Here's my take on some of those who left us these last 12 months. It's not a comprehensive list: just a good cocktail-party mix of presidents, mass murderers, and a few odd figures I ran into over the years. But, one way or the other, we won't see their like again:
ROBERT ALTMAN, film director
I was sorry to hear of the death of Robert Altman. I thought he'd go on and on, like Billy Wilder, raging against the idiocies of the 12-year old studio vice-presidents. A little Altman goes a long way with me, but give him his due: at 80, he was still learning new tricks. After the parody Bruce Willis action movie that ends The Player, it was Jerry Bruckheimer, I think, who told Altman if he'd had sense that's the movie he would have made for real. I rather thought he might one day. No-one would have expected Gosford Park from the maker of M*A*S*H. Had he given serious thought to the matter, he could have used Short Cuts as his own belated short cut to a much more prominent place in the pantheon. Instead, he fell back on the leaden “satire” of Pret-A-Porter. In M*A*S*H, in 1969, Sally Kellerman was exposed in the showers; in Pret-A-Porter, she was exposed to various visitors in her hotel room. I'll miss Robert Altman, but, had death not intervened, a third Sally Kellerman nude scene circa 2019 would have been the way to bet.
JOSEPH BARBERA, animator
In Trains, Planes And Automobiles, Steve Martin is a snooty exec stranded by bad weather with garrulous oaf John Candy, who manages to derail all Martin’s efforts to get home for Thanksgiving. At one point, having exhausted the eponymous trio of transportational modes, Martin and Candy find themselves on a crowded cross-country bus, on which to Martin’s distaste genial community singalongs keep breaking out. Invited to lead off the next number, Martin tries “Three Coins In The Fountain”. It dies. Candy then starts up the theme from “The Flintstones”. Within seconds, everyone is gaily joining in, and as the passengers give out their final “Yabba-dabba-doos” and “We’ll have a gay old time”, Candy is heard bellowing “Wilmaaaaaa!” as the bus disappears round a corner.
There’s something so right about that moment, about the Flintstones’ place in the scheme of things, a place so secure even two charmless miscast big-budget live-action features haven't been able to dent. The man who co-wrote the song and co-created the show was Joseph Barbera. With his partner William Hanna, he also gave us Tom and Jerry, and Yogi Bear, and Top Cat, and Dick Dastardly and Muttley, and Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats. Who else has a catalogue like that? They are literally indestructible: Tom alone has been crushed, incinerated, steamrollered into the asphalt, blown to smithereens by sticks of dynamite tied to his tail, but comes bouncing back every time. They always will.
BETTY COMDEN, lyricist, playwright, screenwriter
One day in 1953, Arthur Freed, former songwriter and head of the musicals unit at MGM, called Betty Comden and Adolph Green into the office. “Kids,” he said, “I want you to take all my old songs and make a picture out of them. We’re gonna call it Singin’ In The Rain.”
“All we knew,” Betty told me, “is that somewhere we’d have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing.”
“In it,” added Adolph.
But that was enough to work with. A grand comedy of crises about an entire industry scrambling to transform itself, Comden and Green’s script is that rare thing: a movie about movies that doesn’t sour on its own insider’s cynicism. They made a film about making films that looks like it was fun to make. And, in that sense, it’s the perfect monument to Betty and Adolph, a writing team who made writing look fun.
Betty and Adolph were good friends of Gene Kelly’s and they bristled a little when I put this theory to them, but one of the reasons why Singin’ In The Rain is Kelly’s greatest picture is because it transforms his limitations into strengths. He was a much less natural actor than Astaire and, consciously or otherwise, it was a brilliant stroke to make him a cheesy insincere ham with a plastic smile full of phony baloney. And, for all the self-conscious balleticisms of his 20-minute dream sequences - that awful hokey slow-mo turn he loved - Kelly was never better than when jumping up and down in the puddles on a city sidewalk. Comden and Green more than fulfilled Arthur Freed’s instructions. The scene where it was raining and the guy was singing in it can stand, in all its wonderful irrational exuberance, as the definition of a genre: Kelly has just kissed Debbie Reynolds goodnight; it’s raining, but he’s in love, so who cares?
