If you move down to London, it is often to get out of your own stifling provincial backyard, and one consequence of that is, there’s a fair chance you might spot a celebrity, for celebrities shine more in the capital than they do in the sticks, where as a rule they seem quaintly mundane and comically misplaced rather than charismatic. At 68 my own metropolitan celebrity quotient amounts to a dizzy 4, and 25% of those were spotted last week when just a few yards from where I live in Hackney, I observed the actor Bill Nighy (born 1949) crossing the road, and looking reasonably enough, just a little self-conscious to be innocently out and about on his own patch . Nighy with his thin, well-worn and subtly versatile face, has been in countless successful films, including Richard Curtis’s comedy Love Actually (2003), as well as playing an impressively evil bureaucrat Sir Bernard Pellegrin in the truly excellent The Constant Gardener (2005), Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter (2010) and on TV as Baron Arthur Bigge in, I would argue, the extremely overrated royalty series, The Lost Prince (2003). I’d also add that just possibly Nighy has not been given enough credit for the fact he effortlessly portrays hilarious, earnest and downright diabolic parts with equal ease. For my money though, one of his finest roles was on the radio of all places, and BBC Radio 4 at that, which as you know I normally avoid lest I turn into a basilisk repository of too many recyclable facts. But in 2010 he starred as lead part in an adaptation of Simon Brett’s impressively literate and nuanced comic detective novel Charles Paris, Cast in Order of Disappearance…and at lunchtime no less, when normally R4 fans are looking for something nice and easy on the ears…like that Boys Own chummy hysteria known as Just a Minute.
My first metropolitan celebrity in the flesh was the legendary comic genius, the scriptwriter (Round the Horne, At Last the 1948 Show) and actor, Marty Feldman (1934-1982) who I observed standing alone outside Hampstead tube station in late 1972. You would never mistake him for anyone else, as Feldman suffered from extreme exophthalmia, meaning his eyes literally popped out of his head in a kind of displaced batrachian style, so that alongside that other virtuoso comic Gene Wilder (1933-2016) he was tailor-made for Mel Brooks’s barmy ghoulish comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). The important thing to stress, was that Feldman looked even more startlingly pop-eyed in real life than he did on the screen, and so the ontological gulf between Marty the man and Marty the actor, seemed absolutely unbridgeable. Two years later when I was working at the Wellcome Institute, I saw Alan Bennett (born 1934) the country’s best-known playwright, on a bicycle heading sharpish down the Euston Road, and 45 years on I still recall the mundane fact that he stood up and looked behind him briefly. Finally and preceding last week’s Nighy by a mere 4 decades, in late 1979 and queuing to buy a tube ticket in lieu of an Oyster, I noted sharp-jawed Timothy West (also born 1934) a very fine stage actor who cut his teeth on Shakespeare parts, but has since been in soporific, by which I mean pharmalogically tranquillising soaps, like Coronation Street and East Enders. He is married to Prunella Scales aka Sybil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame, and sadly, as of 2014, West admitted that they had been living with the early stages of his wife’s Alzheimer’s.
That said, the inevitable ageing process also has its perks, which can sometimes be spectacular. Here in London I get free medicine prescriptions, free transport on tubes, buses and trams, thanks to the munificent and aptly named Freedom Pass, and, incredibly, the well-stacked Hackney libraries are so generous, that you can borrow their DVDs and CDs for free. So it is that in the last 3 weeks I have enjoyed that finely tuned comedy of naïve young love, the 1965 A Blonde in Love by Milos Forman, the Czech best known for his English language One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Not to speak of that little known masterpiece by Akita Kurosawa (1910-1998) the 1970 Dodeska Den, a kind of Japanese Under Milkwood about a motley if extremely poignant collection of Tokyo slum dwellers, which includes an amiable young simpleton who thinks that he’s a roaring goods train, and bawls dodeska den (Japanese for chuff chuff) in imitation of the shunting engine. Most epic and ambitious of all, was Cannes Grand Prix Winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which combines stunning photography of the bare landscape of Eastern Turkey with brilliant laconic dialogue from a squad of cops in charge of a wretched killer who has serious problems in remembering where he buried the corpse.
This Hackneyian generosity when it comes to nourishing food for the heart and mind, extends even further to those like me, who, should you favour hard and fast categories, are what you might call old. I was told when I signed up at the library that DVDs could be had out only for a week, so that after a few days I was puzzled that the computer print off said I didn’t have to return them for a fortnight. When I checked with the library staff, they were equally baffled, until they went away and read the fine print of their manual. It turns out that if you are over 60, not only are the DVDs free, but you get twice as long to read them. Even more impressive, if you take out a clutch of CDs, you have a whole 4 weeks to lie back with your massive glass of pensioner’s bog standard Merlot from Aldi, and blissfully enjoy them.
You could of course read something far from flattering in that double and quadruple provision. To wit, that being old and passing gaga, you clearly need much longer to watch a film, as it might take you an hour or two, or even a decade or two, to bend and switch your DVD player on. Best also to allow a hefty amount of time to stoop down to your CD player, as your woefully shaking hands might take another cosmic aeon to remove the far too small disc from the recalcitrant case.
Recall then the piquant query of the arthritic dotard, bent on his knees to pick something up off the floor, who plaintively enquires of his enviably upright wife:
“Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?”
The next post will be on or before Friday 20th September