The Boy from Nowhere by Barbara Nadel

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My favourite actor, Peter O’Toole, died at the weekend. The last of the 1960s hellraisers which had included Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, O’Toole was also, as The Guardian put it this morning, ‘the star from nowhere.’ Handsome, talented, charismatic and opinionated, O’Toole was my kind of guy. He also, as his life progressed, became a rarity. And that wasn’t just because he continued to smoke and drink decades after he was advised to give up.

O’Toole was indeed the star from nowhere. Her wasn’t related to anyone in the entertainment business, he wasn’t titled or rich or even middle class. He was just a bloke who had a gift which was spotted, recognised and eventually rewarded. But then back in nthe 1960s that did happen. My mother, who was a young woman during those heady days, always says that in the 60s ‘they let the working class in’. For a few years ‘ordinary’ people became chic. Think the photographer David Bailey, actors Terrence Stamp and Michael Caine, model Twiggy and designer Ozzy Clarke. The biggest band in the world, The Beatles, were all working class lads. ‘They’ let a few of ‘us’ through and, according to my mother, for a little while ‘we’ felt as if people were interested in the artistic talents of those without ‘connections’.

The 1970s was a stagnant decade in the UK particularly and then in the 1980s everything changed. Under the auspices of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the working classes became the enemy. Being working class was seen as something negative and undesirable and everyone was encouraged to aspire to middle class lifestyles and values. ‘We’ were unfashionable again. Which is where we have remained. TV programmes about the rich, with characters played by actors who come from the upper classes, dominate the schedules. A louche Irish hooligan like O’Toole wouldn’t stand a chance these days.

If he wanted to get on now, he’s have to go on ‘X Factor’ or some other talent show. These are dominated by working class boys and girls, some of whom do become ‘stars’. But there is a price to pay which is their dignity. Winning ‘X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ means that you have to play the game. What is the game? Well you do have to have some talent but you also have to fawn over middle aged impresarios and the washed up ‘stars’ who are your ‘judges’. If possible you have to cry a lot and have a relative with an incurable illness. You must be either plastic surgery style attractive (you will have to invest in this) or so weird you could be part of a circus freak show. You can’t ‘just’ be good. What you must do however is make money for your middle aged impresario. If you don’t you won’t be a ‘star’ any more and your career, such as it is, will end. So back to the supermarket check out for you.

In general these days, famous actors are classier than the rest of us. They are connected to other famous people and they have money. Talent show winners are ‘us’. They are working class kids done well who may be famous for five minutes or forever. But they know their place which is important and so if the middle aged impresario gets rid of them they don’t complain. O’Toole would have called such people cold bastards or something similar and then gone off and got another job elsewhere. But he was a big beast from a time when ‘we’ could, briefly, call the shots and he didn’t give a shit.

On his death we have to take a leaf out of O’Toole’s book and stop begging. Kids on talent shows need to stop proving how much they ‘want’ fame and just do their thing. Dead nans need to be left in the past and all the crying has to stop. I expect O’Toole was horrified by all that. ‘We’ can be flavour of the month again, just like we were in the 1960s, but we have to stop seeing ourselves as lesser. We have to say, ‘Here I am, I’m like this, take it or leave it.’ Just like O’Toole would have done.

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