Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

October 05, 2010

Chris Neill on Sir Clement Freud

A really nice profile by JAM star Chris Neill on the great man, Sir Clement Freud. Chris doesn't shy away from Sir Clement's failings, but it has an affectionate tone.

Should you ask, one of the most amazing people I ever met was Clement Freud. He led a life of considerable adventure and individuality, was the patriarch at the centre of one of the twentieth century’s most illustrious clans, and possessed an endearingly intense but off-kilter Englishness, in my experience often the case amongst people born abroad or of foreign parents eager to claim Albion as their own. Capable of great generosity, loyalty and good humour, if he liked you it didn’t mean you need not watch your guard but some leeway was allowed; however, if you were someone he disapproved of or had upset him his ill wishes could last a lifetime. Practically the epitome of the British Establishment, he was the least snobbish person I ever encountered. Having known him, even only slightly, is truly something I cherish. To describe him though as an easy man would be wrong, and I suspect he would have hated being seen as such. There was a price to pay if you wanted to be in his company; you walked on eggshells with him, sniffed the air and tried to stay alert for signs that danger was afoot.

His face could never have been described as lively what with all its lugubrious sagging and drooping but the turn of his mouth gave you all the clues you needed to his mood. He could seem at ease and friendly and then you would notice the lips close sternly and it would be apparent that things had changed. Similarly he could appear unhappy about something and then in a rather unnerving way he might suddenly erupt with a peculiar laughter which seemed both wolfish and not entirely given over to an expression of pleasure, but genuine all the same. He had friendships which lasted a lifetime but he was also prone to harbouring grudges and antipathies over equally long periods, most famously with his brother Lucian Freud. Nobody seems to know the real cause of their not speaking since childhood – there is something rather flimsy about Clement’s story of the two boys chasing each other in a London park and with Clement escaping his brother’s clutches Lucian deciding to approach a policeman and to inform him that the young man he could see running away was a thief who had just robbed him in broad daylight. However, even if the motive seems unclear his trenchant commitment to very cold relations was impeccable. Once, I overheard an untutored soul unwisely ask Clement, "aren’t you Lucian Freud’s brother?" "No," he sniped back, "he once was mine." The lips closed and that was that.

It wasn’t just siblings he could loathe without obvious motive. It may be apocryphal but the story I heard was this. Accompanied by his wife Jill to some function or other – maybe a reunion of former parliamentarians – the first person Clement spotted as he walked in was a a retired lady grandee of the Tory benches. Dame something-or-other. "I can’t stand her," Clement observed to his wife. "Why?" she asked. "I can’t remember but I know I hate her. We’re off." And with that they departed. Clement might have been one to forget, but certainly never to forgive. And I can only imagine what an unfortunate experience to be an enemy of his must have been. Often simply inhabiting the same physical space as Clement Freud was not a relaxing prospect. Even at his most affable there was always the possibility that he would mutter some inscrutable anecdote, to which he would demand some response, or take against something or someone which although not affecting you directly would discolour the whole evening.

Clement Freud was not a friend of mine, but someone I worked with. First, when as producer of Just A Minute on Radio 4, I had to regularly navigate the treacherous waters of the panellists’ inter-relations and secondly as an occasional co-performer on that show. I am well aware that my view of him is as seen through that particular prism. As the producer of the programme he utterly adored performing on I was the person who might make decisions Clement disapproved of and to whom he would bring his objections,. That was sometimes a rather unnerving role to have. Many of the programmes are recorded around the country, often in theatres on a Sunday. Despite Nicholas Parsons’ generous on-air crediting of the producer with having "directed" the show, Just A Minute is a splendid old bird which at some level makes itself and nobody directs it, although Clement’s mood could certainly indicate how the evening might go. When I produced it, apart from booking the guests, thinking up some subjects, and editing the recordings most of my efforts would go into trying to find somewhere nice we could eat afterwards. Hunting down decent places to have a meal on Sunday nights in regional towns and cities wasn’t always the easiest of tasks, and if Clement was on the show the bar was raised higher. I would always ask his advice, not only to get some recommendations but because if the place wasn’t up to much I wouldn’t be entirely to blame. Quickly I discovered that using his name helped enormously securing a table. The mere mention of it to certain restaurant proprietors could command a sudden change in tone and it was only then that it began to dawn on me what a hugely influential force on British kitchens and cooking he was seen to be.

