Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: David Frost

Vintage Sleaze Part 3 Robert Boothby

I was an obstreperous teenager in the 1960s. This was the time of The Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. My contemporaries and I thought we were as smart as they were. The satirical magazine Private Eye was there to blow a raspberry at any deference to authority. David Frost and his team on BBC ridiculed politicians. Peter Cook did a devastating imitation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “Britain’s role in the world is that of honest broker. Never was a nation more honest. Never was a nation broker”. Macmillan told us we had “never had it so good”. True, there was relative comfort after the austerity of the post-war years but we were not in a mood to be grateful to Macmillan. He was an easy figure to mock, with his damp-looking moustache and the drooping bags under his eyes.

In retrospect, he seems a giant compared to Cameron, Osborne Mandelson and the Milibands. Today’s politicians have zero experience of real life, going straight from think tank to government without doing a proper job or having any experience of ordinary life. Macmillan came from a privileged background. He worked in the family publishing house, whose authors included Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats and Sean O’Casey. He was educated at Eton and Balliol, Oxford. However, he began his real education in the First World War and found fulfilment and self-confidence in the army. He was wounded five times. He lay in no-man’s land for a whole day with a shattered pelvis surrounded by the dead. It was not until 1920 that the wound healed and it gave him pain and a shuffling walk for the rest of his life. He saw 70,000 men killed in one day on the Somme. He loathed Herbert Morrison, (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather), for having been a conscientious objector in the First World War, calling him ‘a dirty little cockney guttersnipe’.

He acquired a political concern for the lives of ordinary people. He went into politics at the age of 30 as the Conservative MP for Stockton-on-Tees, where most of the workers voted Tory and Macmillan was the workers’ candidate. At the worst point of the slump, almost half the male population of Stockton was unemployed. He viewed his constituents with the same paternal eyes as he viewed his troops during the war.

In parliament, he became associated with a group of youngish Conservatives known as the YMCA. This group, which included Robert Boothby, campaigned for government intervention to revive industry and bring work to the unemployed. Boothby and Macmillan were also together in a group of Conservatives who supported Churchill in his fight against appeasement of Hitler. In his 1967 biography of Macmillan, Anthony Sampson comments archly: “Macmillan was much less brilliant than the fascinating Boothby, his rival in many fields; but he was more consistent”. Boothby had also been at Eton and Oxford (Magdalen).

Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, on 21 April 1920. She spent her childhood at Chatsworth House and Lismore Castle. Her nephew William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington married Kathleen, a sister of John F Kennedy.

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In 1929, Lady Dorothy began a lifelong affair with Boothby, an arrangement that remained unknown to the public but was no secret in the circles Macmillan moved in. Dorothy said to Boothby: “Why did you ever wake me? I never want to see any of my family again”’. She had four young children at the time: Maurice Macmillan, Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden (1921–1984), Lady Caroline Faber (born 1923), Lady Catherine Amery (1926–1991), Sarah Heath (1930–1970). Dorothy was virtually living with Boothby for five years while she taunted Macmillan that Sarah was Boothby’s child. The stress caused by this may have contributed to Macmillan’s nervous breakdown in 1931. There were rumours that he had attempted suicide. Macmillan’s solicitor Philip Frere pointed out that divorce would be fatal for his political career. Until she died in 1966 – suddenly, of a heart attack as she was putting on her boots to go out to a point-to-point meeting– if they were both at Birch Grove, Macmillan’s house in Sussex, they would meet for dinner and then go their separate ways. Years later, Boothby described her as “on the whole, the most selfish and possessive woman I have ever known”. He also said: ‘She had thighs like hams and hands like a stevedore. She reminded me of a caddy I once seduced on the golf course at St Andrews”.

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One hopes that Macmillan got some solace from his relationship with Eileen O’Casey, the wife of playwright Sean O’Casey. In front of me, I have her memoir Cheerio Titan! The pictures show that she was a beautiful woman. She does not mention Macmillan in the book but there has long been speculation that they were in love with each other. She was born in the same year, 1900, as Dorothy but did not die until 1995.

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In 1975, Macmillan went to see Boothby and asked to know the truth one way or another about Sarah. Boothby assured him that Sarah was not a Boothby because he was always scrupulously careful in his affairs. The writer and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy (Boothby was a cousin of his mother) has asserted that Boothby fathered at least three children by the wives of other men.

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Boothby was not, in reality, a careful man. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was impossible to escape his booming voice. He seemed to be on Any Questions? on the radio every week. Lady Violet Bonham Carter recalled appearing on the programme in 1953. Boothby gave her a lift to Minehead in his Jaguar. She noticed a “stowaway” in the back – Tom Driberg MP. Boothby also took to television as a self-confident and flamboyant performer.

