|Posted by David Benson on November 2, 2009 at 7:58 PM||comments (13)|
Further to my email tussle earlier this year with Deborah Orr, then of The Independent, on the subject of the G20 police attacks (which somehow ended up, to my mingled dismay and delight in Private Eye's Street of Shame) I find myself in a less-candid but equally revealing exchange with a journalist for whom I have a lot of time and was on one pleasant occasion interviewed by, Johann Hari, also of The Independent.
What brought it on was a sentence in this recent article about our occupation of Afghanistan:
“The 9/11 atrocities were planned in Hamburg and Florida by 19 Saudis who only needed to know how to use box-cutters and to crash a plane.”
It is the ‘box-cutter’ reference that leapt out at me. Did he not realise that the existence of these knives (similar to our Stanley knives) has been thoroughly debunked by no less an authority than Slate Magazine, the online political and cultural commentary site that is home to, amongst others, Hari’s one-time hero Christopher ‘I luxuriate in the warm bath of his charisma’ Hitchens; also by political writer Edward J. Epstein, hardly a swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist. Prof. David Ray Griffin has provided a thorough debunking of the box cutter claims and outlines the creepily bizarre circumstances of them being made.
Yet, ‘nineteen Saudi hi-jackers armed with box cutters’ remains one of the defining ideas in the 9/11 mythology, a cliché that instantly resonates with the perception most people carry in their heads about the events of that day. Just that single sentence of Hari’s contains myth upon myth: the alleged hi-jackers (many of whom turned up alive and well and rather puzzled after the event) were not only Saudi but from UAE, Lebanon and Egypt; and the entire back-story about how the attacks were planned in Hamburg and Florida was pieced together using confessions extracted under torture; and is therefore, totally unreliable and indeed unethical to cite as evidence.
Hari posted a link to his Afghan article on his Facebook page so I decided to take the opportunity politely to bring this error to his attention. I left a comment under his article to that effect, with links to the Slate and Epstein articles, very curious as to what his response would be.
Anyone who saw my 2005 Edinburgh show Conspiracy Cabaret (about which Hari interviewed me that August for a piece on how Iraq and 9/11 were being covered by the Fringe, though my comments did not make it to his final article) will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about 9/11. I know very well that anyone who has questions about the Official Version risks being dismissed with perjorative cliches: ‘frothing-at-the-mouth-tin-foil-hat-wearing-cyber-loons’ type of thing. The BBC has laid on a series of conspiracy-busting documentaries over the years, mostly attacking the wilder fringes of 9/11 ‘conspiranoia’ but without ever subjecting the Official Version to the same scrutiny. If it were to do so, it could only reveal a tissue of evasions, obstructions and bare-faced lies, culminating in the duplicitous document known as the 9/11 Commission Report, which even its attributed authors have now all but repudiated. It has been calmly, skilfully and definitively taken apart by Professor Griffin in a series of books and articles.
Yet it remains the number one journalistic taboo, despite the grotesque saga of the WMD deception by the same actors, to raise even the slightest doubt about what the Bush administration has told us on the subject of 9/11. So perhaps it is not surprising that Johann Hari completely ignored my question to him on Facebook, despite answering many other points raised by his Facebook readers in the same thread.
Next day, thinking he may have missed my comment, I posted a message directly to his ‘wall’ politely making the same point and again supplying links to the supporting articles. No reply. I checked again a day or two later and to my dismay, my question had been deleted from his profile. I mean, really!
So I sent him a private message asking why he had deleted my post. His reply was brief: “Don't know, I don't really have time to endlessly discuss these things, sorry!”
I am afraid I suspected that this was his way of politely saying, “Sod off, you loony.”
I decided to press him on the matter. Whilst I do not think it would be right to print his verbatim replies, as they were made privately (Ms. Orr’s exchange with me I published as it was made via a public email address and therefore, I reasoned, fair game), all I got back was to the effect of, “Sorry to be terse but I am far too busy to look into it and I don’t remember your post anyway”.
I pushed it by sending another private message reminding him of the subject of my question, to which he replied with a final-sounding, “Sorry, don’t remember that,” with a ‘x’ at the end, which was sweet but hardly served to mollify me. I nearly wrote back to say, “You could have gone back and checked it if you hadn’t deleted it!” but decided I had pressed far enough.
I am left writhing with frustration at this exchange, which never once actually addressed the substance of the information I was making available to him. It may well be that he really is too busy to address this issue; I read his articles regularly and am always impressed by the range of topics he covers and how well-researched and argued they are, even when I don’t agree with him. I told him to his face that I respected his volte-face on the Iraq occupation, which he initially enthusiastically supported, only later honourably to recant. In doing so he showed more courage and intelligence than the likes of Hitchens, Burchill and Cohen, who continue to brazen it out in the face of the calamity that is The War on Terror.
I cannot help but regret that I was not able to engage his attention on this matter. What could be more important to all of us alive on earth now? The 9/11 Event palpably changed everything for us, shredded international law and human rights, stigmatised Muslims everywhere and triggered the terrible agenda of President Bush’s ‘National Security Strategy’ Document Advocating Pre-emptive War (September 2002), at the cost of countless thousands of innocent lives. [The author of that strategy, incidentally, was Dr. Philip D. Zelikov, the completely ‘independent’ Executive Director - and principal author - of the 9/11 Commission Report.]
True, the box cutter issue may only be a tiny detail in the mythology of 9/11 but is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Official Version: almost every aspect of it crumbles to dust upon cursory inspection. Detailed and cogent narratives, not to mention blockbuster movies, have been coaxed out of facts which turn out to be totally unsupported by evidence. Yet to question these generally accepted truths is to be treated like a heretic or worse, a dangerous lunatic. When the redoubtable Robert Fisk tried it, by asking some searching questions about some aspects of the 9/11 event, even he was subjected to the same pathetic schoolyard taunts in the Independent’s comments section under the article.
But our collective attitude to mythology goes to the very heart of Hari’s work. He is one of the loudest opponents of organised religion, along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, enthusiastically decrying those who “deny inconvenient facts and invent a fantasy world”; and in his excellent article on the lunatic scare-mongering of US Republicans he gives a trenchant theory on why such propagandistic mythologizing is so effective on a highly religious constituency:
“How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" – which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.”
Quite. And anyone who faithfully persists in believing something for which there is no credible evidence, lacks any authority to criticise others for the same folly.
It is up to each of us to decide for ourselves what we think is the 'truth' of 9/11. You may well strongly disagree with my belief that the Official Version is a catalogue of disinformation. But if we are to pride ourselves on being rational creatures, we must be sure that the strength of our belief is proportionate to the weight of our evidence; and reflect that, as Samuel Johnson wrote, “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies…”
|Posted by David Benson on July 26, 2009 at 10:43 AM||comments (1)|
I have just finished the latest draft of my new show about Samuel Johnson, the Edinburgh version of the show. The first three shows have been improvised around a loose structure and each has drawn on different aspects of Johnson’s life and work depending on how the audiences have responded and according to the dictates of my whim. The first two shows, at the Johnson House Museum in Gough Square were aimed at an audience one assumed knew something about Johnson already, although the large party of Mormon high school students from Salt Lake City proved surprisingly receptive despite knowing nothing about him before they entered the room. To be performing in the actual garret room where he wrote the dictionary gave an immediacy to the shows that would be hard to match anywhere else, though the third show at the British Library was lent an air of authority by its setting.
