Monday, 28 March 2011

Close Encounters

Corbett: the embodiment of charm
How many chance encounters have you had with famous people? Genuinely chance encounters? I mean bumping into them in supermarkets, pubs or railway stations rather than meeting them at controlled, carefully-planned events such as openings, prizegivings, fetes? What are the odds against bumping into first Ronnie Corbett and then, years later, Robert Morley, outside the very same Duke Street St James's entrance of Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London? Massive I'd have thought, but this is exactly what happened to me. The two men's reactions were markedly different. Corbett was the embodiment of charm, even though the collision was entirely my fault for not looking where I was going. "My dear fellow," he said, clasping both my hands in his. "I'm so terribly sorry!" Morley was a different proposition, very sour about the whole thing, even though it was he not I who had barged carelessly out of F&M. "Whill you look where you're going?" he testily cried (note the 'h'), before pulling a sort of horrified Frankie Howerd-type face at a group of mystified Japanese passers-by. And then there are pubs. Once, some fifteen years ago on a Sunday evening, I called in at The Hour Glass, on the corner of Walton Street and Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. Very quiet, no music, open fire, clock ticking, dusk. That dates it. At a table in the corner near the fire sat a man entirely hidden behind a copy of the Sunday Times. I ordered a whisky and soda and, barbarically, a packet of crisps which I began to try to open, noisily and ineptly. Down came the newspaper - and there, animated by the flickering chiaroscuro of the fire, was the expressionless but terrifying face of Donald Pleasance. I've never to this day messed around with crisps in a quiet pub. Returning to collisions, my son Sebastian (10) is showing some promise, as witnessed by an episode in Tesco in Hampstead a few years ago. He was - I should never have allowed this - tearing around the aisles on a scooter. He ran headlong into a tall, strapping, Teutonic-looking figure who had been carrying (and had now dropped) a case of Evian water. "My dear fellow," I said. "I'm so terribly sorry!"  "No worries! No worries at all!" beamed the big-hearted Arsenal goalkeeper (and now also, I see, film actor), Jens Lehmann. That's about it. "I bet there are some famous people we could bump into in the London Library, dad." says Sebastian, helpfully and hopefully intending to engineer a few memorable collisions. I know what he has in mind. Didier Drogba and John Terry poring over Illustrated London News match reports featuring Stanley Matthews. Cheryl Cole mugging up on the social history of Vaudeville. Lady Gaga feeding her an insistent inner craving for Cicero. We live in hope, but our stack-prowling to date has been to no avail.

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