I was confronted by a gentleman in white uniform and military cap. "Milko!" he exclaimed.
"Are you one of the Kent Milkos?" I asked, "Not by any chance related to the Mr Softee I once encountered in a vehicle on the promenade at Sevenoaks? Or are you perhaps a Northumberland Yoghurt?" The poor fellow looked utterly blank. Behind me loomed Tony Powell. "My dear Wallace," he began, "this is Mr Milko from the village. His grandfather, also Mr Milko, introduced the Silver Top to North Minehead."
"Might he perchance," I whispered into Tony's ear, "be the original for Widmerpool?"
For 30-odd years, I have been compiling an essential companion, Who's really who in A Dance to the Music of Time, to be published this week, to tie in with its showing on the dread gogglebox.
Who, for instance, is the original for the beautiful, promiscuous and self-destructive Pamela Flitton, who breaks hearts and wreaks havoc wheresoever she goes? My probing of this fascinating question was long and hard, but in the end I managed to whittle the list down to just four: Dame Vera Lynn, Miss Irene Handl, Miss Noele Gordon and Dame Barbara Cartland. A tough choice, but finally I realised that it could only be Miss Noele Gordon, that most notable of thespians, perhaps best known for her role as Meg Richardson (later Mortimer) in telly's earlier long-running drama series, Crossroads.
Suddenly, I realised I had discovered the key to the entire oeuvre. How obvious it all seemed now! Tony had constructed his series of inter-related novels using the prestigious drama-series Crossroads as a blueprint for human life: the comings and goings, the strange coincidences, the sudden arrival of titled folk with more money than sense, the unexpected deaths and affairs, the air of luxury and savoir-faire that only such a soignee and worldly backdrop as a fully-modern motel on the outskirts of Birmingham could provide. Further investigation revealed that, yes, the young Powell had indeed worked briefly - for just two short episodes - in the Crossroads kitchen as a disgruntled sous-chef, employed under the charismatic and brilliantly talented (if at times notably temperamental!) Head Chef, Bernard Booth. Armed with quill-pen and Reporters Notebook, the young Powell must have picked up many a tip on character and plot development from the Crossroads Motel - and I now had discovered the huge debt his 36-novel sequence, including such memorable efforts as A Question of Saucing, Temporary Chalets and At Lady Molly's Motel to that most wide-ranging and life-like of series.
But would this revelation help me in my quest for the true identity of Kenneth Widmerpool, the marvellously off-putting and incompetent yet fiercely ambitious anti-hero of A Dance to the Music of Time? For years, the better type of London party had echoed to the strains of the bookish and the well-connected attempting to solve this most enigmatic of puzzles. Some said Frank Longford, others Hartley Shawcross, still others George Weidenfeld. And now I, Wallace Arnold, had the solution in my grasp!
It was in early 1973, while watching a repeat of episode 6,112 of Crossroads - the classic episode in which assistant manager David Hunter, having spilt some gravy on his kipper tie whilst arguing with uppity garage mechanic Jim Baines, rushes into the hair salon for a damp cloth, only to discover salon manager Rene in the arms of his erstwhile wife, the unstable Rosemary - that the true identity of Widmerpool rose from the television set and hit me between the eyes. Widmerpool was none other than Sandy Richardson, the seemingly mild and physically frail yet by all accounts ruthlessly ambitious under-manager son of the proprietor, Meg Mortimer!
Further textual analysis of all 15,671 episodes convinced me that Tony Powell had taken his acclaimed novels lock, stock and barrel - their deceptively wooden dialogue, their deceptively ham-fisted coincidences - from this influential series. It is only right, then, that television should this week reclaim its long-lost child. My only regret is that the location has been moved from Birmingham to London, that Amy Turtle has been abandoned and that the distinctive theme tune has changed for something more lush. Yes, I shall be watching the entire series with my cocoa, but not, I think, with great pleasure.