Friday, November 02, 2012

3 4 Friday: David Mitchell topless pics! or the lure of the celebrity memoir

If there is one genre that divides opinion amongst our customers (and that's putting it mildly) it's the celebrity biography. It's always been a part of the Christmas retail melange, along with 'humorous' books and annuals of course (one of us here at Mostly Books admits to dim recollections of a Bay City Rollers book when they were about seven, but let's gloss over that).

To the jaundiced eye, 'sleb' memoirs clog up the shops from October every year, resulting in tables groaning under a slew of hastily ghost-written rehashes of dubious anecdotes hoping to bag some easy Christmas cash.

Well, that's one point of view.

The other is: it's a genre, and just like every genre, there are very good examples (Dawn French, Paul O'Grady spring to mind) - and very bad examples (enter your own suggestion here). The fact that you may have received a 'bad example' as a Christmas present only adds to the ire you might feel if the memoir in question is sadly not up to scratch.

This Autumn we reckon there's several memoirs published which exemplify the best of the genre - so for today's '3 4 Friday' #FridayReads we've hoiked out three of our favourites. So enjoy guiltlessly...


Old Abingdonian David Mitchell (no, not that David Mitchell. The actor and comedian) here delivers an extremely brave and at times painfully honest account of his life in 'Back Story', structured (unusually) around a walk across London. Brave, because - aside from a truly ghastly prep school - David's life offers none of the usual 'rags-to-riches' struggles and misery-memoir scarring that characterises other celebrity memoirs. (The writer and broadcaster Andrew Collins, in his memoir, once wrote "They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad" and that's very much the story here: David's parents sound lovely).

So 'Back Story' is a tale of a sensitive but intelligent boy who found his passion early in life, and combined determination and hard work to make his dream of acting and writing a reality. And that's why the book is brave: he writes nothing that will stop the regular digs he receives about a comfy upbringing and privilege. In addition, it has a hapy ending. In fact, David himself warns you that 'the end might make you vomit'...so be warned.

Like Mitchell, Clare Balding uses an unusual structure in 'My Animals and Other Family'. She grew up in a very unusual household, her father being a champion trainer, and she shared her life with more than 100 thoroughbred racehorses - as well as an ever-present pack of boxers and lurchers. It is no exaggeration to say that Clare's life, literally from the day she was born, was dominated by animals, and each chapter is dedicated to an animal that loomed large in her life.

Whether learning to walk with the aid of the family's Boxer, or breakfasting (unexpectedly) with the Queen, Balding emerges from these pages as someone who has had to fight to become who she is, in a family where the running joke was 'women ain't people'. An unexpected delight of a book from one of our most respected broadcasters who won huge plaudits for her anchoring of the Paralympic Games over the Summer.

Finally, you can view this as either a straight history of one of the greatest comedy series of all time - or a memoir of just about every great comedy writer and actor working in the 1980s. Jem Roberts' 'True History of the Blackadder : The Unadulterated Tale of the Creation of a Comedy Legend' is - like the comedy series itself - a small masterpiece.

Packed full of fantastic interviews, trivia - but never losing the focus of explaining just how Black Adder became the legendary show that it did - this should be recommended reading for anyone who wants to write. Period. There is just so much packed in it, through interviews with everyone from Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Rock Mayall, Richard Curtis, John Lloyd and even Brian Blessed (his comments being as gloriously over-the-top as you would expect).

Roberts deserves huge credit for just how good this book is, because there are three main traps to fall into when writing about something as well-loved as a favourite comedy show. Either it's so geeky that it won't have popular appeal (bad), it's about the author's own obsession with the show (worse) or the author tries to make the book as funny as the series (disastrous - this can never work). Roberts sidesteps all of these traps - and has produced a magnificent book that is not just for fans.

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