Chapter Twenty-one

Four disparate incidents stand out in my mind from our month of touring the United Kingdom:

The closest I got to royalty was at an “informal reception” at the Royal Commonwealth Society five days after our arrival. Princess Alexandra put in an appearance.
I must have been declared an honorary “young companion” of the Society for the evening because a columnist in The London News Chronicle reported the next day “none of those at the reception was over 26.” I was going on thirty-one.
The Princess was doing the familiar royal thing: strolling around the room asking harmless questions. Here’s how the News Chronicle columnist described her encounter with me:

“Even the answers she got to the conventional question: ‘And what do you do?’ were unorthodox. A young Canadian, Pat McDougall, delighted her with the reply: ‘I’m studying British cornflake packets. They don’t seem to tip over the way Canadian ones do.’
‘Oh, yes, very important,’ said the princess.”

A colorful little snippet, and reasonably accurate as society columns go, but the conversation actually went on a bit longer than that. When the princess asked me what I did, I told her I was the Program Director at a Canadian radio station. The answer didn’t seem to satisfy her. She wanted to know if I ever did any actual broadcasting, and I mentioned a catchall program we had started just before I left for the tour. She then wanted an example of its content and all I could remember at the time was the business with the cereal boxes.
I told the princess I had noticed that cereal boxes had suddenly become taller and thinner, and thus more likely to tip over and spill their contents all over the breakfast table. I got an explanation for the revised dimensions from a supermarket clerk: making the box thinner expanded its front surface – the first thing the buyer saw when the boxes were stacked a dozen deep on the supermarket shelves. The slimmer boxes looked bigger than the competing brand stacked at its side. Bigger box, more cereal, right? Wrong. Just the same contents in a container much more likely to tip over.
It was sometime during that labored explanation that the princess muttered, “Yes, very important.” And moved on.

* * * * *

None of us expected Professor A.C.B. Lovell, O.B.E., F.R.S. to be so entertaining. We met the famous astronomer March 4, 1960, while on a visit to Jodrell Bank Experimental Station to see its impressive radio telescope up close.
Much of our questioning centered on persistent rumors that his crew had used the telescope to search for extraterrestrial life forms; we were thereby anticipating Spielberg’s E.T. by forty-two years. Lovell disabused the suggestion in a most interesting fashion, and then told us a personal story to illustrate the layman’s view of his profession.
He said he had a home in a distant suburb of Manchester where he spent his off-hours working in the garden. British reserve had kept him from striking up a conversation with his immediate neighbor, though the two men were often laboring away only a few yards apart.
One cloudless summer evening, the two men were weeding side by side in their separate gardens when a meteor fell from the heavens, leaving an especially bright trail.
Lovell insists that his neighbor stood up from his work and gave him a dirty look.

* * * * *

The Earl of Home was to become the first Prime Minister in British history to have no seat in either the House of Lords or the Commons. But when our party was brought before him on Day Eleven of our tour; Home was still a Lord, and also “Lord President of the Council and Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations” in Harold Macmillan’s cabinet.
Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech was still resonating, and one of us asked Hume to comment on it.  As we were being ushered from the room, I found myself within earshot of Doug Brophy when he muttered: “I hope the next time the bastard goes to Africa, somebody pins him to a tree with a spear.”

* * * * *

Three days later, Doug’s scorn erupted again when we visited a genuine country ‘local’ as guests of Mr. And Mrs. H. J. Turner of the Commonwealth Relations Office. The class system was very much in evidence at the local, with the building neatly divided into two rooms of about equal size, one for the gentry and the other for ordinary folk. To reach the part of the building where the Turners were waiting to welcome us, we were led through the noisy, smoke-filled area patronized by the district’s laborers. It must have touched Doug off.
He had gone uncharacteristically silent by the time heavy doors had been closed behind us to complete the separation from the Great Unwashed. We found ourselves in a dining room as elegant as any we had seen in London. Mrs. Turner, smartly dressed for the occasion, sat at one end of the table, her bon vivant husband at the other. I was seated at her right with Will Bishop on her left. Doug Brophy sat sulking at my other elbow.
We had been touring for two weeks by then – long enough for all of us to know that, though Brophy could mimic one to perfection, he was certainly no ‘Newfie’ but a well-spoken representative of St. John’s upper crust.
At the other end of the table, our host was engaged in effortless conversation with Tom Bremner and our two tour guides, but Mrs. Turner was obviously finding it hard to keep things going with us. As soon as the main course was served, she seized on it as something to talk about.
“How do you like the canard a l’orange?” she asked us. Will Bishop and I were quick to assure her that it was delicious, but Doug Brophy hesitated, then broke into his ‘Newfie’ accent.
“Well, mum,” he began. “Blowed if it don’t ‘mind me of seal flippers.”
“Seal flippers?” Mrs. Turner rejoined hesitantly.
“Oh, yas, mum. What you’d call a real lip-smacker where I come from.”
And he launched into an account of the annual seal slaughter off Newfoundland, climaxed by a particularly gory description of the mutilation that brings the infant seal’s flippers to his countrymen’s dinner tables. Under the table, both Will and I were trying to quiet Brophy with vicious kicks aimed at his shins, but he wouldn’t be silenced.

