Sir Clement Freud: Sharp-witted and lugubrious broadcaster, politician, writer and member of the Freud dynasty
Friday 17 April 2009
Although born in Germany, Sir Clement Freud came to be regarded as an essentially English character with an idiosyncratic gift for dry wit and a talent in many other spheres of life. In his multi-faceted career, he acquired the status of a minor national treasure as he progressed through roles which included celebrity cook, dog food advertiser, politician, broadcasting personality, author and raconteur. His unique persona included the incongruity of his looks, the rarity of his smiles and the counterpoints of his slow delivery and his devastatingly quick wit.
He will be remembered for his four full decades on BBC Radio 4's Just a Minute, which has been on air for more than 40 years. The programme, a national institution in itself, provided the perfect platform for his droll sense of humour, sharp intelligence and endless inventiveness. He had a particular chemistry with some of its regulars such as the host, Nicholas Parsons. He found it odd, he once said, that he was in the same class as Parsons at school, "and he's now 12 years younger than I am. I wonder where I've gone wrong".
Freud came from a famous family which included his brother, the painter Lucian Freud, and grandfather Sigmund, the founder of psychoanalysis, who he remembered as "benign and cigar smoking". Clement once admitted to losing valuable family heirlooms in the form of Sigmund's nightshirts.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1924 to the Jewish architect Ernst Ludwig Freud and his wife, Lucie. The well-off family fled Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power, moving from Berlin to England in 1933. He was sent to a school in Devon which he recalled as "appalling", describing it as "a tough, anything-goes place".
He became an apprentice chef at London's Dorchester Hotel before the start of the Second World War, and then joined the army, serving on the staff of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He later played a liaison role at the war trials at Nuremberg. After being demobbed, Freud moved into the hotel and nightclub business, working in Cannes and London and eventually running the Royal Court Theatre Club. He was, he said, the first man to employ personalities such as David Frost, Dudley Moore and Rolf Harris. His next turn took him into journalism, where he wrote about cookery, sport and politics.
His big break came in the 1960s when he and a basset hound named Henry featured in television adverts for pet food. Freud wrote characteristically witty scripts, but what really captured the attention was the way that Henry's lugubrious appearance reflected Freud's own hangdog looks. The public was fascinated by their corresponding airs of human and canine dolefulness. The adverts made him a lot of money and conferred on him a new status as one of the TV celebrities of the day. It soon became clear, however, through the course of numerous guest appearances on the small screen, that Freud had far more to offer than just his distinctive looks.
In 1973, he surprised everyone by winning a seat for the Liberals in the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire. Many had thought, understandably, that the frivolity of pet food commercials and of Just a Minute made an unlikely background for an MP. To this day, however, he is remembered in the area as a particularly assiduous worker for his constituents.
But while he applied himself seriously to the business of politics, he remained devoted to Just a Minute, appearing in all of its series. In doing so he spanned the generations, working in the early days with Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams and latterly with relative newcomers such as Paul Merton and Stephen Fry.
It says much for his cleverness and creativity that he continued to raise laughs in a game which he played continually for more than 40 years. Its simple rule required contestants to talk on a subject for 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Freud excelled both in talking and in coming up with the most ingenious objections to the performances of the rest of the panel. One of his underlying traits, both on the show and in other facets of life, was his strong sense of competitiveness: he loved to win.
He once paid Fry a huge compliment, saying: "He is probably the best speaker, although he does speak four times faster than me. And he thinks ahead about 20 seconds, whereas I only think ahead about eight."
Yesterday, Fry praised him in return. "I was at first very afraid of him – a lot of people were," he said. "There were a lot of stories that he was immensely grouchy and rude sometimes to people who asked for autographs, but I never experienced that side of him at all."
Others, however, did. "I found he had a very acute mind, great self-knowledge and a capacity to be more directly rude to people than anyone I had up until that point encountered," said Simon Brett, who produced Just a Minute for six years. "He has a very rare and enviable human quality: he doesn't care if people dislike him. What I find admirable is that he does not pretend to be other than he is."
