Monday, 28 June 2010
Just finished The Understudy by David Nicholls. He wrote Starter For Ten, which was a marvellous book made into a reasonably accomplished British movie, notably mainly for a remarkble piece of film-stealing slapstick by Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Understudy doesn’t seem to have made as much of an impact. There’s no film, and I bought my copy from Lewisham library for 10p because they were getting rid of it because not a single person had taken it out of the library. So sorry, David, if you’re ego-surfing.
I’d recommend it, though. Not a great deal happens, but that’s not really the point, it’s more about a detailed and occasionally extremely witty depiction of the life of an actor; it’s doing a compare-and-contrast between the life of heart-throb darling of the gossip mags Josh Harper, a life of wealth and fame, and the life of his understudy in a West End vehicle about the life of Lord Byron, the unluckily named Stephen McQueen. The plot sees Stephen entering into Josh’s world, meeting and falling in love with his wife Nora, whilst trying to get back on good terms with his ex-wife Alison and his daughter Sophie.
So you get vivid descriptions of the celebrity life, of ghastly showbiz parties and dingy private member’s clubs and all the ego-madness of fame, compared with Stephen who spends his life between a bedsit in Wandsworth eating microwave ready-meals and in the attic dressing room, occasionally working as a corpse in TV detective dramas or as a squirrel in a kids’ straight-to-DVD. Quite depressing, you may think, but Josh is a Billy Liar figure, deluded about his own talents, forever dreaming of the day he will get to play the lead.
Even though the book’s from 2005, what I enjoyed most about it was that even now it feels like a period piece; it would be unfair to say it was dated, but that in a hundred years time, you’d read it and get a good sense of what 2005 was like, the year that (Insert Name Of Random US State Here) Fried Chicken took over south London. It’s beautifully written, but in the end I suppose it’s flaw is that neither the life of a failing actor nor the life of a successful actor are particularly appealing or sympathetic, which must make it a hard sell.
Except at 10p, of course.