Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Entertainers

Roy Plomley and My Desert Island Discs

In Putney Vale Cemetery in London there is a gravestone flanked by palm trees, topped by a scallop shell and where dolphins swim above the faded inscription:

Roy Plomley OBE

Who created

Desert Island Discs

Born 20th January 1914

Died 28th May 1985

Roy Plomley’s grave at Putney Vale
Detail of grave with scallop shell, dolphins and palm trees.
Detail of dolphins

Desert Island Discs began in 1942. The theme tune, Eric Coates’ By The Sleepy Lagoon, drifted out of the wireless,  followed by the sound of surf breaking on the shore and the cry of herring gulls. The format was simple: each week Roy Plomley interviewed a notable person  about their life and views, the talk interspersed with their choice of the eight pieces of music which they would take with them if cast away upon the eponymous desert island.

Plomley created the programme and presented it every week until his death in 1985. Subsequently four other presenters have taken his place. This year marked the eightieth anniversary of the programme, and it is the second longest running radio show in the world. I doubt if there is anyone in Britain who has never tuned in, curious about the musical tastes of the esteemed and the execrable, as fascinated by the meretricious as by the meritorious.

In an interview with John Dunn, Plomley explained that few people ever refused to take part in the programme: why would anyone, he asked, when

“ you  get invited out to a very good lunch…and then you play your favourite music…and talk about yourself…and on your way out you get a cheque.”

While most of us will never be offered the lunch or the cheque, I defy anyone hearing the programme not to muse upon their own selection of eight discs.

 And yes, here are mine…

It is the summer of 1969. I am in Montauban on a French exchange, designed to improve my command of the language before the A-level exam next year. I am in possession of a pale blue mini dress with pearl buttons, silver sandals with glitter, and  my exchange, Françoise, and  I are listening to Georges Moustaki singing Le Métèque. We are mesmerised by the photograph on the record cover: a man with dark eyes, olive skin, long hair, and an already greying beard. The words of the song hold us spellbound; his is a world of exotic destinations, he is a free spirit, a man of passion and poetry, romance and sophistication, of Experience. We are enthralled by this heady mix. We are seventeen and want to be “ the sweet captive” of this man who will “drink of our youth” (it loses something in translation.). We are  avid for “a whole eternity of love.” We have powerful imaginations but No Experience – but fervently hope to remedy this soon.

Four years on and another set of examinations is punctuating my life. In the last weeks before Finals, the files and heavily annotated and underscored notes are piled up on my desk, and I emerge from my room only for meals. I am not alone in this and a heavy , unnatural pall of silence hangs in the corridor. Periodically  the stillness is riven by  Lou Reed’s Transformer  emanating from my neighbour’s room. Whichever tracks he chooses he always sets the needle back on to Perfect Day for the finale. With any other record this would be  irritating but Perfect Day just makes me smile, push aside the books for a moment  and daydream.

Even today it  transports me back, not just to those final weeks but to the whole heady experience of three  years of freedom without responsibility, of new discoveries and delights. Coming from a worthy but  dull girls’ school where work was set for the sake of it rather than to  open new horizons, I had arrived at university with other things on my mind than a serious commitment to study. That had changed under the influence of my tutor, Peter Reddaway, and Maurice Cranston who  taught me Political Philosophy. Suddenly learning was exciting and I devoured all that my erudite teachers had to offer.

And beyond the library was a social life and the sheer ridiculous fun of living in hall with two hundred other students. Passfield Hall was the first hall in London to go co-ed and this gave it a certain caché. Others less privileged would query in awe the goings on there. In truth the regular sighting of one’s fellow students scuttling to the communal bathrooms in their pyjamas, or bleary eyed and unshaven over breakfast, was not conducive to passion, but we always managed to field questions with knowing looks implying that Sodom and Gomorrah paled into insignificance beside Passfield.

These were the years of my first lover and my first heartbreak, and months of a tear-stained pillow. Was the experience worth it? Of course it was.

A more sophisticated friend introduced me to London beyond the university: to The Marquee and Sunday nights at The Roundhouse. There I learned to roll a joint and, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.

Perfect Days indeed.

I am in my twenties and living in Athens with a Greek boyfriend. We are in love but not  good at the day-to-day business of living together. We argue a lot  and when angry we know how to hurt each other. I pack my suitcases and come home,  but a few months later I am back. We fall into a pattern of quarrels and reconciliations. Sometimes everything is perfect, and the world is a magical place, at others we make each other wretched. It ended badly, but Manos Hadjidakis’ Fifteen Vespers will forever transport me back to  an idyll on Serifos,  to warm summer nights,  the sound of the waves,  the scent of jasmine, and the taste of  Karelia cigarettes. And with the passing of the years the bad memories  fade, while the good ones grow more luminous.