What a glorious feeling!
I’m happy again!
And so were we all.
ORIANA FALLACI, author
Oriana Fallaci was an unlikely Crusader. Petite physically if in no other sense, she was a feminist, a secularist, a leftist. On the other hand, who has most to lose from Islamization? At a time when uncovered women are jeered at and intimidated when they walk through certain suburbs of Continental cities, La Fallaci might have expected the other divas to rally to the cause. Instead, such feminist warhorses as Germaine Greer managed to give the impression they found Islam a bit of a turn-on: here’s the patriarchal society they’ve been pining for all along. So the lioness in winter roused herself and sallied forth to save post-Christian Europe from itself.
“Passion” is a diminished word these days, routinely appended by politicians to dreary boilerplate about prescription drugs for seniors or some such. But La Fallaci was bursting with it. Fiercely beautiful well into her cancer-ravaged old age, she had that careless sensuality that anglophone womanhood can rarely carry off. She didn’t subscribe to the old aphrodisiac-of-power clichés: on the contrary, she often found alpha males one big zzzzzzzz, and great men had the vague sensation their “apparatus” (in her word) was withering under her gaze. Castro was smelly and Arafat was a blowsy old queen – “a massive trunk, huge hips… red and fleshy lips”. Still, she regarded an interview as “coitus”, and she didn’t always mean it metaphorically. Two days after interviewing Alekos Panagoulis, a briefly fashionable revolutionary who’d attempted to assassinate the Greek leader Papadopoulos, Oriana became his lover. One would have been only mildly surprised had her interview with Ayatollah Khomeini followed the same trajectory. After traveling to Qom and kicking her heels for ten days waiting for him to agree to see her, she was ushered – barefoot and wearing a chador - into his presence and found what she subsequently described as the most handsome old man she’d ever met. In his own way, he must have dug the crazy Italian chick: The meeting was terminated when she tore off “this stupid medieval rag” and hurled her chador to the floor. But he agreed to return a day or two later to finish the interview.
At the height of her fame thirty years ago Oriana Fallaci seemed to embody the triumph of the post-Christian west. The apotheosis of the independent emancipated woman, she lived long enough to understand that its hyper-rationalism was, in point of fact, wholly irrational, and she was big enough to change her mind on that without changing her glorious voice. She was a beautiful writer. If her sin is that she went too far, in a craven culture that recoils even from first steps that is not the worst. Brava, la Fallaci.
GERALD FORD, president
Though it was a war he inherited from his three predecessors, it fell to Gerald Ford to preside over the final retreat from Vietnam and to bequeath to history the great emblematic image of American weakness and failure: the scrambling choppers over the US embassy in Saigon. As was plain then and is plainer now, the left saw American defeat as its own great victory. They enjoyed the pain the “long national nightmare” inflicted on national self-confidence, which is one reason they love to revive it at every opportunity. (See Pinch Sulzberger’s pathetic self-regarding commencement address from last year.) Understanding the enduring damage Vietnam and Watergate would do to the body politic, Ford attempted to lance the boils. He failed, but it was an honorable effort by an honorable man.
ALAN FREEMAN, disc-jockey
British pop radio always struck me as very dull compared to American Top 40 radio in its heyday. A rare exception was Alan “Fluff” Freeman, a sweet Australian who was rather camp off-air but very cool on-. He, in effect, introduced the concept of the Top 40 countdown to Britain with his BBC show Pick Of The Pops. He had a catchphrase – “Greetings, pop pickers!” – and a wild theme tune, “At The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal”. Later in his career he applied both the theme music and the groovy lingo to his first love: opera and classical music. Fluff exemplified a good basic rule of rock’n’roll radio: the best disc-jockeys usually dig some other form of music entirely and our way older than the stuff they’re playing. He was pushing 80 when he died.
MILTON FRIEDMAN, economist
Milton Friedman was supposed to be on the National Review 2006 post-election cruise. Instead, he was taken ill shortly before we sailed, was forced to cancel, and died while the rest of us were at sea. He was the principal economic influence on President Reagan, Mrs Thatcher and other leaders determined to reverse the ill-effects of Keynesianism in the west, and through them he became equally influential in post-Soviet eastern Europe. There is hardly a corner of the globe, from Latvia to New Zealand to Chile, untouched by his ideas. He was one of the most important figures of the age, and, had the Republican Congress understood why, they might still be in power.
