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How We Met: Robert Silman & Michael Rosen

'These Kray hoodlums started coming into his café. He realised he was being set up to provide an alibi…'

Adam Jacques
Thursday 23 May 2013 11:25 BST
Silma (left) says of Rosen: 'He was the most exhilarating companion, comic and clever'
Silma (left) says of Rosen: 'He was the most exhilarating companion, comic and clever' (Jean Goldsmith)

Michael Rosen, 67

A novelist, poet and broadcaster who was named the fifth Children's Laureate in 2007, Rosen (right in picture) has written 140 books, including 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt', which has sold almost four million copies. He lives in east London with his wife and two children.

I thought Robert was French when we first met, in 1964 at Middlesex University on a conversion course to study medicine. He had short black hair and was wearing a suit and strange French glasses. He wasn't French, but he had come straight from the Sorbonne in Paris, with a degree in philosophy. I was 18, he was 24, though he spoke more like he was 40.

He'd studied Sartre and had this way of talking: he was always trying to find a paradox or a contradiction in everything, and I'd often say, what the hell are you talking about? We talked politics a lot, and somehow Silman wheedled out of me that my parents had been in the Communist Party. After that he started calling me "the Stalinist".

This student with the odd posh accent was also running a café in Walthamstow Market. I remember him telling me about these Kray hoodlums who'd started coming into his café. One day a bloke came in and said to him, "Did you enjoy seeing Ronnie last night?" He realised he was being set up to provide an alibi, so he closed the café.

I had a plot to get out of medicine and I managed to get into Oxford, where I switched to studying English. Robert went on to work in medical research, but we stayed in touch.

He was always telling me how he was about to make a major breakthrough in an area no one had figured out yet, whether it was because he'd figured out which part of the brain brings the onset of puberty, or solving issues in obstetrics. But I've never sorted out whether he was on the verge of getting the Nobel Prize, or if it was all massive bullshit.

There'd been a gap of a year or two when he got back in touch in 2000, to say, "I'm now managing Joan Rivers as her English agent, for a play called Broke and Alone." I remember saying, "You don't know how to do that, you come from medicine."

A year after that, my [18-year-old] son Eddie came to me and said, "I've finished this play, dad, what can I do with it?" By now Silman was a theatre producer, so I said, "Why not send to him?", which Eddie did, and Silman read it. Three weeks later Eddie died [of meningeal septicaemia], and I rang Silman to tell him – he came straight over.

Silman always surprises you. One moment he's convinced that he's going to solve pancreatic cancer, the next moment he's producing a play by my late son. He underwrote the whole production and when I talked about paying, he said, "No, no, it was a gift."

Robert Silman, 73

A former medical researcher whose work has been published in 'The Lancet', Silman switched professions in 2000 to become a theatre producer, putting on shows at venues including the Theatre Royal Haymarket and at the Edinburgh Festival. His second novel, 'There's a Bug Going Around', is out now.

We met when we were both students at a Middlesex medical school for aspiring young doctors who'd never done science at school. We spent much of the time mocking fellow students and staff, and discussing politics, our principal passion. Michael was brought up in an old-fashioned Stalinist background, while I was exposed to radical left-wing politics in France. We'd have furious debates over the course of which I'd explain why communism was the greatest enemy of the working class, and he'd try to persuade me to the contrary.

I was running a café up in Walthamstow at the time and he'd visit me frequently. I had the Kray twins as customers – they'd come for the steak-and-kidney pudding – and he was fascinated by that. [The twins had owned a gaming club opposite Silman's cafe.]

He was the most exhilarating companion, comic and clever, so when he left Middlesex, we remained friends. While a student he wrote a play based on his mum and dad's socialist upbringing that was performed at the Royal Court. I thought it was super, but he was self-critical, and though it got wonderful reviews he thought it was too bourgeois and he didn't want to go down the theatre route.

At the end of my medical career, in 2000, I reinvented myself as a theatre producer. I had 11 shows at the Edinburgh Festival that summer. I remember talking to Michael about it a year later and he told me how his son was working as a stage technician in the West End and had written a play, which he sent to me. I thought it was staggering for an 18 year old.

But before I got to speak to Eddie about it I got a devastating call from Michael, who'd tried to wake him that morning, and he was dead. So that summer Eddie's was one of the shows I put on in Edinburgh; it got nominated as one of the five best productions nationwide. It didn't make up for his death, but it was at least something and it gave me solace.

Nowadays, I'm always listening to Michael's stuff on radio [as the presenter of Radio 4's Word of Mouth]. Except I fall asleep; it's terribly frustrating as he's quite interesting, but there's something about his voice…

He's so talented in everything he does to do with kids. But the thing that has stayed most in my mind is that play at the Royal Court. He could have been an outstanding playwright.

'There's a Bug Going Around' by Robert Silman and Steven Froelich is out now ( Rosen's forthcoming touring stage show, 'Centrally Heated Knickers', starts on 8 June (

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