Now the production enters its next phase: to leave the lecture room and enter the theatre.
I have previews over the next two nights: Bath on Monday and then Bristol. I will be attempting to perform the new script and tonight will attempt to commit as much of it, or at least the long quotes from Johnson’s writing, to memory. The one I am learning at the moment is typically useful and instructive, given my chronic tendency to procrastination:
“The certainty that life cannot be long, and the probability that it will be much shorter than nature allows, ought to awaken every man to the active prosecution of whatever he is desirous to perform.
It is true that no diligence can ascertain success; death may intercept the swiftest career; but he who is cut off in the execution of an honest undertaking has at least the honour of falling in his rank, and has fought the battle, though he missed the victory.”
[Rambler 134. June 29th 1751]
|Posted by David Benson on April 11, 2009 at 9:05 AM||comments (7)|
One of the most distressing aspects of the police brutality at the G20 protests on April 1st was the way the mass media portrayed the event.
In case you did not see it, here is footage which shows very clearly how peaceful protesters, as well as passers-by, office workers and tourists who happened to be caught in the 'kettle' created by police, were brutally attacked by riot police. I have seldom felt so angry and shocked as I did watching these pictures.
I am one of a dwindling band of Independent readers, who treasure the paper's committment to justice and human rights, exemplified by their principled stand against the Iraq invasion. So I was astounded at the tone of their coverage of this systematic abuse of the public. It seemed as if they had joined every other major media outlet in seeking to excuse the police action by blaming the protesters.
Video: Dog bites
Video: Policeman assaults woman
Police Medic (centre) busy dispensing treatment at the G20 protests 1-4-09
The normally admirable Deborah Orr contributed to this calumny with an article that reinforced the idea that it was the malevolence of the protesters that brought justified punishment from the police.
On Sunday, a disgusting article by another leading Independent columnist Joan Smith (who claims to be "known for her human rights activism") focussed again on the tiny trouble-maker element amongst the protesters and insulted the intelligence of every reader by advising those who do not like the way things are going in the world (and let's face it, who does?) to "vote for another party". You wonder whether she has noticed that the political system in this country is completely corrupt, hence the unprecedented lack of engagement with it by the public.
Deborah Orr redeemed herself on Wednesday 8th April with a trenchant comment piece, claiming the Met is "out of control" (though I would despute this analysis: the attacks were in fact highly co-ordinated and premeditated). The email address published at the end of the article prompted me to write to her and express my feelings about the way The Independent covered the attacks. Ms. Orr engaged fully and promptly with my comments and I think it right to publish the exchange here. It gives an insider's view of the workings of a newspaper office and the ethical conflicts that a columnist must work through in order to maintain their integrity and at the same time, keep their job.
Thursday, 9 April, 2009 3:51 PM
Dear Ms Orr
Thank you for today's article on the G20 policing. I read it with something like relief after a week in which The Independent initially swallowed the police version of events and several articles including, I am so sorry to say, those by yourself and Joan Smith, seemed to seek to justify the shocking scenes of co-ordinated (far from 'out of control') attacks upon peaceful protesters.
I was not there but have seen the footage of the attack on the Climate Camp - absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying in what it reveals about the State's attitude to dissent. To see people with their hands raised in the air, chanting, "This is not a riot" being beaten and abused with pitiless force made me feel physically sick.
The police were surely not acting out of personal malice or frustration: they behave like this because they are servants of the State and they have been authorised to crush even peaceful, legal protest by the subjects of this country. That is a deeply frightening development.
This, rather than the trouble caused by what was clearly a tiny minority of the protesters (some of whom we might reasonably suspect of being agent provocateurs) or even the tragic but freakish death of Mr. Tomlinson, was the real story and it has been distressing to see that the mainstream media either missed it or decided to ignore it. Even now, the Independent's focus (with the admirable exception of your article today) is on Mr. Tomlinson's death rather than the generalised aggression shown towards the crowds by these stormtroopers. Viewing the footage of the police tactics it is amazing that there were not more such deaths that day.
I have always regarded you as a real voice of sanity amongst media commentators and I was saddened that some of your authority seemed to have rubbed away last week. I hope that in future columns your loyal readers may read your further thoughts on this issue and others that so pressingly affect us all.
Thursday, 9 April, 2009 4:27 PM
Dear David Benson,
Thanks for your email. I'm sorry you have been disappointed by the Independent's coverage of the protests. I'm afraid I fully share your feelings, and don't agree at all with the way the newspaper's editor has treated the story. I can't speak for Joan Smith, whose piece I could tell I didn't wish to read from the headline alone) but I can assure you that I did what I could.
I attended the protest (which I would have done anyway even if I hadn't got the opportunity to write about it) and spoke to my own editor on the comment pages about doing 1,250 words for Thursday's comment section, which he was happy to carry. The paper's editor called me and asked for 700 words of colour instead, which I feel gave an accurate picture of the early part of the day. I was told to keep it light because the paper had reporters at the protests as well. Also, the event when I attended it , was good-homoured, and I tried to match the tone of the piece to the event as I'd experienced it.
By Friday, when I'd seen coverage of the latter part of the day, and looked at footage posted on the internet, I wrote another piece for Saturday's paper about the raid on the climate camp and the attacks and kettling there, condemning it in strong terms. That piece was placed at the bottom of the page without a picture, which was extremely disappointing. In Monday's paper, a letter in response to it led the letters pages, again condemning the police action at climate camp. Another letter on Tuesday backed up the contents of the first.
On Wednesday, the details of Ian Tomlinson's treatment by the police had become apparent, and finally I got a decent amount of space. Staff on a paper, unless they are important and powerful enough to throw their weight about (which I'm not), can only do what is requested of them. I'd strongly advise you to write to the editor, Roger Alton, or the letters page in complaint about the Independent's coverage as well.
Thanks again for your email,
Thursday, 9 April, 2009 5:02 PM
Dear Ms. Orr
Sincere thanks for your candid and illuminating reply. I very much appreciate your honesty and the insights into the workings of editorial policy. It only serves to compound my horror at the police action with dismay at the attitude towards it by a supposedly liberal and enlightened newspaper.
What is now hanging in the air, for me is the question: why does the editorial board take this attitude; what does it mean? I do not expect you to answer this question to me personally but I hope that in your future writings you are able to address this great ethical conflict, which I imagine must be giving you much cause for anguish.
I will take your advise and write to Mr. Alton and the letters page.
Many thanks again
Thursday, 9 April, 2009 5:09 PM
You mention the editorial board. This group rarely meets and has nothing to do with day-to-day content decisions, which are done on an ad hoc basis by the editor and his staff. I'd imagine that he just decided that the media was hyping up the protest/riot stuff too much, decided to err on the side of caution, and ended up literally and totally ERRING on the side of caution. Cock-up, not conspiracy ...
Friday, 10 April, 2009 1:42 PM
Sorry to come back to you again on this but I have your last comment to me pinging about in my head and I can't get rid of it until I address it with you.
I wasn't alleging a 'conspiracy' as such. My mistake is one of ignorance as to how these editorial decisions are made: I used the term 'editorial board' incorrectly. I was referring to the decisions made by the editor and his team.
