IHAVE RECEIVED a letter from a reader in Warminster who appears to be under the impression that I am in some sense a "friend" of Noel Edmonds, following my defence of him and his show here the other week. I'm not sure whether she uses the word in the general sense of a supporter, or infers a personal connection. In any event, I can assure her that I have never met the man, and would not have written about him at all if that savage attack on his work in the Telegraph had not caught my eye. Some time ago I used this column to heap praise on the heads of Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran, and I've never met them either. I would hate my readers to think that I only ever have a good word to say about people I happen to know. Given the often poisonous nature of the media world, the reverse would be more likely.
Nonetheless, my correspondent has a point. With the best will in the world, it would be impossible to write objectively about a TV star who was also a friend, such is the power of the medium to distort reality and deceive the senses. And this started me thinking, albeit tangentially, about our attitude to those of our fellow citizens who have been made famous by the box, and how even their casual relationships must be informed by their celebrity. Little things like buying a cup of coffee carry the peril of recognition and unwanted discourse, and constantly seeing in the eyes of strangers either a childish thrill or the hostility born of invented snobbery must be wearying in the extreme, a slow existential torture for which the odd cheque for opening a fete would be scant compensation.
Not that it is easy, either, for us, the uncelebrated, when we encounter in the flesh some hero of the evening schedule. Once when I was a very junior hack, I attended the press launch of a documentary film, and met a top-rank BBC journalist. It was a genuine pleasure to meet him, since I had long admired his work as a foreign correspondent, and I said so. He responded graciously, but was plainly astonished. Had I breached the etiquette? Was it grossly unprofessional of me not to dissemble indifference? It would be a shame if the uniform of scepticism which all journalists are obliged to wear actually prohibited sincerity. At least I didn't voice my other immediate thought, namely that he was much shorter than I had imagined.
But one of the most interesting is surely one's reaction when some old friend is suddenly apotheosised into electronic fame. Not long ago my colleague Damian Thompson, whom I have known virtually from the egg, was the subject of a film in the series Living With The Enemy (which got a resounding thumbs down in this column, by the way). Like all his friends — even those who actually work in television — I rushed home to catch the broadcast, fascinated at the prospect of Damian magically translated to another dimension, the familiar face instantly glamourised and made the property of millions. And, of course, we all had to tell him what we thought, how he looked, whether his voice and manner carried the necessary authority and so forth; in other words judge him by the artificial criteria of an oftem trivial medium as though it were the ultimate arbiter of his human worth. Even after all this time, with all these channels, we are still as mesmerised by the alchemy of TV as was the caveman by the flame, still, in spite of ourselves, enthralled by its mystery. Just as being in the paper once implied disgrace, being on TV, equally erroneously, still implies exaltation. We know it's daft but we can't help ourselves. It all feels rather uncomfortably like idolatry.