More MS news articles for July 2001

Charlie Courtauld: Me and my celebrity pals

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,524529,00.html

22 July 2001
Independent

"When will I, will I be famous?" So asked those bottle-blond boys from Bros back in 1988. To nobody's surprise (except perhaps theirs), the answer was that their 60 seconds of fame were already ticking away, trumping Andy Warhol's prediction. The brothers from Fife haven't been heard of since, except for brief reprises on BBC2's "I love the 80s" nights.

The reason I mention the fickle finger of fame is that, in my bored, nothing-to-do-so-I'll-type-my-name-into-an-internet-search-engine moments, I have recently found myself in a list entitled "Famous People with Multiple Sclerosis". At first, this struck me as rather flattering. Alongside me in the "C" section is Michael Crichton, the creator of ER and Jurassic Park. But who else are my celebrity chums in illness? Carrel Cowan-Ricks, an archaeologist, Betty Cuthbert, a sprinter, Luca Coscione, an Italian politician, and Sean Coman, a Californian disc jockey. Notable about this list is that with the exception of Mr Crichton nobody has ever heard of any of us. We're each household names but only in our own households.

All of which suggests that the website authors were rather scratching around for some celebrity glamour to attach to our medical condition: a message rather contrary to the one they hoped to convey. The idea of publishing a list of celebs with MS has two flaws: first, the most famous MS sufferer Jacqueline Du Pré is dead, and therefore hardly an inspiration to the rest of us. Second (again with the exception of Mr Crichton), too few living MS patients are famous. Ah, how we wish for a truly superstar victim. A Kate Winslet, a Spice Girl, a Tim Henman.... A hint of razzle-dazzle like that, the argument goes, might jolt the Government which, because of the cost, still insists on denying us the medicines we need. And so we wait, grimly hoping that a chart-popping starlet or best-selling author soon gets the bad news.

This is the second occasion on which I've attracted a dubious kind of celebrity status. A couple of years ago, during my tenure as editor of the BBC's Question Time, I was phoned at home by a hack from an obscure magazine called Heat. They had noticed thatQuestion Time panels sometimes included a sprinkle of stardust: the usual crop of Ann Widdecombes, Alistair Darlings and Roy Jenkinses were sometimes supplemented by a Nigella Lawson or a Billy Bragg. To my mind this was a natural extension of the Question Time format: interesting people debating the issues of the day in an interesting way.

The Heat journalist wanted to know how far I would go in following my own logic. Trying to make the idea understandable for Heat's core readership of Baby Spice wannabes, I suggested that providing she had interesting things to say, even an expatriate starlet would be welcome if she brought her own safety pins.

Well, the article duly appeared, and I was quite pleased with it. OK, so they had rather ramped up my ambitions in their headline "Liz Hurley set to appear on Question Time", but the quotes were accurate, and Heat's few readers might be amused enough to give the old programme another try.

However, the story was then picked up. Within a few days, I was named by the broadsheets as the architect of the BBC masterplan to dumb down our once great BairdVision. Various wiseacres such as Gerald Kaufman predicted an end to sentient life as we know it. Other dunderheads vowed never to appear on the programme again. Actually, this news was not at all unwelcome: the "never again" crowd were led by arch-dullard Ruth Lea, an economist of such profound dreariness that I would willingly have walked over broken glass not to invite her back.

Nevertheless, the media attention did give me a taste of the life which our A-list colleagues must live: any misunderstood nuance or literally-taken joke will find its way into a po-faced leading article. It's not a glamorous way to live. So, a star I am not. Not even a wannabe. Don't expect to see me opening your village fête next year, or inviting Hello! readers into my sumptuous dining-room. No, look for me in my rightful place "Unknowns with MS".