She Must Be Joking

By Wakefield, Mary | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

She Must Be Joking


Wakefield, Mary, The Spectator


LYNDA LEE-POTTER was grinning like a lizard in the top left-hand corner of her page in the Daily Mail last Wednesday. Below her photograph was the headline `Only one penalty for such evil'. The evil was paedophilia; the penalty was death. As I read on through 'wickedness' and `sick desires' to 'terror' and `raw suffering', I had the unnerving feeling that her smile was spreading across her face.

Paedophiles make regular appearances in Lee-Potter's column, always surrounded by the same huddle of aging television-show hosts, young actresses, members of the royal family and pop-stars with knighthoods. Every week they all shuffle wearily on to the page, and every week Lee-Potter smacks each of them in turn upside the head with her frying pan, attacking different aspects of their personalities and appearances. In between mauling celebrities, she wrings her hands about the latest photogenic disaster story or offers homely little thoughts on modern life. If you haven't already discovered Lee-Potter, you're missing out on one of the great comic acts of our time.

She gets away with it by relying on the Daily Mail maxim: if you add to each page of malice a large dose of moral outrage and sentiment, readers will interpret your vitriol as plain-speaking and your prurience as sympathy. This formula won her `Columnist of the Year' at the British Press Awards in 2001 and a nomination for the same prize this year. Three weeks ago, in a column about Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, she wrote, `There can scarcely be a household in the land who doesn't feel anguish for their parents.' Just in case there is, she draws it out. `Their mothers wait by the telephone, grabbing it with a surge of hope every time it rings. They find it difficult to eat, so are surviving on cups of tea. Normal life has been suspended and the interminable waiting hours are full of terror. They brood on what might have happened and every scenario must appal them.'

A few lines after wiping the damp mascara from under her eyes, Lee-Potter has recovered enough to call Popstars' contestant Carol Lynch `fat, accuse Jon Voight of `mawkish self-pity' and describe Sven-Goran Eriksson's girlfriend, Nancy Dell'Olio, as `predatory and chunky'. This format rarely varies. On 5 June, 'a glorious reminder of who we are' described the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Half a page of Union Jack bowler hats and Morris-dancing in the sun celebrated the fact that the British people still believe in `fair play, justice, decency, democracy, helping others and doing our best'.

In the shade of this moving lead item lurked several other insights. `Paul McCartney is a ruthless megalomaniac and a control freak with a massive ego.' His wife, Heather Mills, `is loathed and feared, a proven liar, a thief, hugely vain, bloodyminded and pushy'. Soap-opera actress Julie Goodyear `is a selfish, overbearing toughie who even in real life never stops acting'. Judy Finnigan `is 50ish, fat, frumpy' and looks `like a social worker who buys her clothes from a Littlewoods catalogue'.

Hang in there for a couple of months and a misty outline of the woman herself begins to emerge, like the image hidden in a magic-eye picture. Lee-Potter's mind is haunted by cliches. The rich are 'ruthless', the working class are 'decent' and `disciplined', wronged women are 'anguished' but `painfully honest', children are `innocent and trusting' unless they have smoked cannabis, in which case they are 'crazed', 'lawless' and 'feral'. …

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