As you read this, I’ll be on a bus tour in Los Angeles, researching my first feature film. The bus company, Out & About Tours, promises a “wild ride” for “out-of-towners and locals alike ... gay or straight, young or old, paper or plastic. Hop on board, grab a cocktail and hang on to your wigs!” I won’t be wearing a wig (at least I hope I won’t) but the bus ride marks the beginning of a week meeting people who will provide information and background for a film I’m developing with a director. Without giving away too much, the plot is about two gay men from LA who become surrogate parents (not Elton and David). It’s a heartwarming story and my job is to make it more commercial. I have returned to LA, where I lived about a decade ago, to reabsorb the atmosphere of this crazy city. It’s my second visit in a month.
I love the positive energy you get in LA but, unlike some who come here to live, I will never be able to escape my Britishness. When I lived here (pre-internet), I had Country Life magazine and episodes of The Archers sent to me.
On my most recent trip, three weeks ago, a “realtor” took me to view Gore Vidal’s house in Hollywood, which is on sale for about $4m. My film director friend, who has gone native and has no Brit inhibitions or sense of embarrassment, told the estate agent I might be interested in buying it. What he really wanted was the privilege of meeting the veteran writer, journalist and political activist. Only he hadn’t told me and so I found myself politely purring as I went on the realtor’s tour of the beautiful house, “How does the heating work? Is this the second bathroom?” It was worth it. Vidal, now 85 and frail, came down from an afternoon nap, pulled his wheelchair up to a table and, over lemonade, entranced us with his views on everything from Sarah Palin – whom he calls stupid – to Barack Obama – who, he laments, has been stopped from achieving anything. Erudite and witty, Vidal says he despises the way Americans think they are best at everything. And he actually seemed pleased to see us. It felt amazing to be in the company of a True Great.
On the way from Hollywood to Malibu, we passed a nearly naked man in a huge plate-glass window (an art installation) and the self-styled “world famous” dancer (aged approximately 65) who dances with his own reflection in a shop window. LA has always been filled with fruitcakes and you get used to it. But some British friends, a couple who only arrived here in autumn, are still full of stories that encapsulate the place. Their kid is in a Malibu school where nearly all the parents are hippies: organising an event for something like Halloween involves everyone saying how they’d like it to be. “I don’t want it too commercial,” says one. “I don’t want it to be scary,” says another. “I want it to be enchanted,” says a third. By the time the event is due, nothing has been organised. When buying a car, my friend asks if there is a warranty. The car salesman bursts into tears. Sobbing, he explains he has never, ever been asked that: “You don’t trust me, do you? Yet I sell cars to the stars,” he tells her.
Back in Blighty, in the short sandwich between LA trips, I am struck by how the cultures of the two places are significantly more similar than they used to be. I even went to see a production at the Royal Opera House about the former Playboy centrefold Anna Nicole Smith. Can you imagine that 10 years ago?
The real change, however, is in the way British people now behave. I have been trying to resolve my internal Mac v PC battle. Following peer group pressure, I acquired a MacBook, yet had almost stopped using it after deleting all my contacts in trying to transfer them. But, open-minded, I had booked a session at the Covent Garden Apple Store’s Genius Bar (their capital letters, not mine) to get to grips with the situation. The store itself has a California feel – cool-looking people wearing Abercrombie & Fitch play with laptops in an atmosphere deliberately echoing Cupertino, the home of Apple. Upstairs, an enthusiastic English 22-year-old takes the group through Mac basics in enthusiastic slang that must have originated at University of California, Los Angeles. The session is basic but everyone is praised to the skies. Everything I do, even the simple task of closing a document, is, “genius, truly awesome”. Welcome to Covent Garden, California.
Why is it I feel so uncomfortable with this cheery, unquestioning enthusiasm? The Mac/PC debate has something to do with it. Macs are attractive and seem to work fine – but something jars. I have read a 1994 essay by Umberto Eco that explains it well: Macintosh users, he wrote, are Catholic and Microsoft users are Protestant, though not literally. Macs are “cheerful, friendly, conciliatory ... The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.” And while Apple tells its users every step, PC users make their own decisions. Microsoft “allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions ... and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation.” I have decided that, in this debate, I am definitely a Protestant.
In Rye, East Sussex, where I sometimes live, I revert to true British type on a walk in the countryside when my friendly, flirty little dog makes friends with a little girl. “What’s her name?” asks the grown-up looking after her. In true Brit style, I pretend not to recognise that the person asking this question is another True Great, Paul McCartney. My LA-based British friend would have asked him to write the music for our film. I just say: “Her name is Lola.” “Sounds like a song,” he says.
I love the waves of warm enthusiasm that embrace you as you come out of the airport in LA, the can-do attitude that is so much the opposite of the old world attitude you sometimes get in the UK. And I have always done well here, bonkers as it is. But it shouldn’t be taken too seriously: it is a city full of promise that often doesn’t quite deliver. The movie executives seem to commit immediately to your script, though the agreement doesn’t always materialise. The “coolest party of the year in the aircraft hangar”, to which you are invited, is actually attended by a few stoned men in tie-dyed jeans. My friend measures such promises in cans of tinned tomatoes. He says that you think, when you go into one of the big LA supermarkets, that cans of tomatoes are going to be plentiful and cheap, In fact, they are hard to find and cost $2 here rather than 60p at home. Life might seem easy in LA but you can’t even make a cheap pasta sauce.
Charlie Parsons owns Charlie Parsons Creative, which develops media businesses