Anyone who has been forced to sit at a dinner table with a famous person or, worse, a national treasure, will know how excruciating an experience it can be. Actors, sportsmen, and ordinary vulgar celebrities are considered to be magnetic by PR hounds brought in to attract the punters. I’ve had to put up with them on numerous occasions.
A typical example was a South African Springbok, an enormous lock forward described as a ‘sporting ambassador’, who remained silent throughout the sponsor’s celebration banquet. He refused to drink beer but ate a monstrous lunch of steak, offal, yams, salad and potatoes with his massive arms stuck out on either side as he worked through the protein. He grunted occasionally and farted at the end of the meal. Joan Collins was probably the worst. She wore an enormous hat, and had special purple contact lenses from behind which she stared malevolently across the room while her Husband, Ron Kiss, whittered away at her from behind his hand. Bob Geldof spent most of his time swearing at someone on his mobile. How do you deal with these people? They rarely have anything at all in common with those who they are expected to dazzle with their imaginary personal allure.
During one such event at the end of last year, the actor Brian Blessed lost his temper and made an angry and dramatic exit from some corporate event after a Sales Director described one of his films as ‘crap’. Bad mistake, but how do you communicate with actors and celebrities when, against your will, you’re forced to spend time in their company? It’s not easy.
Years ago, I spent some time with the writer John Le Carré who lives in a beautiful old line of coastguard cottages on the cliffs near to Land’s End. It was August. I was working as a Defence writer at the time and had managed to blag a demonstration flight in the back seat of a Royal Naval FA2 Sea Harrier. We took off from Yeovilton and flew across Exmoor to the Royal Marine Station at Chivenor where the pilot did a low pass over the base in honour of some anniversary or other. Then he put the aircraft through its paces over the sea to the west of Lundy Island before flying at low level to the Scilly Isles and returning to Penzance. We had about half an hour before the Harrier was due back to the base and the pilot asked me where I would like to go. Stuck for an answer, I asked him to ‘do a spectacular’ over Le Carré’s cottage. He did, demonstrating a manoeuvre in which the aircraft hovers and slowly genuflects towards a landmark or a group of spectators a short distance away. The noise from the Rolls-Royce Pegasus turbofan during the hover is enough to induce temporary, sometimes permanent, deafness and even insanity, although the pilot said that we probably had sufficient altitude to avoid any lasting physical damage to nearby humans. Anyway, I thought this was a memorable gesture of respect to the old boy. I was wrong. It was never mentioned and I suppose it must have been a worrying moment for a spook whose early years had been spent irritating the NKVD.
The point is that you must be careful when dealing with those who, like Brian Blessed and, in fact, all thespians, jealously guard their public image. There are rules governing social intercourse with those who tread the boards. There is no such thing as too much flattery. Size matters; for instance it would be a mistake to mention Alan Ladd in the presence of Tom Cruise. Never praise or even mention an actor’s peers in his or her presence and, if you feel that you must say something profound, try; ‘it’s actors who should be running theatres not impresarios.’ Mind you, it’s hard to know how to approach a man like Blessed who is mediaeval in appearance, monstrous in stature and has a voiced like foghorn. Every time I look at him, I think of Hildegard Neil, his lovely wife, who I used to fancy madly when I was at school. I suppose I’d better keep quiet about that as well.