Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Stardust Keeps Falling On My Head

The trouble with putting yourself about in other people's comment boxes is that you sometimes use material that you'd be glad of on days when you have Blogger's Block. Yesterday I put something on Anchored Nomad - one of my favourite blogs in the known universe - which I'd like to repeat here and enlarge upon while it's fresh in my mind. The topic was tenuous links to celebrities.

I once owned an umbrella which had been used in a play by Vincent Price when he was appearing in the West End. It was surplus to requirements when the play ended and a friend who worked in that theatre gave it to me. It was a perfectly ordinary black umbrella with a wooden handle, slightly bent I think, which is probably why my friend thought of me as a suitable recipient.
At work one day I happened to mention my umbrella's previous illustrious owner, whereupon the entire office rose from their desks and went to the cloakroom where they stood silently staring at my umbrella. I'm not sure what they expected it to do; possibly to turn into a vampire bat and bite the General Manager on the neck. But at that moment I understood the extraordinary power of celebrity.

I think Vincent Price's wife, the wonderful Coral Browne, was in that same play. One day the friend who gave me the umbrella mentioned to her that he and his boyfriend were going to some kind of gay and lesbian bring and buy sale on a Saturday morning. "How wonderful, darling!" she said and insisted on accompanying them. I know it doesn't sound very exciting but this was the early seventies and Heaven nightclub wasn't even a gleam in Richard Branson's eye.
Apart from her acting ability, Coral Browne was known for her outrageous wit.
Ned Sherrin was once asked to meet a young friend of his parents who was visiting London from South Africa and took him to a restaurant. Coral Browne was at a nearby table. As she left she greeted Ned and then, looking at the very good-looking young man, said "I see you've got the trip wires out again at Waterloo."
Another well-known tale is about the first night of Peter Brook's Oedipus. At the end of the play a giant golden phallus was unveiled. Coral Browne turned to her companion in the stalls and said loudly: "Nobody we know, darling."

Despite her colourful language, which may have owed something to her Australian origins, she was a devout Catholic. The two things come together in my favourite story. She was standing outside Brompton Oratory after Sunday Communion when an actor came up to her with gossip about who was sleeping with someone else's wife. She stopped him in his tracks with: "I don't want to hear this filth. Not with me standing here in a state of fucking grace."


Patrick Allen was a famous television actor in the late sixties. His was also the last voice that millions of people would have heard in the event of a nuclear attack because he did the voice-over for a film to be broadcast after the three minute warning.
He was once in a pub where I was drinking and neither my friend nor I could think of his name. "I'll go and ask him", said my friend.
"No, you can't do that", I said, "we'll think of his name in a minute."
But, under the pretext of going to the loo, my friend interrupted Patrick Allen's conversation with a fellow actor and said "Excuse me..."
Patrick Allen smiled. His star was already on the wane and he was obviously pleased that his companion would see how he still couldn't go for a drink without fans asking for his autograph.
"What's your name?" my friend said.
The smile froze on Patrick Allen's lips and he spat out his name through clenched teeth.
"Yeah, that's it", said my friend, "we vaguely recognised you but we couldn't think why and couldn't think of your name. Cheers."
I watched this exchange through my fingers, squirming with embarrasment.
"Nice bloke", said my friend when he returned, "he was really pleased we recognised him."
It was my friend's social skills and perceptiveness that had first attracted me to him.

I don't normally approach actors in public places. This is partly because if you've worked in any branch of show business it's a convention that you never behave in a starstruck manner or start asking people for autographs.
However I did once speak to James Bolam in a pub after I'd had rather too many drinks. At that time he was chiefly known for The Likely Lads but I'd recently seen him give a great performance in Simon Gray's play Butley. I decided that telling him my high opinion of his performance would make all those years at drama school and playing bit parts worthwhile.
It helped that I was on nodding terms with the actress he was talking to, so I clumsily barged in and saw him cringe at the expected reference to The Likely Lads. He certainly brightened when he found I wanted to talk about Butley and said the usual thing about it being easy to give a good performance when you've got a good script.
But I still break out in a sweat when I recall that conversation or even see James Bolam on television because it's dreadfullly arrogant to think that your opinion is of any consequence to someone who is already an established and successful actor.
Are there any other occupations on which strangers heap fulsome and unsolicited praise?
Do we accost people in pubs and say:
"I just wanted to tell you how much I admire the way you drive the No 49 bus. Your lane discipline is impeccable. And the way you left your cab to help Mrs Hawkins with her shopping trolley last Monday was a tour de force."

