GAME OF CHANCE

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 1994, 12:00am

THERE has been a strange flutter of coincidence in the air these past couple of weeks. First was the story that came across the lunch table. It had lain dormant for nearly half a century and concerned a minor event which took place in 1951, just two years after the Reds took over China, although that has absolutely nothing to do with it. This story takes place in a small seaside town in England where the only event of similar consequence in living memory was when the Melrose Tearooms ran out of scones.


Can you believe, in these days of satellite television, laser discs, mobile telephones and cars that think, that a simple television set, its black-and-white picture struggling dimly through a snow storm, was as rare an appliance in the home then as is the household now that does not have dozens of the things? But it was so. And so it was that one day in May of that year a middle-aged man in a striped blazer and his young son were to be found driving slowly around the sleepy town looking for the only visible sign that there might be a television set within one of the houses - a tell-tale aerial, a spindly H on a chimney. The boy, you see, was football crazy and that day was the biggest day in the soccer season, the final of the FA Cup at Wembley, many miles away in London. He had nagged his father that they justhad to find a television. The Search for the Holy Goal.


The slow drive of surveillance led them to the other side of town, to a small detached home looking much the same as all the others in the quiet road. Inside, a recently widowed woman was cooking lunch for her seven-year-old son, when the doorbell rang and the strange request was made.


'Er, I believe you have a television. Er, would you think me very rude if I asked whether my son and myself might return a little later this afternoon to watch a football match on it?' It was only six years since Britain had been at war and the sense of social unity and trust that had forged Churchillian Britain with its back to the wall was still in the air and in the newspapers. The woman said 'Yes'.


'I remember the game quite clearly,' John Cleese told me over lunch as he passed through Hong Kong on a 12-week break from the busy schedule of being one of the world's most recognisable funny men. 'Newcastle United beat Blackpool two-nil. I can even remember the goals, both scored by Jackie Milburn, one was a header and the other a shot with the left foot.' I was the seven-year-old in this story but I don't remember the game at all, or even whether I watched it; people were always coming round to watch a Coronation, or some such. But it was as a result of the encounter that later in the year I was admitted into a school which my mother had been told was full, after intervention from Mr Cleese Senior, who knew the headmaster. By this time John was already a big boy in short trousers and was displaying tendencies that were later to release a billion laughs in Monty Python's Flying Circus as the Ministry of Funny Walks. Also, Fawlty Towers was set in a quiet seaside town in southern England.


It was also why we met up for lunch last week.


ROCKING ON NEXT blast from the past came when I was in London, immediately before this. I walked out of the friends' house where I has been staying to buy a newspaper, only to run into a familiar-looking man who informed me that we had not met for 17 years.


He was, and still is, a musician and when he was still at school he formed a rock band called Genesis. He left after a while to pursue a quieter career as a composer (another member of the band who also left shortly afterwards to go solo played the Hong Kong Stadium on Monday ? his name, Peter Gabriel). Anthony Phillips lived in my house 17 years ago while he was writing the score for a film of the novel Tarka The Otter with Harry Williamson, son of the author Henry.


As we chatted over a coffee the subject of Richard Branson came up; I had just flown the grinning pullover's new service from Hong Kong to London, and a very good flight it was too. For his part, Anthony had good cause to be perturbed by Branson's foray into air transport, he said. Selling Virgin Music to Thorn EMI for ?560 million to finance Virgin Atlantic's expansion and take on his dirty tricks competitor, British Airways, had done my friend no good at all.


Branson had been assured by EMI that Virgin jobs would be secure; and he had passed on the assurance, but within months 95 per cent of those in Virgin's music publishing arm with whom Anthony had spent years building up a smooth working relationship had been removed. No one ever said that business was all smiles.


FAMOUS FRIENDS I ONCE met Peter Gabriel. I was sleeping off a long lunch in an armchair in the office of a restaurant in Bath, England. It was a disastrous business in which I was, appropriately, a sleeping partner. At the time, the mid-'70s, I was also designing and making glass constructions based upon the principles of Pythagorean geometry and the Indian chakras (these were the early days of the New Age which people in Hong Kong are finally discovering now there seems to be money in it).


One of my creations was suspended over the grand piano in the restaurant and had caught Gabriel's eye. He came to speak to me about it. Effectively I told him to go away; come back later. He did; and he didn't, not until last week.


And so it goes on. Exactly 10 years ago I was in between jobs in what then was known as Fleet Street, home of British newspapers. I was, as the acting profession says, 'resting'. Also resting and a frequent lunch-time companion at a small Irish pub acrossthe park from where I lived in Fulham was a tall young Irishman who wore wire rim specs and a donkey jacket. He was at a bit of a loose end, he was not working and his girlfriend, British actress Helen Mirren had left him, in her flat around the corner. She wanted to shoot for Hollywood. He admired her courage, he said, and wished her well.


Sometime later he was to make the bold move, too. His name was Liam Neeson.


It's nice to hear of those you've known, doing well.


 

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