It is  New Year’s Eve, sometime in the 1980s, and I am in a bar in Havana, absently wondering whatever happened to the red and black poster of Che Guevara which once adorned my bedroom wall. Suddenly a group of Italians spring to their feet, and erupt, with a perfect command of words and tune, into a rendering of Carlos Puebla’s Hasta Siempre Comandante. They follow this with an emotional Bella Ciao. Then they embrace everyone and wish them a Happy New Year. But it is 6pm. Understanding dawns: it is midnight in Italy. The  evening proceeds punctuated with hourly performances from different national groups. And at midnight – a toast to Che.

It is the 1990s and I have realised  that I will “never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in (my) hair.” Instead, I drive a Vauxhall Corsa through Bristol’s rush hour traffic to work every morning, often stationary for what seems like hours at a cheerless roundabout on the A4. Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light blasts from the car stereo. He is clearly having a better time than I am.

In  celebration of the Millennium, I book my partner and self on to a boat trip across Lake Nassar to Abu Simbel. As the boat moves slowly towards its destination the massive rock cut temples grow larger and the rich, extravagant strains of The Triumphal March from Aida crash upon the air. After dinner we go ashore and drink champagne and as midnight approaches the lights on the boat are extinguished and we are guided in silence through the velvet black night to the Great Temple of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. At midnight, the door is thrown open upon a blaze of light and we enter the hypostyle hall between the four colossal statues of Ramesses. Inside are dazzling floor to ceiling hieroglyphs and painted scenes of the Battle of Kadesh, more statues line the walls, and the ceiling is painted with winged vultures. Later, as the others make their way back to the boat, I close the massive door and stand alone in the temple. Three thousand years ago the Ancient Egyptians worshipped their Sun Gods here. Three thousand years hence the temple and its behemothic statues may still keep vigil beside Lake Nasser.

It is 2015 and the third week of July: the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and Rally, a celebration of trade unionism and Labour politics, is taking place during a Labour leadership election. A wreath is laid at the grave of James Hammett and a procession of vibrant  banners precedes the speeches. Jeremy Corbyn is standing as leader of the Labour Party and his support, along with membership of the Labour party, is increasing rapidly. He is on the brink of achieving the  largest mandate ever won by a party leader, and by the hung Parliament of 2017 Labour’s share of the vote will have increased to 40% with a net gain of thirty seats. Without notes he gives an impassioned speech setting out his radical beliefs with eloquence and emotion, lucidity and resolve. By the time Billy Bragg follows the speeches with a rendering of The World Turned Upside Down,

“…Still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage, you rich take care

This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share”

it  feels as though the New Jerusalem is just around the corner. For the first time in my life British politics are electrifying, exciting hope and promising change.

That was another story which ended badly: a combination of antagonistic media and smear campaigns by political opponents caused Jeremy Corbyn to stand down and the Labour Party retreated into woolly centralism and unprincipled compromises. Tories tightened their grip and seven years on those high hopes have turned to ashes. But another Billy Bragg song  still raises smiles, hopes, and voices at Tolpuddle – There is Power in a Union. And as more unions reluctantly turn to strike action this autumn, our current political nadir may yet precipitate a sea change in British politics.

A Brief Encounter with Laura, Alec, Helen and Sofie

The promise of “an immersive theatrical event” lured me to The Mill at Sonning. The theatre’s Waterwheel Bar had been transformed into the refreshment room at Milford Junction  in 1936, and as we finished our supper at a table in the bar we witnessed the first encounter between Laura and Alec in Noel Coward’s Still Life. After he had removed the grit from her eye they occupied the next table and their repressed romance took its course with a magnificent supporting cast of steam train effects, Banbury cakes dropped on the floor and returned to their plate on the buffet counter, and curling cheese sandwiches on sliced white, the latter carefully preserved under clingfilm at the end of the evening for future use. It was an unforgettable piece of theatre.

