That?s Letts of the Daily Mail who describes John Prescott as ?having the
manners of a flatulent caveman?, lampoons Speaker John Bercow as a
?ludicrously orotund midget?, and depicted Lord Sugar, on the grand occasion
of his admission to the Upper House, as ?television?s runtiest little
So, Nick Griffin? ?He?s quite camp in some ways and then there?s the eye, he
has almost the look of a starling with a sort of beak and those bird-like
eyes, I?m not sure there?s the most tremendous brain in there, although he?s
fluent and horribly plausible in some ways,? he says. ?He seems to be very
keen on pastel pinks, and his ties are the sorts of thing footballers wore
in the 1980s.? An oily-looking perching bird with a penchant for pastels is
probably not quite the image of Anglo-Saxon masculinity that the stylists at
the British National Party were looking for.
Letts, in spite of his right-winger?s distrust of Europe, is breaking his fast
on croissants, continental style. He is in the dining area of the Savile
Club, in London?s Mayfair, where he stays three nights of the week, enabling
him to write theatre reviews for the Mail, file by 10pm and later retire to
his ?monk?s cell? in an 18th century institution where past members include
Darwin and Kipling. He is looking forward to Prime Minister?s Questions at
midday and the evening launch of his new book, for which an opera singer has
been booked to sing ?Rule Britannia?.
But these are difficult times for Fleet Street polemicists (?we pie-chuckers?
as he calls them), vulnerable as they are to libel lawyers rampaging on
conditional fee agreements and the mass protests generated by Twitter. His
Mail colleague Jan Moir, who criticised the gay lifestyle of singer Stephen
Gately after he died from natural causes, has found herself the subject of a
record 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.
?Poor old Jan, yes, she stepped on a landmine with that,? he says of an
article published the day before Gately?s funeral. ?I think [she was
criticised] a bit unfairly. The timing in retrospect might have been bad but
I think she was saying things that an awful lot of people in this country
would slightly suspect as well. You always want to be first with a
controversial theory and point of view but it?s like judging the moment to
overtake a long lorry.?
Letts has had his own share of legal correspondence of late, emanating from
Herbert Smith, the heavyweight London law firm which represents Lord Sugar.
In a radio interview, Letts suggested that the host of The Apprentice was,
as he puts it subsequently, a ?less than intellectual political ingenue who
had been ennobled owing to his TV fame?.
While others might have quaked at gravely worded threats of a court hearing,
demands for damages and a humiliating public apology, Letts was rather
amused by the behaviour of Messrs Smith, promising he?d get back to them in
due course, a message he conveyed on a picture postcard of Herefordshire,
where he lives in an old mill with his wife and children, when not staying
at the Savile. He then used the legal correspondence as material for his
Saturday column in the Mail, to the fury of Sugar?s brief, Alan Watts, who
complained bitterly of a breach in confidence. That too went straight in the
paper. ?Well, sorry, comrade,? Letts advised Watts, ?but I reckon a letter
becomes the property of its recipient. If it includes threats to my freedom
of expression, they need to be reported to my readers.?
He seems confident to have seen off the action ? ?I think they have given up ?
they haven?t sent a letter for at least a month? ? but that may change with
the publication of Bog Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great
Nation, a chapter of which is dedicated to a further onslaught on
?Sugarlump?, as Letts calls him, admitting Herbert Smith ?will be crawling
all over it?.
It?s not that he hates everybody in modern British life. He thinks the
aspirational Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances is unfairly maligned.
Surprisingly, he is a great fan of Simon Cowell, who he sees as a champion
of competitive spirit and a future education secretary. ?We?ve been told for
years that the country cannot accept selection on merit and that grammar
schools mustn?t exist because it?s too cruel to snap the dreams of a child
like a Twiglet. Then along comes Simon Cowell and does this every week. They
have 15 seconds and most fail and trudge away and the audience loves it.
?Simon Cowell has reintroduced the respectability of failure and of
selection on merit.? His book is a rant about ?boggish?, egalitarian, modern
life, where successful people feel comfortable dropping aitches,
dressing-down and addressing each other as ?mate?. This is infuriating to
Letts, who grew up in a prep school owned by his father and cites Wodehouse
and Trollope as his literary heroes.
He is boyish-looking for 46, mischievous of tongue and, by his own admission,
runs ?rather easily to fat?. Sat before his fellow sketchers he might
inspire thoughts of a gobstopper-sucking, catapult-wielding Fat Owl of the
Sometimes he just despairs. In his book, Letts recalls visiting Bournemouth to
sketch a party conference only to find himself ?mooned by gaggles of
boozed-up hen-nighters?. ?A ripe eyeful I can tell you,? he says. ?Our
Patterdale terrier bitch behaves in much the same way when she is on heat.?
He wishes we Britons could raise our collective bar so that someone as ?pretty
average? as Jonathan Ross was not the best-paid person at the BBC. The
management of the corporation is a great Letts bugbear. He subjected the
BBC1 controller Jay Hunt, pictured right, to an attack so personal and
poisonous that it shocked the television industry. ?Blonde-bobbed Jay?, he
described as ?lean-lipped and ever so faintly humourless? with a ?killer
kitten smile?, who should have resigned for running a media training company
that worked with BBC clients.
Like the scalding of the Bournemouth hens, there?s a whiff of misogyny about
the language but I have no more chance of hearing an apology than Alan
Sugar?s lawyers. ?She?s a prime example of the BBC?s failing not to raise
the ambitions of the public,? he says of Hunt, berating her repositioning of
Countryfile as ?Blue Peter with some new Wellington boots?. Hunt, ?should be
sacked, she shouldn?t be chasing ratings, she should be trying to show that
the BBC is about public service, which is about raising standards?.
He is similarly caustic about the arts establishment. Mention of the Tate?s
director Sir Nicholas Serota causes Letts to cry out: ?Give me a gibbet,
give me a length of rope!? The regulars at London?s Royal Court Theatre are
a ?miserable, world-weary bunch ? with their clip-on exhaustion and their
Yet Quentin himself is tiring. He might even pack it all in after the
election. ?I may have to give up, I think I?ve probably done it long
enough,? he says.
Is he serious? ?I?m getting knackered. Journalism nowadays, you start to run
out of ink, to keep the ideas going and to get up in the morning??
Many parliamentarians and senior figures in the media and arts will hope it?s
true, that Letts is really going to hunker down in his Herefordshire mill to
forever watch re-runs of The X Factor. But don?t bet on it, mate.
?Bog-Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great Nation? is
published by Constable £12.99
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