Certainly, Freud was entirely upfront about his grumpiness. He once wrote, with only a modicum of exaggeration: "Good men are gruff and grumpy, cranky, crabbed and cross. I am also acerbic, waspish, sour, belligerent and very occasionally shrewish.
"There are people I hate, I cannot remember why, but I will never forgive them; I walk out of parties to which they come, seat myself at another table if I find them sitting near me on a table plan. We grumps are designed not to suffer people gladly." He was, he explained, always like that. "I was quite a grumpy young man. My grumpiness quota hasn't really changed."
This self-confessed grouchiness did nothing to rebuff the many thousands of fans and admirers who listened to him on the radio, read his hundreds of articles, bought his books and flocked in their thousands when he toured theatres to present his Audience With Clement Freud. With a characteristic mixture of grumpiness and stoicism, he put up with the inevitable questions about his famous grandfather and his famous colleague, Henry the basset hound.
Jill, his wife of 59 years, once said fondly of him: "Clement is a very dry character – so quick, and he will never say the conventional thing. He never does anything the right way round. He is very contrary. He is a constant surprise, full of mischief."
Fry added in his tribute that Freud had a raffishness, and an "air of disreputability". In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, Freud was "a real Soho figure – he knew all the girls of easy virtue, he knew the pimps, the racetrack tipsters."
Freud produced a couple of books for children and wrote about food and drink: one of his works was The Book of Hangovers. He gave his autobiography the deliberately excruciating title of Freud Ego.
Clement Freud, broadcaster, writer, caterer, politician: born Berlin, 24 April 1924; married 1950 June Beatrice (Jill) (three sons, two daughters); died London, 15 April 2009.
In 2002, Clement Freud was deeply touched to be chosen by the students of St Andrews University in Scotland as their rector, writes Tam Dalyell. As, contemporaneously, I was the rector of the University of Edinburgh, we talked to each other about our mutual undergraduate problems: and then Freud poured out his proverbial heart about the decade and a half of his life in the House of Commons.
He was very hurt that he could not get himself taken seriously as a politician; he hated being regarded as a media clown by parliamentary colleagues. He reflected that the Commons could be a generous place, but that it could also be cruel and particularly unpleasant to those members who were well known to the public in other contexts. "MPs of all parties, even some Liberals, always seemed to want to take me down a peg, whatever the content of what I was trying to say," he reflected.
Nevertheless, he was an excellent attendee, and would listen, more than most, to what ministers and other MPs actually said. He would attend debates even though he had no intention of taking part.
In 1973, I was one of the Labour MP canvassers at the by-election in the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire. On my first visit, some three weeks before polling, the chances of Freud, the Liberal candidate, were thought to be derisory. Three years previously, the Conservative Sir Harry Legge-Bourke had polled 28,972 votes to the Labour candidate's 19,366. There was no Liberal candidate. But during the last week of the campaign, it became clear that Freud had a chance because he stuck to issues rather than indulge in personality promotion. In the end, he won by a majority of 1,399.
Freud's victory earned him the enmity of many Tories. Not only was the Isle of Ely a blue-chip seat, but Sir Harry Legge-Bourke chaired the 1922 Committee. It says a great deal about Freud's application as a constituency MP that later, in February 1974, his majority increased to 8,347. Freud held the seat and would not have lost it, had not boundary distribution changes taken place. When the seat metamorphosed into Cambridgeshire North-East, he lost narrowly to Michael Moss by 1,428 with RJ Harris, the Labour candidate, scoring 4,891.
Freud was a serious spokesman for the Liberals on education, and was one of the first to champion the cause of youngsters with Down's syndrome. He also had a genuine knowledge of policy for benefiting the arts.
Only on one occasion did I see him almost lose his temper. It was during the Falklands War, when a Tory MP who had never worn the Queen's uniform accused him of being wet and lily-livered. Freud snapped back: "I don't think that you worked directly and personally under Field Marshal, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. During the Second World War. I did."
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