Andrew Doyle spoke to The Hamiltons
“The Edinburgh Festival is Viagra for the soul,” says Christine Hamilton, taking another celebratory sip of Prosecco. I’ve met Christine and Neil for a post-show drink in the Abattoir Bar next to the Udderbelly, a preposterous outdoor tent shaped like an inverted purple cow which, this year, is the venue for the popular chat show High Jinks with the Hamiltons! The sound of the rain thrashing against the temporary, plastic roof is ominous to say the least, but this couple are determined to enjoy themselves.
“You can have too much of sunshine,” says Neil. “At least up here in Edinburgh we’ll never get skin cancer.”
“I’ve already grown galoshes and the flippers are on their way,” says Christine.
“I think I’m developing gills,” adds Neil.
Hearing them banter with each other like this, it’s easy to make the assumption that their onstage roles are simply an extension of their married life. “Oh, I’m very much bossed about and henpecked,” says Neil, feigning a grimace towards his wife. “We’re a bit like Laurel and Hardy, you see. And I’m definitely Stan Laurel.”
“What rubbish,” says Christine, laughing. “Our relationship on stage is a rough reflection of the truth. The thing is that Neil likes to pander to the image of the henpecked husband. People ask us what the secret to a happy marriage is, and he always replies ‘I do as I’m told’. If only he did.”
It’s certainly true that Neil has a restrained, mischievous quality. His preferred response to most questions is a sly quip. He enjoys being silly, which seems to both delight and infuriate Christine in equal measure. By contrast, Christine has a vivacity that is quite contagious. “I tend to run up to people like an overenthusiastic Labrador and slobber all over them,” she says. “Neil’s a bit quieter.” I look over to Neil for a reaction. “It would be difficult not to be,” he sighs.
“A lot of people think we’re bonkers,” says Christine. “But honestly, nobody could be more normal than we are.” At this moment, I feel I have to point out that the charge of eccentricity isn’t too unfair. After all, the Hamiltons have made the astonishing transition from Conservative politics to the world of showbiz. Most notably, they’ve both performed in The Rocky Horror Show, in which Neil danced down a staircase in six-inch stilettos, a Basque, and fishnet tights. And although we can be sure there have been many Conservative MPs over the years who have indulged in similar acts, there can’t be many who have done so for a paying audience.
I take their point, of course. The eccentricity is part of their profile, a kind of trademark for their brand, and Christine accepts that they have, to a degree, embraced the image. “But it’s just fun,” she tells me. “Where does fun cross the line into eccentricity? I don’t know.”
Perhaps that line was crossed in 2009, when Christine Hamilton changed her name by deed poll to “British Battleaxe” in order to help promote their friend’s website The Legal Deed Poll Service. “I know that I play on this image as a battleaxe, but I’m a pussycat really. I haven’t changed my name on my passport or anything like that, but British Battleaxe is my legal name. It’s fun. And Neil likes being Mrs British Battleaxe. Don’t you, Neil?”
There follows a conspicuous silence from Neil. I suddenly feel as though I might be the victim of a ridiculous joke. Can all this really be true, I ask them? Neil leans in conspiratorially. “Would we deceive you?”, he says, the ghost of an impish smile forming on his lips. It’s as though he’s performing a knowing caricature of the dissembling politician. Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister springs immediately to mind.
As a former Conservative MP, Neil is keenly aware of the need to maintain an untarnished public profile to ensure political success. He was a whip for Margaret Thatcher’s government, a “master of the black arts” as he describes it, and was eventually forced to resign in the wake of the “Cash for Questions” scandal. But these days he can enjoy the luxury of having no direct political affiliations, which is especially useful when it comes to writing his political columns for the Sunday Express. “I’m now in the fortunate position of being against them all,” he tells me. “I stand outside the established parties as a journalist. I have all the answers and I bear no responsibility.”
Still very much ideologically to the right, Neil nevertheless has a lot of fun playing with the public’s perceptions of stuffy, staid Conservatism. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, at once embodying and satirising his own persona. Some would call it inconsistent. Others would say it reveals a healthy degree of self-awareness. In any case, after years of media scrutiny, neither Neil nor Christine feel any need to be dishonest.
“I’ve always said it’s much easier to just be yourself,” says Christine. “It’s hard work being somebody else. Why not just be true to your own nature? That way, life’s a ball.” It’s a sentiment that could easily have been written by any gay activist, and when I ask the Hamiltons about the perceived homophobia in the Conservative party of Thatcher’s era they are quick to dissociate themselves from any such views.
“I understand that people make that association”, says Christine, “but it certainly couldn’t be more wrong in our case. One of the great things about Edinburgh and our new showbiz life is that we meet such a wide spectrum of people. And if you asked me now who my ten closest friends were, probably half would be gay. And my absolute best friend is a lesbian”.
