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Burchill back in spotlight as play shows she remains a Cult figure

Uh-oh.

JULIE BURCHILL: Has just been signed up to be the agony aunt for a men's magazine. Picture: Susannah Binney
JULIE BURCHILL: Has just been signed up to be the agony aunt for a men's magazine. Picture: Susannah Binney

Julie's in the news again. Julie Burchill, that is, the one-time hip young gun-slinger on a punky 1970s NME turned self-styled 1980s cocaine-caked queen of the Groucho club, whose barbed and bitchy opinions on anything and everything still has the knack of offending readers on both right and left. Then there are the public spats with assorted ex-husbands and fellow female columnists, the flirtations with lesbianism, the sex-soaked novels, the pro-Israeli provocations and the seemingly endless power to annoy.

Burchill's latest brush with the media hand that still sometimes feeds her comes with a plethora of high-profile speculation that she may or may not have been offered £300,000 to take part in the annual circus of Celebrity Big Brother. Such speculation arrived just as Burchill was announced as the new agony aunt for one time lad's mag bible, Loaded magazine. Given the seeming decline in both parties' fortunes, this seems a curiously apt if inherently odd alliance.

All of these juicy tit-bits have been rather fortuitously doing the rounds just as Tim Fountain prepares to bring his new play about the woman who is possibly Britain's best-known big-mouth to Edinburgh.

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult is Fountain's sequel to Julie Burchill Is Away, which starred Jackie Clune as the play's eponymous drama queen a decade ago.

Then, your intrepid reporter spent a lively couple of days hanging out with Ms Burchill, sitting next to her as she hid behind her fringe, watching Fountain's play, hearing her own words ricocheting back at her. Burchill also talked her noisy way through another play by Fountain, Sex Addict, before the pair fell out in a past-its-sell-by-date private members club later that night. All of which makes one wonder why Fountain would want to revisit Burchill's life and work.

"She is the only one of my subjects I have not managed to kill," says Fountain, who has previously penned plays about Quentin Crisp, Rock Hudson and Sebastian Horsley.

"I am still fascinated by Julie, and I think her story's moved on a lot since the last play. Julie says herself that her career's in managed decline, so it is a lot more Sunset Boulevard than the last one, which was really just an excuse to hear the best bits of Julie. This one is much more a proper play, and there is a lot more drink and drugs on stage. The gloves are off."

Burchill herself declares herself "very pleasantly surprised and quite pleased" by Fountain's continued attention, "especially as my career has hardly been on sparkling form in recent years. Because of this I am fully prepared to be portrayed as more of a figure of fun in this one than the first, but I can't say I am bothered about that, as I love a laugh, and myself will do fine as a source of the amusement."

Burchill has taken no part in Absolute Cult's development, which is being overseen by veteran new writing director, founder of Hull Truck and former artistic director of the Bush, Mike Bradwell, and features Lizzie Roper in the title role. Burchill's only note to Fountain, in fact, was for him to take out all uses of the word 'God'.

"I just read it yesterday," says Burchill, "and asked Tim to take out the use of the G-word as an exclamation. I don't go to temple, but I do believe thoroughly in the Lord of the Jews, and I would never say His name lightly."

As naive as this may sound, it is just one more example of Burchill doing her growing up in public. Burchill's willingness to take responsibility for her own actions has become part of a story that borders on willing self-parody.

"My rise and my decline have been solely the results of my own behaviour," she says, "as has the rest of my life. To me, one of the real pleasures of life is owning your own actions and never blaming anyone else."

Given that she is also writing for The Spectator, signing up for Loaded sounds like a typically contrary move. According to Burchill, however, they are the only publications who will have her.

"I think this sums up my personality very well," she says with the air of a terminal teenager out to shock. "I am half intellectual and half chav. I am going to be their agony aunt, or rather, S.O.B Sister. I've always wanted to do this, and indeed the Guardian asked me years back, then changed their minds, obviously fearing I would say something rude. AS IF!"

As self-deprecatory as she sounds, Burchill's writing still shocks people. Why does she think this is?

"A lot of people do not like the truth, because they are liars," she says, "and a lot of people do not like how funny I am, because they are boring."

Wouldn't she like to write a play herself?

"Never been asked!", she says. "I would LOVE to."

As for the alleged Celebrity Big Brother offer, "Only for a million!" she says. "I love my husband, privacy, sex and reading, in that order, and for me to go without them for three weeks I can't be bought by a poxy £300,000, but we'll see."

Given her rise as a council estate kid from Bristol to media icon, what would Burchill say to today's generation of young women with ambitions set on a journalistic career?

"I would say 'I'm sorry, sweetheart, you're too late.'", is her brutally honest answer. "Pygmies rule journalism now. It is filthy with nepotism, and this is seen especially in the area of female broadsheet columnists. The spectacle of some smug, mediocre columnista, who would definitely not have their job if their mummy or daddy had not been in the newspaper racket, advising working class kids to study hard at school, get a 'proper' job and not place their faith in TV talent shows is one of the more repulsive minor crimes of our time."

Beyond Absolute Cult's portrayal of her world, Burchill's book, Unchosen: Memoirs Of A Philo-Semite comes out in the autumn. She is also writing what she describes as "a very funny, very dirty novel set in Israel, which I am looking for a publisher for."

Ask Burchill what ultimately drives her as a writer, and she is as honest and as provocative as ever.

"A love of money," she says, "and a loathing of lies."

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult, Gilded Balloon, to August 25.

l www.absolutecult.com

l www.gildedballoon.co.uk

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