I have just finished Nicholas Parsons' second autobiography "With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation". His first one was called "The Straight Man", and was very much a standard workman like story, interesting, but without anything special that stood out. This is more thematic, and the better for it; the anecdotes are very good, and the whole book seems much more like a work that Parsons enjoyed writing, rather than one he felt he should write,
One of my favourite anecdotes is about Clement Freud, whom, of course, Nicholas Parsons was re-acquainted with on the BBC Radio 4 show "Just a Minute". I love this story, which completely captures Freud's dry sense of humour:
"The success of any restaurant or club is entirely dependent on the personality of the individual running it. He or she needs to be a first class host with shrewd business acumen and a strong personality. Clement was all of those and made a huge success of his club, and it was sad when the theatre failed to renew his lease in 1962, saying that they wanted the room for experimental theatre work. On the last evening, he got neatly everyone he had ever employed to do a show for free. We did about 15 minutes each. It was a fantastic night. Everyone was there. None of the performers would have missed it for the world. The wine was flowing - Clement was clearing out his stock at cut prices - and the atmosphere was incredible. I understand that Clement made a tape of the evening, but I have no idea what happened to it. It would be wonderful if it was ever found and restored. It was a one-off occasion that could never be repeated. "
"Some people patronised the club for the atmosphere, some for the cuisine and some because they enjoyed the personality of the owner, whose agile brain and quick eye never missed a thing. He was always courteous but would not suffer fools and was never afraid to be candid in a subtle way with those he found unpleasant. On one occasion, a difficult customer complained to the waiter about the wine. The waiter reported it to Clement, who immediately went up to the man's table and politely said, 'You have a complaint?' "
"`Yes,' said the man. 'This wine is disgusting. It tastes like vinegar.'
`I'm sorry,' said Clement. 'I'll bring you something else.' He took
the bottle and the man's glass and returned with another glass, full to the brim. 'Would you like to try this?' he asked in a concerned manner.
The man accepted the glass and took a large gulp. Immediately, he spluttered his mouthful over the table: 'Good God, what was that?'
`That was vinegar,' said Clement with a wry smile. The man never returned, and Clement was perfectly happy, "
No story could be complete without "From Norwich, the Quiz of the Year", the notable TV show "The Sale of the Century". Nicholas used to chat to the contestants beforehand, to get to know them so that they would not be inhibited when he put on the pressure later in the show. I love these anecdotes too:
"On one particular occasion, the three contestants were an attractive young woman, a quiet, self-effacing middle-aged man and a friendly, voluble cockney character. I spoke to the woman first and discovered a little about her. I then turned to the Londoner and said, `On the card I have here, it says you are a pawnbroker ...' "
"Before I could go any further, he jumped in to explain rapidly that, while he did that kind of work, his main source of income came from working off barrows in the market, where most of his money was earned in cash: `Mostly back-of-the-hand stuff, you understand, Nicholas, nothing declared. What the eye don't see, the heart don't grieve over, if you get my meaning, Nicholas. I couldn't put that down as my living for obvious reasons, so I thought pawnbroker covered a multitude of sins, without raising any suspicions ...' He carried on loquaciously for a time and then said, `Oh, look at me, I'm talking too much.' "
"Turning abruptly to the third contestant, who had been listening quietly, he asked, And what do you do for a living?' The man replied dryly, `I'm an income-tax inspector.' I had never before seen anyone actually turn white in an instant. Needless to say, our cockney contestant did not do well on the show. "
"The best-ever response came one evening when a lady pressed her buzzer to answer one of the early £1 questions: ` According to the proverb, what should people who live in glass houses not do?' `Take a bath,' came the reply. She received a huge laugh. I told her the correct answer, `throw stones', and said I would love to give her a bonus, but as it was a serious quiz I had to take the money away from her total. "
The questions set were originally in no order, and did not work well, so very soon after the show's inception, Nicholas himself was researching, writing, and grading the questions so that they went from easy to difficult. He was just the presenter, and this was unpaid work, but work that he found thoroughly enjoyable. It was to stand him in good stead:
"In 1981, I appeared as a contestant on the show. It was one Christmas specials, and I took part alongside the comedian and presenter Tom O'Connor and the host of Border Television's Mrs, Derek Batey. We were each raising money for our chosen charities. My charity was the Lord's Taverners. "
"I was nervous beforehand, because I feared I was on a hiding to nothing. The man who presented himself to the public as having all the answers could now be shown up. There wasn't anything I could do but try my best. "
Because of his solid general knowledge, he won, with one of the highest scores any contestant ever had!
