John Walsh: Tales of the City

Groucho in the Pentagon: the least successful guest appearance of all time?
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The Independent Online

As you may know by now, this issue of The Independent is being guest-edited by a famous singer, campaigner and global networker. Inviting distinguished personages from one walk of life to play a brief leading role in a completely different one is an enterprise potentially fraught with danger (though not, obviously, in the case of today's paper). Let us look at some of the less successful guest-star interventions in history.

Margaret Thatcher guest-edits Jackie magazine, April 1972

In those days, she was a junior minister at the Department of Education, when Jackie - the journal of teenage romance, groovy clothes and boy-worship - decided to try some gravitas amid the pop-star froth and acne solutions.

Mrs Thatcher set to work with her customary thoroughness. She replaced "Hunk of the Month" with "Economist of the Month" and threw out the "Spoil Yourself!" section on massage, facials and chocolate treats, recommending instead a regimen of hard work, mastering departmental briefs late at night and enduring 500-volt electrical charges in the bath. Her "Hello Readers!" page, traditionally a gush of jolly gossip from the editor, was a diatribe about Civil Service reform. And, in the Cathy & Clare problem page, the usual questions about petting, bra sizes and periods were replaced by enquiries about the public sector borrowing requirement.

Bob Dylan on the Moon landings, 1969

The commentary was going to be done by a USAF commander at Nasa HQ, but that was considered a touch dull, given the epic achievement of having a man walk on the Moon. So they asked Bob Dylan to be "guest commentator"; the only stipulation was that he had to say, "That's one small step for a man - one giant leap for mankind," which had been approved at the highest level.

When the corkscrew-haired visionary arrived in his dark glasses, it was clear there might be trouble. His opening words, "I was ridin' on Apollo 11 when I thought I spied some land" did not augur well, nor did his conviction that among the personnel piloting the landing craft were a juggler, a clown, a gambler, a jingle-jangle percussionist and a melancholy woman from the Lowlands.

Pressed to describe the lunar landscape, he told the NBC audience: "The mystic spattered mist lies bleeding in the night/ where the cowboy junkie rides the tattered freight train." The producers looked at each other. As Neil Armstrong placed his foot on the Moon's surface, Dylan was prompted to say the famous line. "It's a small step for a man..." he began, "Down the ladder he does go/ He's come a long long journey/ from Desolation Row." They fired Dylan and got Armstrong to do it again, saying the line himself. He ballsed it up as well.

Philip Larkin at the Palladium, October 1964

Bruce Forsyth, for years the compère of BBC TV's hugely successful Sunday Night at the London Palladium, had been taken ill with food poisoning, and his replacement, a young Jimmy Tarbuck, succumbed to nerves. What could the management do but phone round theatrical agencies in search of a stand-in crowd-pleaser? Parnassian Productions volunteered the services of the great poet, who had performed a week earlier to an appreciative crowd of 34 in Hull Town Hall. As laugh-a-minute comedy routines go, it was a little downbeat. Larkin's opening monologue on antimacassars, cracked vases and faded lodging-rooms in Deal failed to raise a smile. His take on courtship ("I'd rather stay home, have a wank and save a fiver") was thought to lack the necessary light touch, while his introduction of the dance routines ("Another lot of hopeless hoofers/ About as appealing as East End roofers") was condemned as "ungallant". He wasn't invited back.

Groucho Marx at the Pentagon, 5 June 1944

In an attempt to "lighten the tone" of the Second World War, the veteran comic with the painted-on moustache was drafted by President Eisenhower to "stand in" for him in addressing the War Room on the eve of D-Day. It was a quixotic gesture, with mixed success. Masquerading as "President Hiram Z Poopdeck of Freedonia," the manic vaudevillean told the politicians and generals: "Remember gentlemen, we are fighting this war to preserve the things that make America great: baseball, cheesecake and Miss Lamoura Tightsweater from New Jersey, whom I will have the pleasure of titillating Tuesday night."

When General Patton demanded that he be serious about the forthcoming invasion of Normandy beaches, Marx quipped: "I don't care a hoot about Norman. It's Mrs De Beeches who needs our sympathy at this difficult time."

Oscar Wilde at the FA Cup Final, 1880

Oxford University, when they played Clapham Rovers in the 1880 FA Cup Final, were so certain of victory against the lowlife of London SW11 that they called in the great Irish playwright - then 26 - as a "trophy striker" who would raise the game to exquisite levels of artistic sophistication. Unfortunately, Wilde was wholly unconvincing as a footballer. He drifted languidly round the edges of the pitch in blue satin culottes, carrying a lily. Play was held up as he upbraided the midfield in drawling epigrams ("To muff one pass, Mr Hallsworthy, may be regarded as a misfortune; to muff two looks like perversity").

A crucial cross in the 89th minute landed at his feet, but he disdained to kick the ball. "Take that horrid thing away," he said to the goalkeeper, "before it soils my loafers." Asked afterwards by reporters for his view of the game, he replied: "Twenty-two men struggling to possess a bladder of air - the perfect metaphor for the London marriage market." Oxford lost 1-0.

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