SADDAM HUSSEIN, dictator
Just in time for Eid, the Iraqis decided Saddam Hussein was one old acquaintance who really should be forgot. Here’s what I wrote in The Spectator in December 2003, outlining the possible approaches to the trial:
In a nutshell:
A courtroom in Baghdad: good.
A courtroom in The Hague: bad.
Iraqi and coalition judges: good.
International jet-set judges: bad.
Swift execution: good.
Playing Scrabble with Slobo in the prison library for the next 20 years: bad.
Bet on Bush and the Iraqis to get their way. As for whether Iraq has a justice system under which Saddam can be tried, I suggest we look to the great King of Babylonia, Hammurabi, whose Code of Laws, the world's first written legal code circa 1780 BC, stands up pretty well. I'm not a Babylonian legal scholar but I note that Saddam's digging of a subterranean hiding place in his hut appears to be in clear breach of Law No. 21:
If any one break a hole into a house, he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.
Well, it didn’t quite go that way, but it was close enough, and better than the Hague-Slobo model. My old newspaper in London headlined its editorial “Justice For A Mass Murderer”. There can never be “justice” for murderous dictators – there’s simply too much blood. But there can be retribution, and a final line drawn under a dark chapter of history as he’s shoveled into his grave.
STEVE IRWIN, crocodile hunter
The Crocodile Hunter didn’t exactly laugh at death, but he was happy to play its straight man. In his FedEx commercial a few years ago, Irwin introduced us to the “Fear Snake”, “the most venomous snake in the world”. “One bite from him and it’s all over,” he began in his exuberantly emphatic semi-parodic Aussie vowels, and then let the creature sink its fangs in. “Yow..! Luckily we have had the anti-venom sent from America by FedEx.”
But, alas, it turned out they’d used a less reliable courier. Fatal error. “In my line of work, if you are not absolutely sure, you are absolutely dead.”
When the stingray struck off Batt Reef, Steve Irwin was absolutely sure: he immediately yanked the barb out of his chest; he knew what had happened. But he was still absolutely dead, the first Australian to be felled by a stingray in six decades. Irwin had never much cared for the David Attenborough approach. “We can’t keep looking at wildlife on a long lens on a tripod,” he said. “Then there’s this voice of God telling you about the cheetah kill. After 450,000 cheetah kills, it’s not entertaining anymore.” In contrast to Attenborough, the boyishly eager Irwin bounded into the frame like Tigger, leaping after the crocs and bantering at full volume: “Crikey!” “Gorgeous! “What a beauty!” – lines that Sir David would be unlikely to deploy anywhere other than the later stages of the BBC office Christmas party. Asked by Jay Leno how he determined the sex of a croc, Irwin replied, “I put my finger in here and if it smiles it’s a girl, and if it bites me it’s a boy.” It was mostly smiles, until his luck ran out.
JEANE KIRKPATRICK, diplomat
She took the wrong side in the Falklands War, reckoning Thatcher’s Britain as toothless and feeble as the Jimmy Carter malaise-mired America to which she and Ronald Reagan were the antidote. But, that aside, she was one of the most forceful and clear-sighted articulators of American interests on the world stage. They sure could use her now.
KEN LAY, felon
Long before his company collapsed, Ken Lay loomed weirdly large in liberal demonology. In 2001, during a summer of “rolling blackouts” deriving entirely from the stupidity of California’s energy policy, the state was determined to blame its self-inflicted woes on Lay and Enron. “I would love,” said Bill Lockyer, California’s Attorney-General, “to personally escort Lay to an 8 x 10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’” Neither Bill nor Spike got the chance.
