My Back Pages   29.6.2021

My Back Pages 29.6.2021

 What Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Lord Hailsham, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Roger Vadim, Michael Caine, Leonard Cheshire, Paul Raymond, Eric Morecambe, Mick Jagger, Terry Wogan, Elvis Presley, Dennis Hopper, David Attenborough, Tony Benn, Charlie Watts, Enoch Powell, Marc Bolan and Jimmy Savile (and many more) told me…

There are many good and honourable reasons for deciding upon a career in journalism – none of which ever interested me. My only ambition when, over half a century ago, I first went to work in what was then Fleet Street, was to find out about the famous, and to know about them and the forces and fortune that had shaped them.

So it was my good fortune when, aged 26 in 1967, I got a job as an interviewer on the London Evening Standard and met at the time some of the most famous people in the entertainment world; and many others, too,

There was, for instance, Muhammad Ali, who suddenly broke off from a bragging diatribe about boxing to say he hoped his children would become ‘doctors, lawyers, scientists or engineers. For me boxing was the best thing I could have done. It was the only way I could get rich. If I could, I’d have been a great doctor, or something like that.’

Then there was Bob Dylan who, when I interviewed him in 1969, was more interested in asking me about Elvis Presley’s come-back show in Las Vegas, which I’d just been to see, than talking about himself. ‘Did he do Heartbreak Hotel? Who was in the band?  Were the Jordanaires with him?’ At that moment he wasn’t a superstar and me a reporter. We were equals, chatting away like a couple of 15 year old fans.

And Ringo Starr reflecting on the downside of fame when he told me about a Liverpool friend of his called Roy who worked as a joiner. ‘He’s only got about thirty records, but he gets so much pleasure from them. Yet I’ve got a cupboard here with about five hundred LPs and when I want to play one I have to close the cupboard because I don’t know which one to play anymore.’

Rock stars were always good value, though sometimes daft. Marc Bolan insisted that he’d seen someone levitate ‘about eight feet into the air’, that he knew how to make himself invisible and that he could ‘conjure up demons’. When I asked him to demonstrate levitation for me he said he couldn’t be bothered. By the end of that interview I got the feeling that he thought I was a demon he’d conjured up.

Pete Townshend of the Who reckoned his whole stage performance was a result of his ‘having an enormous great hooter as a kid. I was always being baited about it. So I used to think, “I’ll bloody well show ’em. I’ll push my huge hooter out at them from every newspaper in England”. Then they won’t laugh at me.’

Elvis Presley was surprised when I had the cheek to ask him why he’d made so many bad films in the Sixties. ‘I wouldn’t be being honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of them and the songs I had to sing in them,’ he said. ‘I’d like to say they were good, but I can’t.’  Apparently, he didn’t even bother to keep his film albums they were so bad.

Such self-criticism didn’t come at every interview. Nor, in fact, did honesty. Sometimes the interviewee would put on a performance of extreme niceness for me, only to reveal a vicious ego by breaking off in the middle of our conversation to nastily berate an underling for some minor oversight. Both Tony Curtis and Michael Winner did that. They were two-faced and awful.

Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, was terrific. Asked why he wrote poetry, he said that he’d thought it was part of the courting process. ‘I must have looked extremely absurd because I wrote all my poems to ladies thinking that was the way to approach them. I was suddenly taken seriously as a poet, when really I was a kind of stud – and not a very successful one, because the successful ones didn’t have to write poems to make girls.’

Mick Jagger is another ladies man. You may have noticed. As the age of 25 he had decided that marriage was outdated. ‘I can understand why women want to get married,’ he said, ‘because they know that the man can always run off with another woman. And as they’re dependent on him they have to make it that bit harder for him to get out of his obligations. But I don’t really see why men want to get married.’

After eight children with five different women, it would seem he still doesn’t see it, although it’s fair to say he’s fulfilled his paternal obligations.

Michael Caine had another view on what in the Sixties was being called the permissive society. ‘I think it’s all a bit of a myth,’ he told me in the back of a Bentley as he returned from filming a scene with Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Blokes come over to London and talk about the permissive society. But they’re all just balling the same couple of hundred girls that everybody else has been having. I’m sure the whole thing is kept going by a couple of hundred ravers.’

Changes in attitudes towards sex and marriage came up time and again. But it was Dusty Springfield, the sunny British girl-next-door at the time, who surprised, when she decided to come out to me.

‘I don’t go leaping around to all the gay clubs,’ she said, ‘but I can be very flattered. Girls run after me and it doesn’t upset me… I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady. But I know that I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy.’

There was more. ‘I’m promiscuous. Not often, but when I am, I really am… I don’t mean that I leap into bed with someone every night, but my affections are easily swayed and I can be very unfaithful… The truth is, I’m easily flattered by people’s attentions and after a couple of vodkas I’m even more flattered.’

