I went to the pantomime in Bridlington yesterday: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with a special guest star who had ‘stepped in at the last minute’ to play the wicked queen – ‘the Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe’. I lost my voice booing in Act One; after the interval I wondered if contemptuous silence wasn’t anyway better. I might have found it easier to suspend my disbelief if her acting hadn’t been so wooden, but as she strutted about the stage, cracking Brexit jokes or saying that her henchman had ‘something of the night’ about him, I couldn’t help remembering how in 1996, when she was the junior home office minister in charge of prisons and immigration, she had defended the practice of shackling women who had just given birth.
‘The actor playing the wicked queen isn’t really bad, is she,’ my daughter said to me on the way out of the theatre. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘I know we usually say that. But this time it’s a bit more complicated…’
Waiting for the curtain to go up, we had been entertained with the usual round of seasonal hits piped through the theatre’s PA system, the late George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ followed by Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’. ‘How old’s Noddy Holder now?’ someone in the row behind me asked. ‘He must be getting on. He isn’t dead as well, is he? It’s been a terrible year for celebrities. I wonder if there’s something going on we don’t know about.’
She wasn’t talking about the election of Donald Trump. But I don’t think ‘celebrity’ is quite the right word to describe the people she presumably had in mind – David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen, George Michael – who were famous, certainly, but their fame was never the most interesting or remarkable thing about them. It may be just the right word for Widdecombe, however, whose indifferent political career – she was never a secretary of state – was swiftly followed by an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, which, as her website puts it, ‘has had huge spin-off for Ann’, and she has managed to keep herself in a certain kind of limelight since leaving the Commons in 2010.
‘In one school I visited a group of girls told me they wanted to be celebrities,’ she wrote recently in her Daily Express column. ‘Celebrated for what?’ It’s a good question.