PAUL MAURIAT, composer
M Mauriat was the author of “L’Amour Est Bleu”, which was rendered into English (of a kind) as “Blue, blue, my love is blue, blue is my love,” etc: many hits are built around one musical phrase endlessly reprised, but “Love Is Blue” is a rare example of a lyric doing its best to match the musical monotony. In the Sixties, the heyday of bland international hits whose national origin was never very discernible, the annoyingly catcht “L’Amour Est Bleu” was everywhere. When I heard M Mauriat had died, I felt bleu and figured I’d dust off the LP and play it. Then I thought better of it.
BILL MILLER, pianist
The closest relationship of Sinatra’s life was not with any composer or arranger or (for Kitty Kelley fans) mob bosses or First Ladies but with the man he called “my partner at the piano” – for half a century, right up to the end. The final track on Sinatra’s 1993 Duets isn’t really a duet at all – or at least not a celebrity duet. For “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, Phil Ramone, the producer, had asked Carly Simon, which gives you some idea of how awry this project went. But Carly nixed the idea on the grounds that the song gave the impression of encouraging alcoholic beverages as a prelude to motor vehicle operation and, being at the time a spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she felt she couldn't be seen to endorse such a thing. For once, hallelujah for political correctness! Thanks to Miss Simon, Frank got the vocal to himself, albeit introduced by an atrocious bit of Lite FM instrumental slurping. But never mind that. Take a chisel to the CD and remove Kenny G’s syrupy drooling of “All The Way” on the front of the track and then sit back as the strings recede, and Bill Miller begins his bar-room piano noodling. It’s the best duet on the album – just Frank and Bill – and the latter doesn’t even get a credit on the sleeve, just a tiny namecheck deep in the interior of the small print as “Mr Sinatra’s pianist”. The voice is rough, its vulnerability deliberately exposed, especially on the last line’s long goodbye. But, harrowing as it is, it’s a final Sinatra masterpiece. The piano dies away and the last saloon singer lays down his burden: one for us and one for that long, long road.
Well, that’s how it goes
And, Joe, I know you’re getting anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn’t mind my bending your ear…
No, we didn’t. Five years later, Miller played it at Sinatra’s funeral. The familiar introduction, but no voice came in, no “It’s quarter to three…” In all the years Bill Miller had accompanied the familiar words, for the first time ever, there was no-one in the place except him.
ROMANO MUSSOLINI, pianist
One night in the Nineties, I went to see Mussolini play a London jazz boite called Pizza On The Park. Not Il Duce himself, but the son of. Mussolini pere wound up hanging with his mistress at that gas station, Mussolini fils preferred to hang with Chet Baker and Lionel Hampton at hot nightclubs. Junior seemed in better shape than pop did at that age, and not just because at that age pop was getting strung up in the Piazzale Loreto. Romano was similarly bald but taller and thinner than Benito. Your initial reaction was that he’d make a much more photogenic dictator than dad, but then you noticed that he was way too mellow. Romano played, to my ears, like a slightly melancholic Oscar Peterson. Occasionally inspired, he was always efficient: He made the refrains run on time.
I was introduced to him after the show and, of course, everyone was way too cool to ask about dad or the old days. So instead he made the kind of standard jazz small-talk that non-jazz buffs find so tedious – all Dizzy this and Monk that – but with a beguiling accent that made me swear at one point he’d referenced a song called “Fascisnatin’ Rhythm”. The conversation had a surreal frisson, like running into Uday and Qusay at a pro-celeb golf tournament and chitchatting about Tiger as you play a couple of holes. If you want to escape the sins of the father, going into jazz is a smart move: unlike men bent on world domination, which by definition obliges one to keep an eye on the far horizon, not least when posing for official portraits, the jazz scene tends to the self-absorbed. Half these fellows are barely cognizant of what continent they’re on, never mind who’s oppressing it. During his sojourn in Italy 45 years ago, Chet Baker played a stint with Romano at the Bussola in Viareggio. There’s a famous story that, after their first set together, it was pointed out to Chet whose son Romano was. The trumpeter went over to the piano and commiserated: “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.”
AUGUSTO PINOCHET, dictator
As General Pinochet might have had cause to reflect, if you’re going to be a dictator, you should kill more people rather than fewer. His regime dispatched some three thousand or so in the wake of his coup, but was otherwise a benign enough dictatorship to permit most left-wing opponents to flee the country. They formed a vocal international opposition that made him, in the UN General Assembly and elsewhere, the poster boy for right-wing bastards and a cause celebre in the drawing rooms of the west. In Chile’s transition to democracy and capitalism, the General wound up doing more for his country than most of his opponents would have.
