Lynn Barber’s reputation precedes her; there is a noticeable excitement in the room, the expectation of shocking tales and revelations. We are gripped even before she comes in.
After nearly 50 years in the business of interviewing hundreds of celebrities, our minds can only boggle at what she has heard. She is here in conversation, to discuss her life in journalism.
Her ambitions were to be either a film star or a duchess, she says, but a role on her school newspaper took her in a different direction. She didn’t fancy struggling her way up the journalistic ranks in the usual unionised way, by starting as the tea-girl on the local newspaper, so she fled to London to follow her boyfriend. She took work at Penthouse in lieu of training. She surprises us by saying that Penthouse had ‘the most democratic of working environments’ then disappoints us by adding that the Independent on Sunday was the most sexist, followed by the Observer.
She runs through a few of the more famous – infamous – tales: Salvador Dali exploiting her naiveté for four days; Marianne Faithfull’s spectacular rudeness to all and sundry; Rafa Nadal‘s defence of Tiger Woods, all to this highbrow audience’s delight.
Of her interview with Jimmy Saville, she says she asked the question as to his ‘liking for little girls’ which she had been told about. She pressed him, but he had a slick response. Her readers complained and told her to leave him alone. There was no evidence for anything, nothing to report, she says, so no-one picked it up.
She talks of the ‘monsters’ she has interviewed and the bores. She names names, but I dare not do that here, but some are people you and I like, and they are in her book A Curious Career. Whether they are ‘monsters’ for real and they put on a persona for TV, or whether they were defensive or angry because they felt threatened by Barber cannot be known.
The boring ones are hard, she told us, because it is her job to make people interesting. If she cannot (there have only been a few) she tries to pull the article. She does a lot of research before her interviews, and looks for gaps in the knowledge, and this is what she asks about. Often she has a ‘killer question’ and the skill is knowing when to ask it, although sometimes they bring it up themselves either inadvertently or in panic.
She admits to often having missed the killer question, or having not pushing a point harder, or feels she has made a hash of an interview. Rudolf Nureyev, she thinks, was trying to tell her that he had AIDS, but she was so impressed by him she missed the cues.
Sometimes she feels that she is being played by the interviewee, or that they try to suggest something to her subliminally, but mostly she thinks she spots these endeavours.
And finally there are the people she is still desperate to interview. She’s been chasing Rupert Murdoch for years, but missed her chance with the likes of Lucian Freud, Robert Maxwell, Roy Lichtenstein.
Whether you like her journalistic style or not, she is a great of the genre. She does not disappointed us here at the festival, we have our gossip-glands topped-up. The conversation is easy, and she doesn’t seem to hide anything, unlike some of her subjects. Perhaps no-one asked her the killer question.
Also at Ilkley Literature Festival Review, 18th October 2014