Brenda and Phil the Greek
The commissionaires at the BBC’s World Service are used to celebrities. They meet a hundred each day. One, however, reached heights of sang-froid that others can only dream of emulating.
He was on duty one day towards the end of the second world war, and was manning the desk when a tall distinguished looking gentleman approached. “Good evening,” this august being addressed the uniformed flunkey in a charming accent. “I am the King of Norway, I have to make a broadcast; I think it is in the studio B14.”
“Yerst, hang on.” The uniformed jobsworth dialled a number on one of a row of shiny black telephones. “Yer, it’s reception ‘ere. I’ve got this geezer, says he’s….”
And leaning across the desk he came out with one of the coolest lines in the history of commissionairism; “Where d’you say you was king of, mate?”
And there’s a postscript to that story. The Great and Good King of Norway duly made his broadcast. When he was halfway through, the producer realised he was under-running the time slot. Thinking he’d fill in with some suitable music, he sent his assistant to the record library. “Get me a nice fanfare, will you?”
The library wasn’t too near this particular studio, and the assistant had to run. She arrived back in the studio only just in time to fling the record onto the turntable. The listeners, who had enjoyed the King’s earnest, patriotic speech, were enthralled to find it followed by a loud drum roll and the sound of barkers entreating people to ‘roll up, roll up and try your luck’.
Well, fanfare sounds very like fun-fair when you’re in a hurry….
Do you have problems remembering names? I’m terrible at it. There’s an American process that’s supposed to imprint the person’s name on your memory; as soon as you’re introduced, say the name as many times as possible; “Well hello Dave, how do you find the set-up here, Dave? Want a coffee, Dave. Hey, Dave, that’s a nice tie.” Etc, etc.
I’ve tried all sorts of things, but all fails. I’m constantly meeting people I know and fail to introduce them to whoever I’m with. I’ve tried “I’m sorry, your name’s just slipped my memory.” “Ted.” “No, of course I know your name is Ted, but it’s your surname I can’t bring to mind.” And vice versa, of course. But no name forgetter beats a certain person who shall be nameless. Because I’ve forgotten his name!
Many years ago, just after the second world war, he was at a very posh reception, and found himself in a corner with a lady whose face he vaguely recognised. He tried all the old tricks to find out her name – the conversation went like this:
“Where are you living now?”
“Oh still in the same old place.”
“How are the children?”
“They’re doing well, thank you.”
“And how is – er – your husband?”
“He is very well – very busy, but always cheerful.”
In desperation; “And what’s he up to now?”
“Oh, he’s still king.”
And another scurrilous, apocryphal tale of that wonderful lady:
A few years ago, she awoke at the same time as usual, but no breakfast appeared, no maid to lay out the day’s clothes, no wake-up call. Worse, there was the sound of raised voices in some distant part of the royal household.
The good lady roused herself, put on a dressing gown and sallied forth – beyond the green baize door, as it were. The voices grew steadily louder. They were shrill. Very shrill.
By design, or by some curious sequence of events, a large number of the domestic staff of the various royal households are rather light on their feet (translation; a bunch of shirt-lifters). That morning, it seemed that each and every member of the handbag-swinging brigade was trying to scream louder than all the others at all the others. There was trouble at t’mill (or fracas au moulin in poufterese). A right royal battle was all set to break out when the main kitchen door opened, and in swept the lady herself.
Instantly, there was silence. Sheepish looks all round. “Well!” the royal personage breathed. “I had always understood that I was the only queen in this house. Now I see I was wrong by a factor of several hundred percent.”
An alternative version of that story takes place later in the day. She sailed into the domestic quarters to find the ‘Agglethorpe’ group in mid-bicker and restored order by raising her voice and requesting “would one of you old queens mind getting this old Queen a Gin and Tonic?”
The Right Royal Personage was well-known for enjoying a flutter on the gee-gees. But she wasn’t not an expert and her bookmaker, William Hill, did very nicely as a result.
Just after the birth of a certain royal baby, William Hill started taking bets on what the name of the new infant would be. On the day before the announcement, a stream of distinguished looking gentlemen in black jackets and striped trousers arrived in the W. Hill shop in Kensington and placed handfuls of used notes on the name “William”.
And those notes, plus quite a few others, returned to the palace the next day when Prince William’s new monicker was announced.
A newly-arrived story about the same wonderful lady:
A few years ago she and some other members of the Windsor family were doing a duty tour of Australia. At a garden party in Melbourne the crowd was unusually inquisitive, pushing and shoving to get a better view of the august personages.
Though the Queen Mum had a formidable constitution, the heat was slightly oppressive and, when the crowd got a little closer than was comfortable she was heard to murmur, “Please don’t touch the exhibits”.
No treatise of this type would be complete without a mention (or two) of my hero – Phil the Greek. An inspiration to all of us. A few of his classics:
Accepting a small gift from a Kenyan native woman, the Duke asked: “You are a woman, aren’t you?”
He described Peking as “ghastly” and told British students, “If you stay much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”
He told a World Wildlife Fund function: “If it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”
He told a Briton in Hungary: “You can’t have been here that long, you haven’t got a pot belly.”
Asked to stroke a koala bear, he said: “Oh, no, I might catch some ghastly disease.”
He asked a wealthy Cayman Islander: “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?”
He welcomed German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a trade fair as “Reichskanzler”. The last German leader who used the title was Hitler.
In Oban, Scotland, he asked a driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them to pass the test?”
After the Dunblane massacre, he said: “If a cricketer suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, are you going to ban cricket bats?”
He went to Amritsar, where 379 Indians were slaughtered by the British Army in 1919, and queried a plaque claiming 2,000 had died, saying: “The number is less.”
He “commiserated” with Brunei students flying to study in Glasgow.
He suggested Papua tribes are still cannibals, telling a student trekking: “You managed not to get eaten, then.”
He told deaf people near a steel band: “Deaf? If you are near there, no wonder you are deaf.”
The Gaffer, as he is known, said a dodgy-looking fuse box in a hi-tech factory looked “as if it was put in by an Indian.”
Another meeting of BBC representatives and royalty. The former Queen Salote of Tonga, though she hadn’t quite got the presence of Britain’s first lady, was not a lady to be trifled with. I don’t suppose she often went a few rounds with a Sumo wrestler, but if she had, the Oriental gentlemen would have been completely outclassed. In short, she is a large body of opinion.
During the broadcast (depending on whose version of the story you want to believe) of the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Phil the Greek, the Big Lady made a famous appearance. She was in procession in an open horse-drawn carriage, waving to the multitude and grinning with all of her teeth. But her vehicle was to the rear of the convoy, and the two commentators (who will remain anonymous because I’ve no idea who they were) were hot and tired and running out of things to say without repeating themselves. A recipe for disaster:
FIRST COMMENTATOR: And here comes Queen Salote of Tonga. What a fine costume. Very decorative.
SECOND COMMENTATOR: And in the Tongan national colours, I believe. But who is the small gentleman in the carriage with her?
FIRST COMMENTATOR: Oh. I don’t know. (PAUSE). I think it must be her lunch.