Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Encountering Minor Celebrities

I guess my mind must be overly active at the moment and seemingly has a need to dump out all these quirky things that have been floating around in it for many years, like the Aeneid-Jimmy Ruffin parallels posting. Over the years I have 'encountered' quite a few minor celebrities, people from television and movies and some politicians. Generally I never talk to them but typically am in the same space as them for a while and get to see the extent to which they are or are not like how they appear on television and to some extent how much they look like ordinary people. Of course, often they are trying to appear like ordinary people anyway. I am not one of these people who runs up and asks for autographs or even engages the person in conversation, but I suppose I cannot shake off my curiosity with celebrities as people rather than as celebrities. Yet, it is the fact of them being celebrities that marks them out to my attention among the mass of other people I pass. This is just a list of those people I have encountered who could be called celebrities and an explanation of where I met them. The when is generally more vague, but I will give it a shot.


My earliest memory of encountering a celebrity is of seeing Richard Beckinsale (1947-79) with his daughter Samantha Beckinsale (born 1966). He was famous for appearing in the sitcoms 'Porridge' and 'Rising Damp' and she would later appear in various less successful sitcoms and in the firefighter drama 'London's Burning'. I remember a girl in our group (we were standing at the entrance to Woking swimming pool built in 1973) running to get his autograph. Until recently I assumed it was Kate Beckinsale (born 1973), Samantha's half-sister I had seen, but I now know she would have been too young.

In 1979 I stood next to Michael Foot (born 1913) [died 2010] in a public toilet in Guildford in Surrey. He was a Labour MP at the time and became leader of the Labour Party 1980-83. I ran into him again in the late 1990s in Bloomsbury and again on Charing Cross Road. Other politicians I went on to meet included Edward Heath (1916-2005) the former Conservative Prime Minister in Stepney in 1995 (he was an absolutely huge man physically), James Callaghan (1912-2005) former Labour Prime Minister in Bloomsbury in 1996. Tony Banks (1943-2006), Labour MP for Stratford, in Mile End, just down the road from his constituency. Tony Benn I met in Mile End in the mid-1990s and in Bedford in the mid-2000s (he comes over as an incredibly honest man and has a supportive interest in everyone who talks to him, especially children). William Waldegrave (born 1946) a former Conservative minister 1990-7 once sat down next to me in a cafe in London. He came across far less of the silly public schoolboy he appeared in the media at the time and I discussed his policies to grant easier access to government documents, which he had done in the early 1990s. I am not certain of the date but it was sometime between 1995-8, I guess after 1997 when he was out of office and free to sit in cafes.

I also met Alan Clark (1928-99), a Conservative MP renowned for his sexual exploits, driving a Citroen DS and being a diarist. He was very tall and like myself had gone to the wrong venue to hear his talk, probably in 1996-7, we were both in Mile End and were supposed to be in Bloomsbury. I went there by tube, he by car and I got there ahead of him to tell the assembled audience that he was on his way. He was a character probably 200 years too late, you could really have seen him as a Georgian rake. At the other end of the spectrum, though with a similar rather rogueish demeanour was George Galloway (born 1954), former controversial Labour MP and then MP for the Respect Party. I met him in 2003 in Shepherd's Bush around the time of the Iraq War. He comes across rather light-hearted and was a fool to appear on the 'Big Brother' series, but in real life you detect his sincerity and the passion of his beliefs. This came out strongly when he saw down that US committee that was effectively putting him on trial, but probably because the media dislike him, this serious side is minimised when you see him in the media, but comes out immediately when you meet the man face-to-face. I sat at the table in a restaurant next to Chancellor Helmut Kohl (born 1930) in 1985 in Bad Hersfeld in West Germany, he was helping an elderly woman, maybe a relative, with her lunch. Kohl, of course, was as huge as he appears on the television, rather dwarfing the small restaurant.

