I might be wrong, but I think it was the last Conservative Party Conference just before the 2001 General Election; a Daily Mirror front cover highlighted some of the famous names gathered on the podium to give their support to William Hague. Of the motley crew featured, I can only recall Bill (Ken Barlow) Roache, half-forgotten ‘New Faces’ winner Patti Boulaye, and veteran Radio 1 DJs Mike Read and Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart. The inference was this group of has-beens were the best the Tories could do in terms of celebrity support. It was quite a funny montage of yesterday’s men and women, but I suppose the point being made was that the ‘cool’ celebs were hanging out with Tony.
Political parties seeking celebrity endorsement – as long as they’re the right celebrities – is, of course, nothing new at all. In America, Hollywood stars and showbiz icons have always actively campaigned to get their man into the White House; but US politics have tended to be a tad more ‘showbizzy’ than their British equivalent, anyway – just think who currently sits in the Oval Office, after all, let alone one of his predecessors who was elected way back in 1980. Over there, the marriage between showbiz and politics seems perfectly natural; whenever we try and do it like that, though, we get it spectacularly wrong – see Neil Kinnock, Sheffield 1992. Awright!
Any association between entertainment and politics works better over here in a more low-key fashion – and the history of it goes back a long way; the original edition of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, for example (published 1859), was dedicated to Lord Russell, Whig Prime Minister (1846-52 and 1865-66). There is no evidence Dickens went out canvassing for Bertrand Russell’s grandpa, but dedicating one of his novels to him was still a pretty powerful endorsement. And whilst some public figures voice their support for their chosen party or politician simply because they’ve been asked, the politician approaches the issue from a different angle.
Politicians being the canny opportunists they are, a photo op with the man or woman of the moment is one way of showing the electorate how much in touch they are with their tastes – just ask Harold Wilson, AKA ‘The Fifth Beatle’. But posing beside a famous face at some social gathering is different from persuading said star to commit to campaigning on behalf of a party. The rise of television as a powerful tool of persuasion in the 60s saw the likes of Honor Blackman at the height of her ‘Avengers’ and ‘Goldfinger’ fame appearing in a party political broadcast for the Liberals, and Humphrey Lyttelton being recruited to do likewise for Labour. Some household names, such as Glenda Jackson, Sebastian Coe and Gyles Brandreth, took this one stage further and eventually ended up being elected as MPs; others, such as Eddie Izzard, have so far mercifully spared us that. But for most celebs, lending public support is the extent of their contribution to the cause.
Last time round, Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely marketing as a rock star saw him receive the endorsement of Stormzy – who is, I’m confidently told, popular with ‘The Kids’ – but in 2019 the Leader of the Opposition seems to be attracting the support of those who became famous when the parents of ‘The Kids’ were kids themselves, most notably Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant. From what I can gather, both these two 90s men appear to have pushed themselves forward on account of the Brexit factor rather than any passionate commitment to Jezza; even if they’re true believers, they might have just remained in their gated communities for the duration of the campaign had it not been for the B word overshadowing all other issues this time round. However, in a way, this is far riskier a strategy than simply nailing their colours to the Labour mast.
When prominent Leavers are coming across as rich, detached metropolitan elitists patronising the provincial masses, the likes of inner-M25 luvvies like Grant and Coogan resurfacing to remind us how stupid and/or racist we are if we don’t vote Labour is bound to backfire when there are so many out there who are already sick of being put down for voting Leave in the first place. As it is, a celebrity publicly declaring their allegiance can have the effect of altering the public’s opinion, anyway; Clint Eastwood denouncing Obama or Michael Caine bigging-up Cameron probably didn’t surprise many, but might possibly have introduced a disclaimer amongst film buffs, praising the art whilst condemning the artist. Moreover, recruiting stars to do your work for you isn’t a sure-fire formula for electoral success; if one already dislikes said celebrity, it may not prompt a tribal voter to abruptly change sides, but it could make the mind up of a fair-weather floater.
Whether the motivation is genuine when a star comes out in favour of one particular party, it nevertheless invariably serves to emphasise an Us and Them divide between star and electorate in a way that doesn’t happen whenever a new movie featuring the actor in question is showing at the local multiplex. The nature of cinema, blowing up human beings into giant unreal Gods and Goddesses living their lives on huge screens, places the stars in a different stratosphere from mere mortals, and cinemagoers accept this. When they come down to earth and suddenly walk among us, however, the stardust swiftly evaporates; this is why a series such as the fondly-recalled ‘Stella Street’ was funny; the idea of so many famous faces residing in an unremarkable suburban neighbourhood alongside the plebs was so ludicrous that it worked as a joke. They don’t have to live like we do, so when they start wagging their fingers and lecturing us from a position of unimaginable comfort and luxury, our backs are instinctively up.
What impact, if any, the latest group of Jezza cheerleaders will have on the result come Thursday is questionable. It could well have no effect on don’t-knows whatsoever, but it might make them think differently about certain celebrities. I doubt any careers will be placed in peril as a consequence, especially with the stars endorsing Remain and its party political affiliates, for the industry they work in and the media as a whole are so overwhelmingly pro-Remain that they can sleep safely in their beds knowing they’ll still receive a script through the post the morning after polling day. No chance of any 50s-style Hollywood blacklisting being on the cards there.
Plenty artists give their names to various causes and plenty, such as Bob Dylan or John Lennon, have produced ‘political’ work. That said, neither Dylan’s association with the 60s Civil Rights movement or Lennon’s dalliance with the American Radical Left in the early 70s necessitated embracing a mainstream political party. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer it that way.
© The Editor
4 thoughts on “FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES”
Given that the nation is so clearly divided, it may seem quite surprising that those who rely on selling their perceived talent to the masses are prepared to alienate 50% of their potential customer-base by demonstrating support for one side of any debate.
However, they know that they possess the resources, the flexibility and the smart accountants to ensure that the worst excesses of a party which they apparently support will never apply to them, only to the downtrodden masses on whose shoulders they will remain happy to stand, keeping their own delicate, designer-clad feet out of the mire which their arrogant hypocrisy may help to create.
They say that politics is ‘showbiz for ugly people’ – maybe the folk in showbiz should learn that it only makes them look ugly too when they appear alongside the professionals in that sphere.
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It seems to be a measure of their egos that many of them seriously imagine their endorsement will swing it – as though anyone who loves Alan Partridge or ‘Notting Hill’ will be unable to distinguish between the character and the man, and the same numbers who tuned in on TV or packed the local Odeon back in the day will simply be replicated at the polling station. Mind you, considering one of the key qualities increasingly essential for a leading politician is the ability to lie with conviction, perhaps the line between them and thespians isn’t that wide; maybe aspiring MPs should enrol at RADA rather than becoming SPADs before standing for election. Matt Hancock, for example, is a worse actor than any I’ve ever seen on a daytime soap!
I thought Stella Street’s Keith Richard was the best.
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Yes, I loved the idea of Mick & Keith running the corner shop.
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