Brian Viner: When misquotes are better than the reality

'Beam me up Scotty' is an urban, or at any rate an inter-galactic, myth

But clearly the attention it generated owed a great deal to the age of those editing newspapers, or producing radio and television news. For forty-somethings, the passing of James Doohan - for that was indeed the real name of Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott - offered pause for thought. After all, our own lives are inexorably linked with the lives, and deaths, of those who formed part of our childhoods. It was a huge shock to me in the mid-1990s to find that Ian Lavender, who so memorably played Private Frank Pike, the juvenile weed in Dad's Army, was about to turn 50.

It was the same year that my mother's generation was rocked by the realisation that Marilyn Monroe, had she lived, would have turned 70, and could have made a sequel to Bus Stop called "Bus Pass". As for Lavender, Captain Mainwaring's "stupid boy" is now pushing 60. Hell, he's older than Arthur Lowe was when he started playing Mainwaring.

Much has been made of the so-called curse of Dad's Army, incidentally, for Lavender is one of only a handful of survivors. That's not least because most of the cast were getting on a bit even when the series began, in 1968. But Jimmy Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker, died at 43 - the age I am now - in 1973. Teddy Sinclair, the verger, died early too, and Lowe himself was only 66.

The opposite seems to apply to Star Trek. There must have been something in the water on the Enterprise, for Doohan lived to the grand age of 85, having sired his ninth child at 80, and most of the main cast members are still working energetically despite being well into their seventies. Indeed, William Shatner, who played Captain James T Kirk, is reportedly in training to go into space proper, after doing it so frequently in a Burbank television studio.

Captain Kirk it was who is said to have repeatedly uttered the line that was worked into every report of Doohan's death, and not a few of the headlines. In fact, Doohan went to his grave insisting that nobody in Star Trek had ever said "Beam me up, Scotty". The show certainly yielded many catchlines, and Scotty himself rarely got to the end of an episode without saying, "She'll not take much more, Captain." But the notion that any of the 432-strong crew of the Enterprise (not that we ever saw more than about eight of them) ever uttered precisely those words, "Beam me up, Scotty," is an urban or at any rate an inter-galactic myth. "Beam us up, Mr Scott," was the closest they got.

This is an all-too common cultural phenomenon. Johnny Weissmuller never said "Me Tarzan, you Jane," just as James Cagney never said "You dirty rat". And nobody in Casablanca said "Play it again, Sam". Ingrid Bergman's character, Ilsa Lund, actually said, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'." The word "again" was never uttered, so movie lore immortalises an invented quotation; a neat, if confusing, instance of make-believe spawning make-believe.

It seems ironic that cinema and television should be the origins of these and many other misquotes, given that the evidence is enshrined on celluloid or videotape. We can be forgiven for not knowing whether Admiral Nelson's dying words were "Kiss me, Hardy" or, as some people insist, "Kismet, Hardy". But it's odd that we seem reasonably sure of quotes from centuries ago yet can't get the modern ones right.

Basil Fawlty's acidulous comment about "herds of wildebeest majestically sweeping the plain", oft quoted, is nearly right but still wrong. "Well ... may I ask what you were hoping to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window," said Fawlty (John Cleese) to his disgruntled guest Mrs Richards. "Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeeste sweeping majestically..."

Of course, if it is curious in the media age that we get these things wrong, it is sometimes the medium that is to blame. In January 1979, Jim Callaghan did not land at Heathrow Airport saying "Crisis? What crisis?' That was a headline in The Sun. What he said, less pithily, was "I don't think other people in the world would share the view there is mounting crisis."

Still, at least there's a kind of shared comfort in getting these things wrong. Sometimes it can be terribly disorientating to learn the truth, and for those forty-something readers still coming to terms with the fact that nobody ever said "Beam me up, Scotty," I'm afraid it falls to me to reveal that Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was a wallaby.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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