Like any teenager, I had heroes. I’m not talking about pin-ups: that was something different. (Marianne Faithfull and Sandie Shaw, since you ask.) I mean proper male heroes: a sporting hero, a musical hero and a celluloid hero. One of the curiosities of my life is that – thanks to a series of staggering coincidences – by the time I was 20, I had met and talked to each of my teenage idols.
The musical hero came as a quartet: the Beatles. In an earlier blog (1 May 2016) I described how I walked into an employment agency off Bond Street and, half an hour later, found myself as a mailboy at Apple. To be exact, I did not meet all four Beatles. But I met three of them and, however briefly, talked to them. The exception was Paul McCartney, who didn’t come in to Apple at the time. I still live in hope of completing the set.
My sporting hero was the cricketer Ted Dexter. Other English batsmen have had higher averages; none has had more style, more power, more élan. It remains a permanent regret that I never saw him play a big innings. The one I would most like to have witnessed was against the West Indies at Lord’s in 1963. This is how Ian Woolridge of the Daily Mail described it:
[Dexter] struck 70 runs off 74 deliveries but even those startling statistics tell next to nothing. It was the manner of their making that transformed his deeds into the dream of all schoolboys and the fireside romance of old men. The earth seemingly stood still as he played one of the truly great innings of our time. He simply stood and smashed anything that Hall and Griffith could hurl at him. The faster they bowled the more savagely he cut and drove and pulled them. This was Dexter, the enigma of even his own generation, rising head and shoulders above all his contemporaries. Edward Ralph Dexter was out there in a domain where no critic could touch him. This was his thundering answer. [When he was out], all along the Nursery balconies, down the length of the ground and across the three tiers of the pavilion there was a sudden upward movement as though Lord’s itself had risen two feet off its foundations.
Sometime in the 1960s, I had bumped into Ted Dexter at Lord’s and got his autograph. But that didn’t really count as a meeting. Then, in 1969, he accepted an invitation to speak in a debate at the Cambridge Union. The format for Union debates was that an undergraduate made the first speech on each side of the motion, followed by two guest speakers on each side. The then President of the Union, Hugh Anderson – a political opponent, but a kind man – asked if I would like to “lead” Ted Dexter.
Debates were preceded by dinners, and it was the task of the undergraduate speaker to look after one or both of the guest speakers and make sure they got to the dinner on time. This usually involved meeting the guest at Cambridge station, or – if the guest was driving – going to his or her hotel.
Ted Dexter came neither by train nor by car. He piloted his private plane to Marshalls airfield, where I met him. Then I drove him back to Trinity Hall and, soon, there we were, sitting in my room, having a drink together. Unbelievable. The occasion was not the unmitigated triumph it should have been, though. Dexter had a reputation for diffidence. He was not a conversationalist, and looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. Still, he was there. In my room. Ted Dexter.
The third hero was Peter Sellers. I am using a little licence here. Sellers was not a hero in the way that Ted Dexter and the Beatles were. But he was my favourite actor, and I did meet him. It happened towards the end of 1964, when I was 15.
In the afternoons at school, if there were no games, a group of us would often go cycling into the Surrey countryside. The place we usually went was Cutmill, on Puttenham Common, where an impromptu dirt-track had been created and we could race our bikes over humps and hollows. One day, we were riding along a small country lane to Cutmill and, not unusually, I was dawdling behind the others, perhaps 50 yards behind them. From a track on my left, another solitary cyclist came into view, reaching the lane just as I reached the track. I looked up. It was Peter Sellers. Of course it was.
This was not the complete surprise it might sound. We knew that Sellers had a large mansion nearby: we’d often cycled past it and peered through the gates. Earlier that year, he’d had a series of heart attacks and was convalescing at home, under the tender care of Britt Ekland. I don’t expect he was in any rush to get back to filming.
So we rode along next to each other for a few hundred yards, me and my mate Peter. He said his doctor had advised him to bicycle as much as possible. I said I hoped he would soon be making more films. We talked about life at school. We came to the crossroads at Cutmill. He didn’t invite me home for tea. He turned left towards Elstead and I turned right towards the dirt track.
I’m not sure I have fortuitously met a single celebrity since I was 20. I worked with someone who talked and drank with Leonard Cohen on a Greek island, and who later did the same with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a small restaurant in Lisson Grove. And my wife once had dinner with Spike Milligan. Those were all nearly as impressive.
But not quite. Three heroes by the age of 20 – that takes some beating.