader of the opposition.

Setting aside Hague’s embarrassment, the important point is well made. Many Brits who regard themselves as global celebrities because they are household names in their home country could walk the streets unmolested in New York, Paris or Moscow. Others who we can barely remember could be mobbed. Top of the list comes the improbable name of Paul Johnson. Yes, that’s right. That Paul Johnson. The ranting columnist has a completely different persona in the US.

Discovering this re-minded me of Alexi Sayle’s old stand-up routine in which he introduced his fictional band, Radical Posture, with the explanation that they were musicians “except in Germany, where we’re a range of soft cheeses”. Like Radical Posture, Paul Johnson is transformed by travel. In the US, he is widely and highly regarded as a serious historian. His 1983 publication Modern Times made him a hero of the American right. Intellectuals, which followed in 1988, confirmed Johnson’s status. Scholars at the Manhattan Institute have compiled a book of Johnson’s aphorisms. Republicans use it with the same awe with which Maoists once used the Little Red Book. Johnson is definitely a big fish on the other side of the pond. He is one of few, most of them surprising.

Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys, Huw Edwards, Kate Adie, Trevor MacDonald. These names mean nothing beyond our shores. But David Frost is still regarded as a ratings winner by US networks. The Beatles are still infinitely bigger than the Spice Girls, S Club 7 or Blur. Cool Britannia doesn’t travel. The world associates us with tradition, and it is tradition that sells.

How else do you explain the global success of J K Rowling? The creator of Harry Potter gets the front cover of Time magazine. Her works are translated into languages in which “Muggles” sounds like the vernacular term for a public lavatory. Rowling is gigantic. Unusually, she deserves it. The books are superb. But consider the ingredients: an ancient school, formal ritual, rigorous hierarchies of power. We understand it as great fiction. Others regard it as a comforting reassertion of classic British values.

Brits who are truly big abroad know they have to do that stuff if they want to survive beyond their 15 minutes of purely domestic fame. Give them Cambridge, Edinburgh Castle, Agatha Christie and Peter Rabbit. Global commerce demands it.

Dinner for One, anybody?