Baz Bamigboye talks to Renee Zellweger after her career comeback after her Oscar win for Judy
My mother never took me to the pictures or to see shows at the theatre. Nor did we ever have a single conversation about what was on the telly or who my favourite superhero was.
The fact is that we never had the opportunity. I have a vague image in my mind’s eye of visiting Mum at a cottage hospital somewhere on the Kew Road in Richmond when I was three years old.
She told me she was leaving me with ‘Auntie Vera’, a woman with three daughters of her own. My mother then sailed home to Nigeria. The reason I am recounting this is that when I decided to leave the Daily Mail after almost 38 years writing about the world of showbusiness, I thought back to my past to figure out what might have inspired me into this career.
My ‘Origin Story’ — to use the parlance of the blockbuster Marvel Universe movies — is not that unusual for those born in the late-1950s and early-1960s of Nigerian or other West African heritage. Trained as an accountant, my father, Bamidele, was a prestigious District Officer for the colonial office in Nigeria. My mother, Deborah, was a teacher and a devout Christian.
They had two children before leaving them with maternal grandparents, pillars of the Baptist church, to travel to England to gain further qualifications. Their intention was to return home after completing their studies.
However, my appearance sort of scuppered their plans.
As Dad hailed from a powerful ruling family (and was duly anointed king of his local Ibadan area of Nigeria in 1982), Mum had been treated as royalty in her home town and found London bewildering. Unable to care for me, I was left with Vera May Lynch in her Richmond foster home, while Dad lived the other side of London, down the road from Tottenham Hotspur football club (though my allegiance is to neighbouring Arsenal).
Vera’s neighbours were the Meek family: with four children — the youngest played funky beats and the eldest read film magazines.
Every Christmas, a glamorous social worker responsible for foster kids, called Mrs Hepworth, took us to pantos in Richmond and Wimbledon. On a couple of special occasions, it was to big cinematic presentations at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. When Dad visited every third Sunday, he’d also take me to see a film.
The biggest thrill, though, was when Vera’s youngest daughter Vicky — a stylish and rebellious teen who knew all the musicians who played on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham and in the old Railway Tavern in Richmond — snuck me into films I wasn’t allowed to see.
However, aged 11, my life suddenly began to unravel when my dad said he wanted me back so we could return to Nigeria. I was miserable. All my friends were in Richmond. And Vera was my mum.
Finally I agreed and began school in Tottenham while Dad completed his work. One day, though, I made a bold move. I counted my pocket money and packed a small suitcase — mostly stuffed with comic books — before leaving Dad’s house.
I took the bus and Tube to Richmond to get back to Vera’s.
Because of my intransigence, Dad remained in England for a further eight years. It took me decades before I understood what my refusal to remain with Dad had done to him but he never said anything. Nevertheless, he let me stay with Vera until I was 18.
It was thanks to her daughter Vicky that I got to see The Godfather. I was mesmerised. This was life and death. The crumbling corruption of the American Dream.
D esperate to know more about The Godfather and its director, Francis Ford Coppola, I devoured the pages of the Evening Standard newspaper that I was selling outside railway stations in Richmond and Twickenham.
Also, as my dad was a subscriber to Time magazine, I read an article about The Godfather and there was mention of a film critic for The New Yorker Magazine called Pauline Kael.
Suddenly, I had to get my hands on this Holy Grail. Since the local library didn’t stock The New Yorker, it was suggested I ordered it from a bookshop.
I duly did. The shop also had a copy of Kael’s collected reviews. In one essay, she wrote of always wanting to see every movie ever made and writing about them.
I was riveted. I wanted to do that, too. That was just a pipe dream.
One Christmas, the school music teacher, Mrs Tittershall, cast me as the Lion in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles And The Lion. We performed at the Sybil Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead.
Although I won a prize, I was not going to be the next Sidney Poitier. For me, it would be writing about productions, not acting in them.
Among our neighbours were the Taylors. Peter, the patriarch, worked in the print rooms at the Observer and the Financial Times, and I badgered him about how I could work for newspapers.
He spotted an advert for an office junior at Fleet Street News Agency. Having got the job, apart from the usual round of police calls, I snagged invites to watch screenings of new films. There were also Press conferences with actors and actresses. Ray Winstone was my first interview. Lucille Ball was next.
I quickly learnt that actors respond better if they know you’ve watched their films. This is where the Pauline Kael principle kicked in: see everything. Back then, there was easy access to stars — unlike today when they all have a Press agent and trot out the same trite lines over and over.
Often, I’d work with a cigar-chomping photographer called Jimmy Rayner, who went round fashionable night-spots taking pictures of the big stars — something I would later do with Alan Davidson.
Wanting a job closer to my home, I joined the Richmond Herald as a news reporter and covered for the theatre critic when she was away.
In those days, Richmond Theatre was a major stopping off point for plays headed for the West End. I saw Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud and local stars such as Richard Attenborough and John Mills.
I paid as much attention to how an audience reacted as to what was happening on stage: which actors gave off heat, who shined even if the production was dreadful.