It was in a cafe, in Hampstead this time, that I met Sylvester McCoy (born 1943; real name I found out was Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith) who is probably most renowned for being the 7th Doctor Who in the long-running series. He looked smaller than on the television and seemed very pensive so I did not disturb him. I had almost run over the 5th Doctor Who, Peter Davison (born 1951) also famous for his role as Tristan Farenon in 'All Creatures Great and Small' in the 1970s. He was also in 'Campion' in the late 1980s and has had a second wind appearing as 'The Last Detective' and 'At Home with the Braithwaites' in the 2000s. He stepped out right in front of me whilst I was cycling through Woking (where he lived in his youth) in about 1984. I encountered the 6th Doctor Who, Colin Baker (born 1943) in Blackpool last October which I suppose is suitable because that is where the Doctor Who museum is housed. I have also spoken with Sophie Aldred (born 1962) who played the 7th Doctor's assistant Ace; she looks about 15 years younger than she actually is, incredibly well preserved, and at the same time saw Kenny Baker (born 1934) the man who was inside R2D2 in the 'Star Wars' movies, he too looks far younger than 74.


Before I get ahead of myself another British actor who stepped out in front of my bicycle was Nigel Havers (born 1949); this was in Oxford in 1992-3. He is a quintessential British actor as shown in series like 'A Horseman Riding By' and 'The Gentleman Thief', I liked him in 'Sleepers' (1991) in which he played a Soviet agent facing up to the end of the Cold War. Also known from being in the movies 'Chariots of Fire' (1981) and 'A Passage to India' (1984) and 'Empire of the Sun' (1987). Slightly further up the same road on another occasion while cycling, I came across the author Michael Moorcock (born 1939), someone I really admire, who, I think, had just emerged from a restaurant. In Oxford, on the station in fact, in about 1993 I met Freddie Jones (born 1927), a British actor who has been appearing in movies and television series since the late 1960s and internationally is probably best known for 'Firefox' (1982), 'Dune' (1984) and 'Wild At Heart' (1990); he played The Earl in the 'Neverwhere' series (1996). In 1993 he appeared in the Jeremy Brett fronted series 'The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes' in the story called 'The Last Vampyre'. He had appeared earlier in the same series at the stage of 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' in a story called 'Wisteria Lodge' so was the only actor to appear in more than one role in the series.


Some areas, especially in London, are good for meeting minor celebrities. A television actress I also encountered in Hampstead, was Samantha Janus (born 1972). She seems to have not been out of work at all in the 2000s appearing in numerous drama series and most latterly in the soap opera 'Eastenders'. She looked identical to how she appears on television. In almost exactly the same place, on another occasion, I encountered Stephen Greif (born 1944) who though born in Hertfordshire and his ancestors were from Hungary, Poland and Lithuania has often portrayed people of Mediterranean background [P.P. he recently played a French UN neotiator in 'Spooks']. He has been appearing on stage and television since 1970 and seems to be constantly working. His deep, rich voice has meant work in adverts and voiceovers and I came to know his voice well through playing 'Medieval Total War' and 'Medieval II Total War' as he has a suitable voice for medieval characters especially the Italian and Greek factions. Also in Hampstead I encountered Peter Barkworth (1929-2006) there in about 1999, unsurprising as I was standing outside his house having it pointed out as part of a walking tour of the area I was part of at the time.  He happened to come out of this front door to find a group of us there.  He appeared in various television series such as 'Telford's Change' in the mid-1980s but I remember him best as one of the British traitors in 'Where Eagles Dare' (1968).


Another area is Kew. Here I met local resident Ray Brooks (born 1939) who featured prominently in my youth as the narrator of the children's series 'Mr. Benn' and in the movie in the Doctor Who film 'Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD' (1966), his role in that movie as David a resistance leader was a role I aspired to in my youth. He was in numerous television series in the 1960s right up to the 2000s, having left 'Eastenders' this year. His greatest television success was in 'Big Deal' (1984-6) in which he starred. I also encountered Oliver Ford Davis (born 1939) who has been appearing in television series since 1972 (including 'A Very British Coup') and is probably best known for 'Kavanagh QC' (1995-9) and appearing in 'Star Wars - The Phantom Menace' (1999); 'Star Wars - Attack of the Clones' (2002) and 'Star Wars - Revenge of the Sith' (2005). Again he looked just as he does on the movies.