The fact remains that, with I am sure no actual verbal collusion between them, the entire mainstream media (with the exception of The Guardian) closed ranks with the police and made exactly the same decision: to demonise the protesters and support the police action until incontrovertibly damning evidence of the abuse of one person made it an impossible line to sustain. If your editor decided that the media was 'hyping up the protest/riot stuff too much', his coverage did not reflect that; quite the opposite.
In the face of the gravity of the crimes committed by these agents of the State against innocent people, this is profoundly worrying and surely cannot be attributed to 'cock-up' alone. It suggests a deeply-entrenched mind-set common to all mainstream media editors - which is why so many of us now look to the internet for a less institutionalised approach to news and comment.
Hope this clarifies my position. I have, by the way, now written to the letters page and to my MP, Mr. Corbyn (who alas, as a maverick, has little influence on the current regime!)
I'm probably guilty of trying to persuade myself, not you. The truth is that the Indie has only just had a new round of redundancies, decimating an aleady tiny staff, and as usual demoralising those who are left. No one has worked out yet how the paper is going to be got out with such a small number of people and in the short term the tendency is to rely on news agencies because reporters are so thin on the ground. The guardian is lucky it can put so many people on a story and of course it did it marvellously. We, on the other hand, are so financially constrained that it's difficult to work out what sort of unique contribution we can make at all ... The protest coverage probably just confirms that the answer is:none.
Ah, well, it was good when it was good ...
Janet Street-Porter added to The Independent's murky track record on this issue with a bizarre and unreasoned article highlighting Ian Tomlinson's personal problems as some kind of mitigating consideration in the police's treatment of him (they had had a "long and titing day," apparently. The Burmese police must use that one next time they attack their own people!). I urge you to read it.
Here is the much shorter email exchange that passed between us.
Sunday, 12 April, 2009 12:48 PM
Hope you don't mind me writing to you but I feel I have to express my surprise and disappointment at the article that appeared under your name today about Ian Tomlinson.
I have been amazed over the past week by The Independent's coverage of what happened on April 1st. After seeing the shocking footage of how peaceful protesters were attacked by the police, having been - along with tourists, journalists and passers-by - 'kettled' for seven hours with no toilet facilities or water, I was distressed that the entire mainstream media began by demonising the victims, closing ranks with the police until incontrovertible evidence of the abuse of one man made that line untenable.
To focus on the tragic but freakish death of one man when the real story is the terrifying attacks on defenseless members of the public by these brutal storm-troopers is bad enough. But to even mention Ian Tomlinson's personal problems as being in any way evidence of culpability for the violence that was done to him is just plain wrong.
I had an email exchange this week with Deborah Orr and found her almost despairing about the editorial line taken by The Independent on this subject. She implied that she had been more or less pressured to write something uncontroversial and complied with misgivings. I accept that you too may be facing the same pressures.
I hope that you will appreciate that I write this with uneasiness that I may anger you but I do feel strongly about the events of last week and feel I must address what I see as a dangerous injustice.
Monday, 13 April, 2009 11:14 AM
Hi there- if you re-read my piece, I am only writing about the
Tomlinson death and I come out at the end of the column condemning the
police for their behaviour. I was not writing about everything that
went on that day...and I completely agree with you that the way the
demonstrators were treated was unacceptable. Also, the Tomlinson death
is now the subject of a inquiry and so there are further difficulties
about what you can say legally.
I am surprised you think I sided with the police, because I did not.
all the best, Janet
|Posted by David Benson on March 20, 2009 at 7:00 AM||comments (24)|
I have long been of the opinion that the best way to neutralise your enemies is to make friends with them. World Peace would break out tomorrow if only everyone followed my advice but, since this is the first time I have given it, they might be forgiven for carrying on with their battles for now.
I know how difficult it is though, because I am as guilty as anyone of harbouring resentments and bearing grudges, usually against foes I have never even met and whose main crime is to be more successful than myself. Since this takes in much of the entertainment profession, the burden can at times be almost unbearable. Delicious though it is to wish ill upon those whose glory one covets, it is a self-negating indulgence: for if success is not good enough for them how can it be good enough for you?
I had an opportunity to relearn this lesson in an extraordinary meeting I had last Sunday.
I was boarding a train at York on my way home to London after a short run with Future Me at the Theatre Royal. Who should I see on the platform but my arch-nemesis, the actor Michael Sheen, the object of a futile grudge I have been carrying since the 16th of March 2006.
It was on the morning of that day that I had a call from the guest-bookers on Richard and Judy's Channel 4 show. Would I come on and talk about Kenneth Williams, as there was a film going out that night on BBC4 about his life called Fantabulosa.
As an actor one is obliged to grab any opportunity for exposure that comes your way and so there was no question of my refusing, though I deep misgivings about it and even nurtured a nagging feeling of resentment. How DARE they ask me to come on and talk about SOMEONE ELSE'S impersonation of the man I had spent the last ten years portraying in my own show Think No Evil of Us. Who was this Johnny-come-lately upstart, destroying all my years of work, taking all the praise that was surely due to me?
What's more, I had read the script in advance and knew what I thought about the play. The part had first been offered to my friend Reece Shearsmith. I have known the League Of Gentlemen boys since 1996 when we met at the Edinburgh Fringe, where we were launching ourselves on the world for the first time. We met on a guest-based show called Mervyn Stutter's Pick of the Fringe. I did the opening speech from Think No Evil of Us and they did their now-classic sketch about the three men in an Indian restaurant getting very upset about a badly-told joke. My first thought as I watched these young lads in dinner suits was, 'Oh dear. Another Monty Python-wannabe student sketch show?'
Within two minutes I had totally revised my opinion and decided they were brilliant and that they would do very well - though I could never have predicted the astonishing rise to fame and glory that they went on very soon afterwards. I didn't resent their triumphs, not only because I knew and loved them but because I didn't feel I could do what they did better. Nevertheless it was impossible not reflect on the very different trajectories our career paths had taken.
So Reece, for whatever reason, decided that Fantabulosa was not for him and very kindly sent me his copy of the script, advising me to tell my agent that the part might now be available. I knew it was unlikely by this point because when whispers had first been heard that the project was being developed, my then agent got in contact with the producers and asked if they would like to see me for the part of Kenneth Williams. He also sent a video of a performance of my show. That was as far as we had got. The next time he asked we got a firm, 'No thanks."
My chagrin was intensified as I started to read the script and came across a scene that seemed to me strikingly similar to one in Think No Evil of Us. In Fantabulosa, Williams leans out of his upstairs window and flirts outrageously with a group of workmen digging up the road below. There follow some lines reminiscent of the ones in my show, which go: "I was just admiring your hole, young man. Ooh, you've got a lovely big 'ole, haven't you dear! Etc." I remember vividly sitting in my flat in Edinburgh in early 1996, writing those lines and laughing as I imagined Kenneth saying them.
I was amazed to read such similar lines in the play but I did not know what to do about it: to complain would look like sour grapes and anyway, I cautioned myself, maybe I was wrong: maybe I had read the words somewhere else and was myself guilty of subconscious plagiarism. So I let it go.
So, there I am on Richard and Judy with, thank goodness, Barry Cryer on the sofa with me. He was utterly delightful and amazed me by telling me that he not only knew who I was but he had seen my show - I had no idea! I was in awe of him, the man who hosted Joker's Wild in the 1970s and who wrote for and knew Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, you name ?em.
Richard and Judy were... very professional. When the lights came on they talked to us; when the lights went out they talked to each other.