After a few months of working with him, it became clearer the sort of things which could irritate Clement. Certain fellow guests on the show being chief among them. But he kept you on your toes: it was impossible to pre-empt what exactly might upset him. Smoking, mention of a bloodhound called Henry and his chunky meat minced morsels, waiters, garlic, and reference to his grandfather Sigmund were almost certain to bring on his quiet wrath but even then there was no absoluteness to these rules. For instance, cigarette smoking which Clement couldn’t abide and which could lead him to be staggeringly rude to people was an unforgivable sin, unless the smoke was emitted by Stephen Fry in which case it was entirely acceptable. On two occasions even I was allowed to smoke: he took me by surprise when he informed me that if I wanted to light up at the table I could. "Are you sure?" I asked. Wobbling his jowls at me in reply he indicated in some avuncular way that I was silly to think there might have even been a problem. What had pleased him so much that evening that this not inconsiderable concession was allowed? I never got to fathom his methodology. Even Jill Freud, it appears, wasn’t allowed to smoke around him (or not often anyway). At his funeral in April 2009 on the occasion of what would have been his 85th birthday, Matthew, his son, told the story of how the day after their father died, his sister Emma gave their mother a basket containing some items of small pleasure that had been forbidden her during their nearly sixty years of marriage: a pair of Scholl sandals, a packet of cigarettes, a bulb of garlic and a bottle of perfume. (I can’t recall what prompted his observation but Clement once leaned over and told me somewhat conspiratorially how he disapproved of perfume and wanted "a woman to smell of woman." I heard myself replying that I was sure he did and then not knowing how to take the conversation further I asked Derek Nimmo if he could pass a bread roll.) The basket and its contents was a touching and probably not entirely serious gesture but with enough truth contained in its message that it resonated not only with the family but with the congregation, too.

Food, wine, restaurants and their staff were high on the list of things which could cause distress. He didn’t demonstrate anything like the stagey nonsense of Michael Winner but certain things were acceptable and others weren’t and he certainly wasn’t English when it came to complaining. If he didn’t like something pretty much everyone knew about it. But as ever the goalposts were built on shifting sand and so it was hard to know in advance. For someone who had once toiled in the bowels of the Dorchester’s kitchens in some lowly capacity and must have surely understood better than most the rigours of a waiter’s or cook’s life he appeared to have very little tolerance for people who worked in those establishments. Maybe he exacted such high standards on himself when he had his legendary supper club at the Royal Court in the 1950s he expected others to behave similarly. Although having heard Clement describe his running of the place it seemed that if a customer there objected to something he was rarely right.

In a restaurant in Chester, which had stayed open late to accommodate us, Clement tried to have sacked some poor soul who during his break was having a few gasps on a fag. Clement hadn’t been able to smell this but had, on a trip to the gents, noticed an open door, stuck his head around it, and spotted the miscreant at his foul deed. In York, he returned entirely uneaten a dish of veal with garlic in it, even though garlic had been listed as one of the key ingredients on the menu. When the waitress who was forced to deal with him asked what the problem was without looking at her he simply said ‘inedible’ and passed her the plate. I’m just glad no one ever tried to force some comfy footwear on him.

Much mirth was to be had at his funeral when Clement was described as being a man who "not only didn’t suffer fools gladly, but went out of his way to find fools to not suffer gladly." Despite the warm laughter this never struck me as a particularly admirable personality trait. For someone who was a rather astonishing figure and with many splendid attributes to his name he did seem to relish an opportunity to either be disappointed or utterly furious. One November Sunday afternoon in Guernsey where we were recording two shows he hunted high and low amongst the almost entirely closed town of St Peter Port seeking good patisserie and consequently got into a state of rather grumpy despair when he couldn’t find any. In Belfast, insisting that we ate at the only Michelin-starred restaurant there, and more importantly which was run by friends of his, he then unfortunately and bafflingly refused anything served to him, causing much anxiety in the kitchen and a general tone of unease at our table, not lessened as he had brought a friend along to dinner and didn’t introduce her to anyone else present.