Before I forget, another minor celebrity I ran into in Woking, Surrey, was Buster Merryfield most renowned for being Uncle Albert (1920-99) in the decade-spanning comedy series 'Only Fools and Horses', this was sometime probably 1983 (in fact it must have been much later as he only joined the series in 1984, but it could not have been later than 1987 that I saw him) when he was at the height of his success. Not far from there, in Weybridge, I met Bernard Cribbins (born 1928) on a stall at a fete. He used to do adverts for the local fishing tackle shop on the radio in that area too. Cribbins has been working in the media since 1960 appearing in numerous movies, including 'Casino Royale' (1967), 'The Mouse on the Moon' (1962), with Peter Sellers in 'Two Way Stretch' (1960) and a couple of the Carry On movies. Notably he was also in 'Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD' alongside Ray Brooks. Cribbins returned to 'Doctor Who' appearing as Donna's grandfather in the 2007/08 season of the series. It would be interesting to also have Brooks back for an episode or two. In the television version of the Dalek Invasion story, the Doctor's granddaughter who was in her late teens stays on Earth in 2150 with the resistance leader. In the movie version she was only a small girl and goes off with her grandfather instead. Given recent references in the recent series to the Doctor's partner and creating a daughter, perhaps returning to visit his granddaughter would be an interesting twist.

London pubs can also be good locations for encountering celebrities if you get the right ones. I encountered Richard Harris (1930-2002) in a pub on the Mall the name of which I have forgotten, this must have been 1998. He was surrounded by young men no doubt in awe of his larger than life and drinking character. Harris had been a singer in the 1960s and 1970s and in movies since the 1950s, latterly best known for being Dumbledore in 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' (2002). Also in the late 1990s I encountered Ewan McGregor (born 1971) and John Hannah (born 1962) together in an argument with a member of the public in 'The French House' in Soho. McGregor is famous for 'Trainspotting' (1995), 'Moulin Rouge' (2001), the Star Wars movies mentioned above and riding his motorbike all over the world; John Hannah for 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994), 'The Mummy' movies and playing Inspector Rebus on television.

In Heal's the interior design store on Tottenham Court Road, I came across Marc Warren (born 1967), best known for his role in 'Hustle' (2004-) but was also in a particular episode of  'Doctor Who' in 2006 and was Mr. Teatime in the television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 'Hogfather' (2006).  He seemed to be looking at beds.  Not far from there I met Ken Campbell (1941-2008), distinctive actor, playwright and comedian, walking down Charing Cross Road, not too surprising as he was appearing in a play there, probably his History of Comedy which was on in 2003. He was very much as he appeared on television, really full of life. A few streets from there on another occasion I think about 1998, Peter Stringfellow (born 1941), the nightclub owner and minor celebrity who still dresses and has the weird California beach haircut that he has long sported, as if he had been frozen in time as a minor 1980s pop singer. He looked as over-the-top grinning as he does on television. I must say he does seem genuinely happy with life, that aspect did not seem artificial. As he emerged alone, however, without any entourage, it did seem as if he had stepped through the wrong door on the way back from the toilet and had found himself inadvertently on the street rather than somewhere else in the building.

On trains out of Euston station I encountered Terry Christian (born 1963) one-time infamous television presenter of youth programme 'The Word' and now a radio presenter, he looked very well preserved, and given this was the early 2000s not much different to a decade before. At the same station catching the same train on another day I encountered Richard Griffiths (born 1947) who was famously in 'Withnail and I' (1987) and has been in all but one of the Harry Potter films as Harry Potter's uncle, and had a successful television series in which he was the star, 'Pie in the Sky' (1994-7); he looked terribly sad which was a shame.