Despite his relationship with Dorothy, Boothby was a promiscuous bisexual at a time when male homosexual activity was a criminal offence. He did not start to have physical relationships with women until the age of 25. From 1954, he campaigned publicly for homosexual law reform.

John Pearson, biographer of the gangsters, the Kray twins, wrote:”Behind the famous bow-tied public figure with his unmistakeable deep voice and a fund of good stories was a drunk, a liar, a reckless gambler and a bisexual.”In 1963, Boothby began an illicit affair with East End cat burglar Leslie Holt, a younger man he met at a gambling club. Holt introduced him to Ronald Kray, who supplied Boothby with young men and arranged orgies in Cedra Court, receiving personal favours from Boothby in return.

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The Conservative Party was unwilling to press the police to end the Krays’ power for fear the Boothby connection would be publicised. The Labour Party MP Tom Driberg was also rumoured to have had a relationship with Ron Kray. When the underworld connections of Boothby and Driberg were about to be revealed in the Daily Mirror, Labour PM Harold Wilson’s lawyer Lord Goodman got to work. At Goodman’s personal dictation, Boothby wrote: “I have never been to all-male parties in Mayfair. I have met the man alleged to be King of the Underworld (Ron Kray) only three times, on business matters. I am not, and never have been, homosexual.”

 

Both Kray twins were bisexual and they knew all the secrets of Boothby’s sordid double-life. Neither Ron nor Boothby wanted sex with grown men. Their preference was young men aged between 16 and 18, and Ron had his very own supply to share. John Pearson coyly writes that Boothby’s particular perversions were “too shocking to describe in a newspaper even now” but hints at sado-masochism. In 2009, a British television documentary, The Gangster and the Pervert Peer, showed that Ronnie Kray was a man-on-man rapist. The Krays used their information about Boothby to win favours from him.

NPG x126471; Ronald ('Ronnie') Kray; Robert John Graham Boothby, Baron Boothby by Unknown photographer

The Mirror backed down, sacked its editor, apologised, and paid Boothby £40,000 (a million in today’s money) in an out-of-court settlement. Journalists who investigated Boothby were subjected to legal threats and break-ins. The press became less willing to cover the Krays’ criminal activities, which continued unchecked.

It was a puzzle why Goodman, with his close Labour Party connections, came to represent the arch-Conservative Boothby. When, in 1968, Pearson asked Boothby to explain this conundrum, he told Pearson it was on the instructions of ‘the little man’ – Harold Wilson. Cabinet papers later revealed that Wilson was seriously worried that Driberg – one of his oldest and most trusted friends in politics, a man he would eventually ennoble and make chairman of the Labour Party –  would be drawn into the affair.

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John Pearson wrote: “What nobody appeared to notice, however, was that Goodman’s actions had not only given the law’s protection to an elderly ennobled catamite, but also to a psychotic and potentially homicidal gangster.”Over the next four years, their megalomaniac violence would be rampant. They killed George Cornell, Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, the ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell and Teddy Smith, a one-time boyfriend of Driberg.

The Krays were eventually arrested on 9 May 1968. They were convicted in 1969 thanks to the efforts of Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read. Once the Krays were in custody, many witnesses came forward. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ronnie was probably a paranoid schizophrenic and remained in Broadmoor Hospital until his death on 17 March 1995. In 1988, Jimmy Savile was appointed by Edwina Currie as head of a task force to sort out the union at the hospital. Reggie was released from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2000, eight weeks before his death from cancer.

According to The Gangster and the Pervert Peer, over 40 years later, recently discovered documents from the public records office suggest that other public figures were influenced by the Kray twins, but have never been brought to justice.

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Driberg marries!

The Boothby (and Driberg) story shows that connections between politicians and criminals is nothing new. We should also not be surprised when the elites, of whatever party, use connections, cover-ups and intimidation to suppress the truth.

 

 

 

 

Al Read

 

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My parents took me on more than one occasion to see Al Read at the Gloucester ABC Regal some time in the 1950s. My father whispered to me confidentially that Al Read was not making any serious money from his performances because he had to pay nineteen shillings and sixpence in the pound as income tax. This was because he was a very rich man, a successful businessman, as well as being a comedian. My father told me that Al Read was wealthy as a result of his successful meat processing company. Read told Michael Parkinson that he came from a long line of sausages.

 

Alfred Read was born in Broughton, Salford in 1909. His trajectory into show business was an unusual one. Because of this, he gained strength to protect his originality and had the confidence and independence to resist the received wisdom of those seasoned professionials and impresarios who were expert at telling him how it had always been done. Read wanted to do something new and was not interested in repeating the tired old formulae. As he so wisely said: “amateurs built the Ark; professionals built the Titanic.”