They played a clip from Fantabulosa and what do you think it was? Michael Sheen as Kenneth leaning out his window and braying on about the workmen's holes. The lights came up and Richard turned to me. What did I think?
The rest is a blank for me, I'm afraid. I have a vague recollection of forcing my lips into a rictus grimace and giving my blessing to the whole enterprise. What else could I do? To have demurred for a second would have betrayed my discomfort and made me look as bitter and dismayed as in fact I was.
It was hard for me to accept that it was time for me to give up the self-appointed mantle of The World's Greatest Kenneth Williams Impersonator that I treasured so long. It was impossible for to me look with any objectivity at Michael Sheen's performance, soon to be feted with the very epithets that had once been mine: 'uncanny', 'has the voice to perfection', 'Kenneth Williams reborn'. Until now I have only been able to watch the first few minutes, before turning off in anguish.
To make matters worse, this Sheen impostor has built his career into one that any actor would wish for himself, triumphing on stage, on television and recently in a series of top-rated movies: The Queen, Frost/Nixon and his new one about Brian Clough. Nothing he touches has the least hint of failure about it. He triumphs time and again. I decided he had to be killed.
So there I am on the platform at York last Sunday morning, girding my loins for an arduous journey ahead with severe disruptions thanks to engineering work, and there on the platform with a nice-looking young lady (his PR person, I surmised) was Michael Sheen, movie star - totally unrecognised by anyone on the busy platform except myself.
I blanched. Should I ignore him?
Yes. I decided if I approached him he would look me coldly in the eye and say, 'Look mate, you do your show and I?ll do mine. If you'd been good enough, they would have cast you. Now excuse me, I have a new blockbuster movie script I have to read.'
The train pulled in, I hustled forward to board by the nearest available door, turned round to find him right behind me. I had to say something, so I quipped, 'Unusual to find two Kenneth Williams impersonators on the same train!' He laughed, immediately realised who I was and mentioned a mutual friend he had seen recently. The ice broken, we clambered on board where his girlfriend (not PR agent) Lorraine Stewart had bagged a table. Just in case it got nasty, I told them I had to do some reading (which is true: I have a massive biography of Samuel Johnson I have to get through, research for a performance I will be giving at the British Library in June about the great lexicographer - more soon!) but would sit with them for a few minutes and until the train got going.
It soon became apparent that Dr. Johnson would have to wait his turn because I have to tell you, we got on like a house on fire. I found both Lorraine and Michael totally charming, open, friendly and quite unaffected by the extraordinary lives they lead. I was astonished that they were travelling in a second-class carriage with scum like me. I would have hired a helicopter.
We spent the entire three-and-a-half hour journey together, during which we were kicked off one train and onto a bus for a ninety-minute ride to Hatfield (I had to turn round in my seat to continue my monologue and was soon overwhelmed by waves of travel nausea which continued for the rest of the journey) and from there, in scenes reminiscent of the exodus from Kosovo, we headed for a tatty little commuter train which we just managed to board before the doors suddenly closed, bisecting an entire family. I shall never forget the anguished cries of dismay from the ladies left on the platform as we pulled out, nor the tears that filled the over-made-up eyes of their hysterical, perma-tanned, too-tight white-trousered lost daughter, cleaved forever from the bosom of her family by an over-zealous First Capital Connect operative.
Michael watched all this from a standing position wide-eyed with wonder. It was the only time that day that I felt like I was actually in a Michael Sheen movie.
When we finally arrived back at King's Cross Platform 10b, we were friends. It felt like a huge relief, to have given up an enmity which had poisoned only myself. I shouldn't have had to meet the man and find him so good-hearted to have got to this stage, but now I have I wish only good things for him.
In the meantime, what do I have to complain about? I am busy at the moment, thoroughly enjoying my work, making enough money to pay the rent and get by without threat of imminent starvation, which must be cause for wonder rather than dissatisfaction. I am on my own path, doing it my own way and grateful to be doing so.
Writing this account, I was reminded of some words of Samuel Johnson's that I came across in my reading, which I imagine have brought solace to generations of self-pitying, neglected artistes. In this case Johnson is referring to writers but it is the same for anyone who tries to make a living by pleasing the public:
'... though it should happen that an author is capable of excelling, yet his merit may pass without notice, huddled in the variety of things, and thrown into the general miscellany of life. He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read anything, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion early, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds his way to reputation, through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.'
Rambler No. 2, 24th March 1750
Photo: Lorraine Stewart
POSTSCRIPT: A few days later Michael firmly laid the ghost of the Richard and Judy interview to rest by mentioning our meeting during his interview on Tonight With Jonathan Ross (20-3-09). Within moments of his comment, my phone was alive with text messages and missed calls from astonished friends!
I had a Jonathan Ross moment of my own, when I was interviewed on his BBC Radio 2 show 8-5-04) to promote the cd The Private World of Kenneth Williams.
|Posted by David Benson on February 2, 2009 at 6:51 AM||comments (6)|
QUENTIN CRISP ARTICLE FOR GAY SCOTLAND
BY DAVID BENSON, 1996
If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself on the island of Manhattan and, having climbed the World Trade Center, and descended the subway, you are still hungry for an unforgettable experience, take the New York phonebook, turn to 'C' for Crisp, Quentin, and give him a ring. If he is in (and not out engaging in his full-time occupation, the 'nodding and smiling racket', which means accepting all invitations to gallery openings, first nights, and parties in 'dim cellars'), he will answer, in his familiar dowager drawl: 'Oh ye-ee-es?' You ask, quite unnecessarily, 'Is that Mr. Crisp?' (who else could it be?), and then inquire as to whether he would like to go for lunch one day. It does not matter that he has no idea who you are, for he has said many times, 'I like my friends, but I adore strangers.' So he says, 'That would be very nice,' sounding genuinely glad to be asked.
You arrange to meet him at The Cooper Square Restaurant on Second Avenue, a few minutes walk from his boarding house, and where he keeps all his assignations, be it with a television film crew, or just you. It is one of those wonderful establishments with which New York is crammed, where for the price of a Marks And Spencer sandwich you can have a juicy B.S.E.-free burger, char-grilled, with a thick slice of beef tomato, salad, coleslaw, and a vast portion of crisp, hot fries. 'I shall be sitting in the window,' Mr. Crisp will tell you, 'like a Dutch prostitute.'
And he will be. You approach the restaurant and see him already sitting there, unmistakeable with his blue hair folded up under his black felt hat, a man celebrated the world over for his courage, his tenacious individuality, his humanity and, of course his penetrating wit; waiting for you. Don't be frightened: just introduce yourself, get yourself sat down and enjoy an hour, or two, or even three of the most sublime conversation you will ever have. If you can draw the subject around to movies, all the better: Mr Crisp loves the movies, especially old ones, and to hear him quote the lines of Garbo is the nearest you will get to the real thing.
I have met him for lunch in that diner on three occasions, the last as recently as April, and he did not remember me from one meeting to the next. You always hope he will, and you try to jog his memory, but in vain. It is only when you read his new book Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (Harper Collins £16.99), that you begin to understand. The book is filled with 'unknown' ladies and gentlemen, whose calls upon his time and attention he always endeavours to fulfill. He does not maintain a hierarchy of friends; when it comes to his acquaintances, he is a true egalitarian. I am proud to be one of Quentin Crisp's countless Unknown Gentlemen.
