He saw a shrink because he was scared of not being funny… but that didn’t stop Mel Brooks writing a memoir laden with self-adulation
All About Me! My Remarkable Life In Show Business
Mel Brooks Century £16.99
Mel Brooks is not what you’d call a humble guy. For decades, rumours have circulated in showbusiness that his ego is in inverse proportion to his size, which is small (5ft 4in, to be precise).
So deciding to call his autobiography All About Me! sounds like a pre-emptive strike on the part of the 95-year-old Jewish comedian and film-maker, the mastermind behind such much-loved classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Basically, he’s going to label himself a total egomaniac (to put it mildly) before we tumble to the same conclusion.
Mel Brooks (above) labels himself a total egomaniac (to put it mildly) before we tumble to the same conclusion
At least, though, we know that this isn’t a ghosted memoir. Every sentence comes laden with compliments paid to him by the world at large: ‘They loved it!’ is a phrase that recurs again and again.
The adulation seems to have started early. The youngest of four brothers from Brooklyn, Brooks was an adored child, especially after his father died tragically early from TB.
‘I was always in the air, hurled up and kissed and thrown in the air again,’ he writes. ‘Until I was five, I don’t remember my feet touching the ground.’
Armed with such extraordinary self-belief, it wasn’t long before Melvin Kaminsky was employed as a ‘tummler’ (Yiddish for entertainer) in the Borscht Belt, where his job was to keep the summer visitors awake and amused.
We hear not simply about Anne Bancroft’s (above, with Brooks) beauty and talent but the fact that ‘boy, could she make spaghetti’
His best gag was to dress like a suicidal businessman in an alpaca coat and, weighed down with suitcases full of rocks, plunge into the pool in the hope that the lifeguard would fish him out in time. You probably had to be there.
Indeed, much of Brooks’s comedy seems to arise from a world view tinged with cruelty.
He retells the story of how Sid Caesar, the troubled comic for whom he worked as a gag writer in the golden age of 1950s television, once dangled him out of a high-rise Chicago hotel by his belt in an attempt to stop him complaining about the smoky atmosphere.
And then there are the two occasions that Brooks himself menaced a fellow scriptwriter called Howie Morris into handing over everything in his pockets, including his wedding ring.
John Wayne loved the script of Blazing Saddles (above) but knew that it would damage his public image if he appeared in a film with a scene given over to cowboy flatulence
The second time, he made Morris wade waist-deep in Central Park Lake before eventually revealing that it is all a ‘joke’. Again, you probably had to be there.
Brooks, you see, doesn’t really do introspection, despite telling us that he spent some time in psychoanalysis to deal with his anxiety attacks, which made him vomit in the street because he was so frightened of not being funny enough.
He never mentions his first wife by name and barely refers to the three children from that marriage. With his second wife, the brilliant actress Anne Bancroft (Mrs Robinson in The Graduate), it is another matter entirely.
We hear not simply about her beauty and talent but the fact that ‘boy, could she make spaghetti’ (she had been born Anna Maria Italiano).
It is easy to forget just how radical and risky Brooks’ humour was, including Springtime For Hitler from The Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Uma Thurman (above)
All the same, when she dies in 2005 from cancer, he barely misses a beat, recalling how colleagues ‘pulled me out of my abyss of despair and we went to work on our next musical together’. The show must go on.
And perhaps it is good that it does. Brooks has some great stories to tell about the Hollywood legends he has met and outlived.
Cary Grant was nice but dull, and John Wayne loved the script of Blazing Saddles but knew that it would damage his public image if he appeared in a film in which there was a scene given over to cowboy flatulence.
Alfred Hitchcock, meanwhile, lived up to his reputation as the Master of Suspense by keeping Brooks guessing as to whether he approved or was furious about High Anxiety, the 1977 film in which Brooks mercilessly parodied Psycho and The Birds.
(Of course, Hitchcock loved it, and sent a crate of fine wine to prove it.)
If you are a long-time Mel Brooks fan, then the chances are you will have heard many of these stories before, since Brooks is a veteran of the chat-show circuit.
But for those of us who have never been sure what all the fuss was about, this does fill in some important gaps.
It is too easy to forget just how radical and risky his humour was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Numbers such as Springtime For Hitler from The Producers, in which stormtroopers dance like a chorus line from a Busby Berkeley musical, posed challenging questions to a post-war audience about political memory and moral responsibility.
(Brooks had himself served in Europe during the latter part of the Second World War.)
You could even argue that the famous farting cowboy scene in Blazing Saddles is a sly deconstruction of toxic masculinity several decades before anyone else thought about these things.
Or you could, as Mel Brooks does himself in this entertaining, if self-congratulatory, memoir, simply wonder at one man’s ability to keep on being funny for nearly a century.
Richard Morris W&N £25
When a handsome young RAF navigator met two fashionable young women from the British Embassy in Rome in 1945, he told them he was planning to become a vicar.
They reacted first with disbelief and then with a sort of scorn.
He wrote in a letter to his fiancee: ‘I thought it so funny – and pathetic too – that the vocation of an Anglican priest should have earned for itself this widespread contempt, amusement, suspicion and mistrust.’
