Time was I would run a mile from a celebrity biography, with I think plenty of reason – there are so many clippings jobs with glossy front covers out there , that sorting the wheat from the cliche wasn’t usually worth the effort. Autobiographies ought to be better, but the majority are ghost-written with the minimum of effort – a few childhood anecdotes, prompted by photographs of minor parts in school plays and family holidays, progressing quickly to the break through appearance on Comic Relief/Big Brother/Help I’m a Celebrity etc. You can spot the filling and the difficult subjects avoided or glossed over a mile off.
In the spectrum of autobiographies, of which there was a huge surfeit this year, Back Story fits firmly in the middle of the pack. In its favour it is clearly not ghosted – Mitchell’s engaging personality shines through – and it is reasonably open and honest. The downside is that his career trajectory, arguably even his life, has been so predictable and routine – for a comedian that is – that you get the feeling you have read this all before, and more entertainingly.
To provide the book with a structure,other than the blindingly obvious chronological approach, which of course is in the end unavoidable, Mitchell takes a walk through north London, using the things he sees along the way to prompt a minor grumble about an aspect of modern life, followed by the appropriate reminiscence. This is a harmless enough conceit, but gets predictable very early on, and soon becomes unintentionly pedestrian (see what I did there?). It is obviously not his fault that his life has had little in the way of trauma or challenge, and he has made the most of the opportunities life has given him, but overall you have to wonder why he wrote this other than to cash in on his moment of celebrity.
If you want to get to know the real David Mitchell – and I am not sure why you would, his work doesn’t require it, and his comedy is funny irrespective of what school he went to – this is obviously a good starting place. I got the impression a few things were passed over quickly or omitted – most notably the name of the lover before his engagement to Victoria Coren. The section of the book on his relationship with Victoria is by far the most engaging, where the barriers come down the most and we see someone with a bit more than a dry wit and a comfortable life.
One quibble – Mitchell has a pop at Stewart Lee for a piece he does on Only Fools and Horses. You might have seen it – the scene where Del Boy falls through the bar was voted funniest moment on British TV in one of those made up polls that no-one ever really votes in. Lee used this vote as the basis for an extended and extremely funny rant. Mitchell objects to the points Lee makes in this rant, missing the point with considerable flair – Lee is being funny; it is a performance piece, not a political treatise. The irony is that rants about things that you really shouldn’t get upset about eg Tesco’s signs or grocers’ apostrophes are Mitchell’s trademark.