My first ever sight of Quentin Crisp was when I was thirteen, in 1975. An article I was reading about the forthcoming television film The Naked Civil Servant, based on his autobiography, was illustrated by a photograph of Crisp, standing back to back with John Hurt in full costume.
The spectacle appalled me. To a boy struggling with a sexuality that seemed to be going in the wrong direction, and who feared that to give in to my feelings would lead, inevitably, to the ignominy of effeminacy, this was not what I wanted to see. Now I realise that what I was feeling was something common to almost all men, that terror of exposing one's feminine side. To see Mr. Crisp standing there in all his glory, flaunting it! I remember I thought it utterly loathsome.
This was precisely why watching the film itself was such a profound and liberating experience. You immediately warmed to the character, as portrayed by John Hurt. You applauded him as he threw off the bounds of convention, and, having decided who he truly was, paraded through the streets of London 'blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick.' But when he was spat on, and slapped, and kicked to the ground by people to whom his appearance was an affront, you recognized their hostility as your own. You knew that you would never feel the same again.
And it wasn't just me; the effect of the film on the world, or at least on Britain, was that it felt slightly ashamed, and realised that it had made a mistake. Meekly, it tried to clasp Quentin to its bosom and make him feel loved, but by then it was too late; the damage had been done. He left for America as soon as he got the chance, never looked back and never regretted it.
He has made only two brief trips to Britain since he left for good in 1980, and had no intention of making another. But when I saw him in April, he was disgruntled. The publishers of his new book wanted him to come here to promote it; and an enterprising man named Mr. Bell had named a whiskey after him. So, reluctantly, he gave in.
Which is how I came to be waiting in the lobby of a comfortable Edinburgh hotel one Friday in June, for Mr. Crisp to come down from his room in order to be interviewed. I brought with me my good friend Kate Lumsden to ask some questions for me. It seemed appropriate, as Mr. Crisp has said that he believes that all theatre-goers are, 'middle-class, middle-aged women with broken hearts, and it is to them that I address my comments.'
The lobby was hectic and crowded with the arrival of a wedding party and a group of Japanese tourists. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, there before us stood Mr. Crisp. He looked frail and tired, not surprising after a transatlantic flight that brought him in at seven that morning. He had a schedule ahead of him in which his every waking hour was crammed with activity. He stood there like a lost child, waiting to be claimed. It is his very passivity, his desire to please and never say 'No' to anyone that propel Mr. Crisp forward, relentlessly, like a paper boat down an endless stream.
Later that day, we accompanied him to the launch of Mr Bell's whiskey, at which he said little. He sat quietly by the fireplace of the Georgian drawing room, speaking when spoken to, sipping his whiskey, and generally nodding and smiling. To the casual observer, it may have appeared that that was all there was to him; indeed, he may have appeared a slightly sorry spectacle. But my guess is he was observing it all and making mental notes. In public he is too polite to demur to any exploitation of his celebrity. But read his journals, or better still, get him by yourself in a quiet room with no music, and you soon find out he does not miss a trick. Here are some extracts from our conversation on 21st June:
DB: I love your book, and it gives the impression of a life filled to capacity with activity, adventure and excitement.
QC: Oh good. Well, it's a false impression, because it covers a lot of time, so there are lulls in between. In fact I try to spend at least one, if not two days without ever leaving my room. Because if I didn't, when would I recharge my batteries?
DB: What strikes you when you read it is the amount of energy that must be required in order to fulfill the demands that the world makes of you.
QC: I am asked how to remain young, and I say 'Never, never work.' And that, of course, is the secret of it. And if you live in America, you don't have to work. You can just drift along in the smiling and nodding racket.
DB: You say in the book, and I've heard you say before that the only thing that worries you about dying is that when you are lying on your deathbed you might say to yourself, [here Mr. Crisp crossed his hands over his chest and looked heavenward like a martyred saint] 'there's something I've forgotten to say, or there's something I never did.' Which brings up the inevitable question: Is there anything you have yet to do that would make your life complete?
QC: No. I am told that you regret not what you did but what you didn't do; and so that's why I do everything, so as not to have any regrets. I never say 'No' to anything; and when I finally did say 'No' my agent said 'Oh Quentin, I've tried to teach you to say "No" all these years. You've graduated.'
DB: When I spoke to you in April you were not happy about having to come over here.
QC: I am not happy, but so far, of course, I'm only in Scotland, and that is easy, because the Scots are very hospitable; almost as hospitable as the Americans. The Americans, of course, are quite dotty with hospitality.
KL: I first saw you on television when my young son was watching The Naked Civil Servant with me; we'd never seen anything like it before. And my son was very taken with it, and I didn't realise why, but many years later, he told me that he's gay. He was taken with your courage.
QC: Well, it is true that in America I've become a national hero, but really I was a hopeless case, that was all.
KL: A-ha, but you're a bit of a guru. You're a bit of a Gay Ghandhi; you've got this infinite belief in people, that they'll be nice to you, and they are. Do you see yourself as some sort of guru?
QC: I suppose yes. When asked to give advice, I do of course give it, because I give whatever I am asked to give. I have to realise that as I am only English and am allowed to live in America, I have to give something in return. And since I cannot build a hospital, or endow a university, I can only give my infinite availability.
KL: You went to New York when you were what, sixty-odd?
QC: Someone said, 'You've come to New York at a time when most people go into a nursing home.' And of course it was true; I came to live in New York forever in '80, when I was seventy-two. And now I'm eighty-seven.
KL: Your skin's still very good.
QC: That's the only sense in which I've been lucky: I have the kind of face to which cosmetics could be applied. Most men when they make up their faces, the makeup stands forward, and their faces are behind. I had a friend who had two degrees of being made up: when invited I would say 'Can I make up?' and he would say 'Oh yes - tinted?', or he would say, 'Oh yes - clotted?'
KL: Are you still using face powder?
QC: Yes. Nowadays people don't use face powder; they say it dries the skin. But I makeup in the old-fashioned way.
KL: I was wondering if you were ever driven by love?
QC: I never really found out what love was. As far as I know, you can fancy someone, you can enjoy their company or you can wish them well. But what being in love is, I don't know. When I was young, I wanted to find the Great Dark Man. When I said that I realise now that people thought that by 'dark' I meant black, and that by 'great' I meant big. Whereas I only meant a strong, mysterious person; someone who would 'take me away from all this.' Because I built my life, my dreams on what I saw. And when I was young, I don't know how, I spent all my time in the presence of married women telling me their troubles. And when I said 'Why did you marry?' they said, 'Oh I married to get away from home.' And when I said, 'And why don't you leave him?' they gave the saddest answer in the world: they said, 'Where would I go?' So they stayed with men they didn't like because they had nowhere to go. Well now you can leave home at any time you like.Your mother comes down and finds a picture of the Eiffel Tower on her plate. And she says, 'Oh! Rosemary's gone to Paris. No wonder the bathroom was so tidy.' And nobody minds. But in my day, to go abroad with all those wicked Frenchmen, what would become of them? So no-one ever went anywhere.
I'd love to have room to quote the whole of our conversation, but it will have to suffice to say that we covered many topics, including Mr. Hurt ('He was born to play victims. When he played me, he then played Caligula, which is only me in a sheet, and then he played the Elephant Man, which is only me with a paper bag over my head?'), God ('St Theresa said, "We must treat all people as though they were at least better than ourselves." Isn't that a wonderful thing to have said? But God is so angry. All that power, and so mean with it. If I were God - and I never understand why I'm not - I should say, "Shop around, I don't think you'll find a better bargain than here." Did you know that Allah promises you a seat in Paradise if you kill a Christian?').
