WRITING

When Louis Met Paul and Debbie / My Fair Lady

March 2001

Like Roman citizens anticipating an unrepentant Christian's date at the Coliseum, I was rubbing my hands at the thought of the magician Paul Daniels and his wife, Debbie McGee, going head to head with Louis Theroux on BBC2 last month. After Debbie's unforgettable appearance on Mrs Merton's chat show sofa, a chance to see her thrown to the lions for a second time, husband in tow, was too delicious to miss. Like most man/beast confrontations, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. Taking the mickey out of a balding magician and the assistant he plucked from chorus girl obscurity is as easy as taking candy from a baby.

The programme centred on Debbie's dream project: Ballet Imaginaire, a company combining classical ballet with magic into which Paul had sunk a small fortune (with no hope, as it turned out, of any return.) Between rehearsals and performances, we visited the Daniels at home: a riverside faux-mansion, all overstuffed furnishings, gilt-edges and pastel chintz. No Islington town house for Debbie and Paul. Debbie appeared - colour-coordinated capri pants and bustier, hair perfectly coiffed - and proceeded to prepare breakfast. And when Theroux came to dinner, Debbie served up that staple of suburban dining, chicken in marsala sauce. There wasn't a rocket leaf in sight. Oh, how the foodies must have laughed.

Except that it wasn't funny at all. The truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Daniels were actually rather nice and I ended up feeling guilty for watching. Granted, no one had forced them into appearing in Theroux's television portrait, but vanity isn't exactly a crime. Of course, we all share Mrs. Merton's curiosity about just what attracted a pretty young blonde to a middle aged millionaire but in the end, it's none of our business.

So what's wrong with us? Why did we all get so excited at the prospect of an ill-advised celebrity couple exposing themselves in Hello! fashion to the not so tender mercies of Theroux? Style policing used to be a minority sport, but the media has been so overrun by a clique of sun-dried tomato-eating, Voyage-wearing Londoners that nowadays, we're all doing it. We've lost sight of the fact that in reality, more people dream of progressing to a neo-Georgian riverside mansion than to a loft-style apartment in Clerkenwell. Essex might be a punch line to chic metropolitans, but to a raft of the population, it's an aspiration. They think we're the fools, paying over the odds for our lettuces and a month's wages for a scrappy piece of velvet edged netting which some designer has conned us into believing is a coat. The Daniels might not represent your (or my) idea of style, but the only person they could possibly be offending is Tchaikovsky, who must be pirouetting in his grave at the thought of that mechanical swan in the second act of Ballet Imaginaire's Swan Lake.

My Fair Lady's return to the London stage this week (amidst a deluge of related print) gives us cause to reconsider, a century after Shaw wrote Pygmalion, just what our aspirations would be for Eliza Doolittle today. Surely it can't still be true that the only acceptable way to rise above the rotting fruit and vegetables of Covent Garden market is by conforming to the dictates of a metropolitan elite, dressing in gowns from Whiteleys and reinstating your aitches? Apparently, it is. These days, it's a small coterie of the media doing the dictating, but the effect is the same. While no one believes that we yet live in a classless society, most of us hoped that by now, what we say and do would be more important than the accent with which we say it or the clothes in which we do it. The slavering, lip smacking anticipation that preceded When Louis met Paul and Debbie makes me wonder.