Julie Burchill – Now and Then

Tim Fountain’s first play about Julie Burchill premiered in 2002. Why did he want to return to the subject 12 years later?

Tim Fountain

Tim Fountain

The first play, Julie Burchill Is Away, came about when I was seeing Jackie Clune. Jackie and I had always been Burchill fans. We used to lie in bed reading the columns out to each other on a Saturday morning. Anybody who tells the world she doesn’t care what people think of her is innately interesting dramatically. You can’t help but ask: can that be true? Is it possible to live like that?

That play was based on Julie’s life and writings. It worked, but Julie was at a different stage in her life and I was at a different stage in my relationship with her. I was more in awe, more reverential. This time, we haven’t taken out or toned down anything. This is the unedited Julie. She drinks and takes drugs onstage. We’re not just talking about it. She’s living it.

Twelve years on, Julie’s career has gone in a very different direction. By her own admission, she’s in ‘managed decline’. There’s a much more Sunset Boulevard element to the story now: she’s still big but the newspapers and the columns have got smaller. So has the money in journalism. Her days of earning £100,000 or £150,000 a year, like she did in the ‘80s, are gone. And yet, she has stuck to her guns and continued to live on her terms, spending and drinking like a sailor on shore leave, and carrying on being Julie Burchill.

Lizzie Roper as Julie Burchill in Tim Fountain's play 'Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult'

Lizzie Roper as Julie Burchill

The offer she gets in the play to go on Celebrity Big Brother is not just a conceit, it’s a genuine, real-life dilemma for Julie. She’s been approached twice and been offered £300,000. At the minute, she says she won’t get out of bed for less than a million. But at the same time, her accountant is constantly onto her, telling her she’s got to move out of her house because she can’t afford it anymore.

Julie isn’t remotely snobby about Celebrity Big Brother; she loves watching it, she just thinks it’s no place for a writer. And it’s not the coolest thing to do, is it? It’s something you do on the way down because you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s questionable whether she could face going in there without drink, drugs or her boyfriend too. It’s kind of like rehab.

In the future, the one thing you can be certain of is that she’ll carry on carrying on. There’s a line in the script where she says, “who cares if I end up like Viv Nicholson and just spend spend spend? I’ll have had the best time.” She may well burn up every penny. Or, who knows, she may have a late-blooming renaissance: she could go on Celebrity Big Brother and start getting work again or the book she has coming out in September [Unchosen, a memoir about her love of Judaism] may be a big hit.

Whatever happens, she’s a survivor. And if it ever does come to the point that she goes down with the ship, she’ll be standing at the front, waving a flag.


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