Richard Paniguian

My oldest friend, Sir Richard Paniguian, CBE, died suddenly on 25 June. This is my memoir of him, read at his funeral yesterday:  

Richard and I met in 1956, when we were both 7. His parents, Pan and Mary, had recently come to live in Clareville Grove. We were already there. I imagine our mothers discovered they each had a son of the same age and arranged for us to meet. And I probably said “Oh no, do I have to?”, and Richard probably said “Oh no, do I have to?”, but we did have to, because mothers ruled the world then.

Several things cemented our friendship, and first amongst them was humour. Richard had a magnificent sense of humour and, as Jo has said, a delicious sense of the absurd. I can hear now his exploded laugh at anything that was too ridiculous for words. Which, for him, was quite a lot.

He introduced me to the Goons and I introduced him to Flanders and Swann. We would roll around on the floors of respective homes, convulsed at jokes we barely understood. What we did understand was that these heroes had the same sense of the ridiculous as we did. The humour of Spike Milligan, in particular, peppered all our conversations.

In 1960, when we were 11, we decided to put on a Variety Show at Christmas. If Flanders and Swann could go on a London stage, why couldn’t we? Conveniently, the downstairs room at Richard’s house was L-shaped – one part a sitting room; the other part a dining room; the two parts divided by a yellow satin curtain. We had our stage.

The audience was our parents, who were obliged to attend and obliged to pay for the privilege. They were also obliged to buy programmes at 3d each. In 1964, like the Sunday newspapers, we introduced a colour section to the programme. Here it is. For those of you who can’t see it, there is a green box headed “Here is our colour section”.

The Variety Show consisted mainly of sketches, which we both wrote and performed. Richard was responsible for the musical content, and also for the conjuring tricks. Sometimes we performed an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story. Improbably, this show ran for seven consecutive Christmases, until 1966.

This consumed most of each Christmas holidays. Another thing that consumed them was dancing lessons. Our mothers, unaware that the avalanche of the 1960s was about to descend, fondly imagined that we would spend several years of our young adult lives dancing to orchestras at deb dances.

So we were despatched weekly to a church hall behind Harrod’s, where we were instructed in the waltz and the foxtrot by a Mrs Hampshire, sometimes assisted by her daughter, Susan. Mrs Hampshire was a proper martinet, clapping her hands in irritation at anyone who was not taking matters with the proper seriousness. I fear that Richard and I were the main culprits.

The summer holidays were different. My family decamped to a cottage in Kent, where Richard was a frequent visitor. The garden there was one of our many impromptu cricket pitches. Cricket was the other great thing we had in common. We played cricket everywhere. We watched it. We talked about it. When England won the second test at Melbourne in 1963, we decided – aged 13 – that we should have a proper drink to celebrate. So we went to the International Stores in Gloucester Road to buy some beer, which the shop unsportingly declined to sell us. We had to make do with Babycham.

Another cricket pitch was a concrete alleyway behind a small cottage in deepest Dorset, which Richard’s family sometimes rented in the summer. One day, we went to the cinema in Lyme Regis to see the film Becket. The afternoon got off to a bad start when we sat unawares in double seats designed for courting couples and quickly had to move. Then, at a point of high drama in the film, a large candle was processed into Canterbury Cathedral. “Oh look,” one of us said, “it’s his birthday.” This threw us into hysterics for several minutes until the usherette threatened us with eviction.

The last of the carefree high jinks came at the end of our first year at university. Another friend and I had to go back to Cambridge for a few weeks in the summer vacation. There was a gullible night porter at Trinity Hall who was the proud possessor of a pair of handcuffs. We decided to construct a stunt which would end with George handcuffing a suspected criminal and handing him over to someone he thought was a policeman. Richard was cast in the role of the criminal.

We chased Richard round the parapets of the college for 5 or 10 minutes and finally apprehended him. George duly handcuffed him and prepared to ring the police. We gave George a telephone number, supposedly of the police station, but in fact of a call box round the corner, where another friend was waiting. The “police” came to take Richard away.

I have this image of a future Head of the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation in handcuffs, about to be led away by a future Government Chief Whip, impersonating a police officer, watched over by a future Chief Executive of a major City bank and myself. And by George, of course.

Well, everything got a great deal more serious after that. Richard embarked on a hugely successful and distinguished career. But that is for another day.

Wherever he was, and over the years it was in many places, we always met on one fixed occasion each year, whenever else we met. It used to be on Christmas Day, in a pub in London, for a drink before lunch. One year, and I think it was at the Devonshire Arms in Marloes Road, I met Nil for the first time. I expect we were each keen to make a good impression on the other, and Richard was no doubt hoping that we did, but none of us need have worried. Nil’s warmth and spontaneity were immediately obvious, as was her huge love for Richard, and his for her. What a wonderful marriage they had, and how Richard adored his new extended family.

When I was no longer in London at Christmas, we met at the Lord’s Test. We were making the arrangements for this year when he died. I emailed that I was planning to go on the Thursday, Friday and Sunday. “Seeing as it’s England,” said Richard in reply, “perhaps we shouldn’t make any arrangements for the Sunday.”

This has been far too sudden, and far, far too soon. But, if today had to happen at all, how fitting that it should happen on the Saturday of the Lord’s Test.

Richard was a kind, decent, modest man, full of humour, full of a zest for life. It has been my privilege to have had him as a friend for more than 60 years.