 

Al soon found that he had a natural gift for the patter required to win new customers: ‘It was as if I was selling myself along with the brisket, tongue and boiled ham.’

 

He discovered his gift for identifying and isolating specific social types and when he returned home, he would practise imitating their accents and gestures. Early on, he spotted and developed one of the favourite characters of his later comedy routines – Johnny Knowall. He noticed many loudmouths on the terraces at Old Trafford when his father took him to watch Manchester United.

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Some of his dry wit must have been inherited from his father. Some of the stories Al Read tells remind me of the wit and wisdom of my own father. As a child, Al overheard a friend of his father boasting about a pub in Liverpool where you could get ‘a pint of ale, a packet of Woodbines, a meat pie, and a woman and still have change out of a shilling’. Read’s father drew on his pipe and remarked, ‘couldn’t have been much meat in that pie.’

 

Al was called on to entertain his father’s friends by singing little songs like, ‘I’m a little brown mouse and I live in a house’. At North Manchester Preparatory Grammar School, he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. His real schooling in performance was when his father sent him out ‘on the van’ with a salesman called Bennett to sell Read Brothers meat products.

 

 

The family business prospered and Alfred became a director at the age of 23. Business gave him an outlet for performing. He was invited to attend the annual dinner dance of the Grocers’ Society and asked to provide some entertainment. He performed a version of Stanley Holloway’s ‘Albert and the Lion’ monologue and it went well enough to secure some new orders for cooked meats.

 

Joining the St Annes golf club was a good career move because he was able to befriend stars such as Sid Field when they were performing in Blackpool. Al suggested a couple of sketches to Field.

 

In 1940, he tried out his performing skills on the NAAFI’s northern buyer who lunched long and well every day at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel. Read was waiting for him one day when he got back to his office a little the worse for wear at 3 p.m. Read went through a routine using a custom-made gas mask case filled with samples. He secured a deal to supply the armed forces with two tons of luncheon sausage a week.

 

Read volunteered to join up but was in a reserved occupation so had to content himself with being a section leader in the Prestwich Home Guard. He also contributed to the war effort by devising an economical canned meal called Frax Fratters – fingers of meat in a potato casing. This was successful enough for comedians to work it into their acts.

 

Over the years, he became friendly with many people in show business. While entertaining some friends in a Blackpool bar with a prototype of the Loudmouth, Read was overheard by Peter Webster, who ran a children’s show on the pier. He offered him a spot in a weekly show at Midland Towers holiday camp. This led to an approach from impresario Jack Taylor, who offered him a spot in his show at the Regal Theatre on Blackpool’s South Pier.

 

He died a death but, soon after, Joe Hill offered him a spot at the Grand Theatre, Bolton as a replacement for Frank Randle, who had let them down. He did well enough to be taken on for a week but afterwards went back to the sausage factory, which he now ran because his father had retired.

 

In 1950, at the annual reception at the Queen’s Hotel, Manchester, which Al organised for the meat company’s big customers, he decided to entertain them with a routine featuring Johnny Knowall as a decorator. This went down well and the customers gathered around congratulating him. A man in a duffel coat detached him from the group and steered him towards the bar. He introduced himself as Barker Andrews, a producer with BBC Light Entertainment. Andrews said that he had overheard the performance of “The Decorator” and had decided on the spot that he must perform it on radio’s Variety Fanfare. Barker enthused: “You are going to change the potential of comedy, not only in this country but also the world”.

 

Read believed it was his great good fortune to be assigned Ronnie Taylor as his producer and he established an instant rapport with him. Taylor worked hard with Al –three days on a script for a ten-minute sketch – but managed to retain an air of spontaneity for the finished broadcast.

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The BBC was delighted and pressed him to do more broadcasts. The problem was that Barker Andrews was thinking big. For a pilot show, other performers, including Patricia Hayes, and an orchestra were brought in. Al felt swamped and told Ronnie Taylor, “I don’t perform – I am.” The pilot was never broadcast and the BBC agreed to let him do it his way recording a monthly show, which would be broadcast in the prime Sunday lunchtime spot.

 

The introduction to his radio show was usually “Al Read: introducing us to ourselves”; and he himself described his work as “pictures of life”. He said that he never told gags and never tried to make people laugh. He drew on his own personal experience and observation of the small embarrassments and frustrations of daily life and encouraged the audience to be complicit with him by letting them draw their own conclusions by using the word “you”: “When you walk into a doctor’s surgery…”

 

Everything was achieved by suggestion and there was little need of props. Read had a pleasant speaking voice with an unobtrusive northern accent. He could switch from one character to another with a subtle change of tone. You knew when he was voicing a woman without him being exaggeratedly camp or effeminate. As he described it himself: “I was the listener and the talker, setting the scene with a few brushstrokes, some hand movements and the way I altered my stance, like a bulky woman shifting her weight from one bunioned foot to another and adjusting the delicate equilibrium of her generous bustline.”