While the tour was still being arranged, each of us had been approached for a sort of wish list.
What do you especially want to see?
Is there someone you’re particularly anxious to meet?
I opted for an interview with Dave King, a clever British comedian whose program was running on Canadian television at the time, but he proved to be unavailable. The organizers offered a substitute: Peter Sellers.
In 1960, Peter Sellers was better known in Canada than he was in the United States, thanks to The Goon Show and the wider distribution his record albums had received in Commonwealth countries. He hadn’t yet made “The Party” for Blake Edwards, and the Inspector Clouseau movies were still years in the future. The role he played in “The Ladykillers” was somewhat overshadowed by Alec Guiness’s performance, and “The Mouse That Roared” and “I’m All Right, Jack” had only been seen in selected North Americans theatres for a matter of months.
I hadn’t done much interviewing on that United Kingdom tour until I met Sellers, possibly because of the tape-recorder my hosts had provided. It was a peculiar hybrid with a wind-up clockwork motor and battery-operated electronics. The machine’s most troublesome drawback was the size of its tape reels. At the speed recommended for the machine, the reels had to be changed every ten minutes. I had stuffed my pockets with extra tapes for the Sellers interview.
It was done in a narrow Dickensian building in London’s then trendy Soho district. I had to climb a narrow staircase to reach the comedian’s office, and the first thing I saw upon entering it was a tiny dog sitting in one of the chairs. It barked at me until the receptionist said: “Quiet, Brillig!”

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves . . . . . . . . . .
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I resolved then and there to name our next family pet “Brillig.”

The cover photo for Sellers’ latest comedy LP was a close-up of the comedian, dressed to the nines, leaning over a Rolls Royce to polish its hood ornament. And that – minus the Rolls – was the way Sellers showed up for the interview. I read later that he was going through his ‘aristocracy period’ at the time, when he was married to a titled woman. His tempestuous side certainly got a lot of attention once he was better known, but the Peter Sellers I interviewed that day was subdued and forthcoming.
I apologized for the tape machine as I loaded it, but Sellers seemed unperturbed by the delay. And once I got the tape rolling, he gave me a good interview – especially when I asked him if he would like to work with Jacques Tati. Three of the Frenchman’s films – Jour de Fête, Les Vacances de M. Hulot and Mon Oncle – were art classics by then, and Sellers was anxious to praise his work. Tati was famous for using amateurs and unknowns in his films, so the prospects were dim for a Tati-Sellers collaboration, but we must have used up a couple of those tiny reels discussing the possibility.
Unwilling to bring the interview to a close, I kept up a constant stream of chatter while replacing those pesky reels. I expressed my admiration for the many accents he had used in his performances: Scots, Irish, Cockney, Tosh, German, French, Indian, American . . . Was there such a thing, I asked, as a Canadian accent?
The question appeared to have stumped Sellers. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly. “But I did work with a Canadian on a film a few years ago. Give me a minute.”
I had finally struggled a fresh tape on to the machine. Sellers pointed to it and said: “Alright, let’s give it a go.”
I turned the recorder on and swung the microphone his way. What came out of his mouth almost had me on the floor. It was me! He was imitating me!
It’s a given, I think, that no one is satisfied with the sound of his own voice. But was I that nasal? That drawly?

It was enough to drive me out of the business.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: