Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Oscars, fame and who's up themselves.

Watching the Oscars has got me thinking about fame - and character. The ones who think of others and those who think only of themselves.

I suppose the first time I saw a famous face was when I was a very little girl and The Queen made a visit to the Midlands. I remember screaming like a whirling Catherine Wheel at a sixties pop group, 'The Rockin' Berries' at The Grand Theatre (who remembers them?) and I first saw famous Shakespearean actors on the stage at Stratford and others at Birmingham Rep. But my lasting memories date from the 1970s.

Appreciating fame was a slow burner for me. I was underwhelmed by it. No-one turned my head, it seems. When T Rex was on tour and the gloriously-sparkly Marc Bolan did a gig at our civic hall I was hard-pushed to become a giggling awe-struck chick. I must have been born with an innate sense of superiority - or on a low light - or born with deep self respect as he was merely a chap - wasn't he? He didn't turn my head, as they say. Nevertheless, after all the encores and the crowds had squashed back through the aisles, outside to their hum-drum lives, my friend Helen and I crept up some stairs and found Bolan's dressing room. I've often wondered why there were no queues of adoring fans. Without any ado he gave us his autograph and we were truly pleased with ourselves. Later, whilst we were discussing the definition of the word 'groupie' - and wondering whether the girls we'd seen hanging around Marc Bolan were examples of such an intriguing group - we were only eleven and first year grammar school girls - I realised I'd left my expensive Parker pen with Mr Bolan. We had to go back. There was still no queue of autograph hunters - why not? - and as I held out my hand for my pen - to the famous man - he gave it a kiss. 'I'm here for my pen,' I said, not glowing at all at the feel of his lips on my knuckles. (I did get my pen back. He was clearly used to adoration.)
Later David Bowie was touring with Aladdin Sane. I'd always liked Bowie's music but was unimpressed that he was almost an hour late on to the civic hall stage. This time I was with a boyfriend - still on a low light - and I didn't go backstage for an autograph. Just continued buying his records. 

When I was studying for my 'A' levels - physics, chemistry, biology and general paper and I'm not even a scientist - I started listening to radio jazz programmes and spotted the work of a female saxophonist - Barbara Thompson. It was many years later when I got to speak to her as a friend of ours knew Ronnie Scott and put on jazz sessions around Bath. That time I was more star-struck, perhaps because she was not a household name and the chances of seeing her were far more remote than the sight of Bowie. Perhaps. 

Before I left home to study for my first degree I used to go to JB's - a night club in Dudley. In true Midlands fashion the beatifically-haired Robert Plant was ignored as he leant on the bar and ordered a pint. We were there to see the Steve Miller band - Robert Plant was merely part of the audience. But he looked good and wasn't self-admiring. Just part of the gig. Of greater interest that night when chatting in the loos to former class mates - was finding out who'd lost their virginity - and who hadn't - since we'd all left upper sixth.

Since then our neighbour, Justin Adams, has become Robert Plant's lead guitarist. It's a small world.

Once at university the late, great John Peel was DJ for a night - that was fun - but I didn't shake his hand. Is my reluctance to engage with fame because I'm uncertain about what to say? Could be.

For my fortieth a group of us went to London and we were tripping over stars in Shaftesbury Avenue. Neil Pearson was big in Drop the Dead Donkey and he was there in the crowd, off for a drink or a meal or a show. Ewan McGregor sat next to me in the stalls for a revue with Eddie Izzard, Stephen Frost and friends. That was exciting but all I can remember was his conversation about his mother. Rather nice. Everyone clapped when Peter Andre took his seat in the royal box. Why him, in particular? 

We have an active theatre in Bath and I once saw Griff Rhys-Jones rushing along the streets, in full make-up, either out for a swift walk or to purchase something, he was in an awful hurry. Paul McGann stepped out from the underground car park one Saturday afternoon, he was in The Monocled Mutineer and I remember he seemed shorter than I expected. Anthony Head, before he was famous in Buffy Vampire Slayer, was waiting outside the then 'Gemini' Cinema one Saturday evening, for a friend presumably. I don't recall the film we saw. But he was just hanging around minding his own business. 

And at gigs we saw Peter Gabriel several times. One Christmas I was shopping in Waterstones, and bought about three books as gifts, Peter Gabriel was in the same queue with three bags of hardbacks. A lot of people to buy for, it seemed. One other Saturday afternoon, looking at household items in the co-op, I saw John Nettles, before he was known as Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. He was appearing in pantomime in Bath. Prosaically he was wandering around with a few hand towels. He had no shopping basket and looked lost. Had he forgotten to pack properly?

One of the most exciting incidents regarding the famous was meeting Terence Stamp. I'd absolutely loved him as Sgt Troy in the 1967 film version of Far from the Madding Crowd. The day I saw him I was tired and had had to travel back from work by train via Bristol Temple Meads. As we queued for a cab at Bath Spa railway station my fatigue must have shown on my face. I have never forgotten his kindness when he pointed to a cab which had just drawn up. He was ahead of me in the queue but beckoned to me to get in - he would wait for another. Conversely I had a quite different experience at Lucknam Park when Noel Edmonds was staying there as a long-term resident. I had finished my swim in the leisure spa and went to the poolside bar for a drink. While I was reading the paper I heard the big-time DJ ask the bar attendant to put the lights down so he could enjoy the candle light. I protested.
          'There's a woman over there asking for the lights to stay on,' laughed Noel Edmonds.
          'I'm reading a fascinating article about dyslexia, Mr Edmonds, and I need to be able to see,' I said. I was furious at being called 'a woman over there' and his assumption that no-one needed the bar lights on. He was used to getting people just to do.

When I last had a slipped disc I had six months off work as I really couldn't move well, let alone teach and I was in a stupor from taking painkillers. However to get me out walking Richard used to drive us to Dyrham Park and Marshfield. On one such early spring day I saw Jo Brand and her daughters walking along Marshfield High Street. I didn't stop to speak to her as I felt she was enjoying some down-time, but I've always admired her and would have loved to have said so. Perhaps I'm just shy. Perhaps.

After my swim at Bath Spa hotel, I'm no longer a member at Lucknam Park, just as the 2012 Olympics ended, we did pluck up the courage to speak to the great Mo Farah. He was attending an event at Bath University and staying at the hotel. He seemed a very ordinary chap, and at that particular time was merely keen to get something to eat. But I enjoyed shaking the hand of a man who had just won the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races. He was something but didn't show it. 

On another occasion John Hurt sat quietly by himself in the pub attached to Bath's Theatre Royal - when he was appearing in The Seagull. Better, I suppose, for him, than being mobbed. Perhaps.

Similarly, sitting listening to a self-obsessed acquaintance over coffee I noticed Alison Steadman walk past the cafe with her mum. Another famous person just going about her daily business. My self-obsessed friend was so self-obsessed she couldn't even be bothered to look up at the great Alison Steadman. I'm no longer friends with Ms Self-Obsessed but I love Ms Steadman. 

At the Edinburgh Fringe it's easy to be surrounded by comedians propping up the bar at The Pleasance. We saw the then emerging League of Gentlemen there (whatever happened to Mark Gatiss?) and Jenny Eclair just chatting to fans. Stephen Frost, again, was walking along a narrow passage way in old Edinburgh when I spotted him. We've since got to know his brother Anthony, the eldest son of the famous artist Sir Terry Frost, and an artist himself. And they're all so nice and unassuming.

One other time a less famous character actor - Terence Hardiman  - stepped out from the taxi rank and went into the hotel opposite Bath Spa Station. He was awfully kind to a magazine seller and politely said, 'Thank you. I don't need one now.' That's the way to speak to people. It gets the message across without sounding rude.

When I used to go to comedy clubs I saw another famous comedian - he was so brilliant - and still is. (Jeremy Hardy's shortness of height was soon forgotten.) Like Paul McGann we simply don't notice artistes' heights on screen but stature is noticeable in the flesh. And Jeremy Hardy's always on the side of teachers and points out, in the main, we aren't criminals. Great on radio 4 too.

One winter - flu was all around - we were sitting near the comedy stage with our drinks. The show was yet to start and the great Tim Vine, red-nosed, full of a cold, sat and chatted. He said, 'Can I ask one thing?' 
                                      'Not can we do your show for you!' I said. He smiled, did the show, but must have felt wretched. Teaching is bad enough when you have the lurgy but to be well-known and ill and still have to perform in front of a crowd - and make them laugh... Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be.

When it was announced that Fay Weldon was to be my manuscript tutor at Bath Spa University others thought I'd found a pot of gold. 
                                      'Hello, Fay, famous person, I'm Nina,' I said, at our first meeting. She smiled and was the kindest, most supportive tutor I could wish for and invited me down to her house. Goodness knows what she truly thought of my early scribblings but marked my submission as worthy of a distinction - sadly her co-marker didn't agree. I've since had my novel edited by Kylie Fitzpatrick who is equally kind and supportive. Not up themselves at all. There is clearly no need.

Having witnessed, fleetingly, the way that some of the rich and famous go about their lives between shows or book-signings what has struck me is that no-one needs to be rude or self-congratulatory. There is nothing wrong with being polite, however grand they may be. Noel Edmonds is one of the few who has managed to remain in my memory as someone who thought he could treat others in an off-hand manner. I'm sure he's really nice and meant no harm and perhaps the famous can't always be on their guard. Perhaps.

But it's Terence Stamp for whom I will always harbour a secret passion - and he's so nice with it. What a pity we never shared that taxi. 

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