Sunday, July 15, 2001

Hugh Hefner and Richard Burton / You've got males

Hugh Hefner

You've got males

Testosterone was everywhere with Richard Burton denying his inner luvvie, Hugh Hefner defying time and Jeremy Clarkson caressing aeroplanes
Hot Wax BBC1
Reputations: Richard Burton BBC2
Speed BBC1
Table 12 BBC2
Kathryn Flett
Sunday 15 July 2001 23.54 BST

'In many ways, these September years are the happiest time of my life. I truly mean that. It's the combination of a tremendous sense of satisfaction at a life well lived, looking back at the childhood, loving the boy who dreamed the dreams and recognising that the dreams came true beyond anything I could have imagined... and sharing in a wonderful way with Kimberley and the children.'
This was Hugh Hefner, speaking to me at the Playboy Mansion in late April 1997, when he was still married, the garden was littered with kiddie detritus, the Grotto smelled fusty from neglect and the signs on the driveway read 'warning: children at play'. The interview was eventually scheduled to run in The Observer on the first Sunday in September and I was halfway through writing it when a princess died in a car crash and Hef was put on the backburner.
A few months later my then editor suggested we update the story: Hef's marriage was now over and he was quite his old self again, clubbing with a new generation of hip young acolytes, including Leonardo DiCaprio, and getting frisky with the first clutch of the now infamous live-in 'girlfriends'. The signs in the driveway had been switched to 'warning: playmates at play'.
I spoke to him on the phone and he was, to say the least, giggly about the shift in his lifestyle. If I had been speaking to any other 72-year-old, he would have said 'well, hey, if an old guy like me can still pull half-a-dozen blondes, why the hell shouldn't I die smiling?'. Hef didn't go quite that far - he is the Playboy of the Western World, after all - but the inference was there.
I kicked myself that I hadn't picked up on the signs the previous year. At one point Hef had let slip that Kimberley spent most of her time with the kids in another house over the fence because the mansion was less of a family home than an office. I didn't blame her: the place crawls with staff, the kitchen is the size of a works canteen and the decor is timewarped, so if Kimberley had managed to stamp any of her own personality on her husband's home then it was hidden well away from the eyes of a journalist.

I was, then, keen to watch Ruby Wax's encounter with Hef, partly to see if he had changed (which I doubted - aside from a conveyor belt of blondes, Hef doesn't much like change) and partly because, to my surprise (and, I'll fess up, pleasure) we had hit it off big time. Still, I suspected he was like that with all the girls.
And so he is. This being Ruby, Hef barely got a word in edgeways, but whenever he did he seemed to be enjoying himself ('What's my best opening line? "Hi, my name's Hugh Hefner"') and Ruby patently adored him. She also achieved something I'd not had the nerve to manage (and regretted just as soon as the taxi was heading back down the drive): she got into his bedroom. Aside from the three bottles of baby oil strategically placed next to the bed, it turned out to be very unsexy and cluttered with videos (far less likely to be blue than they are to be Billy Wilder).
Of the 'girlfriends', Ruby spent most of her time with the brightest one, Kathy, who was funny and smart, as opposed to, say, Regina ('this has been my dream since I was, like, six'), who looked like Faye from Steps and couldn't manage too much joined-up talking. They all live an absurd life, of course, but (sorry, Hef) I don't think as many demands are made on their favours as the boss might like us to think, so it's probably as good a finishing school as any other for an animated Barbie with predictably blond ambitions.
'Are they using you for fame?' Ruby wondered. 'To some extent,' he replied mildly. 'And you don't mind?' 'I don't mind at all!'
Well, why on earth would he? Hef told me he'd never had therapy but, if he hasn't done it already, I'd dearly love Anthony Clare to get him On The Psychiatrist's Couch. Therapy by media he enjoys, I think, because if, out here in the real world, we're all happy to believe that Hef is happy, then that makes Hef - the cartoon posterboy for Having It All - pretty damn happy too.
Richard Burton had it all but, unlike Hef, he didn't enjoy it because he felt guilty. BBC2's Reputations didn't add much to the widely held perception that the man squandered his talent and sold his soul to keep Liz in diamonds as big as the Ritz, but it was entertaining and showed us that Burton's biggest problem, aside from the missus and the drink, was the fact that he just wouldn't give in to his talent and allow himself be a full-blown luvvie: 'After all, the fundamental basis of being an actor is to make money,' he'd admitted in an interview of the kind publicists won't allow stars to give any more. 'I do it because I rather like being famous, I rather like the best seats in the plane and the best seats in the restaurant.'

I was, then, keen to watch Ruby Wax's encounter with Hef, partly to see if he had changed (which I doubted - aside from a conveyor belt of blondes, Hef doesn't much like change) and partly because, to my surprise (and, I'll fess up, pleasure) we had hit it off big time. Still, I suspected he was like that with all the girls.
What with Hef and Burton (and that glorious Wimbledon final - the best since 1981 in my book), it was a mighty good week for testosterone TV. And nestling neatly alongside all the other big boys and their pneumatic toys came the biggest, most swingingest Richard of them all: Jeremy Clarkson. The glib, smug chat shows I would gladly leave the country to avoid watching, but give the man something penis-shaped in burnished metal and he almost quivers with emotion. Like Hef's unfettered obsession with his inner child, I find Clarkson's own fetish oddly touching. And more terrifying than even that admission, sometimes I feel the same way. I once spun a Formula Ford 360 off a track while taking a bend and sat on the verge, gurning with joy and adrenaline, steaming at the ears and vowing to get a race licence - if not in this life, then the next.
And - I'm out and proud! - I also have an abiding passion for very small, very fast, very dangerous, politically incorrect fighter planes (I've even made Airfix models. And I'm sure I shouldn't have shared that with you.) Thus I have enjoyed every nanosecond of every episode of Clarkson's Speed while, obviously, fully intending not to review it under any circumstances. But then last week's edition was a corker, from Clarkson driving, at 215mph, what looked like an oversized coffin on the Utah salt flats to his loving appraisal of the Lockheed SR71, the fastest plane in history - NY to London in 114 minutes. Oh, yes, please! Inside a hangar, Jezza gently caressed a retired Lockheed: 'As you watch it creaking and bleeding you get the impression that it's alive, that it's organic. And when you touch it, it doesn't feel like it's made of metal, it feels sort of vulnerable, like you could hurt it...' Well, I was practically in tears.
The best drama of the week was perfectly pitched for the average summer viewer's distracted attention span, successfully compressing the arc of an entire relationship into a mere 10 minutes - and I doubt Hef can manage that, even on Viagra and autopilot. Table 12 is a series of short films set, unsurprisingly, at the same restaurant table (the delightful Observer local, Moro, in Exmouth Market, for the record) and the first, Settling Up, starred Daniela Nardini as a journalist interviewing and flirting with a fledgling pop star, played by Paul Nicholls. Five minutes into the action and they were already living together and arguing. Three minutes later they had long since split, he was about to marry someone else and Nardini was revealing she was pregnant with his baby.
Another 10 minutes and we'd have covered the child's wedding, his early onset of Alzheimer's and the publication of her memoirs. I loved it. The acting and direction were perfectly pitched and paced and the result was a proper story, far more engaging than whatever Stephen Poliakoff might achieve over several hours.

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