Before this I had been more familiar with Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of the play with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Of all the wonderful black and white films of the forties it is the one I love most. It engenders nostalgia with steam trains, the station buffet, Boots circulating library, the Kardomah coffee house, a service flat, Laura’s tailored suits, Alec’s trilby and a phone call made from the tobacconist,  all wrapped up in the swelling Rachmaninov score, the swirling fog, and the pent-up passion. Ultimately of course Nothing Happens, and it is hard today not to smile at the cut glass accents and the stultifying morality as the deeply conventional middle-class housewife and the married doctor battle with their intense emotions before parting, he to a new life in S. Africa, she to her home and husband. Alan Bennett satirised the film affectionately  in The History Boys where Posner and Scripps in one of the most delightful scenes in the play re-enact an emotionally charged exchange between Laura and her husband, Fred.

And yet…while others finding themselves in north Lancashire may head for the Lake District, my own footsteps always tend towards  Carnforth. For Carnforth is the real-life Milford Junction on whose platforms David Lean shot his film  when it was impossible to film night scenes around London because of the blackout. And Carnforth celebrates the association: in summer months flowers blossom extravagantly amongst the  vintage suitcases and trunks which decorate the platform  along with railway posters and porters’ trolleys beneath the famous clock. The refreshment room serves tea and Brief Encounter Cakes, and the railway museum offers a mini-cinema with tip-up seats showing the film on a loop.

The refreshment room at Carnforth

Such is the seductive power of the film that I can barely distinguish between Laura and Celia, Alec and Trevor. So, when I found  Celia Johnson’s grave in the trim churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s,  Nettlebed, in the heart of rural Oxfordshire, next to that of her husband, Peter Fleming, and surrounded by older headstones, many commemorating other members of the Fleming family, I was not at all surprised. It was just where I would have expected to find Laura. Her Wikipedia entry records that  after the war Celia Johnson focused on family life, just as Laura did, and died after collapsing with a stroke while playing bridge – just how Laura would have gone. And Nettlebed itself, quaint, sleepy, and manicured, a village so ridiculously pretty with its handsome houses, thatched cottages, and charming gardens that it regularly stars in Midsomer Murders, is just where Laura would have lived.

Grave of Celia Johnson
Grave of Peter Fleming

To find Trevor Howard/Dr. Alec Harvey then I should have boarded a Union Castle liner from Southampton, or at least a BOAC aeroplane from Croydon stopping to refuel every few hundred miles, to S. Africa. There I should have found him in some dusty, neglected graveyard outside Johannesburg, beneath a stone extolling the compassion and selfless dedication of a caring doctor. The reality was a little different: I travelled to the end of the Northern Line at High Barnet and after negotiating the roadworks, caught the number 107 bus to Arkley. There  behind the austere, brick, Victorian church of St. Peter I located a few stone slabs resting against the wall bearing  stark lists of those interred. But no graveyard ever disappoints for long, and beside the stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name there was a card with red roses from Helen and Sofie. The ink a little smudged by the rain despite a careful plastic covering, it read,

Dearest Trevor,

Thank you so much for all the happiness

you have brought to us with your

excellent performances.

One of the greatest actors that ever lived.

Thinking of you with lots of love.

xxx      Helen and Sofie     xxx


St. Peter, Arkley, memorial stones.
Stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name
Trevor Howard 1913-1988
Tribute from Helen and Sofie

I would have travelled the length of the Northern line a hundred times for the pleasure of meeting Helen and Sofie. I imagine them on a raw winter’s evening, drawing the curtains against the damp, grey nightfall, settling down on the sofa with a glass of red, and selecting a DVD starring their favourite actor. And when the choice falls on Brief Encounter, I’ll join them in raising a glass to Trevor and Celia.


Edgar Wallace

My mother loved the cinema, and it was our weekly treat in the sixties to spend Friday evenings at the pictures followed by six penn’orth of chips, hot, greasy, and wrapped in several layers of newspaper, on the way home. In those days there were five cinemas in Chester: the Gaumont was  the smartest with a huge glittering art deco foyer, magnificent auditorium,  and elegant restaurant; the Regal and the Odeon, which we most commonly frequented, had standard thirties cinema architecture; the tiny Classic, squashed between a sweet shop and a pub, favoured  foreign and X-rated films (we seldom went there); and the Music Hall’s name indicated its previous incarnation.

For 3/6d adults, 1/9d children,  we could enjoy a  programme of main feature, Pearl and Dean advertisements,  Pathe News and second feature, running continuously, and it was possible to enter at any point and remain as long as we liked. Some patrons sat or slept through several performances. Others  would suddenly leap to their feet and announcing  “we came in here” begin to collect their coats and umbrellas as they edged their way out apologising as they brushed past our knees blocking the screen at critical moments in the drama.

