I haven't looked like a baby for decades, so I didn't know what he was talking about until it turned out that the BBC has been putting out repeated snippets of Call My Bluff, the television panel game, on which I did occasionally appear in the 1970s.
In those days, I was just a staff writer on Punch, so when I was first asked on to Call My Bluff, it seemed like the beginning of fame and fortune and a big screen career.
It was very glamorous doing a TV programme and as the day came nearer and nearer for the first game to be transmitted, I found myself filled with a desire to see myself on the screen.
Unfortunately, we didn't have a TV set. This was at a time when my wife and I felt that our children were watching far too much TV, so when the rental agreement on our set lapsed, we pretended we couldn't keep up the payments and let them take the set away. This didn't affect the children much (they went to the Brothertons' flat upstairs and watched TV with their children instead), but it meant that my wife and I stopped watching altogether.
There are only two times when you regret not having a TV set. The first is when you find you can no longer take part in conversations. This all took place at a time when Telly Savalas as Kojak was just becoming popular, and I found to my amazement that people kept hitting me on the shoulder and saying, "Who loves ya, baby?"
"I don't know," I would say, rubbing my shoulder. "Who does love me? And why are you calling me baby?"
"No, no," they would say. "It's what Kojak says."
End of conversation. End of friendship, probably.
The other time you regret not having a TV set is when you are on it, so I asked a friend called Mary if I could come and see myself on her set, and she said, fine, but she would be out that evening and her mother would be in. Fine, I said, as long as she doesn't mind watching as well. Not at all, said Mary, as long as you realise that my mother consumes a lot of sherry and will be well away by then, but just ignore her.
So that's how I came to see myself on TV for the first time all alone with someone's mum who, full of sherry, burst into conversation throughout the programme - often when I was speaking on screen - and who seemed quite surprised when the programme ended.
"But you haven't been on yet!" she expostulated.
"I was on the whole time," I said mildly bitterly. "You just didn't notice."
"Oh, dear," she said. "What did you look like?"
This was a salutary lesson in the evanescence of TV fame. Not only did people forget you after you had vanished, it was also possible for them to forget you while you were actually on screen and in the room as well. So although I did Call My Bluff again off and on, I was never overawed by the experience again or even by passing telly fame.
If I ever met someone who had watched me on Call My Bluff, the thing they always wanted to know, oddly, was whether we made up our own false definitions or whether we were given little scripts to do. They were somewhat disappointed to learn that we were given scripts (though I always rewrote mine) for the very good reason that when, in the early days, contestants had been allowed to make up their own definitions, the actors always came a cropper because they could never think of anything witty or plausible to say, and their fake definitions were patently fake.
But it was also quite possible to leave things to the last moment and ride your luck. I remember sitting next to Frank Muir when it was his turn to give a definition, and watching him pause uncharacteristically for a long couple of seconds, then launch into a definition of a word as being a kind of second-best ornamental chair with four handles on which the Pope was carried in processions at a time when his best chair was away at the menders, or something like that.
"Frank," I said to him afterwards, "that definition about the papal chair. That wasn't the one you were going to do. It wasn't the one on your card."
"I know," he said, "but a split second before I was due to speak, I realised I had lost my card so I had to improvise like mad. I just had to pray that I was due to give a false definition. It's pretty hard to improvise a true meaning. Luckily, the odds were 2-1 in my favour."
Tomorrow: the day that Patrick Campbell made a woman cry.Reuse content