I sat in the front row at the Neuilly pantos

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The Independent Online
I NOTE with an interest not uncoupled with enthusiasm that my old benefactor and quaffing partner Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed (dread name]) has completed the thankless task of restoring the old Neuilly home (or Brand Neuilly Home - I pun]]) of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

I look forward to a return visit the minute Mohamed can drag himself away from behind his counter, for I spent many a convivial day at Neuilly with the Windsors way back in the Fifties and Sixties (dread decade]). What memorable times they were, full of promise and glamour and merriment] One night, the Duchess ('We Wallises must stick together]' she once drawled in my ear, her right hand stroking, in the most regal of manners the thick Harris tweeds that enclosed my left buttock) would sing us a selection of Marlene Dietrich numbers while her husband would sit, pipe in hand, accompanying her on harmonium. And then the next night, the two of them would stage traditional English pantomimes, with the Duchess invariably in the role of principal boy, the Duke in non-speaking roles (Tinkerbell, a gatepost, the Village Idiot), and any one of a selection of visiting elder statesman - Martin Bormann, say, or the young Kurt Waldheim - as Mother Goose.

On the Sunday night of these delightfully long weekends, we would all serve ourselves a healthy portion from an excellent cold collation before promenading into the Pink Drawing Room to watch The Duchess perform the most sublime of all her party pieces. I can picture it now; lights down, music up, expectant murmur from the assembled company, and then nothing but hush, for on comes The Duchess, clad solely in oilskins and waders, a bejewelled silver bucket gripped firmly in her hand. Looking never more stately, The Duchess would then bend that celebrated neck of hers back to its fullest extent whilst simultaneously opening her mouth as wide as it would go; now, with a dramatic roll of the drums, a specially trained trio of Natterjack Toads would leap - 1-2-3 - straight out of the silver bucket and into the upturned mouth, poised ready for The Duchess to perform her famous gargle.

Tarantara] One, two, three toads would pop into the air, one after the other, and then back down into the elegant throat, in ever more rapid succession. The exclusive coterie of guests would be positively enthralled. 'To think that the people of Great Britain rejected this lady as their Queen]' breathed a visiting Bolivian ambassador to me. 'With a gift such as hers, just imagine how much more exciting the Trooping of the Colour might have been]'

Anyone who was anyone and no one who wasn't someone would flock to these entertainments, so that The Duke and Duchess were ceaselessly framed by a glittering array of charm and sheer magic: Maurice Chevalier, Nina and Frederick, the young Sid James, Mr Pastry, the Singing Nun, Mr and Mrs Arthur Negus and Jack and Bobby Charlton were all to be seen at Neuilly and from time to time they would all indulge in a triumphant sing-song: experts now widely credit the number one hit record, 'Back Home' (1970) not, as previously thought, to the England World Cup squad, but to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their many friends, all singing live at Neuilly.

Ah, memories, such memories] Yet underneath it all, one could not help but detect the unmistakable aroma of melancholy hanging like so many dead petunias in the air. I have heard it said that the Duke never quite came to terms with the fact that he was no longer King, and that the Duchess was not his Queen. This lent a terrible poignancy to their joint insistence that, come what may, their daily trips around the local supermarket would be conducted in full ceremonial robes, the Duchess's train carried by half-a-dozen of the smaller showbusiness fraternity with whom she surrounded herself, among them Mr Frederick 'Parrot Face' Davis, the Young Ronald Corbett and the Duke's distant cousin, Miss Barbara Windsor.

And what remains of those glittering, far-off days? Here one of the Duke's discarded lipsticks, there a packet of Kellog's cornflakes with 'HRH' embossed in gold, here a jaunty recording of The Duchess duetting with Arthur Askey in a haunting version of the Honey Bee song, there a letter, replete with hugs and kisses aplenty, addressed to 'Darling Wallace' and signed, 'Your ever-loving Wallis'. But that, as the historians say, is another story . . .