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Julie Burchill: The Brighton Belle

Friday, 14 June, 2002, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
For more than 20 years, newspaper columnist Julie Burchill has been venting her journalistic spleen on all who cross her path. As Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit reports, this week's opening of a new play sees the spotlight turned on herself.

Julie Burchill's epithets have varied from the "Groucho Marx of feminism" to "the worst mother in Britain", from "important social commentator" to a "fat bird in a blue mac".

One of Britain's most outspoken journalists, her bare-knuckle attitudes and reckless lifestyle have made her as reviled as she is successful.

Burchill's ready sacrifice of compassion for wit make her newspaper columns horrifying but compulsive reading. Now these vitriolic outpourings have come to London's West End stage.


Why give a toss about my opinions?

Julie Burchill
In a one-woman show, Julie Burchill is Away, actress Jackie Clune plays the writer in all her incisive, brutal glory.

Burchill is the third columnist to have a play built around her, following Jeffrey Barnard and John Diamond. But no journalist inspires quite the reaction of this most self-assured of scribes.

The show's director Jonathan Lloyd acknowledges that "everyone has a distinct attitude to Julie, whether pro or anti," and he wants the play to challenge these preconceptions. With tongue firmly in cheek, Burchill herself wanted to call the play The Sentimental Sadist.

Clune and writer Tim Fountain have ploughed into the annals of Burchill's already well-documented life.

The journalist has never fought shy of recounting her three marriages, five abortions, drug addictions and flirtation with lesbianism.

A younger Burchill made waves at the NME

Although she now lives relatively harmoniously in Brighton, the excesses of her past 20 years have inspired many a newspaper column.

Her prodigious writing talent took her from her Bristol family of "plain, good people" to the London offices of New Musical Express magazine, by the age of 18.

She went on to write for the Face, Vanity Fair and national newspapers, becoming the highest-paid woman writer in the history of British journalism.

She founded the Modern Review with Toby Young, but then fell out with him and left. Her 1980s bonkbuster, Ambition, summed up all the glamour, greed and decadence of the decade.

Burchill's personal life proved more challenging. Married first to writer Tony Parsons, she left him and their son for a fellow journalist. Weary of the bitterness even now between him and Julie, Parsons says only, "people who are fat and 40 wish they were thin and 20".

Burchill's first husband Tony Parsons

Another husband and son were soon left behind, when Burchill fell for yet another writer, Charlotte Raven. Her readers were treated to all the intimate joys of her sapphic union. But it was not to last, and Burchill moved on to Raven's brother.

Critics questioned her family values, but Burchill dismissed this unconventional era later, with a wave of her wordsmith's wand. She asked: "If you go on a day-trip to Bruges, doesn't make you Belgian, does it?"

Throughout all her domestic upheaval or perhaps because of it, Burchill's descriptive ability and strength of opinion has never deserted her.

Once she crossed from musical reporting to mainstream commentary, she displayed a singular talent for sensing and articulating the zeitgeist.

It was she, not Tony Blair, who originally dubbed Diana "the people's princess". She was a fan of David Beckham long before he returned to the nation's favour.

She likes her subjects young, beautiful and troubled, not middle-aged, smug or overweight.

A self-assured scribe: Burchill in the Guardian

Critics accuse her of lazily constructed social arguments and inconsistency. A staunch Communist, she calls Margaret Thatcher her heroine.

She derided overweight people until she put on the pounds herself. It became the turn of thinner ones to run the gamut of her copy.

She claims to feel no guilt for her actions, or her words. Of the more sensitive souls who begrudge her views, she asks: "Why give a toss about my opinions? I don't give a toss about anyone."

Her personal foibles and professional abilities are all on display at the Soho Theatre. As the subject herself puts it: "Readers are invited to come and spit at me. I will, of course, welcome the attention."

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