But my favourite answer that he gave was totally unexpected, and should knock on the head any fears that Mr Crisp has lost his mental agility. I merely asked after Miss Penny Arcade, New York performance artiste, who once inveigled me into dancing, almost naked, in her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! at the Edinburgh fringe:
'I haven't seen Miss Arcade since she sent me to Vienna. Don't go to Vienna. Vienna is cold, and dark, and sad. It is laid out as though for a royal parade; the streets are wide and they're flanked by monumental buildings, decorated with the faces of angry gods. And on the roof are statues of national heroes, wielding weapons of destruction. And the trouble with European cities is that they are drenched in their history, almost all of which is terrible. Miss Arcade knew most of the history of Austria, which she told us repeatedly, with relish. You know: Ruthless coup d'etat! Assassination! Betrayal! But American cities are new and free of all that. Free of anything. I've come from a very masculine country to a feminine country. England was very masculine; people went from England to abroad, and they landed from above and they said "These are the gods you will worship, these are the crops you will grow, now go away and do it." Which is a manly attitude. Americans go abroad and they say, "Try not to quarrel so much", which is a feminine attitude. And I think it is a great pity that Mr Clinton sends the brave and the beautiful to settle the Europeans' problems. Because Europeans are quarrelsome. We now know what a wonderful man Mr. Tito was, because he ruled a country with all those different people and he said, "All right, go away and be a Moslem, I don't care; don't make a noise." And they did. But you see, Europeans have quarrelled since the beginning of time. The Turks killed all the Armenians, except William Saroyan (why stop there?), and then when they'd finished with the Armenians they started on the Greeks. Central Europe is full of little countries standing shoulder to shoulder with no window to the sea. They are like the passengers in a rush-hour train which has stopped between stations for three centuries. And they all hate one another. And they're all crushed together waving their national flags, clanking their national chains, jabbering their national language. Albania! I mean it's absolute nonsense. Who's ever heard of Albania?
But you see the United States are a miracle: the division between two states is sometimes a river or a mountain, and sometimes it's a straight line. But nobody says, "That tree really belongs in South Carolina. I shan't do anything about it now, I'll get it back later." I shall go after I am here to London and after that to Potsdam, where Comrade Stalin, Mr Churchill and Harry Truman divided up Europe; and what we see now is the result of that. The Americans would have accepted it. But Europeans don't accept anything.'
So much for Penny Arcade.
When you know someone as old as Quentin Crisp, you cannot help but wonder if you will ever see them again, each time you say goodbye. Though he says he longs for death now, the world will mourn his passing more than he would ever permit himself to believe.
New York won't be the same without him.
|Posted by David Benson on January 28, 2009 at 11:33 AM||comments (6)|
First published on myspace 10th April 2007
My Life With Dame Edna
There's something I really need to talk to you about: I have a Barry Humphries complex. It is all tied up with my own life-long urge to entertain on stage and it manifests itself in the form of vivid dreams. I usually suffer these dreams when I am planning some new show of my own or am otherwise spending my waking hours preoccupied with my career.
In these subconscious fantasies, which I have been having since my teenhood, I am in a theatre watching my hero at work. I stand in the wings looking out onto the brightly-lit stage where Humphries with his customary electrifying brilliance, plays the audience like an instrument, dressed in his familiar working garb: the mauve wig, the diamante frames, the spectacular frock and the calf-stiffening, custom-built high-heeled shoes.
Sometimes, he leaves the stage and walks past me, visibly shape-shifting back to his mortal self, muttering discontentedly, never satisfied with himself or with his audience. I never dare answer back, for fear of exciting his disapproval at my stupidity, my naked obsequiousness or even my complete irrelevance.
In some dreams, I have had to go on for him. I stagger out before the excited crowd, desperately trying to remember the ad libs I have heard him deliver with such expert timing over my many years of seeing him perform.
'What's your name, darling? ... That's a pretty old name. For a pretty old woman, if you don't mind me saying.'
'You have such a beautiful bone structure: nose in the middle with an eye on each side. It doesn't suit everybody!'
To a large woman:'That's a lovely fabric your dress is made of, darling. Lucky you could get so much of it.'
But my voice cannot sustain the falsetto, the wig does not fit and I cannot remember the lines. The audience is not fooled. I wake up despairing, knowing that I am not Barry Humphries and never will be.
Was It All a Dream... Or Did It Really Happen?
Back in 1998, on one of the most memorable nights of my life, the dream came true but in reverse: I performed for Barry Humphries. He came to see my show Think No Evil of Us, during its brief run at The Vaudeville Theatre in the West End of London. I could see him, sitting several rows from the front, along with his wife Lizzie Spender, playwright Peter Nichols and his wife Thelma and the film director Bruce Beresford, who directed those Barry McKenzie films for Humphries in the 1970s.
All through the performance, while Kenneth Williams' voice was issuing from my mouth, the voice in my head was gibbering, 'Oh my God - Barry Humphries is in the audience. Barry Humphries is watching me. I've watched him on stage so many times and now he's watching me! Oh my God, I can't bear it...'
Afterwards, over dinner with his party, he graciously told me, 'I'm trying to write my new show at the moment and after seeing yours, I don't know why I'm bothering.' I gasped and said, 'But the reason I never did anything for years was because I looked at your work and wondered how I could ever do anything as good.' 'Well,' he said, 'You've done it!'
You can imagine how deeply flattered I was but I didn't really believe him and I still don't. Because I haven't done it. Think No Evil of Us remains the crowning achievement of my life to date. But Humphries goes on and on, getting better and better, always aiming higher with every project and usually - not always - but usually succeeding.
Disaster at The Haymarket
Funnily enough, the show he was writing when we met in 1998 - Dame Edna The Millennium Musical - was his only London flop since the early 1960s. The show departed from his usual format, tried too hard to be clever and failed.
Sickeningly, the critics seemed to relish his misjudgment and pronounced Dame Edna dead. On press night his brilliant stunt, in which he telephones the baby-sitting parents of a young couple in the audience, went badly wrong for maybe the first and only time since he invented it: nobody answered. He tried three different numbers from three different couples and they all failed. With their customary ignorance, the critics accused him of not being able to pull off a trick he had stolen from Julian Clary! In fact Clary stole it from Edna; and though as we all know, Clary is an excellent and lovable performer in his own right, he owes everything to Humphries, whose lines ('I like a nice warm hand on my opening,' 'Give him the clap he so richly deserves' etc) he is still using to this day.
Oh, the pain of seeing my hero, a few weeks into the show's pitifully short run, playing to a threadbare crowd, all moved down to fill out the front rows of the stalls. But oh, the courage with which this superb, inimitable artiste gave his tiny, embarrassed audience his customary 110% performance and never once showed his despair.
Humphries Bounces Back
I remember Edna answering a question on a 1987 edition of Desert Island Discs, 'Where do you go next, Dame Edna?' with the bullet-quick response, 'Up! I go up. It's my favorite direction, Sue Lawley!'
And after the 1998 London debacle, he did just that. He turned his back on the London stage and and went to conquer a new audience: America. Within a year, he was massive hit on Broadway and then on a relentless tour across the United States, performing his old, treasurable material as if freshly-minted and the HELL with those ignorant, illiterate English critics.
