Memory overload? Forget it...
Saturday 11 February 1995
Nothing wrong with that. That's the form these days - malice towards others (a socially ambitious mother, a gentle but alcoholic father) excused by candour about oneself (my 20-year affair with Lord Olivier, for instance).
Nor would I have made a start, I think, had not Debbie Mason of Kudos Productions suddenly decided to relocate El Independo in the Isle of Wight; further, that she and I should research the place this week.
We were driving on Tuesday in that direction when Miss Mason gave a little start and cried: "My word! Sunningdale! That rings a bell. I was born here."
It rang a bell for me as well, and not just because I'd been born here, too. Something else tugged uneasily at the edges of my mind, some vague memory of a commission unfulfilled. I said as much to Debbie Mason.
"If there's something troubling you," she said, "let's stop here for a while and walk around. Visiting old haunts may jog your memory."
We went first to the golf course and parked the car outside the house in which I'd been born and where my mother, seeing no reason why I, aged four, should - because of wartime petrol restrictions - be unable to visit Terence Rattigan's latest comedy in London or Nervo and Knox topping a variety bill, buried enough black-market drums of the stuff in the orchard to fuel the 8th Army's desert evolutions.
"Good for her," Miss Mason said. "Is that it? Is that what's been troubling you?"
No, some vague reminder of an obligation undischarged still stuck to my subconscious like a burr, so we walked the first hole, Miss Mason and I, allowing me to point out the copse from which Salter and I, armed with our fathers' 12-bores, had shot anything that moved, once winging the club captain, Earl Jellicoe, as he set himself to drive.
Since this memory had in no way eased my mind, we proceeded to the water hazard at the ninth, where, in 1963, Jacqui the Dancer and I had played ducks and drakes one afternoon, thus holding up a 4-ball.
"Who was Jacqui the Dancer?" Miss Mason asked.
"The love of my life," I said. "She auditioned one day for Wam Bam Thank You Mam, a jazz revue starring Oscar Brown Jr, and it struck me at once that I had never seen anything so beautiful. I set my hat at her and eventually prevailed, and since we were both living with others at the time, we hired a service flat in Harley Street so the relationship might flourish. Since the flat wouldn't be available until 6pm, we spent the day walking on Sunningdale golf course."
"What happened to Wam Bam Thank You Mam?"
"A colossal flop. A catastrophe. An outrage."
"You put the seals on first?"
"Not on this occasion, no. It opened in Brighton with a faulty revolve and without an orchestra."
And so it had - a consequence of my habit in those days of casting a show with the tour in mind, always ensuring it contained a full complement of ingenues - whether or not the author had made this accommodation - and seeing that the leading man and the second lead were both 80 and had only two good legs between them. Nor, when setting up Wam Bam Thank You Mam, did I break this rule. The cast consisted of six girl dancers and six fat comedians, one of whom, Fred Emney, was obliged to dress in the wings since he no longer had the wind to make it up the stairs.
And Oscar Brown Jr. No problem. One day - and without being crude, I think, or taking anything for granted - we agreed he should tip his hat at Aimi MacDonald, I mine at Jacqui the Dancer. Then Oscar dropped a bombshell.
"What about the band?" he said.
Unaccustomed to mounting musicals, I had left the band out of the equation. The love of my life was about to tour the halls with 11 eligible sidemen, not least the great Les Condon on second trumpet and Laurie Mumford on trombone. Happily, I rose to the occasion, arranging to send the cast and management to Brighton, the band to Blackpool.
"As a consequence," I said, "Oscar Brown Jr was accompanied on the opening night by Bert Leywood, my 80-year-old general manager, on an upright piano in the pit. The show closed immediately, but Jacqui the Dancer had been impressed by the unconquerable vigour of my love."
"Is that what's been troubling you?" Miss Mason asked.
Alas, it wasn't, and I then suggested we visit the house my socially ambitious mother bought in 1950 and where, on late September evenings, she and my father played tennis in the softening light with their friends the Pinkneys (Daph and Gee) while I lay awake in one of its 27 bedrooms, each with bath en suite.
"Small wonder I've had my ups and downs," I said.
"You seem to forget," Miss Mason said, "that I lived here, too. Couldn't we visit the house where I was born?"
"Certainly not," I said. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you weren't commissioned eight years ago to write your memoirs. I, on the other hand ... Good God! That's it! My memoirs. From Sunningdale To This - past and the present side by side. An autobiography done as racontage to a second party, or parties, sharing current escapades. Every event will trigger a volley of reminiscence, its recipient a helpless stooge or straight man."
"I'm Cannon to your Ball already?" Miss Mason said.
"In a nutshell."
"And you forgot this commission? I'm utterly baffled. It must be the drugs."
"We'll discuss it again when you're sober," I said.
"OK," she said.
That settled, we proceeded to the Isle of Wight.
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