Jacko's media monkey business
Bubbles provides a new angle on the troubled prince of pop
The excellent Michael Jackson and Bubbles: The Untold Story did two rare things: it lived up to its title by extracting a new angle from an old story, and it did so with a refreshing lack of condescension or mockery.
Jackson and Bubbles were the strangest couple in showbusiness; the man who never had a childhood and his "best friend", the chimp who grew up as a human.
According to Jackson's sister La Toya, he always loved having pets, beginning with a white mouse he used to keep in his pocket to frighten her when they were children. Years before the extravagance of Neverland, with its elephants and llamas, Jackson kept 14 white rats in his bedroom.
For a damaged kid, animals are preferable to humans. They don't judge you, criticise you or beat you when you screw up. For Jackson, Bubbles -- the cute baby chimp he bought from a research lab and decked out in child's clothes from the world's most expensive designer stores -- was the ultimate pet/buddy/confidante.
"Bubbles became a human," said La Toya Jackson. "He became one of us." The chimp had his own nanny and cook, his own wardrobe of outfits and ate at the family table. With a knife and fork, naturally.
He also slept in Jackson's bed. Unlike the sordid stories and accusations that would later emerge from the vicinity of the Jackson bedroom, this, said ape expert Carol Jahme, was entirely natural. In the wild, baby chimps sleep in the mother's nest. "Michael was intuitively doing what a chimp's mother would do."
Jahme can also understand the attractions of a pet chimp: "It's like being with a human who can't talk to you." Funnily enough, a talking Bubbles is precisely what Jackson craved.
"Michael always wanted to know, 'How can I make him talk?'," said La Toya, to the extent of asking scientists if they could operate on Bubbles' vocal cords. So far, so Wacko Jacko. But the film suggested there might have been something more cynical at the heart of Jackson's relationship with Bubbles. J Randy Taraborrelli, a close friend and biographer of Jackson, said: "What I observed was that Michael used Bubbles as a way to direct attention away from himself."
Mark Lester, star of the musical Oliver! and godfather to one of Jackson's children, said Jackson told him he deliberately created an aura, a mystique around himself to wrongfoot the media. "It was the smokescreen effect." Lester believes Bubbles was just part of the smokescreen.
Tellingly, when Bubbles grew too large, too strong and too dangerous (as chimps will) to keep in the house, he was swiftly packed off to live with his trainer, Bill Dunn, after which Jackson rarely saw him.
Bubbles is 26 now, weighs 200lbs and lives contentedly in a Florida sanctuary for showbusiness primates run by ape expert Patti Ragan, who refuses to allow the media near him -- although she did permit La Toya, who hadn't seen Bubbles in 20 years, to have a brief, tearful reunion (the one cheesy, off-key note in the film).
Ironically, says Ragan, for a chimp that grew up being snapped by paparazzi, Bubbles doesn't like having his picture taken anymore. It's the ultimate showbiz survival story.
I read somewhere recently that TV3's average spend on a one-hour documentary is €4,000, which wouldn't be enough to keep RTE's stars in make-up for a week. But Teenage Lives proves a little can go a long way. It's a brilliantly simple, but hugely effective, idea: sit groups of teens from different backgrounds down and let them talk, talk, talk about their lives and feelings (last night it was sex and sexuality).
It's forthright, funny and, dare one use such a dirty word, educational -- mostly for us parents.
Michael Jackson and Bubbles: The Untold Story HHHHI
Teenage Lives HHHII