The permanent darkness gave the auditorium a  mysterious romance as usherettes guided us by the beam of their torches to vacant red plush seats. Between us and the screen hung a thick, blue fug of cigarette smoke and the pungent scent of tobacco and nicotine was occasionally joined by the flare and acrid fumes of a struck match. During the intermission, the Kia-Ora lady would make her way backwards down the aisle with a spotlight shining on her and a  heavy tray suspended around her neck  containing orange squash, Butterkist popcorn, salted nuts and choc ices.

When the second feature was an Edgar Wallace Mystery I was especially delighted. Born in 1875, Wallace had left school at twelve and variously worked selling newspapers, delivering milk, in a rubber factory, as ship’s cook, and as a war correspondent in the second Boer War, until he turned, very successfully, to writing. He dictated his prolific output of journalism,  poetry, historical works, plays, novels, short stories, songs, and film scripts, including the screenplay for King Kong, onto wax cylinders which his secretaries  typed up. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries were film adaptations of his crime fiction, based on the popular detective stories which he had written in the 1920s but which the studio updated and set in contemporary London. The mood for the convoluted tales of murder, blackmail, and burglary,  was set as the spookily lit bust of Wallace himself rotated slowly on the screen surrounded by swirling fog,  to the mournful, eerie sound of the theme tune, Man of Mystery. I lost myself in  the black and white thrillers which unfolded on the screen, wistfully identifying with the high heeled, pencil skirted heroine,  following  the trench coated,  trilby wearing detective as he  navigated  the London streets and nightclubs, the smoke from his cigarette mingling imperceptibly with that rising from the cinema audience. It was all satisfyingly louche, and of course the heroic detective could be relied upon to bring the disreputable villains to brook.

Disappointingly, Edgar Wallace’s final resting place is a world away from the seedy criminals and rakish detectives whom I watched enthralled on the screen; he lies in the decorous surroundings of Little Marlow cemetery in Buckinghamshire, near the country home at Chalklands which he bought with the proceeds of his seamy tales, in the most respectable and conventional of graves, with not an unsavoury villain in sight.

Edgar Wallace 1875-1932


Growing up in a provincial town in the northwest in the 1960s we felt about as far away from Swinging London as it was possible to be. A strictly enforced school uniform of navy-blue serge skirts, hemlines below the knee, and pudding basin hats above scraped back hair did not help. King’s Road and Carnaby Street, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks existed in a parallel universe to which we did not have the key. Just a hop, skip and two short train rides away however was Liverpool, home of the Merseybeat, the city where our mothers occasionally took us shopping. We were familiar with the “ferry cross the Mersey” and the “statue exceedingly bare,” knew the whereabouts of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. The Cavern however remained as mysterious to us as Ronnie Scott’s or The Marquee, being a bit too young and our parents a bit too strict to allow us ever to penetrate its alluring, murky depths. Instead on Saturday afternoons my friends and I donned our miniskirts, carefully applied our white lipstick, matching white kinky boots if we were incredibly lucky, combed our long straight hair carefully, we imagined seductively, over one eye and congregated in someone’s bedroom to play the latest singles. We were loyal to the local sound and The Beatles featured heavily, indeed it was essential to have a favourite Beatle (mine was George), along with Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers, but the one we all liked best was Cilla. We loved her for her talent, her smile, for being a girl standing up alone on stage confidently belting out her songs and most of all because we really could believe that she was the girl next door, someone’s older sister, a more sophisticated version of ourselves who might irritate us immensely by referring to us as kids but who would always be on hand to help out when the eyeliner went wonky.

So, on a recent visit to Liverpool, I took a bus to Allerton Cemetery and sought her out. Allerton is a large municipal cemetery, and it houses some imposing graves but true to form Cilla was tucked up, near her mam and dad, beneath a very ordinary black stone. Well, not quite ordinary for the gold script bore familiar lyrics: extracts from Step Inside Love, Alfie, and You’re My World

I read them, I smiled, I was transported back to those Saturday afternoons when my friends and I sang along with more enthusiasm than tunefulness – always careful not to let our emotions get the better of our mascara. And I have no doubt that when darkness falls and the cemetery gates are locked for the night Cilla’s voice rings out leading her fellow residents in a hearty chorus of “You’re my world, You’re every breath I take, You’re my world you’re every move I make” bringing smiles to their faces as she did to ours more than half a century ago. Thanks, Cilla.

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