JOHN PROFUMO, cabinet minister
It began like a movie: July 8th 1961. An unusually warm evening at a grand country estate. A girl in the swimming pool. She pulls herself up out of the water. She’s beautiful, and naked. A larky lad in the water has tossed her bathing costume into the bushes. And among the blasé weekend guests dressed for dinner and taking a stroll on the terrace one man reacts with more than amused sophistication as the girl hastily wraps a towel around her. She leaves with someone else the next day. But not before the man on the terrace has enquired after her name.
It was Christine Keeler. The house was Cliveden, country home of Lord Astor. The man in the dinner jacket so taken by the girl in the dripping towel was the Right Honorable John Profumo, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War. The man the girl left with was another guest of Stephen Ward’s, Yevgeny Ivanov.
Miss Keeler was a showgirl at Murray’s cabaret club in Soho. Commander Ivanov was the Soviet naval attaché in London. “Showgirl” was a euphemism for call girl, “naval attaché” a euphemism for KGB intelligence officer.
And so began the all-time great British political “sex scandal”.
MOIRA SHEARER, dancer and actress
Miss Shearer starred in every budding ballerina’s favorite movie, The Red Shoes, and a handful of other pictures before settling down to married life with Ludovic Kennedy. She was still beautiful when I met her and she told me something I’ve never forgotten. “Sex appeal is all in the neck,” she said. I was a young lad at the time and more focused on points south so I didn’t quite get it. “You can’t be really sexy,” she explained, “without a great neck.” I was skeptical, but checked out the London dolly birds on the way home to test the theory, and it turned out she was right. And she had a great neck.
VILGOT SJOMAN, film director
For a brief moment, he was the most famous Swedish male on the planet. Before Bjorn Borg, before Benny and Bjorn from Abba, before …well, hang on, let me have a think – ah, yes, before Sven-Goran Eriksson, former manager of the England soccer team, before all those famous Swedes, there was Vilgot Sjoman. In the late Sixties, he loomed large – not in the same sense as Anita Ekberg and Bibi Andersson but in the same general vicinity. Sjoman made a movie called Jar ag nyfiken – gul, or I Am Curious (Yellow), or in some billings, eschewing parantheses for the colon, I Am Curious: Yellow. As it happens, the colon was one of the few bodily parts not on display in the film, but pretty much everything else was. The British censors snipped 11 minutes out of it and US Customs seized the prints when they showed up here and I Am Curious was banned, which only made Americans even more curious, and by the time it was unbanned in 1969 Vilgot Sjoman’s $160,000 film was a monster smash.
You can’t buy publicity like a government lawyer demanding to know before the Supreme Court whether the leading lady’s lips had actually touched the party of the first part’s parts. “I have a feeling,” answered Sjoman non-committally, “that it was possible for her just to have her lips a couple of millimeters above the penis.” Below the title but above the penis, Lena Nyman, the Swedish Hummingbird (as she was dubbed), was the art-house darling of the year. Liberated by the court from the attentions of the Customs service, Curious, though playing only in New York and New Jersey, quickly became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in America - a record it held for almost a quarter-century.
AARON SPELLING, TV producer
What is it that makes real classic TV? Flippy hair (Charlie’s Angels)? Shoulder pads (Dynasty)? A 1974 red Ford Torino (Starsky & Hutch)? A hokey sub-lounge theme song (The Love Boat)? An Anglo-French midget excitedly yelling “De plane! De plane!” (Fantasy Island)? Or some subtle combination of these elements that the Masterpiece Theatre schmucks could never cook up in a hundred years?
Who knows? The networks didn’t. “Get rid of the little guy,” advised the NBC exec after the Fantasy Island pilot. Eventually Aaron Spelling did, but only after Herve Villechaize demanded as much per episode as Ricardo Montalban and hung on his trailer door a sign saying “The Doctor of Sex” (on the reverse it read “The doctor is in”). Spelling was formulaic, but then so’s Coke, and on the whole he had more success at varying the formula.
