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8 January 2017

I told A A Gill I hated him – after that, he became my champion in print

There was Gill, standing alone by a laurel bush. “Don’t even think about it,” my daughter hissed.

By Maureen Lipman

I often think I would like to attend my own funeral. To have all those nice words said about me while I’m still alive to hear them. Just to make sure I get a proper roasting, weep with laughter at ill-remembered anecdotes and filter out too many “ology” references would be heaven. After the death of A A Gill and the many tributes to the man and his priceless prose, I want to recount my own Gill’trip.

I am, at the time of writing, relishing the role of the wicked fairy godmother Carabosse in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty at Richmond, so I’m in a prime position to tell you that it is always more juicy to play evil than good. The Sunday Times hired A A Gill, Camilla Long, Jeremy Clarkson – even the late Michael Winner – because snarling and discriminatory journalism brings out the Schadenfreude in its readers, which sells papers. Gill covered restaurants, travel and TV criticism, and none was safe from his lacerating pen.

My own experience of the man who was so good they named him twice came about 14 years ago with a Sunday-morning call from an old friend, Simon Williams. “Don’t let Mo see the Sunday Times today,” he said. Gill had given over his review that day to a compilation of works of mine that had incensed him. He wrote of his loathing for me and my puny talent, and compared me to “a three-flush floater”– a piece of shit that refused to go down the toilet.

There is no comeback to defamatory criticism, so I buried it in my Oh, Get a Life! file. But some years later, at a party at Chelsea Physic Garden for Tom Stoppard’s birthday, I saw the author of malcontent standing alone by a laurel bush, still visibly taking the handsome pills. My daughter gripped my arm. “Don’t even think about it,” she hissed. But a charging bison and a pressing date with Jeff Bridges couldn’t have held me back.

“Hello, A,” I said pleasantly. “I just want you to know that I hate you, will always hate you, and nothing you can ever say will stop me hating you.” I smiled warmly and went back to the canapés.

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Reader, from that moment on, AA became my champion in print. If a new sitcom was aired he wrote how much better it would have been with Maureen Lipman in it. If I had a cameo role in a series he singled me out and called on the Beeb to recognise my talent. It was bizarre and inexplicable and, oddly, made me feel he’d won.

When I heard of his cancer, I felt sad enough to consider writing to him to say, “Life’s too short to hate anyone.” When he died, I knew I would miss his angelic, acerbic prose. Like with Mozart, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to dine out with him but I appreciate daily that life would be much emptier without the notes. Rest in peace, AA. I wish his family long life, appreciate that I have one and sincerely hope that God is ready for his reviews. 

This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain