Star Turns by Tim Walker

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Review by Annabel

Tim Walker’s name may ring a bell, particularly with broadsheet readers. During his career as a journalist, he has written for The Observer and The Daily Telegraph, where he wrote the ‘Mandrake’ diary column for many years. When the Telegraph axed Mandrake, it was revived for the New European, where he now also writes rather wonderfully pithy theatre reviews. For many years Walker has also interviewed many celebrated actors and entertainers. Star Turns collects seventy-one of those interviews, new and old, and updated, the earliest being from the mid-eighties.

In his brief foreword, Walker muses on changing times for celebrities, how he channels Kenneth Tynan’s own ‘Profiles’ to produce his own style, how he tries to be fair whether he liked his interviewees or not, and he muses a little on what stardom means.

The question I still get asked, whenever I come back from an interview with a star, is: ‘What’s he/she like?’ The word ‘like’ is an interesting one: it contains an expectation that there has to be something special. It’s as if we can’t accept that stars can be just like everyone else.  Sometimes, however, I’m afraid they are: Rowan Atkinson, for instance, apologised to me profusely for being so dull. So did Sir Michael Hordern, though, in his case, he wasn’t, not remotely.

The art of penning celebrity portraits, piecing together quotes and stories, including the right amount of biographical detail and career highlights (or lowlights) in around a thousand words or fewer is assuredly difficult: Walker is an expert!  Time and time again in these pieces, he is able to winkle out the quirks and foibles, the insecurities that many of these stars have and get behind the protective fronts (well, most of the time) to get the stories that bring the interviewee’s own character to life.

The first three profiles in the book show the breadth of the world of entertainment that Walker has moved in. We begin with Hollywood royalty, the day when as a twenty-five-year-old Fleet Street newbie he lunched with Lauren Bacall.

‘Interviews are like blind dates,’ she said, not looking up. ‘You never know who the hell you’re going to end up with, so the one thing I always insist upon is choosing the restaurant. The conversation may be boring, but at least that way I can ensure I get a decent meal.’

The second portrait is of UK comedy royalty, Ronnie Corbett, who in his early eighties became a friend of Walker, and was by all accounts, a lovely man who always enjoyed making people happy.

Corbett is followed by Patrick Kielty, the Northern Irish comedian and presenter, which made for a rather unconnected segue from the previous two. I didn’t know Kielty’s father was gunned down by loyalists during the Troubles, seemingly for employing people from both sides. Putting any bitterness and anger aside, a TV career soon beckoned.

A couple further in, and we hit paydirt in four profiles that follow on naturally from each other. We see a slightly different side of Sean Connery: Walker was at school with his son Jason. Thence to Roger Moore who is just a lovely and witty man and who tells a fabulous story about the singing prowess of one of his friends – Christopher Lee, who struggled to be taken seriously sometimes after the Hammer Dracula films, and always wished he’d got the part of the old butler in The Remains of the Day. That part was played by Nicholas Vaughan, a WWII veteran who ‘could convey menace reading a weather report,’ an ability he used brilliantly as Grout in Porridge.

Walker doesn’t limit himself to those in front of the camera: his profiles of many TV, film and theatre producers and directors are absolutely fascinating too. Some of these, like Bernie Delfont, Bill Kenwright and John Schlesinger are/were well-known, but others such as Stephen Unwin, and Indhu Rubasingham of the Tricycle Theatre, were new to me. There is also Michael Winner – of whom he says, ‘I also happened to loathe his films.’

There’s a superb collection of portraits of some of the theatrical dames, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Diana Rigg and Angela Lansbury, which was great fun. In the middle of the book is a profile on Patrick Stewart, (a huge favourite of mine), which almost dispenses with Star Trek altogether – instead talking about Brexit and politics, Sir Pat being a stalwart remainer.

A particularly touching pairing is of Dame Vera Lynn, whom Walker met in the mid-eighties, with the last of the ‘Mawby Triplets’, Claudine, who died in 2012. The triplets were the first child stars, starring in many films in the 1920s. Claudine was Walker’s mother.

And then there is Stephen Fry, with whom Walker had a rather public spat over Twitter. This resulted in Fry calling Walker ‘a creep from the inner ring of Satan’s rectum’ – a quote proudly displayed on the book’s rear cover.

I’ve only touched on a fraction of the portraits in this entertaining book. It’s sad when you think that many of those profiled here have died, and only this week we learned that Anthony Sher is terminally ill. However, we remember them all with fondness in their work, recalled through these portraits accompanied by classic photos. Of course, plenty of these stars are still alive and kicking. I loved the book, and it will make a wonderful Christmas present!

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books and adores showbiz biographies.

Tim Walker, Star Turns (SunRise, 2021). 978-1914489006, 256pp., hardback.

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