The Dame Edna Treatment
Now, with rumours of a return to the London stage in the air, he - and she - are back. I had another dreamlike night last Thursday 5th April when I went along to the London Studios to see a taping of Humphries' new UK series, The Dame Edna Treatment, currently screening on Saturday nights. Though I have written him the occasional fan letter since meeting him nine years ago - and always had a generous reply - I am not so tight with Mr. Humphries that I would ask him personally for tickets. But my brother Jonathan Hodgson is working for the production company Tiger Aspect at the moment (as Art Director on a children's series called Charlie and Lola) and obtaining VIP tickets was a snip for him.
Thus I found myself sitting in the front row along with several good friends, including my dear myspace friend Clayton, watching Dame Edna at close quarters, recording Episode Three of her series. Her guests were David Walliams and Matt Lucas (with whom I have worked, albeit briefly, on Little Britain Series 3), a deeply boring and unpleasant Piers Morgan and the legendary Debbie Harry.
It really was my dream all over again: there was Dame Edna, looking as orchidaceous and on-top-of-the-world as she did the first time I saw her on stage back in 1979. Maybe she was a little less energetic physically - Humphries is, after all, over 70 now - but mentally she was a sharp as ever. Here, from memory, are some bon mots from the night:
To Walliams and Lucas on their smash-hit Australian shows: 'I came and I absolutely adored your show, what I saw of it...'
To Walliams, re his cross-channel swim: 'You can swim up my channel anytime!'
To Lucas, on bullying: 'My daughter Valmai was bullied mercilessly as a child. It only really stopped when she started school.'
To Morgan, after revealing that she used his new book for pressing gladdies: 'I much prefer this to your first book which was a bit too heavy - it used to crush them.'
To Debbie Harry: 'I knew you weren't a natural blonde when I saw you doing those nude cart-wheels at that party.'
Debbie Harry to Edna, between takes as they posed for photos : 'Sorry, my hand is cold.'
Edna to Debbie Harry: 'It is cold darling. That means another part of your anatomy is very very warm indeed.'
A Close Encounter
In between takes, the lavish set swarmed with technicians, make-up artists and floor managers and the audience chatted amongst themselves. I could not take my eyes off Edna. She roamed about in her black puff-ball dress ('It's so NOW, isn't it?'), suddenly without ego, almost lost-looking.
And once, for one incredible moment, she wandered right up to the audience, standing but inches from us at eye-level on the front row, scanning the packed auditorium like a shepherd counting his flock. An idle follow-spot caught her and suddenly that face was illuminated in all it's technicolor glory. I could see where the gauze on the hairline of the wig was expertly glued to the forehead and then hidden under thick studio-grade foundation so as to be invisible on the screen. The wig itself must have cost a fortune: an enormous, mauve bouffant confection creating a nimbus-like frame to the face, with those wise, old eyes behind the iconic butterfly specs.
As I looked closely at Edna, her face relaxed and contemplative, even tired-looking, I could see if I really concentrated Barry Humphries himself. I wanted to speak to him - pull rank on the rest of the audience and say, 'It's me, Mr. Humphries! Don't you remember? You saw my show in 1998. We had dinner together. You sent me a telegram when I played in Sydney!' But of course, I wasn't looking at Barry Humphries: I was looking at Edna and we had never been introduced.
After a few moments, she moved away, consulting with a lackey on the running order and the taping continued, climaxing with a riotous duet with Debbie Harry to One Way Or Another. Fans of Dame Edna's dancing will relish her twisted-mouth cavorting during this number, which to Humphries' obvious disdain, had to be repeated for technical reasons. Agony for him but exquisite pleasure for us, the audience - which is what showbiz is all about, folks.
Eventually, the guests departed, probably to ready themselves for a dinner with Humphries not unlike the one I had with him in 1998. Edna stayed on to record some links and trailers, remarking to the audience: 'Whenever they need to make a little edit, they'll cut away to a shot of the audience. So you're going to be seeing an awful lot of yourselves in this show.'
At last, she was released and was led by a young producer off into the wings. I kept my eyes on her until the last moment, even as the rest of the audience stood to remove the cream-coloured bath-robes we were required to wear. Watched as clip-board carrying crew members young enough to be Humphries' grandchildren and who wouldn't have been born the first time I saw him perform all those years ago, reached up to help Edna out of her glasses and shoes and back into someone resembling a thoughtful, cultured and softly-spoken Australian man of letters.
The studio curtain was tugged across the wing and the dream, at last, was ended.
Site member and friend Jane Bower has given me permission to quote from an email she sent me today about her encounter with Dame Edna and Barry Humphries. It is a delightful and touching description - and a great photograph too.
|Posted by David Benson on January 28, 2009 at 11:20 AM||comments (7)|
Blog first published on myspace 3rd May 2007
How we got the last photos from inside Kenneth William's flat
Marlborough House, Osnaburgh Street in April 1988 after Kenneth's death
Did you know they are about to knock down Kenneth Williams' last flat? The one on Osnaburgh Street that he moved into on 3rd August 1972 and died in some time during the long, dark night of 14th April 1988. The one he was referring to during his wild outbursts on Just a Minute: 'It's a disgrace! I've come ALL the way from Great Portland Street!'
Malborough House, in which Kenneth's second floor flat was situated, has long held a fascination for his fans. It has become a site of pilgrimage, where we might stand and gaze up to the second floor and silently contemplate his suffering. If you looked hard enough, through half-closed eyes, you could almost see Kenneth and his aged mother Louie, shuffling in through the fan-lit front door on their way to the lift that would carry them up to their adjoining apartments.
Louie and Kenneth's front doors 1998
A few weeks ago the scaffolding and tarpaulins went up and it was clear that the long-threatened demolition of this sacred shrine was about to commence. The bus I often take into town, the C2, passes right by the building and it has been sad to witness the preparations for the execution.
The first thing I noticed was that the blue plaque put up by the British Comedy Society had been removed and was probably already serving as an ashtray in some construction worker's games room. Still, it had always been irksome, that plaque: it had had to be placed on the first, rather than second-floor flat because the people who moved in after Kenneth died wanted nothing to do with his memory and spurned the frequent requests by television documentary makers to film the rooms where once he'd stood. Now the whole block had been demolished right up as far as the outside wall of Kenneth's flat. It was almost as if they'd stoped for the weekend out of respect.
In 1998, I assisted with the BBC's two-part film on Kenneth for Reputations,
lending not only my voice to the diary readings but my rain-coated figure to a series of grainy black and white shots of feet tripping quickly up the steps of buildings in which he'd lived, leafing through lofty tomes or, filmed from behind, trotting through nearby Regents Park.
Frustrated by the prohibition on filming inside Kenneth's flat, we contented ourselves with shots of me going up and down in the lift, the door of which clattered open directly onto Kenneth's front door. I took the opportunity to peep through the letterbox. There I could see, as if in Cinemascope, on the left side of the screen a bit of his kitchen and on the right, the toilet/bathroom in which he had spent so many meaningful hours of his life.
It just so happened my good friend Wes Butters was in town on Saturday.
