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CELEBRITY

Bought for the Coronation,  our first TV

had a nine inch screen. It stood in a corner

of the front room. My grandmother, who

had outlived two husbands, two World Wars,

and once had tea with Buffalo Bill,

thought that those appearing on ‘the box’

could see those watching, so was discerning

about whom she chose to watch, and when.

 

She particularly liked ‘What’s My Line?’, an import

from America, in which a panel

of four TV ‘personalities’ guessed

what a range of guests did for a living.

It was broadcast early Sunday evenings.

An hour before she would heat her curling tongs

in the small range in the kitchen. The house

would fill suddenly with the smell of singed hair.

 

Her favourite panellist – she thought him ‘refined’ –

was Gilbert Harding: a choleric,

Cambridge graduate; a poorhouse orphan,

prematurely middle aged; a good

BBC voice with the proper vowels,

a hint of tobacco. The Corporation

kept his secret, when ‘the love that dare not

speaks its name’ risked penal servitude.

 

Outed by the tabloids ‘as the rudest man

in Britain’, he was recognised in the street.

He described himself as a ‘tele-phoney’,

and recounted a journey on the Tube

from Russell Square to Oxford Circus

when he was pointed out, and fêted,

while, at the other end of the carriage,

T.S. Eliot was ignored. Old Possum,

another smoker, feared ‘the television

habit’, thought the word itself ‘ugly

because of foreignness or ill-breeding’.

Eliot, a confused anti-Semite,

and Groucho Marx were mutual fans.

As the latter might have said to the former

on the one occasion they ate together,

‘Tom, just because you’re a genius,’

flicking cigar ash, raising an eyebrow,

‘doesn’t mean you’re not also a schmendrick!’.

Harding lived for many years in Brighton,

whose bus company named a bus after him –

i.e. ‘bus’ as in short for ‘omnibus’.

 

My grandmother filled part of my childhood

with tales of her girlhood in Liverpool

from some sixty years before: the bloody

sectarian skirmishes; the frequent

prophecies of the end of days; the hulks

beached and rusting on the Cast Iron Shore

at the bottom of her steep street; and the boy

next door gone to America, and lost.

I can still recall his name six decades on –

and many decades since he sailed to Boston –

Johnny Flaws, Johnny Flaws.

 

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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6 Responses
  • Ian Craine
    July 31, 2021

    Many memories here too, David. I watched ‘What’s My Line’ every Sunday- Bob Monkhouse was on it too, and Barbara Kelly, wife of Bernard Braden.

    I wonder whether Eliot perhaps disliked the word television not because of its foreignness.but because it was a hybrid word- half Greek, half Latin.

    I also, like dear old Gilbert, spent some years in Brighton with an endless expanse of sea to gaze and wonder on each morning. They were still naming buses after local celebrities including my next door neighbour, Dora Bryan, as well as more recent luminaries such as Chris Eubank and Fatboy Slim.

  • John Huddart
    August 2, 2021

    That 9 inch screen – it traps us all. How right your grandmother was!

  • David Selzer
    August 2, 2021

    Grandmothers are never wrong!

  • Mary Clark
    August 9, 2021

    My grandparents got dressed up to watch Bill Graham on their neighbor’s television. Early 1960s! We didn’t know the celebrity tsunami that was to come. Then the wonder was baseball games and the nightly news.

  • Alan Horne
    August 10, 2021

    It is the last stanza of this that really strikes me, David. I didn’t know about the Cast Iron Shore, I want to check it out. But my dad, whose family were robust Protestants, was touched by the sectarianism. I recall watching the consecration of Liverpool Roman Catholic cathedral on TV, my dad roaring with laughter as the priest shook the censer – “Now he’s set himself on fire!” – while my mum scolded him: “That’s a terrible example to give the boy!”

  • David Selzer
    August 10, 2021

    The ‘Cassie’ features – mostly be reference – in a Frankie Vaughan movie These Dangerous Yearshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/These_Dangerous_Years.

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