And here is another wonderful anecdote from another of the contestants on "Just A Minute", the inimitable Kenneth Williams:
"Straight actors are different. However talented they are, most find it a challenge to walk on the stage as themselves and make even a simple announcement. Actors are used to getting into character. I was once compering at a big charity event at Drury Lane, and a famous actress from the Royal Shakespeare Company was about to go on stage and introduce the next act. She was shaking with nerves, and I asked her what was wrong. `Well, I haven't done this before,' she replied. She would have been absolutely fine if she had been playing a role, but having to walk our there and be herself was difficult. On stage, actors not only have their character written for them but also have the support of those around them. They are part of a team and have someone to help them cover if something goes wrong. Kenneth Williams's story of appearing in an Agatha Christie thriller is a classic example. "
"Kenneth originally saw himself as a serious actor, and he was very good, but even in those early days he demonstrated an incredible ability to improvise. His character was shot quite early on in the play, and Kenneth was supposed to sink to his knees, fatally wounded in the stomach. When using guns in plays, there is always a standby in the hands of the stage manager, so if the one the actor is holding fails to fire the spare is used from the wings. It never sounds as realistic, as the shot is heard after the actor has pulled the trigger, but at least the audience is aware of what is supposed to have happened. On this occasion, both guns failed to go off. Silence. "
"The actors on stage were transfixed. The audience were whispering, and some were beginning to laugh. Kenneth saved the situation. He whispered to the actor with the gun, `Throw it at me.' In desperation, the actor did as he was told, and Kenneth caught the gun against his stomach. Falling to the floor, he went into his full death scene: `Oh, I'm going, I'm going . This is it. You never told me the gun was poisoned.' It was a brilliant ad-lib, and it brought the house down. "
"It is my belief that every performer, whether it is an actor or a comedian, exhibits a degree of insecurity, which is one of the reasons they strive to be on the stage. They need the acclamation of the audience to satisfy something in themselves about which they are not confident. "
There is also some introspection on how the outside façade of a performer is very different from the real individual beneath:
"Performers, myself included, can be quite shy. Their public personae may appear to be outgoing and confident, and in some cases this is genuine, but often the reality is quite different. Recently Annie and I appeared on All Star Mr &Mrs, presented by Phillip Schofield and Fern Britton. One of the questions asked revealed this side of my personality publicly. Out of earshot of Annie, who was sitting in a soundproof booth, I was given three possible answers to a question and asked to identify which one of the three I thought Annie would choose when the question was posed to her. The question asked was quite clever: `When are you most likely to fall foul of the just a Minute rules? Would it be: a) Repetition of an anecdote? b) Hesitation when entering a crowded room so that Annie decides to go ahead of you? Or c) Deviation from your usual afternoon nap?' Annie, who knows me so well, matched my answer in an instant: `Hesitation.' "
"If I go on the stage, I know what is involved. It may be tough and tense, but I go out there with the hope that my concentration levels will be high and I will be able to interact positively with the audience. If I go to a social function where I don't know anybody, I am more anxious. I do not know why, but I do think it is a common trait amongst performers, even if they do not admit it. "
There's also an interesting aside on the psychology of stand up comedians.
"Of all performers, I believe it is the comedians, in particular those who stand on stage on their own and have to live and die by their talent and nothing else, who are the most insecure and require the biggest boost from the audience reaction. This need for acclaim might explain a certain character trait I have noticed. A lot of comedians seem to have a distinctive attitude towards money. Most of them find it difficult to put their hands in their pockets. Some of them are downright mean. I put this down to the possibility that the much sought-after positive audience reaction is ultimately expressed in the income they earn. It is hard to part with that. "
This is an excellent autobiography, full of many wonderfully told stories, and I'd thoroughly recommend it.
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