Even a pop star obsessed by UFOs can turn out to be charming and witty
The big question of the week was not "Did Ken always look this much like Ethel Merman?" but "Is Robbie Williams properly mental?". Robbie Williams and Jon Ronson Journey to the Other Side (6 May, 6.30pm, Radio 4) arrived sequinned and tinselled with a fanfare of trailers and even a more or less complete transcript in the Guardian, like things to do with Richard Nixon.
After reading Ronson's excellent 2001 book Them: Adventures With Extremists, Williams emailed Ronson asking him to find a haunted house where the two of them might spend a night. The plan fell through only when Williams remembered that he had 59 international stadium gigs pencilled on his roster, but he later invited Ronson to come with him to the International UFO Congress in Laughlin, Nevada, instead.
Obviously simultaneously concerned for the balance of Williams's mind and holding a tissue up to his mouth to catch the saliva, Ronson took the first flight out to Williams's mansion in LA. Initially things looked promising: Williams had grown an enormous beard. On the downside was the presence of Williams's sane and ungroupie-like girlfriend, Ida. This put paid to any proposed wallow with a Williams long-locked in Château Marmont scarfing Twinkies.
"Why UFOs? Why now?" asked Ronson in his girlish, yearning voice. Williams answered that he'd grown tired of sitting in at night reading the UK tabloids online, and so had turned to studying alien visitations, the proponents of which seemed to him rather more reasonable.
At the convention in Nevada there was an air of weariness. The night before, there had been a fight between two reptilian beings outside the lobby, but people were scarcely doing their nut over it. Instead of taking a photograph, someone had actually extracted a scale from one of the creatures and it was being held now in a piece of tissue in a hotel room by a scientist who also specialises in removing implants from the brains of grateful abductees. He sounded a little depressed, considering.
The people downstairs in the queue to talk to speakers also came over somewhat muted. It was clear that not nearly enough drugs were being taken around here. I mean, how wired would you have to get to listen to a woman giving a lecture on the subject of her barely human son under the title "Indigo Boy: Raising a Multi-Dimensional Star-Child in a Changing Universe"? "I've been incarnated on this planet," said the woman. "I've been incarnated on many planets." "She reminds me of my mum," said Robbie.
Williams seems like a very nice, chatty person, and quite Lenny Bruce-ishly laconic. Being oracular is his natural inclination. He kept up a little running commentary on anything from how much the reptile scale looked like a sliver of chocolate to how warped a memory he has. Ronson piped up now and again to be familiarly pragmatic and tender, but it was very much Robbie's show. He has a talent for making the universe feel profoundly personal.
"You look like Robbie Williams," said the mother of the star child during a coffee break. "I am Robbie Williams," he answered back, a little surprised at the fact, and then flew home on his aeroplane to stargaze with Ida, smiling left and right.