December 2, 2011 9:59 pm

The Diary: Graham Linehan

Amid debate over the role of Britain’s tabloid press, the comedy writer is curious to know: What is the collective noun for paparazzi?

This is the week The Ladykillers, my stage adaptation of the Ealing classic starring Alec Guinness, leaves the Liverpool Playhouse for its new home, London's Gielgud. Both theatres are steeped in history (I’m sorry, things are always “steeped” in history, I don’t make the rules) and a television writer like me can’t help feeling intimidated when first walking through their doors. I tell Sean Foley, director of The Ladykillers, that passing photographs of an unfeasibly youthful Anthony Hopkins in Behan’s The Quare Fellow (at the Playhouse) or John Gielgud as Hamlet (at the Gielgud, obviously) gives you a deep shiver in a way that can’t be matched by a blown-up glossy of Noel Edmonds in Deal Or No Deal.

. . .

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Though my heart will always be with telly (darling), it’s not a medium with a huge respect for itself. I’m thinking of those Pete and Dud sketches wiped from the BBC archive in the 1960s or the imminent sale of the BBC’s iconic premises in White City. Theatre, on the other hand, is eternally drunk on its own grandeur and holds on to its history with both hands. By the way, if you’re ever at the Playhouse, look out for the photo of Frances de la Tour and Roy Kinnear in As You Like It in 1967. I couldn’t tell you why but I found it hugely moving and always tried to steal a glance at it when I was there. It’s upstairs, by the bar, handily. (Darling.)

. . .

Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director at the Playhouse, told me the greatest theatre story I have ever heard.

A friend of Gemma’s went to see a serious, moving play with her 10-year-old son. She didn’t know whether he’d be able to enjoy it but she thought it would at least be an experience for him.

Some time into the play she turned to him and saw that tears were flooding down his face. He was utterly distraught.

“Baby,” she said, “Oh, baby, are you OK?”

“Oh, Mummy,” her son managed between gulps of air. “I’m so bored!”

. . .

At the Leveson inquiry, “paps” are in the picture, thanks to the experiences of JK Rowling, Sienna Miller and others. I ask Twitter what a good collective noun for a group of “paps” might be. Several people reply with “smear”.

One of the more unedifying sights of the past week or so has been Piers Morgan and Tony Parsons lining up, also on Twitter, to sneer at celebrities brave enough to turn up to the Leveson inquiry and share their stories of press harassment. On this matter, I afford the same weight to Morgan’s opinions as I would to any expressed by my four-year-old son. Actually, if I asked my son I might get some sort of beautifully expressed, simple wisdom that makes you feel a little differently about this funny old life, or at least he might misunderstand the question in an amusing way. But Morgan talking about a thing like this ... there’s just no upside to it.

And Tony Parsons. What can you say about a writer who apparently can’t summon the imagination needed to feel compassion for a group of people who are hounded throughout their lives simply for doing their jobs well?

He never has to deal with any of this because the public seem to have even less interest in him than they do in long-lens shots of Clive James. But you can bet that if he or his family were subjected to what someone like JK Rowling goes through there’d be several photographs of him snarling alarmingly at a smear of paps by the end of the first week.

Parsons is one of those celebrities who uses Twitter as a megaphone – patiently sharing their proclamations with the rest of us grateful proles – trying to impose an old media ethos on new media and looking quite comical as a result. Perhaps, if he used the service to connect with people, which is kiiiiiiiiinda the point, he might actually speak to some of the people whose lives have been ruined by the tabloid press and amend his views accordingly.

Then again, maybe that’s why he doesn’t.

. . .

I need an eye test this week, definitely. Words in the newspaper, seen under anything other than the glare from a police searchlight, are beginning to look more like suggestions than hard facts. A few days ago, walking along, I saw a bald man coming towards me. For a few moments I was confused because he didn't seem to get any nearer. Then I realised we were both walking in the same direction and I was looking at the back of his head.

. . .

In the park, my son leaves the playground to issue me with instructions for a game of “Let's pretend”.

“Pretend I’m a man.”

“OK.”

“With a bag.”

“With a what?” You really need to be clear on these things or he goes mad. “A bag?”

“Yeah, a bag, a blue bag. Pretend I have a blue bag.”

“OK”.

He steps back a few paces, then walks past me.

“Good evening,” he says.

“Good evening,” I reply.

And that’s it.

. . .

For those of us unlucky enough to have been born with a thin skin, l’esprit de l’escalier is something akin to a psychological disorder.

Exhibit A: the manager of a hotel in Norfolk who, when we arrived exhausted and flustered and ordered a bottle of wine to go with the only food that was being made available to us, snootily said: “I don’t know what wine I could suggest to go with a cheese sandwich.”

Of course, now I realise I should have said: “Well, maybe one that will help us forget we’re eating a cheese sandwich.” But too late. He has moved on, presumably, and never thinks of me. But he's always close to my thoughts. He joins the rogues’ gallery (it’s always a “rogues’” gallery, again, these are the rules) of people who were rude to me that I failed to dominate effortlessly with my whipcrack wit.

I guess one of the advantages of being a writer is that I can eventually get them working for me. When the perfect comeback occurs, four years later, at 4am, I scribble it down and try to stick it in a script.

It takes the edge off any rude encounter, knowing that one day this same person could be earning me money. As indeed he is now.

‘The Ladykillers’ is at the Gielgud Theatre, booking until February 18 2012

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