Magazine article The Spectator

The Unutterable Tedium and Stupidity of Children Who Complain of Their Parents Being Famous

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unutterable Tedium and Stupidity of Children Who Complain of Their Parents Being Famous

Article excerpt

In my last column I wrote that one of the delusions of our age was that some sections of the human race were more deserving of pity than others. In that article I identified as such a group `fat women'. This week I am going to talk about a minority called `children of famous parents'.

The other day there was an interview in the Daily Telegraph. As it was not written by me - I interview for that paper - I began to turn the page over. Then I noticed that the interviewee was a young actor called Toby Stephens. He was complaining about having famous parents.

Mr Stephens can be seen in the adaptation of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, on BBC 1. His parents are Dame Maggie Smith and the late Sir Robert Stephens, who died about a year ago, after having a liver transplant.

In the Telegraph, Toby Stephens committed what is these days an obligatory sin he whinged about his family. If one's parents are famous, it is now modish to wish them unknown; if eccentric, ordinary; if drinkers, that they had been temperance folk. In fine, the modern parent is required to be at once anonymous and dull. It cannot be long before it is possible for children to sue their parents for being famous, on the grounds that it caused them irreparable mental damage: 'M'lud, how could I have been expected to form normal relationships when my father was always cavorting on Question Time with that chap with the stress-inducing bow tie?' Mr Stephens said, `It would be great if my parents were ordinary, if Dad had been a banker and Mum had been a schoolteacher and I had come out of nowhere.'

Very well. But has Mr Stephens never considered - have the children of other famous mothers or fathers never considered - that had their parents been from suburban nowhere then that is precisely where they might have remained?

I cannot claim to have parents as fabled as Mr Stephens's, but I have a father who is quite well-known. As far as I am concerned, this brings advantages. Of course there are drawbacks as well. When I was given my first job as a journalist, more churlish colleagues claimed it was only because of my father - and had no qualms about saying so to my face. Still, I never ceased to think of myself as fortunate.

In any case, the quality of being unforgettable or personally impressive has not always been greatest in those who have acquired the greatest public fame. One of the most famous men I ever met was a pleasant, dull old stick who would have been very much at home at a Tory ladies' Tupperware party. On the other hand, one friend's father used to stalk about the countryside in a purple cloak, incurring our childhood scorn, but he was only an unknown junior solicitor.

Irregular behaviour that springs not from pretension but from a spark of divine fire is quite another matter. There have been a series of articles recently along the lines of `My drunken father hell'. Many children of famous parents, including Rebecca Nicolson, have written complaining that their relations drank too much. A friend of mine has just completed an article for this magazine on what it was like to live with a father who was often sozzled.

But, except in rare cases of genuine alcoholism, what is wrong with a parent who drinks? Drinking does not automatically constitute a drunken hell. Indeed, my father behaved hellishly only during periods of teetotalism. As a child I encouraged him to drink. It made him kind, generous and merry. One never felt that one came third in his life, after gin and tonic. …

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