"Thank you. When I started on the 16B I never dreamed that one day I'd be on the 49. But when you've got a route like that it makes it seem easy. And of course the passengers on the 49 have been wonderful. Standing room only, even on Wednesday afternoons. But it was the great Reg Higgins who taught me everything I know in this business. He was a legend on the 26A. Reg's technique with a pre-selection gearbox was like poetry. And his 'Move along inside' was powerful yet oddly understated with a subtle erotic sub-text."

"Before I go, could you just sign my off-peak travelcard?"

Before I stop this name-dropping fest, time for just one more. I once arrived early at a theatrical party and took my glass of wine over to the only other person in the room who turned out to be Harry H. Corbett.
We exchanged a few pleasantries but I'd grown up with Steptoe and Son and was slightly in awe of this man who had loomed so large in my childhood television viewing. (Steptoe and Son was so huge that Harold Wilson tried to have it re-scheduled on polling day because he thought it would stop Labour voters going to the polling stations).
We stood and gazed out the window of the theatre bar. Just outside the window was a huge illuminated neon sign that said: HARRY H CORBETT. It was evidently on a timeswitch because as the clock struck midnight the sign went dark.
Harry nudged me and said "Look! They've switched my bloody name off!" He stood and stared morosely into his glass of wine and then said in a tone that was very reminiscent of the downcast Harold Steptoe: "The fame doesn't last long, does it?"
He was more right than he knew. It wasn't very long after that he died - famous, typecast, but never having had time to fulfil his early promise as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Note: the umbrella pictured is not the umbrella referred to in the text.
No umbrellas were harmed in the making of this blog post.


At 11:02 AM, Blogger robin said...

Loved the bus idea. You're right about restraint. I was recently at a lecture in an art gallery when Kevin Whateley (sp?) showed up. I would have liked to tell him how well he read one of our children's story tapes but the unwritten law held me back as if an iron collar.

I love tenuous celebrity namedrops but they're very hard to pull off seeing as you are trying to take credit and undermine it at the same time. I once met a friend of my brother's wife's mother and she absolutely hurled names around - but society well-bred names, not politicians or sportspeople or actors or rockstars. It was truly bizarre and had precisely the opposite effect she intended. I have blogged about this theme at some length. Suffice to say I flung Kylie over at NB today.

I have a very long circular story about Kylie but it's about a month's worth of posts so I'll wait for leaner times to tell it.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

Ah, but robin, you share with the BBC tea lady the fact of working where lots of celebrities are! Wonder if they still have a BBC tea lady, or is she replaced by a machine?

Alan writes interestingly also today about "micro-celebrity" and his Metro young lady.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Alan said...

Having been an actor I've met the odd few (mostly very minor) faces but like you I generally try to obey the unwritten rule. But I thought this one might be entertaining.

I found myself in London's Haymarket, waiting at a pedestrian crossing next to the wonderful old British actor Harold Innocent. But I wasn't totally sure it was him. So I turned and said "Excuse me, I don't want to bother you, but it is Harold Innocent, isn't it?" And he replied, "Dear boy, you can bother me any time, most people just say 'aren't you old whatsisname?'"

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Robin, I have a lot more such stories from working in the theatre but I don't want to sound like a London cabbie: 'I had that ------- in the back of the cab once.'

Alan, I adored Harold Innocent and saw him in many West End plays. For me, his kind of brilliant character actor often eclipsed the star of the show.
There's a great story about Gielgud meeting Margaret Thatcher in the Haymarket but I'll save it for upstairs. But if I start on Gielgud stories......

At 6:07 PM, Anonymous asta said...

My brushes with celebrity began young. I had a private chat with Jackie O when I was three.
However,I usually refrain from talking about who I've met, talked with, shared an elevator with...since it's almost always either work-related or dumb luck, and in my experience name-dropping invariably has the opposite effect of the one desired.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Wow. Doubt if any of us can top Jackie O.
I think some of these anecdotes can be revealing about celebrities. And in the age of the internet those who are rude to fans will probably find their behaviour reaches millions of people.

At 5:55 PM, Anonymous asta said...

I think you're right. I enjoy hearing about encounters with the famous for just that reason.
I refrain from telling them myself because once started, I don't know when to shut up.


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