Sometimes you can be too dignified

It has been one of those moments when, as if we have suddenly been spooked by the chilly uncertainties of today and tomorrow, there has been a general scurrying back to the warmth and safety of yesterday. The newspapers have earnestly discussed weddings, public schools, frocks and class. Broadcasters of the old-codger school have bemoaned how fings ain’t wot they used to be. A couple of veteran British pin-ups have been back in the headlines.

Sir Cliff Richard and Nigel Havers: what a potent image of British manhood these two famous performers conjure up, and how strikingly different from one another has been their exposure this week. The Peter Pan of Pop has returned to the top of the charts – not with his music, thank heavens, but with photographs of his tanned, toned and coiffed 70-year-old self. A Cliff Richard calendar is outselling all others, including those of singers and bands younger than him by decades. It is said that there will be 1.5 million walls bearing a Cliff calendar throughout 2011.

Nigel “The Cad” Havers, on the other hand, has belatedly decided that the business of making a fool of yourself on TV may be profitable, but that sometimes the price in terms of image can be too high. The increasingly extreme bullying of the reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, in which the moderately well-known are paid to submit to public humiliation, has proved too much for him. After a certain amount of actorly queeniness, Havers walked out of “the jungle”. Later, he claimed to have been worried that seeing his embarrassment on TV would affect his wife’s attitude towards him, which seems as good a reason to return to the real world as any.

Cliff Richard and Nigel Havers represent the two faces of public life: one careful, sanitised and PR-led, the other shambolic, error-strewn and potentially disastrous. Surely we can all agree that, in a star-struck age, it is better – more fun, more interesting, less generally cynical – to have famous people who are prepared to seem human in front of the cameras.

For those in public life, the trick of retaining one’s dignity while not appearing to be preeningly self-important and out of touch is always difficult to manage. Would Lembit Opik be taken more seriously as a politician if he were not such a media tart? Has the legacy of a former Tory home secretary been irretrievably lost now that she has been lugged humiliatingly around the dance-floor on TV, one week dressed as a 1920s flapper, the next as a canary?

The ever-superior Sir Terry Wogan has been pronouncing upon these questions. Personally, he would not “degrade” himself on reality TV in spite of offers (said to be in the region of £200,000) to be a guest in “the jungle”. Sir Terry had been surprised by what he had seen this year. “I can understand Linford Christie,” he is reported as saying. “But what’s Nigel Havers doing on it?” Leaving aside the delicate question as to why an Olympic gold medallist would have less to lose on a reality show than a jobbing actor – it couldn’t have anything to do with class or colour, could it? – the assumption that a performer should remain within a celebrity comfort zone, protected by a Berlin wall of sycophants and publicists, is surely rather questionable.

When another ennobled oldster, Sir Michael Parkinson, argued this week that the dominance of talent and reality shows is now “doing damage to all of us”, he may have been right – the mixture of cruelty and sentimentality encourages a sort of mass sadism – but the alternative, in which the famous always behave with a tight, controlled seemliness is every bit as frightful.

What Nigels Havers and Ann Widdecombe have done, each in their admittedly embarrassing way, is to remind us that even the famous, even Sir Cliff, Sir Terry and Sir Michael, are as human and potentially foolish as the rest of us. Dignity can be an overrated virtue.

Independent, Friday, 26 November 2010