BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also in England this week police were questioning 9 people in the plot to kidnap singer Victoria Beckham, known to millions of fans as Posh Spice of Spice Girls fame and the wife of English soccer star David Beckham. The arrests followed a tipoff by the News of the World tabloid which said its reporters had infiltrated a gang of Rumanian and Albanian kidnappers who planned to use a chemical spray to sedate her and her sons Brooklyn and Romeo if they were with her. The Queen should award an O.B.E. to the News of the World, because losing Posh would mean losing a sizable percentage of Britain's celebrities, as Bob uncharitably observed during a stopover in England.
WOMAN: You've looked after loads of celebrities, and made them up-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: Yeah. Yeah.
WOMAN: -- which one's your favorite? Who's your favorite [...?...]. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: There's loads. I do loads, but I'm really liking Gail Porter -- she's absolutely brilliant. I do Melanie Sykes, Melinda Messinger, I mean [...?...]-- [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD:Gail Porter, Melanie Sykes, and Melinda Messinger. Who in the world are Gail Porter, Melanie Sykes and Melinda Messinger? They're nobody, that's who they are. Great Britain is at the moment so painfully bereft of world class celebrities that their demi-celebrity chat show hostesses are reduced to interviewing demi-celebrity hairdressers about the demi-celebrity entertainers whom you almost certainly have never heard of. For a country that produced Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, 007 Sean Connery, Princess Diana and the Beatles, the current celebrity drought is an embarrassment and a heartbreak.
RICHARD YOUNG: Any time you went to an event, you always knew you had to put your best dinner suit and bow tie on. It's been a long time since I wore a dinner suit and a bow tie.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Young is a freelance celebrity photographer who has been shooting pop stars and royalty for 40 years.
RICHARD YOUNG:People I'm going to photograph in, in London doesn't really warrant it, and I look around me and I see this - the, the, the people that everybody is going mad about, and I think to myself these are not stars! How, for crying out loud can these people have the audacity to call themselves celebrities?
BOB GARFIELD: Who are the big celebrities in-- in the United Kingdom right now?
WOMAN: I guess you'd say Robbie Williams-- Gordon Brown--
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you a followup question, please. Who are Robbie Williams and Gordon Brown?
WOMAN: Well one is a pop star, one's a politician.
BOB GARFIELD: Here's the one who isn't a politician.
ROBBIE WILLIAMS: [SINGING] HELL IS GONE AND HEAVEN'S HERE THERE'S NOTHING LEFT FOR YOU TO FEAR, SHAKE YOUR ASS, COME OVER HERE NOW SCREAM!
BOB GARFIELD: The song is titled Let Me Entertain You. You can hear it on your favorite top 40 station --never.
BOB GARFIELD: Excuse me. I'm Bob Garfield from National Public Radio in Washington. Can I ask you a question? Who are your big celebrities?
WOMAN: It's got to be David Beckham's wife. Yeah. Posh Spice.
MAN: Big celebrities in England? Nasser Hussein, the English cricket captain. He-- he's, he's one of my favorites.
MAN: I don't know - Tom Cruise--
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Cruise, American.
MAN: Yeah. Christina Ricci, Michelle Pfeiffer--
BOB GARFIELD: American, American.
MAN: Yeah, worldwide I think most of the big actors and actors are American.
MAN: David Beckham I suppose and his wife, Posh.
BOB GARFIELD: That's the best you can come up with.
MAN: Yeah. 'Fraid so.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't that a pitiful state of affairs?
MAN: Sad. Sad.
BOB GARFIELD:It's worse than sad. It's-- pathetic. Whenever Britain comes up with a decent celebrity -- Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Hurley, say -- they pick up and move to the United States where we have Hollywood and-- a superior way of life. Indeed, like Russia with wheat and North Korea with rice, the Britannia that for decades exported its big stars, its music and its fashion now is reduced to importing from the States! Madonna's arrival has given Fleet Street a chance to hound somebody significant for the first time since the death of Princess Diana. It's all a sign, says University of Sussex media studies professor Andy Medhurst, of a nation that is living so obsessively in the past that it has lost its grip on the present.
ANDY MEDHURST: England's become a kind of theme park country for lots of people who visit here. They have the things they tick off - it's like Disneyland with royalty - things they want to take home with them are the images and memories of the English past, and an English present doesn't interest many people outside England. [MUSIC FROM FILM AUSTIN POWERS]
BOB GARFIELD:Witness Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, a movie that spoofs the time when Britain was setting the cultural agenda for the world.
ANDY MEDHURST: And he's a Canadian who's become an American pretending to be [LAUGHS] an Englishman, so there you go!
BOB GARFIELD: How embarrassing is that? But this tragic dearth of indigenous celebrity resources isn't merely embarrassing. It's the final proof after the march of the Euro, the flop of the Millennium Dome and the U.S. military domination of the Balkan crisis that the country that defeated the Spanish Armada, that controlled colonies on four continents, that faced down Hitler is now completely irrelevant to the rest of the world. What Robbie Williams proves once and for all is that the sun has set on the British Empire. Professor Medhurst.
ANDY MEDHURST: The days when we could have claimed to have sort of cultural dominance across the Atlantic certainly are long, long gone. I think what we have to do is recognize where our place on the global ladder is, and we always had a very inflated idea of where that was, and I guess now we're having to-- to face facts. You know, we're a small island off the northwest coast of Europe which is not a bad thing. It's just -- the thing that is.
BOB GARFIELD:They've given us their language; they've given us their Common Law; they've given us their muffins. Once upon a time the British wove an exquisite tapestry of accomplishment. Now they are a faded, musty dropcloth of a former world power, and if you expect them to continue entertaining us, you can just put it out of your mind. The Princess is dead. Long live Madonna.
BOB GARFIELD: Can I ask you a question?
MAN: Yeah, go.
BOB GARFIELD: Who are your big celebrities.
MAN: You know I don't know them. I'm, I really can't bring anyone to mind. Sorry. [LAUGHS] [ROBBIE WILLIAMS SONG UP AND UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Megan Ryan; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Rob Christiansen and George Edwards and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Natasha Korgaonkar. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
RICHARD YOUNG: ...these are not stars!
"Let Me Entertain You"
by Robbie Williams