Helen Osborne

Heroes, villains and bugbears

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Nigel Farndale

Constable, pp. 391, £

Unlike most journalistic cobble jobs, this collection of Nigel Farndale's interviews from the Sunday Telegraph has a real sparkle: intelligent, irreverent and often unexpectedly kindly. It makes you laugh and, occasionally, it makes you gasp.

Over the past five years he has quietly garnered a reputation as one of the best inquisitors, up there with Lynn Barber if not yet so fearsome. After absorbing all that holy writ from rampant egos, most interviewers end up feeling like a piece of old blotting-paper and pull out of the game. Farndale is still resilient. Flirtation, Seduction, Betrayal - for him the weekly confrontation is an encapsulated love affair.

He does his homework on his heroes and villains, and then is prepared to be surprised. David Starkey, 'The Rudest Man in Britain', he found to be 'friendly, incorrigible, a good laugh'. James Hewitt, 'The Most Hated Man in Britain', wasn't a real villain at all, not even a real cad, just a bit of a dumbo, only good at two things: horses and sex.

Geoffrey ('Shut oop') Boycott, who is only good at 'creakit', was as 'bloody- minded' as expected. When questioned about his many lawsuits he launched into a series of 'I have the papers' monologues worthy of Harold Pinter's Caretaker. Paul McCartney turned out to be 'as cold and dry as his handshake'. At the time Farndale met him he was trying to wangle billing above John Lennon for their songs: 'It's not enough that he's credited jointly with writing the soundtrack to our lives, he wants his name to come first.'

Like many love affairs these interviews sometimes end in tears. Sir Tim Rice threatened to duff him up after he was described as 'the man who was given a knighthood simply for rhyming district with biscuit'. Elton John's agent was apoplectic when his client confessed 'I'm all mouth and no trousers' and Farndale had the temerity to quote him. But only Glenda Jackson, the sole woman in this collection, could justly lay claim to cruelty.

To heroes and villains could be added bugbears. Part of the fun of the book is confirming your own prejudices, whether it's Jeffrey Archer looking like 'a bird recovering from moult', Andrew Neil encountered in Brighton wearing orange face-powder, or 'hollow, cheesy, spiteful' Max Clifford: 'I was always instinctively good at lying.'

However, the interviewer's lot is not always a bowl of cherries. Imagine suffering the American actor William Hurt as he ramblingly apologises for 'the length of my wordings'. As his first wife said, 'Most people will just eat a hamburger, he will want to know where the cow was born.'

I was particularly taken by the news that John Redwood's grandfather clock, chez chintzy Planet Redwood, replicates the chimes of Big Ben and envious of Stephen Hawking who, when under pressure, can slink off 'to think in 11 dimensions'. And did you know that Scruton - as in Roger - means 'someone who treats dandruff sufferers'?

One of Farndale's own quirks is his obsession with what makes his subjects cry, and how much. Another is his curious fascination by the deaths of their parents. He is also mightily intrigued by the ageing process, by blotches, wrinkles and pouches. Kissinger's face at 75 is 'like a walnut, sallow, lined and liver-spotted'. Young Nigel is still under 40: he's got it coming to him. 'Hu, hu, hu!' as the Dalai Lama would chortle, though not when he is describing the atrocities inflicted by the Chinese on the Tibetans. Most definitely not 'creakit'.

One moan: why no illustrations? Mingy.