Has Britain finally caught up with America? Last week, my wife and I waved goodbye to dreary old West London and relocated to a posh suburb of Los Angeles called Brentwood. I've rented a house out here for three months in order to research a book I'm writing about Hollywood. We were expecting to be blown away by the sheer luxury of the Southern Californian lifestyle, but, disappointingly, it's not all that different from living in Shepherd's Bush.
Thirty-five years ago, the house we've rented would have seemed pretty impressive. There's a two-car garage, a walk-in-fridge and each bedroom comes equipped with its own colour television. But these amenities are hardly rarities in contemporary Britain.
The fresh produce in the local supermarket certainly looks pretty impressive, particularly the fruit and vegetables, but it doesn't taste any better than the stuff available back home. Indeed, quite a large percentage of it tastes worse, thanks to all the preservatives it's been injected with. You can leave a pint of American milk in your walk-in fridge for over a fortnight and it won't go off.
Even the celebs are unimpressive. On our first shopping trip, my wife and I spotted Dustin Hoffman wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. The cliché about movie stars being short with big heads was true in his case. He could barely reach the handle of his supermarket trolley. Admittedly, the only celebrity I've ever spotted in Shepherd's Bush was George Melly, but in his zoot suit and kipper tie he looked quite exotic by comparison.
Before I came here I was worried that, having tasted paradise, I would never want to return to Britain. But the truth is I already miss life back home.
The most talked-about programme on American television at the moment is The Apprentice, a reality show in with Donald Trump puts a series of aspiring entrepreneurs through their paces. The lucky winner gets an employment contract with the aging billionaire.
Unfortunately for the Donald, the popularity of the Apprentice has focused attention on his own somewhat chequered business career. According to the New York Times, his only publicly traded enterprise, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, is on the verge of going under. It hasn't made an annual profit since it went public in 1995 and is drowning in $2 billion of debt. The stock price has fallen from $34 in 1996 to $2.32.
The formula is due to be repeated on British television later this year, with Richard Branson standing in for the faltering tycoon. But, surely, he's far too successful for the role. A more suitable substitute would be Sir Clive Sinclair. Like the Donald, he could teach the wannabe businessmen that, provided you have a bottomless well of self-belief, you'll be able to dupe the public into thinking you're successful in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
Americans are notorious for wanting to be number one in every category, so the news that Bill Gates has been overtaken by the head of IKEA as the world's richest man has come as a bit of a blow. Earlier this week I had lunch at the Ivy, one of Hollywood's most notorious power restaurants, and overheard a studio executive holding forth about this development at the next-door table.
"Now that he's got $53 billion perhaps he'll be able to afford some decent furniture," he harrumphed.
The number one topic in Hollywood this week is the disastrous box office showing of The Alamo, the latest offering from Disney. With an estimated budget of $140 million, it only managed to take $9.1 million in its opening weekend, limping home in fourth place behind The Passion of Christ, Hellboy and Johnson Family Vacation.
Wall Street immediately responded by lopping over $1 billion off Disney's market value and one analyst warned that a host of similar films due to be released this Summer would fare equally badly.
"Alamo is another historic epic genre film that has not ignited viewer enthusiasm," said Anthony Noto, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. "This trend signals a potential risk of wear-out for epic movies and consequently we look for more cautious budgeting in filsm that carry the epic story line."
This is bad news for Disney which has invested a similar amount in King Arthur, its big "tent-pole" Summer movie. At least that film has a secret weapon. No, I'm not talking about Excalibur. I'm referring to Kiera Knightley, the gorgeous British starlet. To my mind, it was her presence in Pirates of the Caribbean that was responsible for that film's mighty showing at the box office last year.
Flying With a Baby
Whenever I've flown long-distance in the past, I've tried every trick in the book to get upgraded. However, now that I've got an eight-and-a-half-month-old daughter I've discovered it's no longer necessary.
On the British Airways flight out here, my wife and I were ushered to the front of the queue, thanks to the screaming bundle of joy accompanying us, then shown to a bulkhead seat. We were initially sharing the row of four with another couple, but as soon as they spotted Sasha--that's the baby, not my wife--they volunteered to move.
"I think it would make things easier for you if you had all four seats to yourself," said the man, smiling politely, before propelling his wife to the back of the plane.
By the time we landed in Los Angeles, eleven hours later, my full-throated daughter had cleared a whole section of the aircraft. I removed my earplugs, picked up my crying baby, and once again made my way to the front of the queue, sending weary passengers diving for cover in every direction.