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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas