Wednesday, July 28, 2010


As the frontman of Madness - which, after 30 years, he still is - Suggs would sometimes go on stage dressed in a fez, pink suit and fur coat. An admirer told him that he brought to mind Tommy Cooper, Robert De Niro and Diana Ross.

Effing hell, thought Suggs, he would never improve on that. Nor has he on this day in Sicily, where he is filming the final leg of his new Sky Arts travelogue, Suggs's Italian Job. Still, he looks pretty good in his white shirt and dark blue cotton suit.

The once-befezzed pop star, whose band, back in the late Seventies, used comedy to wedge itself between the forces of concept-album pretension and punk-rock nastiness, has turned into a legit television presenter. Last year he won a Royal Television Society presenter's award for Disappearing London on ITV.

Admittedly he spoilt things a little with an acceptance speech in which he lightly announced his immediate retirement from the profession, but television eventually forgave him when he said that he was speaking in drink and in jest. The experienced Italian Job production team tell me that they have never worked with a more professional presenter.

The beautifully shot eight-part series is not exactly an intellectual challenge to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. The only preexisting cultural knowledge you need is that Suggs is driving a Mini because there was once a film called The Italian Job and it featured the same make of car.

Nevertheless, it is still something of a surprise that Sky has chosen him as its face of culture. Thirteen years ago you would have known where Suggs stood on high art. “Pop,” he told an interviewer, “is the only art form over the past 20 years that has communicated to so many people. It can move you to tears or laughter. How many paintings have you actually cried at?”

“That's the great thing about being young,” the 47-year-old explains to me now. “One of the reasons pop music tends to be better when people are young is that they have blinkers on, don't they? If someone's wearing flared trousers, they're shit. You have a very pure vision of the things you like. But no, I certainly wouldn't agree with my 1995 self that the only important thing is pop music. No. Not at all.”

If Suggs has a greater credibility gap as a cultural commentator than would, say, Jools Holland or Jarvis Cocker, it may simply be that Madness were always too funny to be taken seriously. It took, he says, 20 years for a piece of serous criticism to be written about them, and five authors have started and abandoned books about them. Perhaps songs such as My Girl, Cardiac Arrest, Our House, Driving in my Car and Michael Caine simply resist analysis.

Fortified by a lunch of Heineken and risotto balls, Suggs's intellect proves in decent working order this afternoon as he is shown around the Villa Cattolica, a museum that has a collection of works by the painter Renato Guttuso. His son Fabio explains a vast painting of a market scene in terms of a cathedral: Suggs smartly identifies its Madonna.

If he is bewildered by Fabio's explanation of the history of Italian communism or how his father's career echoes Picasso's, he doesn't show it. If anything, I detect in Suggs's mind not undernourishment but impatience. As the furry boom-mike bobs above the two of them, Suggs's eyes dart and his fingers click. Between takes he smokes and chews gum. His presentational style is ironic and relaxed, but I sense tension, too.

Only after filming is complete does he relax - which is more than I do, as Suggs's Mini, now driven by an assistant producer aided by a very confused Italian sat-nav, goes the wrong way up more narrow streets than the original Italian Job Minis. We discuss the Guttusos, papĂ  and figlio. “Nice guy, but he could have paid more attention to his dental hygiene,” says Suggs of poor Fabio.

That evening we meet again in an open-air bar in Palermo. The Peronis stand before us yet again. I suspect that the ruddiness of his face may not be simply a tan. I ask if drinking has ever been a problem for him. Only, he says, when he is very bored.

“Going wild and losing almost every shred of your personality is not a bad thing on occasions. It may have got a bit out of hand in Britain now, but look at Hogarth or however far back you want to go. You've got the Celtic thing mixed into the British and I consider myself part of that, slightly. There is this whole idea that drink can transport you somewhere else, into poetry, magic and lunacy.”

He should know, for his holiday home in southern Italy includes a small vineyard that produces “Suggs Special”, a brew that will get you drunk in a Nordic rather than a Mediterranean manner. Does he ever film with a hangover, I ask. Rarely, he says. “But you just get on with it. It's the Buddhist tenet: drinking is drinking; getting up is getting up.”

That's a new one on me, but the production team have warned me about his serendipitous erudition. For all that, his education, or lack of it, is the background buzz to our interview. An early hit, Baggy Trousers, recalls his adolescence in a tough London comprehensive: “Naughty boys in nasty schools/ Headmasters breaking all the rules/ Having fun and playing fools/ Smashing up the woodwork tools.”

It was, he says, just more exciting at the back of the class, practising hanging his mouth open. Yet in his previous life in Wales he had passed his 11-plus, and at grammar school was “one of the nicer sort of kids”.

He was in Wales because when he was 8 his mother, Edwina, decided that she could no longer cope with raising him alone and sent him to stay with her sister. A failed jazz singer turned barmaid at the legendary Colony Room in Soho (where, decades later, her son records his ITV chat show Suggs in the City), she had been deserted by Suggs's heroin-addicted father.

Mother and son made do in bedsits, which is why Suggs can talk of having “a degree in poverty and hardship”. At Auntie Diana's in Haverfordwest, he did not see his mother for three years. Meanwhile, his aunt's marriage was unwinding. “I began thinking, ‘Why does it all go wrong every time I enter the room?'”

Fortunately he was developing an ability to look at himself objectively. “I suddenly realised that it wasn't my fault and I remember that as a huge release. I could take care of what I was about but I couldn't really be responsible for the grown-ups.”

At 11 he had another revelation, this time in Sunday school. “The geezer would drone on and on and I remember one time he was talking about how lucky we all were. I thought, ‘I don't really think I am lucky. I haven't seen my mum for a while and maybe I don't think these people here are on my side'.

And I remember wondering what would happen if I just suggested in my mind that God didn't exist. I got up and walked out of this church and I have a clear memory of walking down the little path to the gable fence at the end, then going off down the road and thinking, ‘Nothing's happened. I haven't been hit by lightning or anything'.”

Back in London, his mother's spirits having revived, he fell in with some boys from a local school who would know Graham McPherson by his new name, Suggs (after the jazz artist Pete Suggs). By the time he was 17, perhaps subconsciously inspired by his mother's bohemian aspirations to “a champagne lifestyle with lemonade pockets”, Suggs was the lead vocalist of Madness and was enjoying their first residency in a Camden pub called the Dublin Castle.

The ska band, influence as much by vaudeville as reggae, had a hit with The Prince, appeared on Top of the Pops and were soon supporting the Specials on tour.

Despite their chart success over the next ten years, Madness never got rich. Think of a fortune, Suggs explains, divide it by seven band members and take away 40 per cent in tax. It is no longer a fortune. But Madness did enrich Suggs with the family that the only son of a single parent had missed. He says that the group's members are still “ridiculously” close.

I thought he had said over lunch that after a month touring with them he usually felt that he never wanted to see them again? “It's a family but it's a f***ing dysfunctional family. It's all needy kids and no parents.”

Its functionality was first threatened in 1983 when Mike Barson, the keyboard player, quit. “He just got fed up with all the fame business. Bit by bit you'd see he'd be wearing balaclavas to go out and didn't want to be in photographs any more.”

Barson wasn't the only one becoming jaundiced. “We had some great people around us and the record label we were on was very interesting, but they realised that we were a fatted calf and it was just a bit relentless.

We were going round the world relentlessly, and the notion that we were always going to liven up a dull scene got very wearing. Then we sort of fell out ... we were just so tired. It's the old joke, isn't it? We split up for medical reasons: we were sick of each other.”

By now he was married to Anne, better known at the time at Bette Bright of Deaf School, and had two daughters. “You know, it's like the rites of passage. We've been in the forest. We've slain all the dragons and now it's time to go home as a man, not a f***ing juvenile. We were stuck, and I think being a pop star is being stuck permanently as a juvenile. Look at the people who are permanent pop stars.”

Like Jagger? “You said it. And there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you want, but I was very keen that I should get to the next development in my life.”

Despite the good-natured anarchy of his music, Suggs is actually too conventional to be a pop star in the classic mode. Married in church, he remains happily married, although he is having a little trouble persuading his daughters, Scarlet and Viva, to leave their terraced, three-bedroom family home in North London.

His work ethic is not so much Celtic as Protestant. While filming in Italy he has been flying to London at weekends to record Suggs in the City. He returns, his crew tell him, in a filthy mood. But his presenting career, now that it touches history and culture (it started with a karaoke show on Five), seems to have squared some circles for him and is infiltrating his music.

The title song of Madness's forthcoming album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate, demonstrates a knowledge of London history that would please Peter Ackroyd.

“Tommy Cooper was a big factor in Madness. Benny Hill - those speeded-up bits at the end - used to tickle us. You knew it was a bit naff but it was also kind of deliberately anti-intellectual. Then in later life you get interested in other things, like Samuel Beckett, for instance, and get this innate feeling that there's a parallel, and find that there is. Beckett was really interested in music hall and Tommy Cooper and Max Wall - that thin line between abstraction and just being an idiot, you know what I mean?”

At dinner with the crew in Palermo, Suggs is in high spirits - the series almost in the can, the Chianti flowing. Then the director Nick Bramford bowls up with tidings from London. Their PR agency has prepared a script for an on-air promo that will require Suggs to dress as a loutish Cockney skinhead and morph into a refined Italian prat.

The idea of libelling himself, and Italy, in an advert for his own programme does not appeal, and as the evening degenerates he suggests alternative approaches. What about, he wonders, Suggs vomiting over a map of Italy, or burying his head in a pile of spaghetti?

Last week I caught a trailer for the series. It was nothing worse than a jolly selection of highlights. Good. Suggs is better than that. I think he is better than the series, but that is another matter.

Suggs's Italian Job begins on August 11, Wednesday at Discover Travel and Living Channel Asia

This article was taken from The Sunday Times from Andrew Billen's Suggs: far from the Madness crowd