Miles Kington Remembered: Shame the guest of honour couldn't stay for the second act

2 May 2002
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The Independent Online

One of the things that I have learnt in life is that a useless fact is not always totally useless. It can often be recycled into a quiz question. Look at Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? or The Weakest Link if you don't believe me. From useless fact to useless quiz question is a short upgrade.

I think I first started collecting useless facts (I'm not talking about my school or university days now) when I was working at Punch, because Punch history contained precious useless facts you couldn't learn elsewhere. For instance, I remember learning that the play at which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated was called Our American Cousin, and that it had been written by an editor of Punch.

Yes, the author Thomas Taylor was an Englishman who had been editor of Punch, and perhaps still was editor of Punch at the time his play transferred to Broadway, though I am sure the Broadway run didn't survive Lincoln's death long.

(You can imagine the scene in London. Taylor, trying to get out another number of Punch, is in the office when a friend rushes in and says: "Sorry to hear about the play, Tom." "Our American Cousin, d'you mean?" says Taylor, startled. "But it's doing very well. Why, even the American president is coming to see it !" "Only to see part of it, I'm afraid, Tom," says the friend. "Part of it? You mean – he left before the end of the play?" gasps Taylor. "In a sense, Tom ..." etc, etc.)

From there to the simple quiz question, "Which Punch editor wrote the play at which Lincoln was assassinated?", is but a short step. Or how about: "Which Punch editor co-wrote an operetta with Arthur Sullivan?" The answer is, whoever it was who wrote the book for Cox and Box. I can't remember off-hand, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I think it may have been FC Burnand.

Carrying on the uselessness tradition into modern times, Alan Coren, one of the three editors of Punch under whom I laboured, used to ask people two of the finest quiz questions of all time, recycled from his own useless reading. One of them concerned the First World War. "Which Oscar-winning performer," he used to enunciate, "fought on the German side in the Great War and gained an Iron Cross for bravery, before emigrating to America and becoming a prizewinning Hollywood star?"

Give up?

So did I.

The answer was Rin Tin Tin. According to Coren, the star dog had been a military dog for the Kaiser before taking up his film roles in America. And there's no reason why not. After all, the dog would never have known that he had swapped sides rather shamelessly – just that the weather had got a bit better.

The other quiz question was equally complicated, though also about Hollywood.

"When Lauren Bacall sings a song in To Have and Have Not, the Hemingway- based film she made opposite Humphrey Bogart, with Hoagy Carmichael at the piano backing her, whose voice do we actually hear on the soundtrack as she mimes the words?"

The implication is that it is not Bacall's voice we hear, but some other woman's.

Both wrong, according to Alan Coren. Not her and not even another woman. It was the youthful Andy Williams, whose high voice apparently sounded just like Lauren Bacall's low voice.

Brilliant question, brilliant answer. So, of course, when a new life of Hoagy Carmichael fell into my lap, the exhaustive and satisfying book by Richard Sudhalter called Stardust Memory (Oxford University Press), I turned at once to Sudhalter's account of To Have and Have Not, and found out that the director of the film, Howard Hawks, had indeed decided that the young Andy Williams would be right for the song. And had recorded him singing it. And had made Lauren Bacall mime to his record on the first take.

Except that they all then decided that Lauren Bacall sounded better, even if untrained, and used her voice in the film instead.

So Alan Coren's quiz question, which has sustained me at dinner- table conversations all these years, now turns out to be nearly right, but not quite.

And you don't get any points for nearly right answers.

What I am dreading now is picking up a book called Great Hollywood Animal Performers and finding out that Rin Tin Tin had never fought for the Germans.

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