Yet so it is. The standard view of the Church of England and its clergy – if anyone cares about them at all – is of a shambling organisation staffed by weak and doddering figures of fun.
This extraordinary book shows how wrong this is, in exploring the life of one man who decided to devote his life to the Christian gospel.
Its author, Richard Morris, is an archaeologist, but the book, largely about his father John, is more like an attic explored after the death of its owner than a dig.
Again and again he picks something up and it causes his mind to roam in a new direction, so the number of subjects covered, from steam engines to an unsolved murder in Zimbabwe, is impossible to list or put into any real order.
At the heart of it are the wartime letters that John Morris wrote to his wife-to-be Elise, at the time thousands of miles away in Canada.
In them we find people of great courage, resolve and faith trying to bring some sort of comfort and consolation to a post-war England that is cold, squalid and terribly bruised by six years of ultra-violent war.
Did they achieve anything? Who can tell?
Perhaps we may only guess how much worse it would all have been without the astonishing fact that everyone in England belongs to an Anglican parish, and that men and women of startling dedication still give up affluent careers to live and serve in the toughest places in the country, where hope is pretty hard to find.
Morris delves archaeologically deep into the foundations of Christian belief in England and explains the survival into today of ideas and rhythms that are almost impossibly old.
There is a lovely passage revealing when and where you may still hear church bells exactly as you would have heard them in the reign of Henry VIII.
And there is a haunting explanation of why skeletons unearthed during the restoration of a thousand-year-old church were found to be holding white quartz pebbles in their right hands.
We know so little of what our ancestors really thought. Yet in one place we still do much as they did.
When the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, those who slip into an Anglican church may still find themselves intoning the words of Evensong, part of an ancient monastic cycle otherwise forgotten, or better still, the opening words of the service of Compline that ends the day: ‘The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.’
Amen to that.
Will Smith with Mark Manson Century £20
Will begins with our nine-year-old hero being forced by his father to build a brick wall from scratch, and ends with him at 50, bungee-jumping into the Grand Canyon live on YouTube.
Somewhere between these two life-shaping events Will Smith became the hottest movie star in the world.
Launching his career in 1985 as rapper Fresh Prince, he got his break in the TV show The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air before shifting into movies. Men In Black, Independence Day, Ali and Aladdin are among his numerous smashes.
Will Smith (above) appears on the page as he does in interviews, an amiable presence with a gift for conveying cartoonish mischief
He appears on the page as he does in interviews, an amiable presence with a gift for conveying cartoonish mischief – not least when he’s caught by his mother having sex in the family kitchen aged 16.
Yet his laid-back public persona masks a ferocious work ethic. By his own admission, he was an ‘average talent’ who succeeded through sheer determination.
Raised a Baptist, Smith had an integrated middle-class childhood, living in a black neighbourhood in Philadelphia while attending a largely white Catholic school.
His fearsome father ‘Daddio’ was an alcoholic prone to physical abuse. His childhood left him needy and emotionally vulnerable; a born performer, in other words, but prone to crushing insecurities.
The first rap artist to win a Grammy, Smith was a millionaire by his late teens. His party-heavy lifestyle hit a wall when the IRS demanded $1 million in unpaid tax. His response was to refocus on acting.
Co-author Mark Manson is a million-selling magus in the ‘personal growth’ industry, and it shows.
The insistence on shackling each episode in Smith’s life to a Big Life Lesson won’t be to everyone’s taste. Mostly, though, Will is a celebrity memoir that rings true and is entertainingly told in the authentic voice of its subject.
Drawn To Nature: Gilbert White And The Artists
Simon Martin Pallant House Gallery £25
The ‘parson-naturalists’, those characters who oscillated between the pulpit and the potting shed, embodied English eccentricity during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
And the most famous example is Gilbert White of Selborne, the quirky cleric who wrote a bestseller about the plants, animals and birds that peppered his Hampshire parish.
Since its first edition in 1789, The Natural History And Antiquities Of Selborne has remained in print and enthralled Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Gerald Durrell and many others.
Since its first edition in 1789, The Natural History And Antiquities Of Selborne has remained in print and enthralled Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Gerald Durrell and many others
And, as Simon Martin details in Drawn To Nature, it has also been a beacon for generations of nature-loving painters and printmakers.
Martin is the director of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which last year staged an exhibition about White’s influence on artists.
He has now transformed that show into a book that elegantly blends art history and biographical detail with a visual valentine to the English countryside.
In his charming introduction, Sir David Attenborough explains that White was not worried about seeming ‘a little dotty’ as he traipsed around the village observing mice, herons, owls and oaks for his idiosyncratic book.
Certainly, it is an unusual curate who notices how swifts mate on the wing. He was, as Attenborough notes, ‘a man in total harmony with his world’.
Over the years, White’s world has been reimagined by a diverse array of artists, famous and forgotten, to illustrate his survey.
Eric Ravilious produced wood engravings of the parson and his beloved tortoise, John Nash created linocuts of streams and sparrowhawks in composted colours of swampy green and tea- brown, and John Piper’s watercolours made Selborne look unbearably wet.
And then there were the two Victorians who disguised themselves as sheep to get shots for a photographic edition. No doubt White would have approved of all these imaginative efforts, as he would this charming volume.