Today such self-revelations by a popular woman star on Graham Norton’s show would surprise, but no more. In 1970, however, such talk could have destroyed a career. But Dusty wanted me to write it. She was a brave and clever woman who was years’ ahead of her time. She phoned me the day the piece went in the paper to thank me.

Then, of course, there was John Lennon who told me in secret that he’d left the Beatles months before the band’s break-up was made public. I didn’t breathe a word about it.

But, when, months later, Paul McCartney let the cat out of the bag Lennon was grumpy. ‘Why didn’t you write it when I told you?’ he complained.

‘You asked me not to,’ I replied.

He wasn’t impressed. ‘You’re the journalist, Connolly, not me,’ he retorted.

Many of my early interviewees were rock stars, but later some of the most memorable stories came from politicians. Enoch Powell was a controversially outspoken MP in the Sixties and Seventies, so it was a surprise when he told me about a love poem he’d written while a student at Cambridge. ‘I remember the emotion I felt,’ he told me, ‘although I don’t remember who the subject was.’ Actually, I think he did remember, but didn’t want to tell me. It has been suggested that it might have been another young man.

Tory grandee Lord Hailsham was fascinating in his description of life in an upper class family house in South Kensington before the First World War, where his ‘father and mother and four children and eight indoor servants lived’ and in which ‘there were just two lavatories’.

Taken out in his sailor suit by his nanny to Kensington Gardens he would return black with soot from playing on the grass. ‘We forget how filthy dirty everywhere was in those days before smoke free zones came in,’ he remembered…  ‘frightful pea-soupers and a terrible smell of sulphur everywhere.’

Then there was the rudimentary surgery of the time. Shortly before going away to boarding school at the age of seven he was taken to a doctor’s surgery for an inept circumcision to be rectified – without anaesthetic. ‘I was just flung across the doctor’s lap and snip-snip! All I remember is the humiliation, the pain and all the blood.’

Memories of World War II brought a romantic story from Labour MP Barbara Castle, who spent her honeymoon night with her husband locked in the carriage of a packed stationary train at Paddington still wearing her wedding outfit ‘as air raid sirens went off and V-1s started dropping all around us. You could have been in your own coffin,’ she said. ‘Then the all-clear sounded and the train started….and nobody ever had a better wedding night’.

While Tony Benn recalled how he and two other British officers celebrated VE day in a kibbutz near Jerusalem by performing ‘Hands, Knees and Bumps-a-Daisy’ at the request of their Jewish guests.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire’s war memories were sombre as he  described his role watching, as an official observer, ‘the flicker of light and then the ball of fire about 2000ft above the ground’ when the atom bomb was exploded over Nagasaki. He spent the rest of his life working for the disabled.

His was a terrible memory, but there were many funny ones, too. For instance, Eric Morecambe recalled how, having a heart attack while being driven to a hospital, he was asked by the minicab driver for an autograph ‘before you go’.

Then there was Dennis Hopper recalling how he saw James Dean purposely urinate in front of a crowd of hundreds of sightseers who had come to watch the filming of the movie Giant in Texas; and Paul Raymond remembering the first naked lady he ever saw was when he was fourteen: ‘I peeped through a keyhole at my schoolteacher aunt as she undressed to get into the bath’. Naked ladies would play a not insubstantial part in his career.

Some interviewees with the very famous were very dull, but not many. And some people were impossible not to like, such as Terry Wogan, who remembered the busker outside the cinema in Limerick singing his own lyrics to the tune from South Pacific: ‘Someone chanted evening…’

But best of all was the great David Attenborough on the sex lives of millipedes. ‘A male millipede has his sex pouch on his eleventh ring and he takes out the sperm with a feeler-like hand. He then has to bung it over into the female’s genital opening, which occurs on her fifth ring, and you can see him counting, looking for the opening…one, two, three, four, five… And if he misses, he has to start all over again. It’s fascinating.’

I never liked Jimmy Savile. I didn’t know anything about his behaviour with young girls, but his popularity at the BBC confounded me. I just found him deeply odd and very annoying. But one thing he said stayed with me.

‘Whenever you visit someone who is seriously ill in hospital never forget that your face is the mirror of their condition,’ he said. ‘The patient can’t see himself or herself. But, if you let your expression show what you’re thinking…’

He left the thought hanging. It was invaluable advice. As were a few words from Paul McCartney’s father when it fell to me to ring his famous son and ask for a comment on the disastrous reviews that the Beatles’ film TV Magical Mystery Tour had just been given – their first flop.

Paul, whom I hardly knew then, was still asleep when I first phoned his home, but his father, whom I knew, was staying with him over Christmas, and advised I call back a little later. I did. Again and again, until Mr McCartney said something that I’ve borne in mind ever since.

‘Son,’ he said, ‘God loves a trier.’ And, with that, he went upstairs, woke the Beatle and demanded he talk to me.

‘God lover a trier’ would become my career maxim. My conversation with Paul McCartney that day became my first front page story in my newspaper career.

Ray Connolly’s new novel The Last Interview is now available on Amazon.