The media-lion turned novelist talks to Garbhan Downey about U2, the celeb zeitgeist and his latest comedy Darling Sweetheart
When RTE commission a reprise of The Boys of St Columb’s in 30 year’s time, it’ll be interesting to see if the documentary-makers ask Stephen Price to take a chair. Not that the College Old Boy wouldn’t deserve a mention – he’s had a hugely successful career in the media, producing some of Ireland’s biggest names on television and radio, including Eamonn Dunphy and Gerry Anderson. And his novels have been variously described as 'terrifically funny' by the Irish Times and 'brilliant' by the Sunday Independent.
Countering all this, however, you still have the matter of Price’s sixth form retreat at the school, which saw him suspended for returning 'rat-arsed' after lunch and decking a fellow penitent who’d flicked his ear. During Mass. The Case of the Two Litre Grand Marnier Bottle, which Price acknowledges was entirely his own fault, ultimately led to the Derry man losing a place to study architecture at Cambridge. Though it was, he insists now, perhaps the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
'Instead of learning how to stick up buildings, which I assure you would have fallen down within a year, I took a languages degree and got to spend three glorious years in London reading European literature, all paid for by a British government grant,' comments Price.
'As regards what happened at the retreat, while I’ve no problem with the suspension, I’d also argue that St Columb’s, at that time, drove me to it. It was a reaction to the repression of the place. The snobbery there bordered on outright discrimination, particularly against boys from areas like Creggan, the Bogside and Rosesmount. The students from the estates were treated very differently from the thick fecking dipshits from the Culmore Road, whose fathers just happened to be very wealthy. I’d like to think all that has changed now.'
If there is one thing that impresses Price even less than money, however, it is celebrity. Decades of sitting in green rooms, hand-holding has-beens and wannabes, has left him with a real distaste for stars and fame. 'When I began working on Anderson on the Box, I thought I was the bee’s knees. But seeing it at first hand, you soon realised that a lot of celebrities were twats.
'You understand quickly that there’s nothing to it but vanity. The dream is hollow. When I was producing Dunphy’s show in Dublin, I sat 23 times in the VIP lounge in Lillie’s Bordello after shows, watching U2 and their cohorts sweating their arses off. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Is this it? Is this what it all comes down to?’ Bono is worth millions, but he has to sit there in his hair implants listening to hangers-on talking shite. In all honesty, I’d much rather be sitting at home.'
This aversion to status-seeking and status-seekers is most apparent in Price’s new novel Darling Sweetheart, a darkly intelligent comedy set in the world of movie-making. In this picaresque romp, set in London, France and Ireland, the author takes particular delight in punishing the vapid and amoral – all the while saluting those happy few who have the integrity to refuse to play in the Fairy Kingdom.
It’s not the first time he’s explored the theme. Monkey Man, Price’s thinly disguised and brutally hilarious account of his life with Eamonn Dunphy, likewise lampooned celebrity culture. Indeed, the novel’s title derives from one of his favourite quotations about social-climbing, 'The higher the monkey goes up the tree, the more he shows his arse.'
In Darling Sweetheart, Price’s humour is softer and rounder. And the skilfully-honed novel incorporates crime, romance and a twist ending, to give the reader an even more enjoyable readable experience. Price, who is married to the TV journalist Sarah Travers and has three daughters (and a son), readily acknowledges that his target audience is intelligent women.
'In bookshops, I tend to sit next to Katie Price [aka Jordan] on the shelves. But from what I can gather, I sell to women whose hands recoil automatically from the other Price’s books. My idea of heaven is to be surrounded by smart women. And thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have that in my home. Both my editors have been women – and I get most of my feedback from women, largely from their mid-30s to mid-40s. Men tend not to send letters.
'When I was a kid, my mother guided me into all my best reading, particularly in those crucial preteen years when boys tend to go off reading.'
Price’s own influences, or favourites, include Chandler, Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh ('before he became a right-wing fascist'). And while he’s now stopped reading fiction, he still remains a fan of Daphne Du Maurier and Angela Carter. He has also, admittedly, adopted Carter’s tendency to revisit fairy stories in her works in the subtext of Darling Sweetheart.
“'The modern fairy story isn’t about seeking God or happy ever after – but about craving fame and wealth. Celebrity has replaced religion as the social glue. It’s about buying the right handbag and hiring a limo to go to out for the evening. In Darling Sweetheart, Annalise [his heroine] is handed all this, but is just about crazy enough to turn it down.
'People like me, in their 40s, know that life isn’t like that. We’re old enough to remember a society with no jobs and no opportunities. But thanks to reality TV and pointless talent shows, so many people under 25 still believe it is only a matter of time before they’ll be a star themselves. And this is their life goal.'
Now settled back in Portstewart, Price has no intention of returning to the madness of the media hamster-wheel. That’s not to say he’s not busy. Besides his novel-writing, he runs the media department in the Northern Regional College and writes columns for two Sunday newspapers.
'There are now as many students qualifying in media every year in the UK as there are jobs in total. I tell my students, it’s bloody hard work, and they’re going to have to be very lucky to get a job, after they graduate.
'The broadcast media, in particular, is a young person’s game. I was working 60 hours a week, and no-one was stopping me. But if I’m ever in a room now with BBC or RTE people, I can’t help but notice that all they can talk about is work. There’s more to life than that.'
Darling Sweetheart is available now.