MICKEY SPILLANE, novelist
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
That’s how he ended the first Mike Hammer novel. I don’t think you can love the English language and not love what Mickey Spillane does with it. Once, for a satirical column about the monumental uselessness of the British police, I attempted a Spillane parody based on the whimsical notion of hard-boiled Mike Hammer signed up with some slothful pen-pushing English constabulary. Boy, writing Spillane is a lot harder than reading it. He’s got so much precision in even the most unimportant sentences. This is what I wound up with:
It was one of those evenings when the fog comes down and wraps itself around the world like a five-dollar whore at the end of a slow week. All I saw was the dame standing there under the sodium light in a dress that was too tight last year. The cold, clammy night glistened on her full, round breasts. “Help, help,” she whimpered. “I’ve just been attacked. They pulled me out of my car and stole my handbag.” Now I knew why I’d noticed her breasts. Her buttons were ripped off, and those babies were coming out to play.
“Relax, honey,” I told her. “Call the Violent Assault Hotline during office hours, and we’ll send someone over to take a statement early next week.”
“But they’re in the next street, dividing up the cash. If we hurry, we can catch them.”
I slapped her hard. “I don’t hurry, baby, except when I’m on my way home with a ham and pepperoni and doing 120 in a residential street.”
She pressed herself against me and the heat of her skin seared my shirt. “But you’re Mike Hammer.” I could feel the rise and fall of her bazoongas against the bruises on my ribcage. I’d been manning the random breathalyser checkpoint, and some punk accountant had opened the door of his Mondeo too quickly. This tomato was better than anything the doc had prescribed. “You’re the hardest-boiled dick on the South Midlands (North) Force,” she purred in my chest hair. “I hear you killed a couple of guys.”
“Yeah, but only when I was doing 120 in a residential street. And you should have seen the paperwork afterwards.”
MAUREEN STAPLETON, actress
Miss Stapleton didn’t make it to the grand old age of my old friend George Abbott, who died at the age of 107 while working on rewrites of The Pajama Game. Mister Abbott directed Miss Stapleton in a Broadway play a few decades back, when he was a whippersnapper in his 80s and she was half his age. A very vigorous fellow almost to the end of his life, he began an affair with his leading lady, and Miss Stapleton started regaling her girlfriends with rather more details than they wanted about octogenarian action. But she was so insistent about his prowess in that particular department that at the end one of them responded: “Wow! Has he got an older brother?”
IVA TOGURI D’AQUINO, traitor
She was better known as Tokyo Rose, the great propagandist for Imperial Japan, delivering morale-lowering broadcasts to American fighting men across the Pacific. These days, she’d be on CBS.
WENDY WASSERSTEIN, playwright
“We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women,” says the eponymous Heidi of The Heidi Chronicles. “It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded.”
Or as another woman says in Isn’t It Romantic?, “No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened.”
Get the picture? A decade and a half ago, when Heidi first hit, an American journalist living in London told me she could never understand why these characters were always so unhappy – and then she went to interview the author. And she took one look at her and it explained the whole play in a way that casting Joan Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as Heidi can’t. “She’s like a bag lady, a derelict,” my journalist friend told me. “You feel like saying, ‘Get your hair done, lose weight, don’t dress like you’ve been sleeping in the street.’ But, if you did, there wouldn’t be any play.”
She wasn’t wrong. Wendy Wasserstein was a disheveled mess, a cuddly giggly bundle of a scarecrow – at least on the few occasions I met her – but she was a hard person to dislike. She once told me she’d met Colin Powell at the opening of the Cameron Mackintosh/RSC production of Carousel and “I was very impressed by him, even though he’s a Republican”. She did her trademark giggle as she said it: she meant it but she was self-aware enough simultaneously to be parodying stereotypical Manhattan liberalism. Though she subscribed broadly to the general pieties – and was supposedly Hillary Clinton’s favorite dramatist (did Dick Morris focus-group that one?) - she did not reside in the bilious cocoon of her old college pal Frank Rich. If she was, as pegged early on, a “feminist misogynist”, she was jolly about it: in contrast to so many playwrights of her generation, there was no bitterness in her work.
