Tag Archives BBC


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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.






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