Why Groucho Marx and TS Eliot didn't get on

A musical fantasy on Radio 3 recalls the disastrous encounter between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx in 1964

There's truth to that old adage "never meet your heroes".

Almost 50 years ago to the day, an unlikely dinner date took place between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx. Each a huge fan of the other's work, Groucho and Eliot corresponded for three years before their meeting eventually took place. In June 1964, a car took the star of A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup and A Day at the Races, from the Savoy to Eliot's home nearby for a much anticipated dinner with his hero, wives included. Eliot wanted to hear about what it was like to make those movies, but Groucho couldn't remember the desired scene from Duck Soup and preferred to quote to Eliot the vast chunks of The Waste Land that he'd memorised. Eliot couldn't be less interested in hearing his own poetry spouted back at him. The meeting was a disaster.

It was the collected correspondence between the two celebrities that prompted Lenny Henry and his long-time friend and collaborator, Jakko Jakszyk, the singer with Robert Fripp's reformed band King Crimson, to bring the encounter to life for BBC Radio 3's experimental series, Between the Ears. The result is a fascinating part-documentary, part-fantasy words-and-musical piece written around the letters, for which Jakszyk has written a contemporary score. Henry plays Groucho, while Jakszyk, a former actor, plays Eliot. The poet and Eliot expert Craig Raine also features.

"They were both very excited about meeting," says Jakszyk. "Groucho had aspirations of being a writer at some level and suddenly he has a fan who is one of his heroes, and of course TS Eliot just thought Groucho was funny. So they were rather disappointed in each other. There's something melancholic about that."

That melancholy is captured in the delicate, piano-led score which runs throughout the piece, from the beginning track, which became the title of the programme, "Dear Mr Eliot", to the imagined discussion between the young wives towards the end. Also well captured is Eliot's seriousness which made his love of Groucho Marx so unexpected. "He comes across as the driest, most intensely serious man," says Jakszyk after sifting through hours of archive footage for his research. "So the idea that in his spare time he was going down to the cinema to watch the Marx brothers just seems mad." Jakszyk scores Eliot's serious nature with a schoolboy choir and harmonically harsh instrumentation which lend a sombre, academic air.

"That intriguing oddball thing about the unlikely nature of the pair's friendship is what struck us at first, and then the whole idea of fame," says Jakszyk. It's the nature of fame and celebrity and the expectations it attracts that Henry and Jakszyk set out to explore in their project. "There were anecdotal things from both of them about how they're a bit offhand with some fans and here they are both displaying exactly the same behaviour towards each other."

For example, Eliot wrote the first letter to Groucho, requesting a signed photograph. What he wanted was an iconic cigar-wielding portrait; what he got was a posed photo of Groucho looking serious. The disappointment was there from the start.

It's all brought neatly to fame in the present day. Lenny Henry muses on finding himself tongue-tied, and having to restrain himself from repeating jokes in the company of comedians who were his heroes and recalls forcing himself not to sing Joan Armatrading's songs while making her a cup of coffee.

"It's a human thing," says Jakszyk. "Although this is about TS Eliot and Groucho Marx, it's really a cipher about how two very well-known people in their own right are still subject to being impressed by somebody's ability or fame. It's all to do with expectation. If you meet your hero in real life you will have an unrealistic expectation based on a facet of themselves that they have utilised as their commercial currency. It is not necessarily representative of what they're like on a day-to-day basis. To me that's what this is about."

'Between the Ears: Dear Mr Eliot: When Groucho Met Tom' is on Radio 3 at 9.30pm on 14 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions