We first met in the mid-Fifties - or was it the mid-Sixties? - when I arrived at his enchanting Georgian mansion bearing a bottle of the finest champagne and one of my most endearing smiles.
"Pray allow me to introduce myself, cher maitre," I said, "for I have been greatly looking forward to this most historic of meetings."
"Piss off you fat prat," he replied, using the vivid colloquial manner of speech for which he was so justly celebrated. And with that he snatched the aforesaid bottle and slammed the door in my face.
Nursing a sore nose, I moved around his delightful garden to the back-door, where I took it upon myself to once again ring the bell. At one and the same time an Alsatian dog leapt at my "private parts" (dread bodily region!) and, from an upstairs window,a bucket of freezing water was hurled upon my head. "Now piss off out of it or I'll smash your bloody pipe down your throat," came the genial yell, delivered in those ostensibly gruff, yet quietly affectionate tones. Not wishing to incur the master's wrath and confident our friendship was now built upon the most solid of foundations, I beat a dignified retreat.
My instincts proved sound. Just two days later I received one of Johnny Osborne's famous postcards. It touched me deeply and I still keep it in my breast pocket, a fitting memorial to our long-standing friendship. "Don't ever mess with me again, you pompous stinkarse, or I'll slit your bloody throat in two," it read.
And so a pattern was set. Never dull, always exciting, sometime splenetic but seldom less than deeply considerate, our meetings were characterised perhaps above all by John's waspish wit, and his delightfully ironic range of personal abuse - abuse that Itreasure to this very day.
From time to time, we would meet within the sacred portals of the Garrick Club. Needless to say, our intellectual swords would soon be crossed, but always in a spirit of mutual respect. Well do I remember bumping into him in the dining room one day. He was seated alone, but I could tell from his hangdog expression that a little congenial hobnobbing would suit him down to the ground.
"John, dear boy!" I exclaimed, pulling up a chair and beckoning the waiter for a wine list. "How goes the old scribbling, eh? I must say, I love a pleasant night out in the theatre - just provided there's no bad language and there are one or two pretty costumes and a handful of comely birds of the unfeathered variety!!!"
Such repartee obviously deeply amused him, for he came back at me with the immortal aphorism: "If you don't bloody get the hell out of it you fat-arsed toad I'll punch your bloody head in."
"Classic Osborne!" I congratulated him, suavely pulling my little writer's notepad from my top pocket. "Definitely one for the anthologies! I must jot it down while it's still fresh in the old memory - 'if you don't bloody get the hell out of it you . . .' - now, what was it again, Johnners?"
One should never forget that the roots of the man lay in the theatre and, on form, he was an actor par excellence. At that moment, he put on the most marvellous act I have ever seen of someone throwing a temper- tantrum: turning puce, banging his fists on the table and declaring that my presence was a "monstrous imposition". BANG ON CUE, I roared with laughter. "Hilarious!" I exclaimed. "You really should 'tread the boards' more frequently, old man. You'd make the most tremendous Captain Hook!"
Ossers hated us English for our smugness and our capacity to soak up even the fiercest criticism, and we loved him for it. He may have referred to me as the loathsome Arnold, but now that he is safely dead and buried, I look back on him not with anger but with affection, as a true Entertainer(!), a card and someone who added to the gaiety of nations.
His inauspicious leave-taking means that one may look back on his oeuvre (dread word!) and more readily acknowledge that it is simply not up-to-scratch. "A searing evening: always frank, sometimes brutal and deliciously unsettling," I wrote after the first night of Look Back In Anger.
But on closer inspection, it seems awful old period bilge, best forgotten. Now that he is dead, I feel sure John would be the first to agree with me. May we rest in peace.Reuse content