The day I stopped wanting to be famous was the day I walked up to Notting Hill Gate with John Cleese. John Cleese and I lived not very far away from each other, and I bumped into him one morning as I was going to the shops, so we walked up together, chatting away, me frivolously, him seriously. (John Cleese is one of the most serious people I have met.)
I slowly became aware that some of the people on the pavement in front of us were subject to alarming seizures and fits. They were having difficulty in walking. Just for a moment I thought we were in a convoy of seriously ill pedestrians, till it flashed upon me that they had all recognised John Cleese and were doing silly walks. Just because John Cleese had once done his sketch based on the Ministry of Silly Walks, the great British public now thought it was funny to see John Cleese and start walking stupidly.
John Cleese did not think it was funny. He had clearly trained himself not to notice it any more, actually, and was apparently oblivious to it. But it must have happened to him all the time, all over the place, and – well, as I said, if I had ever wanted to be instantly recognisable, it stopped there. I think this must be why famous people quite like getting together. They do not necessarily like each other, but they know they are not going to stare at each other.
I have seen quite a few famous people at close quarters, mainly because I worked on Punch magazine for twenty years, and famous guests came to the Punch Lunch every Wednesday. Princess Margaret came once, and I can remember that after the first course she leant over to editor Alan Coren at the head of the table and said something to him, which caused him to bang on the table for silence.
‘Sorry to interrupt the clearing of the soup plates,’ he said, ‘but Princess Margaret tells me she is dying for a fag. So we are going to have the royal toast right now. It’s a bit early, but after all, it is her sister. I give you the toast – The Queen!’
A bit cheeky, and I don’t suppose Alan ever got invited back to Kensington Palace after that, but a moment to remember. My most memorable Punch Table encounter with celebrity, though, came when I was sitting between two of my heroes, John Wells and Tom Stoppard. Two fine and funny writers. I was overawed. They hardly noticed me. They talked over the top of me. I listened. The first thing I realised was that they had never met before. The second was that they had a lot of people in common.
‘What’s Eleanor Bron up to these days?’ said Stoppard.
‘Eleanor is in a play with John Fortune,’ said Wells. ‘It’s coming to London next month.’
‘Good!’ said Stoppard. ‘And Jonathan Miller?’
‘He’s back in opera,’ said John Wells. ‘Do you see much of Andre Previn these days?’
‘Not since we did that play together…’ said Stoppard.
I was dazzled. This was way out of my league. I did not know any of these people. But then something funny happened. They came to a pause in their name-dropping halfway through the meal, and, for something to say, John Wells said to Stoppard: ‘Where did you meet Eleanor Bron? I didn’t know you were friends…’
‘No, we’re not,’ said Stoppard. ‘But I know you knew her, so I thought I’d ask after her.’
‘So you don’t actually know her?’
‘No. But you and Jonathan Miller have worked together, haven’t you?’
‘No, we haven’t,’ admitted John Wells. ‘I don’t really know him..’
And they worked their way back through everyone, and discovered they had nobody in common at all. They started the meal as buddies and ended as strangers. It was a very Stoppardian situation, in real life.
But I think my most memorable brush with the famous came when I was flying to Switzerland on a job for Punch, in the company of cartoonist Geoffrey Dickinson. Just as we were strapping ourselves in for take-off, a grey haired man walked up the aisle into the VIP section, and Geoffrey gasped.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Did you see who that was? It was Charlie Chaplin!’
And it was. It was the elderly, distinguished great actor, disappearing through the VIP curtains. I just saw the back of him.
‘That’s terrible,’ said Geoffrey, after a moment’s thought.
‘Well, it means that if this plane crashes, and we are all killed, and the headlines say “Funny Man Dead”, it won’t be us…’
Feb 5 2007