Our favourite British rebels

Benjie Goodhart / 19 July 2016

New comedy The Rebel, starring Simon Callow, follows the adventures of anti-establishment 60-something Henry Palmer. Here's our pick of great British rebels.

Dennis Skinner, 84, politician

The Labour MP’s firebrand socialist views and unapologetic, forthright manner have earned him the nickname The Beast of Bolsover (his constituency for 46 years). A former coal miner, he has clocked up numerous suspensions from Parliament, usually for hurling magnificently acerbic insults at anyone who dare to cross him. When once asked to withdraw the comment ‘half of the Tory members opposite are crooks’, he replied memorably ‘OK. Half the Tory members aren’t crooks.’

Keith Richards, 72, musician

When Johnny Depp adopted a languid drawl and half-cut demeanour to play Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Rolling Stones fans everywhere instantly knew that the inspiration came from their favourite party-loving guitar legend. Richards has co-written some of pop’s most anthemic hits, but he also spent years out of his tree – though he was apparently sober when he nearly died falling out of a tree in 2006.

He still tours and performs with the vigour of someone 50 years younger, combining a proper rock ’n’ roll approach to life with being a true English gent. As Billboard magazine recently put it, ‘he has become a role model for maintaining one’s panache in old age.’

Germaine Greer, 77, writer and academic

Australian-born Greer came to the UK in the mid-Sixties to complete a doctorate in English literature, and has been ruffling feathers ever since. The 1970 publication of her feminist tome The Female Eunuch made her an overnight sensation, and she has gone on to campaign not just on issues of gender, but on aboriginal rights and the environment.

She’s described herself as anarchist – though she has also expressed her support for the Liberal Democrats – and her recent spats with the LGBT community over transgender issues reveal she is still not afraid to indulge in a good scrap. Like all true rebels, she also has the ability to surprise – such as appearing on Celebrity Big Brother (which she walked out of, likening it to a ‘fascist prison’), or saying that then-Aussie PM Julia Gillard wore bad jackets and had ‘a big a**e’.

Billy Connolly, 73, comedian and actor

Despite being diagnosed almost simultaneously with prostate cancer and Parkinson’s in 2013, the Scottish comic legend appears to be as busy as ever, with stand-up tours, travelogue TV shows, and, in 2014, a fascinating and personal two-part rumination on death for ITV.

The loud, larger-than-life former welder was named number one in Channel 4’s list of the 100 greatest stand-ups, and his iconoclastic, unique and wide-ranging body of work reveals a man who very definitely dances to his own tune. ‘Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on,’ he once said. The glorious thing about Connolly is that you know full well that he would.

Dame Vivienne Westwood, 75, fashion designer

Anyone who thinks couture is a youngster’s game needs look no further than Westwood, whose work continues to keep her prominently in the public eye. Responsible for bringing punk style into the mainstream, Westwood, who dressed the Sex Pistols, took her inspiration from the likes of bikers and fetishists and was given an outstanding achievement award at the 2007 British Fashion Awards. She’s also fiercely political, if a little chameleonic (she’s lent her support to Labour, the Conservatives and, most recently, the Green party), and has campaigned for Liberty and CND. In 2014, she cut off all her locks to highlight the dangers of severe haircuts. Sorry, that should say climate change.

Prince Philip, 95, royal consort

He may be a prince, duke, Lord High Admiral of the Navy, field marshal and patron of hundreds of organisations, but the Queen’s husband possesses a maverick streak that the British people have come to love. Famous for his jokes and tendency to plant his foot so far into his mouth he’s almost digesting it, he continues to play an active role in public life in spite of being less than five years away from getting a birthday telegram from his wife. A keen painter and carriage driver, he is worshipped as a God by tribesmen in Vanuatu. Of course.

Dame Helen Mirren, 70, actor

One of the world’s most celebrated film stars, Mirren has more gongs than Big Ben, having won pretty much every award an actor can win, including an Oscar. But she remains as comfortable in a low-budget independent film or an off-Broadway play as a Hollywood blockbuster, and continues to confound with her choice of roles. Her next venture? High-speed driving thriller Fast 8. A bit old for an action-movie career? This is Helen Mirren we’re talking about… Intriguingly, despite her left-leanings, she’s unafraid to go against orthodoxy, once condemning an artistic boycott of Israel, which she described as ‘an extraordinary country’.

John Cooper Clarke, 67, punk poet

‘The bard of Salford’ has packed plenty of excitement into his nigh-on seven decades, and shows little sign of slowing down. ‘Impotent rage is my default setting,’ he remarked recently. ‘Specifically when it comes to politics… I am writing more poetry than ever before, because the world is infuriating.’ The former lab technician brought the anarchic energy of punk kicking and spitting into the staid world of poetry, while himself living a lifestyle of unabashed excess. He now appears on radio and TV more often than the news and has inspired artists including the Arctic Monkeys and Steve Coogan. He also once appeared with the Honey Monster in some Sugar Puffs adverts. Rock ’n’ roll.

The Rebel starts on Gold on July 20.

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