I like it when Wes in town: things happen when he is about. Not always pleasant things but... challenging things and I think it's good to challenge yourself once in a while, within reason. Wes used to work for BBC Radio 1 and when I first met him in 2004 he spent his Sundays broadcasting urgent news to the youth of Britain about the state of the charts: who was up and who was down and the whole tarradiddle of it. Not long afterwards he was 'let go' by the Corporation - a decision I should imagine they now regret since he has been picking up awards and fans galore at Galaxy F.M. in Manchester. Despite being so intimately au-fait with the culture of youth, Wes retains a charming and passionate love for old movies. He collects like mad: he has a silver hip-flask that Stan Laurel's dad gave to his son during his triumphant 1931 home-coming with Oliver Hardy; a peaked leatherboy cap worn by Kenny Everett; and any number of vast, linen-backed movie posters, with pride of place given to the Carry Ons.
Wes also possesses an extraordinary cache of Kenneth Williams' personal items, obtained fair and square from a family friend. I was there when the booty arrived: we sat on his bed glassy-eyed as we unpacked boxes of papers, photographs and even items of clothing that were now Wes' personal property. Sometimes he will ring me up and say: 'Guess what: I've got the passport,' or, ' the last will and testament,' or, 'the pen with which he probably wrote his final diary entry.' That's how serious a collector he is, and morbid with it.
So Wes was down for the weekend. We had lunch with a dear friend of Kenneth's, a lovely man called Michael Whittaker who knew Kenneth and Louie very well in their last years and whom Wes and I are now honoured to call our friend too. After lunch Wes and I talked wistfully of the imminent demise of the old flat. 'Shall we go and have a last look at it?' he asked with a baleful smile, which he does charmingly. So we hopped in his big, black grown-up's car and with what seemed like two taps on the gas we travelled from Chelsea to Great Portland Street and were sitting by the curb gazing up at the condemned edifice.
Both of us had the same thought at the same time.
'Not now. Too many people around. But if we came back about midnight...'
Date: Sunday 29th April 2007
Place: Osnaburgh Street
Mission: To climb the scaffolding, gain access to the flat, take pictures and leave a photo of Kenneth (signed for his sister Pat and kindly sent to me a few days ago by Barry Took's widow, Lyn). We both loved the idea of a little bit of Kenneth disappearing in the final conflagration.
Wes and I are also big Laurel and Hardy fans and perhaps subconsciously he had absorbed some of their antic spirit when he formulated his plan. 'Okay, Benson, I'll wait down here and keep watch on Albany Street. Once it's clear and there's no traffic coming, I'll give you the sign. Then you just climb up the scaffolding, under the tarpaulin and into the flat. Once you're in, give me a ring and I'll join you.'
'Now wait a minute, WAIT a minute' I said. 'You want me to go in there alone? Suppose the floor collapses?'
'Don't be daft, it won't collapse. It's still standing, isn't it?'
'Suppose an alarm goes off?'
'Why the fuck would they have alarms on a building they're about to pull down?'
'Suppose the police come and arrest us?'
'The press would love that. "Kenneth Williams impersonator and ex-Radio 1 D.J. caught breaking and entering dead camp comedians' flat!" You can't buy publicity like that. Look, Benson, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a bit of history we've got here and I'm telling you, we are going to get in that flat and leave the picture and we're going to do it for Kenneth.'
'You do realise,' I said, offering one more plea for reason, 'that the only person who would not give a toss about this flat being demolished is Kenneth himself? He was completely unsentimental about...'
'Right, I'll go and stand on the corner over there,' said Wes, totally ignoring all reasonable objections, which is why he is rich and successful and I am not. 'I'll call you in one minute and tell you when the coast is clear.'
After MUCH trial and tribulation during which an endless succession of drunks tottered past, cars and buses full of gawping passengers pulled up at the lights ('Fuck OFF!' I whispered under my breath) and the White House Hotel, situated between me and Wes, welcomed a stream of noisy, clamourous guests through its revolving doors ('At THIS hour?') all too soon, the moment arrived.
'Okay, Benson' hissed Wes, 'It's clear! There is absolutely nothing coming. Go for it!'
I aborted the call and, appalled at my own bravery, found myself heaving my carcass up onto the wooden base of the scaffolding and reaching up to the first bar. Got it! Next part was to reach up to the bar above that and somehow pull myself up onto the planks of wood that constituted the lowest walk-way.
This was where the weakness in Wes' plan immediately became apparent. I soon realised that to achieve this stage of the journey would require me to belabour my entire body weight above where my head now was, with no purchase for my feet other than the cold, slippery scaffolding pole. It was like being in a P.E lesson all over again. I felt a surge of inadequacy flow through my body and, just like at school, I gave up. At once. No point in trying to pretend I could do it - just quit and admit defeat.
We went and regrouped in the car for a while. Both of us were desperate for a wee by now but this failed to sway Wes: 'All the more reason to get into his flat. The next time I have a piss, it's going to be in his toilet.'
He was on a mission and there was no going back now.
We swapped roles. This time I was the look-out and he loitered by the flats waiting for the signal from me. Once the road was clear and there was a momentary hiatus in the procession of revellers, I gave him the word and heard his phone go dead.
I walked across the square, past the hotel and back to the flats. No sign of Wes. I called him.
'Where are you?'
'Under the sheeting. Come round to the end so you can see me. I'm looking into his flat now!'
I walked to the open end and looked up: there he was, excitedly leaning in at the window and taking snaps with his phone... of the wrong flat!
'No! Up, up! It's the one above, second floor!' I stage-whispered, trying not to attract the attention of three Middle Eastern-looking drivers standing outside the hotel.
In a moment, Wes had hauled himself, gibbon-like, up the pole to the next floor and before my very eyes, posted himself over the sill, through the open window into Kenneth's living room, like a seal diving through a hoop.
There followed an agonising wait of about ten minutes while Wes walked in Deep Kenneth Space. I listened for the sound of collapsing joists. Occasionally I would see a blue-white flash in one of of the cold, black windows. At one point a police car came screaming round the corner with its lights ablaze, slowed down as it passed me and swerved off on its way to lesser crimes in the West End. The Middle Eastern men were talking to each other but looking at me.
Another flash, this time from an even darker and more remote window. At last my phone rang.
'Is it clear? I'm coming down.'
To my relief my brave chum emerged from behind the sheeting and clambered down to street level, a look of wonder and disbelief on his face. He'd done it! He had actually been in Kenneth Williams' flat. Had stood in each of the rooms. He said it was terrifying: the whole building had creaked and groaned as he crept through the pitch-black rooms, not knowing whether the next footstep he took might lead directly to the floors below.
But he was there and he had pictures to prove it.
The lift outside kenneth's door
The living room window
He also had a white floor tile from the kitchen, which he generously insisted I take, and two fragments of the toilet bowl, which he kept for himself, interestingly. 'But they must have had the toilet replaced at some point after they moved in. That's not necessarily the toilet he sat on.'
'Doesn't matter. It's from his bathroom. It's a pity it was broken, I'd like to have pissed in it. But I did it on the floor anyway.'
'Did you leave the photo?' I asked, needlessly.
'Yep. Left it in the living room.'
I wish that I were as strong and brave and simian as my friend so that I could have said I'd been there too. But I'm not and I wasn't and that's the way it goes with me.
But wasn't Wes brilliant, doing all that for Kenneth? Bless his heart. He'll always remember that, won't he? And that his fat, old out-of-condition friend Benson was there to witness the deed and to help out, to some extent. I am pleased that I was there to help him achieve such a beautiful, if futile, feat in on honour of our mutual hero.
RIP 8 Marlborough House, Osnaburgh Street, London