Flights of fancy and bitter truths

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The Independent Online
"You were very sharp with Diana Rigg the other night," my friend said to me recently, and it turns out that in one of the bits of Call My Bluff they've been repeating I was quite sharp, some 20 years ago, with Diana Rigg. Tragically, I can't even remember meeting Diana Rigg. I can remember doing Call My Bluff now and again, and there were always glamorous actresses on the show, but I can't remember any of them except Joanna Lumley.

The people I remember best were Frank Muir and Patrick Campbell, who were just as glamorous in their own way. One programme, I remember, featured the Scottish actor Bill Simpson, who was then famous for portraying Dr Finlay, but who never seemed to repeat his success in any other role. He was sitting talking to team captain Campbell before the show, and Patrick Campbell rather provokingly said to him, "Tell me one thing - why do you actors always come on this show and put on such a flamboyant act? Why do you always have to perform? Why can't you just be yourselves?"

"There's a simple answer to that," said Simpson. "If I was just myself, nobody would ever pay to see me."

"Really?" said Campbell. "Goodness, that's very sad."

Something disingenuous about that, I think, as Campbell was playing a part himself the whole time, as all comic writers tend to. In his early, wonderful writing, done before he left Dublin, he adopted the pose of the slightly wide-eyed innocent abroad in a world which was not only baffling but Irishly so. Later, when he lived in the South of France and flew in specially to do each Call My Bluff (at the BBC's expense), it was harder to maintain the image of the innocent abroad in his Sunday Times column, and I don't think he ever manufactured an equally successful persona to replace it in his writing, but on the screen he used his stammer and his aristocratic nose and hawk eyes in an odd but very successful combination of the patrician and appealing.

He and Frank Muir were the two tallest men I have ever met working in tandem, both being about six and a half feet high. I was once standing next to Frank in a public lavatory in Manchester when I saw the man standing at the urinal on the other side look up at Frank and do a double take. Not often you find yourself spending a penny next to a household face. He felt he ought to say something to mark the occasion and finally said, idiotically: "You're very tall, Frank!"

"Yes, aren't I?" said Frank elegantly. "But beautifully proportioned, I think," to which the man could find no answer, which was no doubt Frank's intention.

Like two giraffes surrounded by banal zebras, Frank and Patrick seemed to have an understanding that excluded everyone else, including the chairman, Robert Robinson. Before one game Frank took me aside and said: "My team has won a lot of games on the trot and it's beginning to irk Patrick, so it would be no bad thing were we to lose tonight. Not that I want you to try to lose ..." We did, as it happened, lose the first game, and I said at the turn round interval, "Well, Frank, all was for the best - we lost ..."

"Yes," he said, and added, with feeling, "Sod it!"

I always got the feeling that whereas Frank took recognition in public with a long-suffering grain of salt, Patrick Campbell actually relished it. Once, when all the panellists were staying overnight in a Manchester hotel, Campbell appeared in the bar after the show. It was full of Mancunian matrons who had just finished some grand dinner and all recognised him with squeals of delight. With fake bashfulness he allowed himself to be led into their midst and for the next hour or so they ate out of his hand.

As they sat round him paying court, they were joined by the hotel manager's wife, who turned out to be Irish like Campbell.

"Where are you from?" he said.

"County Cavan," she said.

"County Cavan!" he echoed. "A dear little county. A splendid place. One of my favourite bits of Ireland."

She agreed with him, so he waxed more lyrical. "County Cavan is a place I could live and die in. A green corner of God's earth. Not like Manchester. I wouldn't live or die in Manchester. How on earth could you have left Cavan to live here?"

He went on in this vein for a minute or two when suddenly she shocked him by bursting into loud sobbing, dashing into her passing husband's arms and crying: "He's right! I hate Manchester! I want to go back to Ireland! Darling, take me back!", and she was led away in tears while Patrick looked around bemused, saying, "Oh dear. Did I say something?"

It isn't often you see one person's flight of fancy being another person's bitter truth.