Last week (although I didn’t mention it at the time) I set myself a challenge. How could I get from Princess Margaret to Phileas T Barnum via Shaggy and an elephant in less than 620 words. I had no idea. Spookily this week, everything fell into place.
Some years back, a reporter on The Star called Jeff Baker filed a story about Princess Margaret’s impending appearance in an episode of Crossroads.
The Palace was unable to deny the story because – as a matter of course – it doesn’t comment on this kind of proletarian concern.
Ever since, the media has held its own annual awards – The Princess Margarets – which honour the year’s most ridiculously entertaining space-filling fantasies. (Note to the gullible: Princess Margaret had no plans to book in at the dismal Midlands motel).
Great Margarets have included Posh and Becks’ alleged scheme to buy an island in the Thames (Spice Island), and the hot West End musical news that Marilyn Manson was being cast as Willy Wonka in the stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Unfortunately, some of the Sunday Sport’s classics – “Woman gives birth to 8lb trout”, “Virgin Mary rebuilt my garden shed”, “Alien curry monster bit my bum”, and “Naffed off hubby marries goat” – failed to win Princess Margarets because one of the criteria is that there must be some vestige of probability to these tales.
This week saw the emergence of a potential finalist.
According to Dominic Mohan in The Sun, Shaggy’s plan to make a dramatic entrance at the Brit awards has been scuppered by strait-laced, poker-faced organisers and an evil alliance of health and safety officials, licensing authorities, animal rights activists, and (presumably) the European Court of Human Rights.
He had been hoping to arrive on the back of an elephant.
Complete bunkum (and I choose that arcane term deliberately). The story bears all the hallmarks of traditional music industry hype.
PRs in the industry love nothing better than pumping out barely credible yarns to promote talent suffering from temporary under-exposure.
In appropriately alliterative tabloid style, the crucial component that made the tale a mass-circulation must was the elephant. Have elephant – have story.
I remember taking one to a chip shop once (to promote Trivial Pursuit) and I have distant and troubled memories of elephant photo-calls in the Alps during my gauche young days publicising Ian Bonham’s Hannibal Walk.
I know that if I have a particularly hard nut to crack for a corporate client, a call to Gerry Cottle will procure the vital ingredient for some top-drawer puns and a packet-load of print.
The elephant has always been a powerful tool in the publicist’s armoury, ever since the business began.
Which brings me to bunkum. In the 1850s, PT Barnum, master of ballyhoo, observed: “The bigger the bunkum, the better the people will love it”.
He cottoned on to elephants as a stunningly simple vehicle for publicity by yoking two to a plough and setting them up to work a field alongside the railway track at the approach to any town he was playing.
No one saw the sight without wanting to see more, and see more they did – when they’d paid to get into the circus.
Having completed the task that I thought was impossible last week, I’m left wondering about one thing.
In many American states, thanks to Barnum’s antics, it is still illegal to use elephants to plough fields. It is. I swear to God.
In these days of knee-jerk political reaction, I feel certain that Shaggy’s thoughtless actions will prompt a swift response by central government.
For celebrities with a penchant for riding on elephants, the outlook is bleak.