Much of this behaviour I suspect was born of a desire to be mischievous rather than downright malicious. We once stayed at The Bear at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, an hotel and restaurant he had some directorial connection with. After dinner, in the bar he asked me if I’d enjoyed my pudding of lemon tart. As we’d sat next to each other during the meal I was slightly thrown by this question as he had complimented me on my choice of ice cream. I reminded him that I hadn’t in fact eaten the lemon tart and he looked rather disappointed as apparently this establishment’s particular version was "the best in the country". He seemed really rather upset that I’d missed this treat and went on about it for a while. We all made our way to our rooms at about one o’clock and after I’d been asleep for a couple of hours with a hangover nicely brewing in my brain I was woken by a knock on the door. Upon opening it, I was greeted with the sight of the night porter delivering an entire lemon tart and a jug of cream. At breakfast the next morning, I thanked Clement for this unusual nocturnal treat and he looked at me blankly before replying that he had no idea what I was talking about. I’d know him long enough by then to know not to take the matter further. Just A Minute that night had been recorded at Blenheim Palace. There was some charitable connection to the event and at a rather turgid dinner afterwards the Duke of Marlborough got to his feet to mutter some warm words about the charity and then toast the Queen, which he remembered to do only after he had sat down and his wife nudged him in the ribs. Getting to his feet a second time I felt certain that he reminded me of someone. I asked Clement if this chap looked rather like the King? "Which one?" he asked, reasonably enough. "George VI," I said. "No." "George V?" I ventured. "Absolutely not," said Clement. "Are you sure?" I stupidly asked. "Of course I am," he replied, "I should be, I met both of them."

Grinding through the English countryside on a very slow train once after a night away recording Just A Minute the splendid and much-missed comedian Linda Smith said to me "the thing with Clement is, it’s impossible to plumb the depths of his weirdness." She was right. He could be as slippery as an eel in his likes and dislikes, his manners impeccable one minute and behaving like a ghastly spoilt brat the next. Sometimes taking umbrage at the slightest thing and on other occasions remaining very relaxed about misdemeanours which probably only a day before would have caused him to erupt with incandescent rage. I must say in his defence that for every occasion I saw him bark at a waiter, or snatch the wine from a waitress’ hand there is another where he showed a common courtesy to somebody or complimented someone on something. In Leicester, Clement was charm itself to the young chap who remembered my mustard but forgot the redcurrant jelly for his lamb chops which were ordered medium but arrived incinerated and yet were eaten by him nevertheless, without complaint.

He was also tremendously generous. After his death, many stories circulated in the papers about gifts of money he had made to people, jobs he secured for others, and in my case it was he who rang me up after I left the BBC and said he thought I should try my hand at being a panellist on the Just A Minute. However, occasionally even his gestures of generosity could be turned on their head, he could morph them from rather thoughtful and kind acts to those which you wish he had never even contemplated. My last recordings as producer took place in Dartmouth on a freezing January night. Very thoughtfully and extremely extravagantly Clement had decided to toast me on my way with a magnum of 1963 port he brought down with him. This was to be a surprise for me and it really was a lovely one. However, it turned out that the bottle had travelled on its side in his overnight bag with all the usual things (as well as his childhood teddy bear which he took with him everywhere) and he then left it there while we recorded the shows and had dinner. When we returned to the hotel, the solitary barman was not only rather taken aback to suddenly be roused from his slumbers by the arrival of all of us but also by Clement’s demand to decant his wine. No decanter could be found and when a jug was finally produced from the kitchen nobody seemed able to open the bottle. Behind the bar stood Clement berating this sorry chap as he failed to extract the cork. Finally it gave, but not before the bottle had been given a shaking worthy of a excitable racing driver. According to the Clement the port was ruined and the barman looked close to tears. The provider of my farewell libation poured each of us a glass however and I was toasted very sweetly. Unfortunately, at that moment Julian Clary, another panellist on the programme that night, decided to light up a cigarette and this was the final straw. Clement stormed from the room we were in almost in tears himself as he cried "that bloody smoke will ruin the fruit, it will ruin the fruit." As I tried to placate him in the foyer I had the image of myself as an infant school teacher trying to calm a child who is upset because people aren’t admiring his new football enough. Where that precise image came from I don’t know but it has stayed with me.


Anonymous Perra Dox said...

Very nicely written by Chris Neill :)

5:17 am  

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