SHELLEY WINTERS, actress
If any scene sums up the disaster movie genre, it’s Shelley Winters swimming underwater through a flooded corridor in The Poseidon Adventure, her cheeks puffed out like a blowfish, dress billowing up over flailing thighs. Newsweek ungallantly observed that she’s “plump enough these days to sink an ocean liner all by herself”, but Miss Winters insisted that “I put on all this weight for the movie!” and her deal required the studio to pay for post-shooting sessions at a fat farm. If they did, they deserved a refund. Shelley stayed plus-sized and (just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water) resurfaced in Tentacles, in which she got the better of a giant squid.
Unlike Shelley, the disaster movie itself shrivelled away to nothing. Poseidon was the least of her work, but her least was better than most people’s most. For the remake, they did without the Shelley Winters character. Which tells you a lot about the trouble Hollywood’s in: never mind great art, they no longer understand great junk.
MICHAEL WHARTON, satirist
For 49 years – from New Year’s Day 1957 to the column filed four days before his death in January - Michael Wharton chronicled British life as a satirical fantasia through the eyes of Dr Spacely-Trellis, “the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” and author of God The Humanist; the environmental consultant Keith Effluvium; Dr Heinz Kiosk, psychiatric advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and many other eminent bodies, with his great cry of “We are all guilty!”; Mrs Dutt-Pauker, “the Hampstead thinker”, and prototype of what Americans would call “limousine liberals”, who champions the world’s most deserving causes from her North London mansion Marxmount; the hard-hitting Fleet Street columnist Jack Moron, “The Man Who Knows It All”, with his mostly unheeded clarion call, “Wake Up, Britain!”; Sir Herbert Trance, of the British Boring Board of Control, whose deliberations, reported by Wharton’s correspondent “Narcolept”, determined which modish transgressive cause was now sufficiently tedious to be admitted to the torpor of their hallowed if drowsy precincts. For the country’s burgeoning “race relations industry”, Wharton invented the Prejudometer, which simply by being pointed at any person could calculate degrees of racism to the nearest prejudon, “the internationally recognized scientific unit of racial prejudice”. Decades ago, he invented a pliable media-friendly “moderate” Conservative of no fixed beliefs – Jeremy Cardhouse, leader of the Tories for Progress Group – only to see him at the very end of his long life triumphantly anointed as head of the apparently real British Conservative Party under the name “David Cameron”. It was a good time for a satirist to check out.
ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI, terrorist
Before finding himself on the receiving end of 500lbs of US ordnance, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was Iraq’s marquee insurgent. He made beheading his signature act, cutting the throats of the American hostage Nick Berg and the British hostage Ken Bigley and then releasing the footage as boffo snuff videos over the Internet. How ridiculous it must have seemed to Ken Bigley, a British contractor in Iraq with no illusions about the world: He’d spent most of his adult life grubbing around the seedier outposts of empire and thought he knew the way the native chappies did things. He never imagined the last sounds he’d ever hear were delirious cries of “Allahu Akbar” and the man behind him reaching for his blade. And he never imagined that back in his native land his fellow British subjects – young Muslim men – would boast to the London Times about downloading the video of his execution and watching it on their cellphones.
Zarqawi’s compatriots were less impressed. After the Amman hotel bombings, the allegedly explosive “Arab street” finally exploded, in the largest demonstration against al-Qa’eda or its affiliates seen in the Middle East. “Zarqawi,” shouted 200,000 Jordanians, “from Amman we say to you, you are a coward!” Also “the enemy of Allah” - which, for a jihadist, isn’t what they call on Broadway a money review.
The old head-hacker was sufficiently rattled by the critical pans of his Jordanian hotel bombings that he issued the first IRA-style apology in al-Qa’eda’s history. He then announced his intention to decapitate King Abdullah. “Your star is fading,” he declared. “You will not escape your fate, you descendant of traitors. We will be able to reach your head and chop it off.” They weren’t, they didn’t. A man with no strategy reduced to the indiscriminate murder of his coreligionists, Zarqawi ran out of friends and time. Good riddance.
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