Friday, 6 November 2015

Bonding with the Saint

The other day someone asked what were my plans for the weekend. "I'm going to see Roger Moore," I said.

"Oh, has he made a new film, then?"

"No, I'm going to see him. You know, himself."

Well, that can be a bit of a conversation stopper. I mean, Sir Roger (to give him his proper title) is something of a British institution, and especially for people of around my age who were brought up – nay, educated, almost – by programmes such as The Saint and, later, The Persuaders.

In fact, in the 1960s UK television had loads of law-enforcement dramas. Or maybe I should call them programmes where "good versus evil" was the basic premise. I may have gone to two Christian junior schools, where Biblical stories were used to shape our perception of what's good and, more to the point, what's not, but I must say that these TV shows had every bit as much an effect on my future development as the odd parable or two. And it must have worked. After all, so far I've not turned into a criminal, and for this fact I have to thank Roger Moore for playing Simon Templar, aka The Saint, also Brett Sinclair in The Persuaders, and then James Bond in what was to become the longest continually-running film series of all time.

Moore was there at some key stages in my early development – not all of them, of course. I mean, my parents had some input, whatever my school teachers claimed. Let me see ... yes, one Sunday afternoon they put a film on television, The Sins of Rachel Cade. The heroine had a bit of a shock when Roger unexpectedly turned up, but she wasn't half as shocked as I was because up until that point I'd had no idea that Simon Templar wasn't actually real, that he was played by an actor who could appear in other stuff. I was very young at the time, but it was a moment of realisation.

And in late 2015, Roger Moore was doing one of his An Evening with Sir Roger Moore appearances, sitting on stage in a theatre, chatting away with the lucky sod who got to write his biography.

The setup was rather like the last time I saw him on television, on Mariella's Book Show (formerly The Book Show on the Sky Arts channel) where the poor bloke was sitting in an armchair, talking about his latest book (probably Bond on Bond (2012)) and recounting one or two of his much-loved anecdotes about being an actor. I say "poor bloke" because, for some reason, when The Book Show was rehashed as Mariella Frostrup's own outing, it wasn't only the balance of content that went peculiar: the clean book-ish set was traded in for something like a small living room, with an armchair and cramped sofa, the type that you would want to inspect before sitting down. Just in case.

Anyhow, there was a similar setup (minus the claustrophobic set and doubtful furniture) on stage at the Harrogate Theatre – where, incidentally, Roger had appeared with Arthur Lowe in 1949. "Back by popular demand," his biographer, Gareth Owen, joked.

Some of the material I'd previously read in his book My Word is My Bond, but there's nothing to beat actually hearing the stories from the man himself. He knows how to tell them (by this time I think he's had plenty of practice), and when he's name-dropping (well, when you've led a life like his, it would be damned near impossible not to do so) he does all the voices; his impressions are just about faultless and his Tony Curtis is absolutely superb. Yet he tends to play down his own acting abilities. So yes, his self-deprecating style is well-polished and a pleasure to listen to.

Of course, Moore is best known for being James Bond from 1973-1985, and a record seven films (where the official Eon Productions' films are concerned), and he explained why he wanted to make the character his own as opposed to a copy of that played by the first Bond actor Sean Connery.

There were two or three highlights: silly things, really, I suppose, but these were the tingles along the spine moments: when he said the immortal phrase "Bond, James Bond"; when he explained about the magnetic watch that was used to unzip a woman's dress – presented complete with film clip; when he said "Simon Templar" and a halo appeared above his head – yes, it really did! I mean, that meant so much to me as a young child, and I wonder if he realises just how influential he was in helping to raise a generation of telly-watching kids who didn't grow up to be "wrong-uns".

When I was a kid, and I fancied being an actor when I grew up, one of my mother's friends told me that Roger Moore had begun his career by modelling knitting patterns. I mean, as if! Now, it runs in my mind that at the time I didn't think this was much of an acting break, but my wife has recently acquired this little number, probably one of the patterns that Sir Roger showed us in Harrogate:

I remember, back in 1974, when I applied to his agent to interview him for our school magazine. Yes, I know what you're thinking, a school magazine. The agency was called London Management and was run by Lew Grade, Mr Big of television (no pun intended; Bond fans will know what I mean). I didn't even get a reply, when all they needed to tell me was that currently Mr Moore was out of the country on location swallowing a golden bullet charm from the navel of an exotic dancer in Beirut. Or maybe it was Pinewood. Oh well.

So it was forty-one years later that finally I got to see the man himself and put a question to him, which just goes to show that some things come to those who wait.

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My next book, All Creatures Great and Famous, will be published before Christmas 2015. It tells the stories of some of my behind-the-scenes exploits while interviewing celebrities, mostly during my early days in the 1970s. It's a short book and will be cheap from Amazon and free elsewhere.

For Your Ears Only

So there we were, having afternoon tea in the world-famous Pump Room in Bath, taking delight in the refined Georgian elegance, its unhurried atmosphere and the excellent service. I mean, it's just one of those places from where everything in the world can feel almost ... okay. Know what I mean? So nothing's perfect, but having left behind Yorkshire's constant drizzle and simply chilling out in such acceptable surroundings was very agreeable – and I don't use adverbs lightly. 

To my right was a highly-polished grand piano, at which the pianist was doing an excellent job performing what in the US is termed "elevator music". Yes, someone spends years and countless hours practising every day – and not just playing the notes and getting them in the right order, but also refining the tone, the touch, the way the fingers contact with the keys to make that unmistakable sound, a marvel of creative interpretation that is every bit as unique as a fingerprint. A grand piano is, after all, a mechanical instrument and isn't as forgiving as a plastic electronic keyboard.

So all of that effort goes into the performance. And it matters not whether it's for a concert or being used to accompany people scoffing buns.

Yet it's taken for granted by many people.

But not by me. I've been there; I've done that. I've eaten semiquavers for breakfast (cheese and onion flavour) and had my fingers smacked by a fascist ruler-wielding piano teacher, so I appreciate live performances – yes, even in a tea room, and certainly in the best tea room in the world.

The classical piece ended and the pianist began the next number. As soon as he began, I could have named that tune in three. The left hand harmony confirmed my surprise: it was the title music of For Your Eyes Only, which just happens to be my favourite Roger Moore James Bond film. Wow!

He played all of it, with feeling and expression, and I was sensing a little hesitation as he wondered if he could get away with his choice here, in this most prestigious of tea joints.

It went rather quiet at our table because all four of us are Bond fans, and to hear this theme played live on piano was a new experience. When he finished, we applauded. The tea- and coffee-drinking fraternity around us fell silent, obviously wondering if they had missed something, which of course they had. I gave the pianist a thumbs up, which he returned, then he went into a medley of other Bond themes; he didn't need any further encouragement. Nobody Does it Better (from The Spy Who Loved Me), Live and Let Die, and You Only Live Twice flowed faultlessly from the stage. It was brilliant – maybe you'd guessed? And all to accompany people having afternoon tea, which seems such a waste and yet, had that not been the case, we never would have witnessed that performance.

We met him afterwards; his name is Jools Scott, accomplished musician and composer. You can listen to some of his music on his website here.

Yeah, the best afternoon tea ever. And speaking of James Bond, please see my next post, Bonding with the Saint.