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Although he did not come to show business until his 40s, he then quickly became a star with three million listeners for each show without serving the usual apprenticeship. He was a national celebrity with his catch-phrases, “Right, monkey” and “You’ll be lucky” being repeated endlessly.

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In 1950, he was asked to entertain the Royal Family and their household staff for a special Christmas concert at Windsor Castle. King George VI was particularly keen on Al’s gardening sketch and asked for a recording of it.

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Al Read meeting two queens

 

Al was wary of television even though he realised he could not ignore it. In 1956, he decided to do some research in the USA and found a ready welcome in the English colony of Hollywood. James Mason introduced him to the gossip columnist Louella Parsons who gave him a mention but misnamed him “Hal Green”. He also met Noel Coward. He performed some of his sketches for Bob Newhart, who borrowed them and incorporated them into his own monologues.

 

He was invited to a party at which the singer Billy Daniels (“That Old Black Magic” – I also saw him at the ABC Regal, Gloucester) gave his wife a pink Cadillac wrapped in red ribbons. Al turned down the offer of a film role – it later became “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw” starring Kenneth More and Jayne Mansfield.

 

George Burns advised him on TV technique: “Don’t fight the monster, Al. Make it work for you.”

 

Al was finally persuaded to take the plunge into television by Richard Armitage, a new kind of impresario- Cambridge-educated and a friend of David Frost, media mogul and conqueror of Richard Nixon. David Frost actually appeared in a touring summer show with Al and Jimmy Clitheroe. Al paints a bizarre picture of the future Sir David playing football on the beach at Weston-super-Mare with him and Jimmy Clitheroe (a comedian of restricted growth whom I saw on many occasions at Gloucester ABC Regal. Clitheroe made a career playing the character of an obnoxious and impudent schoolboy who never grew up- catch-phrase: ‘who knitted you, woolly ‘ead?!).

 

Clitheroe

 

On stage or in the radio studio Al had felt a rapport with his audience. In the TV studio, he felt that the camera created a barrier. An article in Best of British described how Charles Chilton with “Journey into Space” managed to draw wonderful pictures in the radio audience’s mind with the most basic materials. Dylan Thomas created a world in sound with “Under Milk Wood” which was completely ruined on stage or on film. Al was canny enough to realise that his radio listeners built up their own images of his characters. He provided a framework and the audience became collaborators. Television is too literal. Al himself provided the sound of a dog for the radio show and ten different listeners would have described ten different kinds of dog. For television, a real dog had to be found and its paws had to be tied to a gate while it received instructions from an off-camera handler.

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The BBC, in a characteristic fit of vandalism or penny-pinching (they must need to find ways of paying Jonathan Ross’s huge salary) wiped many of the tapes of Al’s radio shows as they did with TV shows of Tony Hancock and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The recordings that do survive demonstrate a rare talent.

 

Long before “alternative comedy” was thought of, he specialised in observational humour. To me his acute sense of the foibles of ordinary people’s behaviour and language make him a precursor of Mike Harding, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, Richard Digance, Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. Some of his monologues are positively Pinteresque.

 

The hilarious TV critic of the Guardian Weekly, Nancy Banks-Smith, is fond of quoting Al Read: “There was enough said at our Edie’s wedding.” This brilliantly and concisely conveys the kind of tight-lipped recognition of the resentment and bitterness that families try to suppress but often come out at social occasions, possibly fuelled by alcohol.

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Despite the fact that most of his humor comes from observation of the foibles of the northern English working class, there was nothing flat-cap about him. He had always been wealthy, played golf and owned a yacht. He mixed easily with royalty, Hollywood stars and the upper crust. His second wife was a glamorous model.

 

Al should have had a career as a straight actor as did many other comedy greats like Jimmy Jewell, Stan Stennett, Charlie Drake and Dave King. I am privileged to have seen a brilliant performance in Hammersmith by Max Wall in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”. According to the Internet Movie Database, Al played a DJ in one episode of “Casualty” broadcast posthumously in 1988.

 

He made a further radio series in 1976 and another in 1985 to coincide with the publication of his autobiography It’s All in the Book. Most of the information in this article is gleaned from that book, which was skilfully ghost-written by Robin Cross, who allows Al Read’s natural voice to come through. The book is out of print but copies are available from online booksellers such as Amazon or Abe Books. Also available are tapes and CDs of the remaining shows.

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Al Read died on 9th September 1987 aged 78. His genius lives on through the surviving recordings, which are still regularly repeated on BBC radio more than 50 years after they were made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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