WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK : When Bottom falls out of your world

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The Independent Online
Here's one, previously overlooked, for Mr Rod Ellis's anthology, How To Tell If Your Parents Aren't On Drugs. They suddenly rule, and in your front room on a Friday night, that Bottom is an example of televised prepschool humour.

You'll gather from this that the week has been marked by a bungled attempt to kill Pratley, and by other disappointments, too: by the acquisition of a motor-bicycle that I don't particularly want; by my ex-temporary literary agent, Cat Ledger, taking my friend Frankie Fraser to a traditional tea-room in the West End where a lady plays a harp and, by slipping all the individual pots of apricot jam into her handbag, failing to impress him; by the discovery that I'm the same age as the Bishop of Coventry; and, most seriously, by the realisation that the idea for my memoirs, From Sunningdale To This, isn't mine but is due to Jeremy Levering, who was the travelling new man on Root Into Europe (preferring, when we held various minority groups up to prime-time ridicule, to stay indoors sewing roses on to his disco slippers).

He and I were sitting in the garden of Mark Chapman's property in the South of France, when he suggested that we should collaborate on a book called Travels With My Uncle.

"You and I go round the world together," he said, "sharing a variety of adventures. In the course of these, I try to kill you with my moral and intellectual vigour; and you me with narcoleptic racontage."

I was shocked. "Do you really want to kill me?" I asked.

"Of course," he said. "You're in my way."

Brooding about his words this week (all the more chilling for being delivered on a May morning in a Dordogne orchard), I had to admit that in my time I had committed many dark atrocities against the elderly, not least my father.

All his life my father had wanted a boat. On summer holidays in Broadstairs, he'd go into Ramsgate every day to gaze at the boats for sale. There was one he particularly wanted, so I asked him why he didn't buy it. It seemed simple enough to me. If you want something, you buy it. My father smiled sadly and shook his head. It was too expensive, he said.

Later when I was at Cambridge, he threw money at me so that I could start literary magazines and be sponged off by Indian poets. We used to drink his gin, the poets and I, and sneer at him because he didn't understand.

When he died, he left a million, enabling me to publish Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and, later, to put on musicals, meet Peter Cook and wear an overcoat up West.

I brooded, too, about the circumstances in which I became a theatrical producer - on a whim, purchasing such good will as still accrued to the Jack Waller management, an old-time outfit which had presented No No Nanette and other successful entertainments, and purchasing, too, its 76-year- old general manager, Bert Leywood, who had once been half of the novelty dance duo Albert and Ivy.

My father was a sweet old man but I treated him with vicious insolence. Irritated by his habit - affectionately meant, I'm sure - of referring to me as "the boy", I first tried to blast him with jokes and cultural references he wouldn't understand and, when this didn't work, I moved him into smaller and smaller offices until he and his mementoes of happier days ended up in a broom cupboard in the hall.

Every morning he struggled up from Worthing on the train, thereafter, and uncomplainingly, taking up his position in the cupboard where he'd doze the day away, recalling times, perhaps, when he hadn't been so lonely, when he and his Ivy had sat together in their Sussex garden and everything had been all right.

One day, when Beyond the Fringe was on its try-out tour in Brighton, he received a message in his cupboard that my boy Charlie, aged two, had knocked a kettle of water over himself; and, judging that he should break this to me face to face, he caught the train to Brighton and hurried to the Theatre Royal.

Unaware that there was a matine in progress, he stumbled on to the stage, crying "Where's the boy?" in the middle of some smart skit or other. The audience roared with laughter, and so did I, and this confused him so much that he fell over the scenery and sustained a nose-bleed.

No, Lovering had got that right. The young really do hate the old. Here's a dilemma, though: when old, is it better to mix exclusively with the young - who will pay you the compliment, at least, of wishing you dead - or with your contemporaries, who, though kinder, will be able to look into your eyes and know subjectively that you've had it?

The former, I think; but having it in mind that I might be wrong, I resolved henceforth to be nicer to Pratley if I had the chance. Nor was the chance long in coming. Pratley arrived in my front room on Friday and announced, for all the world like a man with a world-class argument up his sleeve, that Bottom was an example of prep-school humour.

I don't know about you, but I can rub along well enough with someone who is unamused by Bottom: I'd not want to spend more than a minute or two in such a person's company, but I wouldn't necessarily want to kill them. I draw the line, however, at an out-of-town half-wit dubbing it prep-school humour. Accordingly, and on the spot, I devised a plan - involving a motor-bicycle, Cat Ledger, Frankie Fraser and the Bishop of Coventry - to despatch Pratley with all due speed.

I'll report on this next week.

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