By watching small, independent films and grassroots theatre, I got to know how Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Cynthia Erivo, Lily James, Ewan McGregor, Taron Egerton and scores of others were going to be stars long before they became famous. A current example is Ariana DeBose who, on Sunday, won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. By chance, I’d seen every one of her appearances on Broadway and noticed that on a chorus line where everyone else was dancing to the exact same choreography, she stood out.
DeBose is 31 now. She has said she would not have coped with the level of fame she has today if it had happened a decade ago. In other words, she worked for her success.
That is exactly the kind of psychology I react to.
After a stint with another local paper, I joined the Evening Standard, covering crime by day and anything showbiz at night. It was a golden age of Coronation Street, Morecambe And Wise and Dennis Potter plays.
Both my dad and Vera stressed that I would have to work ten times harder than any white person. Most importantly, I should always be a reporter, not a black reporter. There is a difference.
I cannot hide the fact that I am black and I can’t deny that, where necessary, I have used it to my advantage. Perhaps a star wouldn’t give me an interview because of what? Because I’m black?! Yes, I have successfully played that card once or twice.
After a stint at The Sun — being its man in New York — I moved to the Daily Mail in 1984. In my first week, I chased Paul McCartney to Tokyo. The next, I was following another star in the Caribbean.
Of course, I don’t get on with everyone. As I walked into Eddie Murphy’s suite at the Dorchester for an interview about his hit role in the first Beverly Hills Cop film, I immediately sensed an air of resentment. It was because he thought I’d been sent to speak to him because I was black. That wasn’t true. There we were, two cocky black men facing off. I told Murphy that I didn’t care whether the interview proceeded or not.
However, if it did, he’d have to be civil — and his entourage of ten would need to leave the room. Otherwise I would.
The interview went ahead. But we never became friends.
I met Spike Lee at the Cannes Film Festival and we got along fine.
By the next time we encountered each other, I was married. My wife’s been a lawyer, a journalist, a marketing executive, a university lecturer and once worked for Prince Charles. She’s funny. She’s tidy (I’m not). She happens to be white.
Spike asked about her. Learning that she’s white, he accused me of being a ‘colonial pussy’.
This all took place in a hotel lobby in Hollywood. As Spike Lee screamed at me, I screamed back. I concluded that he’d never give me an interview again.
However, when we met subsequently, he laughed and said he enjoyed my ‘no bulls**t spirit.’ Many others, though, don’t enjoy it. That said, I always try to combine that ‘no bulls**t spirit’ with good manners.
I’ve always insisted that I’m just a reporter. The fact is that no editor at the Daily Mail has ever assigned me to a ‘black story’.
It’s been my call to cover what I want (within reason), even to make a fool of myself — for example to dress up as an African prince (which of course, I actually am) to gatecrash a party in Cannes so I could dance with Madonna.
Likewise, I donned tribal regalia to get close to Michael Jackson. When that ruse failed, I rented a chimpanzee for the day because I thought the singer might be missing his own pet ape Bubbles.
I’ve been lucky enough to interview Barbra Streisand, while we both sat on her bed at the Dorchester. Paul Newman made me coffee when I interviewed his wife Joanne Woodward at their New York apartment overlooking Central Park. I was bitten all over by mosquitoes as I hid in the undergrowth in Mississippi while secretly watching Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt film Interview With The Vampire.
When Billy Connolly spotted me on the set of a movie he was shooting with Michael Caine on St Lucia, he said I was ‘lower than a snake’s navel’. Perhaps it was no coincidence that he was still mad at me for breaking the story of his relationship with Pamela Stephenson.
Over my years in showbusiness, I have witnessed the complete redefinition of what a bona fida star is. Once they were household names on a par with royalty. Today, a ‘celebrity’ is invariably someone you most certainly have never heard of. My rule of thumb is: would my Vera have known who they are? As the word ‘star’ suggests, Vera believed they were always out of reach — unattainable.
Thankfully, Elizabeth Taylor was attainable — as proved when I interviewed her on her 53rd birthday, as I recount above.
Taylor was a proper star but she also knew how to sink a pint — or three or four. Just like her on-off husband Richard Burton. Years earlier, I got an exclusive interview with Burton when I just happened to be there as he tripped entering the Dorchester. I helped him to his room, where he offered me a nightcap. He poured two large whiskies. I never touched mine but he had several refills. As he talked, I ran out of pages in my notebook so had to grab a bundle of old-style loo roll to write down his words as they poured out.
Like Burton, I’m impatient, sometimes difficult and demanding. I always want to see the next movie or the play now. I can never wait for Press previews or PR releases and don’t join group interviews. That’s my Nigerian side, I tell people. Whereas my English side could be on display the next day.
Talking of Nigeria, I travelled there for the first time, in 1989, for a story. Dad was living in Ibadan fulfilling kingly duties. Mum was deaconess at a church in Iresi, which I visited. As I walked into the church, I noticed a woman carrying a bundle of bibles.
Glancing up, she dropped the books and shouted my name.
I hadn’t seen Mum for 28 years. We had a lot to talk about.
How lucky can you get?
It’s been an honour.