Magazine article The Spectator

After the Lights Go Down

Magazine article The Spectator

After the Lights Go Down

Article excerpt


edited by Hugh Massingberd Macmillan, 15.99, pp. 340

In 1921 a comedian called Alfred Lester - `Always Merry and Bright' - famous for gloom on- and off-stage, though only briefly mentioned in the obituary pages seven years later, sang the ultimate hypochondriac's song, 'Germs'.

After observing:

Drinking water's just as risky As the so-called dangerous whisky And it's often a mistake to breathe the air he went on to list fatal foods, ending:

Fried liver's nice but, mind you,

Friends will soon drive slow behind you

And the papers then will have nice things to say.

That is how obituaries were viewed in Lester's time and until quite recently as dull, formal eulogies, with only coded hints of more interesting characteristics, `he never married' being the best known. There was also, `he didn't suffer fools gladly,' i.e. had a foul temper, `he always spoke his mind,' i.e. was excessively rude and `he became unreliable,' i.e. drunk.

All this has changed in the past decade or so, thanks to the Independent and above all to the wondrous Hugh Massingberd. As obituaries' editor of the Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1994 he did two important things: he encouraged vivid, sometimes outrageous, pen-portraits rather than pious lists of achievements, and included delightful oddities who would never have found a place in the stuffy columns of former years.

Massingberd has collected the best pieces in three anthologies: Eccentrics - of whom he himself is a living, lively example, Heroes and Adventurers, and now Entertainers. The first two were best-sellers, the third definitely deserves to be.

In it he includes not just actors, variety stars and musicians but television personalities, circus performers, chefs, popular writers, drag artistes, soft pornographers, dubious gurus, one `pioneering transsexual' and the world's fattest man.

The result is a marvellous 'browserie', almost every article containing at least one priceless anecdote. Hermione Gingold and the beloved actress Coral Browne - that amazing combination of chic and coarseness - provide perhaps the highest camp material, Charles Hawtrey, of Carry On fame, the lowest.

For sheer unconscious banality I applauded the quotations from the historical novelist Jean Plaidy: `Mary was disturbed when Henry told her that he was going to attack the Barbary pirates', for uproarious farce the story of Victor Maddern, twisted-mouthed NCO of countless British films, fluffing his lines while filming Dixon of Dock Green. Given the words, `It's down at Dock Green nick,' he came out with, `It's down at Dick Green Dock.' Trying to correct himself, he then said, `It's down at Dock Green Dick'. Finally he exclaimed, `Who writes these bloody scripts? Can't I just say down at the nick? F- Dock Green!'

Interestingly the new, relaxed style of obituary leads to a more kindly, tolerant approach to its subjects than the old purselipped Times genre. Only the bogus likes of that dreadful priapic prophet, Baghran Shree Rajnesh - who, as we are cruelly reminded, even duped Bernard Levin come in for real, if dead-pan censure; though I would not much have liked the egomaniac silent-screen star Pola Negri, and some of the jazz musicians appear as cantankerously competitive as opera divas.

Yet we are not told the undeniable fact that that splendid rotund actor Bill Fraser `did not suffer fools gladly' in any sense. …

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