In defence of, God help me, James Corden

This is an extract from a column originally published in the Cambridge Independent on April 10, 2019

How rude do you think it’s acceptable to be about the rich and famous? Do you think they deserve the same courtesy we’d expect ourselves? Or, because they live a fabulous, wealthy existence, and have basically chosen to stick their faces in our lives without us asking, are they fair game?

I got to thinking about this last week after James Corden “hit out” at the treatment of overweight actors in film and TV.

Well, that’s what the papers said, anyway. In truth, it was more of a point that came up in conversation during a podcast interview the Gavin & Stacey star gave to David Tennant.

“If an alien had to take a reading on planet Earth by just watching films or TV, they would imagine that if you are chubby or fat or big, you never really fall in love, you never have sex,” said Corden. “Certainly no-one really ever finds you attractive. You will be good friends with people who are attractive and often will be a great sense of comfort to them and perhaps chip in with the odd joke every now and again.”

He’s got a point. Corden doesn’t look like your average superstar, which makes his incredible rise – from ITV drama Fat Friends to the king of US late night chat shows, via Broadway and Hollywood – all the more welcome. And, to me at least, it makes the astonishing levels of bile directed towards him all the more baffling.

I guess every generation needs to have its celebrity straw men – and I don’t mean the Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan-style panto villains; the men we love to hate. I mean perfectly inoffensive entertainers who people seem genuinely to loathe.

Remember when we all suddenly decided, seemingly as one mind, that we hated Phil Collins? One minute he was the loveable chirpy cockney geezer pop star, the next he was the Tory-voting berk who divorced his wife by fax. (Fact check: he didn’t.)

Similarly, these days it’s hard to find anyone who’ll say good word about Bono or Chris Martin or Jamie Oliver. Or, at least, it is if you only go by newspaper critics or loudmouths on Twitter. Presumably the millions of ordinary people who buy their records and cookery books feel differently. 

Perhaps it’s simple jealousy: that it’s just part of our national character to want to take people down a peg or two.

That’s certainly what Corden’s friend and Gavin & Stacey co-writer Ruth Jones thought when I discussed it with her a while ago. “There is a school of thought, isn’t there, that it’s part of our Britishness?” she said. “That we love to see people fail. But I don’t know. We’re talking about people who go on newspaper websites and waste their lives making comments that are, for the most part, pretty horrible. I hope James doesn’t read stuff like that. I don’t think he would, because he’s got a life. But I find it so depressing that people are so nasty – not just about James, but generally. Some people just want to be vile.”

In Corden’s case, the most common criticism seems to be that he’s “smug”. That, in his Carpool Karaoke videos – where he drives around singing songs with A-list pop stars – he’s enjoying himself just a bit too much. 

But how’s he supposed to react? If you’d told that chubby comprehensive school kid from High Wycombe he’d one day be riding around LA with Stevie Wonder and Madonna, or getting a guided tour of Liverpool from Sir Paul McCartney, he’d have said you were crazy. Of course he’s going to look like the cat who got the cream. Better that than the sulky, surly likes of the Kardashians and Delevingnes – entitled rich kids who always expected to be famous, and now seem to find the whole business vaguely wearying.

(And yes, I’ve heard all the stories – that in person, the real James Corden doesn’t quite live up to the nice guy, fun dad image. But that would hardly make him unusual in celebrity circles, especially during the first flush of youthful fame. I mean, John Lennon was a dick, wasn’t he? And Sean Connery literally approved of beating women, but they’re still unassailable Twitter heroes.)

A few weeks ago in this column, I mentioned that, when I worked on a local paper in Berkshire, we always referred to the late Paul Daniels as “a pint-sized trickster”. In retrospect, we were making fun of him, and trying to undermine him, because he was just one of those people it was fashionable to dislike. By going for such a soft target, we were trying to make ourselves look cool. I guess you could even call it bullying – making fun of someone just because that’s what everyone else does.

Anyway, one Saturday I saw Paul and the lovely Debbie McGee buying some stationery in Office World in Reading. I couldn’t help noticing that in the car park was his Bentley, with the number plate MAG 1C. So perhaps he wasn’t too bothered what the sniggering idiots on the local paper said after all.

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