It’s at this moment that Neil comes out with the most unexpected of comments. “I was the victim of a gay bashing.” For a moment I thought I must have misheard. Or maybe the Prosecco has gone to my head.
Neil begins to tell me about a close friend of his, Harvey Proctor, former MP for Billericay, who was “hounded out of politics because he had a dalliance with a nineteen-year-old rent boy. Because the age of consent in those days was twenty-one, he was, strictly speaking, committing an offence.” Christine interjects to point out that this was a case of entrapment. The rent boy in question had been paid by the People newspaper.
“The entrapment was disgusting,” Neil continues. “Harvey didn’t have any means to earn a living once he’d ceased being an MP. So a few of us clubbed together and helped him set up a shop selling luxury shirts. We raised the capital for him. Eventually I became the victim of a gay bashing expedition myself. This was in 1992. We happened to be in the shop one day when a couple of young hooligans came in, started messing about, making unpleasant comments to Harvey, calling him a poof and the rest of it. I told them to leave and one of them broke my nose. You’ll notice that my nose has a kink to the right now. It used to lean the other way.”
“It was terrifying,” says Christine. “There was Neil in a pool of blood, Harvey had been floored, and this one fellow has his hand up to hit me, but for some reason he drew back. Probably because I was a woman. It was extraordinary. If I’d have been a man I would have had it too. Anyway, they ran off, and I just went thundering and yelling after them, anything I could think of.”
“Gallant Christine came to the rescue,” says Neil, beaming with pride.
I have to admit to them, this wasn’t the story I had expected to hear. After all, Neil had been part of the government that had resisted gay equality and introduced the infamous Section 28. At the same time, Neil was prepared to go out of his way to support a maligned gay friend and found himself beaten up in the process. He’s also undeniably charming. Such contradictions seem somehow appropriate for a man who was at the heart of Thatcher’s Britain but now likes to flounce around on stage in outlandish garb. I cannot help but wonder how anyone can possibly sustain such seemingly antithetical lifestyles.
In addition to his showbiz commitments, Neil is a practising lawyer, works with internet companies, and is the chairman of a recruitment firm. “People can be so blinkered,” says Neil. “They put you in one department and can’t imagine you outside it. When I first qualified for the bar, a hundred years ago, I’d already fought a parliamentary election, and some found it to be an asset that I could do other things, that I’d had a life outside the narrow confines of the law. But it was an absolute block on ever getting a seat in chambers because people thought I wouldn’t be serious enough about it, because I wasn’t going to devote all my energies to boosting the income of clerks who were going to get a percentage of every fee you earn. There are so many unimaginative and literal-minded people. They go through life staring at their desk and can’t see beyond it, don’t conceive that other people can be versatile. In many cases these other pursuits don’t detract from your job. If anything they can enhance it.”
I still find it difficult to reconcile Neil’s traditionalism with his new career path. I wonder whether the influence of Christine has allowed him to open up. She’s such a vibrant character, and has no time for what she describes as “boring old farts”. She tells me about their midnight show in 2009 when, on one particularly memorable night, virtually everyone on stage was naked. Their guests included the stars of Puppetry of the Penis, The Boys in the Buff and The Naked Comedy Showcase. It’s the kind of line-up that would surely have had Margaret Thatcher fall into an apoplectic rage. Or at least tut audibly.
So are these risqué acts really to the Hamiltons’ taste? “We love it,” insists Christine. “I’m so happy to have left the boring old world of politics for the real world of showbiz and entertainment.”
“We’re likeable people,” says Neil. “Despite the best efforts of many to convey the opposite impression. In our show we try to be the feel-good factor made flesh”. Christine congratulates him on the slogan. “We should use that,” she says. As an ex-politician, Neil is adept at soundbites. So there are transferable skills, after all.
The Hamiltons are grateful for the rise of reality television. Christine was one of the first contestants on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and a finalist last year on Celebrity Masterchef. She believes that through such appearances she has been able to convey her true personality, untainted by media hostility. Neil explains: “If you read something in the newspaper you are experiencing reality which has been refracted through the prism of the journalist’s prejudices and whatever message he wants to convey. So it’s never going to be absolutely true. By appearing on reality television, we’ve been able to sidestep the jaundiced impression given by journalists with axes to grind.”
By way of illustration, Christine tells me a story about a visit they once had from a photographer for the Daily Express. “I’ll never forget it. This was years ago, when we were still not massively popular in certain quarters. After the shoot, he said to us, ‘I had no idea what to expect from you two. But all I can say is that there is only one thing that people should do with the Hamiltons – and that’s meet them’. It was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever said to us.”
“So my message to the world is form an orderly queue,” says Neil. Judging from the success of their chat show, people are already taking heed.