On aeroplanes in 1985 I encountered pop group 'The Christians' flying to the Netherlands and in 2004 'Right Said Fred' flying to Berlin. I also walked beside Robert Smith (born 1959) of 'The Cure' in Belgium in the early 2000s. He was another person who is actually huge in all directions when you meet him in real life. His big hair adds to that. I ran into Victoria Beckham (born 1974) of The Spice Girls with her husband David Beckham (born 1975 - footballer) at Victoria railway station in about 1997 on a day when David was bunking training. They were the celebrities who most looked like celebrities with a ring of men in dark coats around them it was as if they had carved out a bit of the air and made it their private zone. This is in sharp contrast to the others I have mentioned who were all generally approachable and certainly seemed to be going about their business. Aside from David Beckham the only other sports person I encountered was Duncan Goodhew (born 1957), the British Olympic swimmer, who was next to me in a tube train carriage going through Angel, Islington.


There are a couple of authors, Mike Phillips I admire his thrillers set in London, I met him in 1991 in Norwich along with actor Brian Bovell (born 1959) who appeared in the dramatisation of Phillips's 'Blood Rights' (book 1989; drama 1990) and in 'Prospects' (1986) and loads of television series latterly 'The Bill' and 'Hollyoaks'. Both were unassuming men you could chat with easily and have a beer with. Jeff Noon (born 1957) author of British kind of cyberpunk/surreal novels I met in a London bookshop in the early 2000s. He was far more craggy than I expected but interesting to talk to and with a real glint of excitement of ideas in his eyes. Kim Stanley Robinson (born 1952), science fiction author, I met him in Milton Keynes (the branch of Ottakar's there is the best in the country for meeting authors) in 2002 promoting 'Years of Rice and Salt' an epic counter-factual novel about if more people were killed by the Black Death of the 14th century. Again very down to earth and interested in the people talking to him and alert to their knowledge.

I met Andrew Roberts (born 1963) the Conservative historian and author in 1994 and again about five years later. He is much smaller than he appears on the television. He seems to have an addiction to twiglets. Despite his political leanings, he is interesting to talk to, his manner would seem fitted better to the world of Winston Churchill who he has written about. He does find counter-factuals interesting and we had a discussion about where a ghetto would have been located in London if the Germans had invaded Britain in 1940/1, given at the time we were in the East End which had had a large Jewish population at the time. I also met Mark Thomas (born 1963) last year in Southampton, he is a comedian, author and increasingly a political activist. He has good things to say about Goths which is excellent and is really sincere and a relaxed guy to talk to and very funny, a unique man.


I encountered Queen Elizabeth II twice on the same day in 1992 by accident as she was visiting Oxford and I went to the railway station to buy a ticket and she was arriving there and passed in arm's reach of me, and then I cycled back across town and she went through the complex traffic system so I was stopped outside Christchurch college and she went passed me again bestowing another wave and smile on me.


Other people who are not celebrities but I felt honoured to meet were the head of the British Red Cross who sat down next to me on a coach to Lincoln again in the late 1990s and a former paratrooper on a train to Euston who had been dropped on Sicily and at Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden and had survived. I could have talked to him for days. I also met a man who had run with Sir Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954, that was in Oxford. I also met a man who had been captured in Hong Kong in 1941 and had spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, but then had worked for 20 years in Japan. He really showed me what forgiveness was, and also, he pointed out, that you cannot blame a whole people for the atrocities of their leaders and their military; within any population there are good people. In 1996 in Whitechapel I also met three German men who had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigades. These people were all both ordinary and incredible at the same time and on reflection I would trade meeting a thousand celebrities for meeting such people.


For someone who is not a celebrity-seeker I do seem to run into quite a few. I imagine certainly now I have left London and even Milton Keynes that it will occur less. In my experience, most celebrities are pretty ordinary, usually smart and well turned out, either much older than you expect or exactly the same as you expect their appearance to be. Maybe celebrity in itself is a perserver or maybe they can just afford to buy products that keep them looking good. I am certainly stunned to have found Sophie Aldred is five years older than me, I imagined her far younger from her appearance.

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