Thirty years on: The 1983 Yellow Pages advert featuring J.R. Hartley
A biographer is used to taking people’s reminiscences on trust. But if you’ve mixed with the kind of people prone to write their memoirs — which is practically everybody, these days — you may start getting a tiny walk-on part in their books. And you may also get the nagging sensation of being the biter bit.
I am keen on accuracy myself, coming from the old Fleet Street school where Charles Wintour’s mantra, “For God’s sake get it RIGHT!” was emblazoned on the Evening Standard newsroom wall. Others seem to have no such scruples. Whenever I crop up in someone’s reminiscences, I find their memory irritatingly fallible. (The last one was, unsurprisingly, Piers Morgan’s diaries.) In the era of self-publishing and vanity autobiographies, untrustworthy memoirists can write whatever they like.
There’s an entertaining one called Confessions of a King’s Road Cowboy, by John Cigarini, subtitled Memoirs of a Terrible Name-Dropper, in which I am to be found on page 141. In the 1980s Cigarini was a producer of TV commercials. One of his most popular ads was the J.R. Hartley one, for the Yellow Pages. Entirely by chance, a locations man drove past our house and decided it would be the sort of traditional house Hartley would live in. In 30 seconds, the ad told the story of a nice old gent searching fruitlessly in bookshops for a book called Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley, and arriving home exhausted. “Dad,” says his daughter, “why not try the Yellow Pages?” So he rings a shop: yes, they do have the book and will keep it for him. His name? “J.R. Hartley”. He gives a beatific sigh. It was a neat little tale, now charmingly dated, wedged in the last century. Thirty years on I still live in that house. I am sitting now in J.R. Hartley’s chair. I clearly recall the day they came to film it — and naturally I wrote all about it at the time. It was such an adventure. They transformed the house (repainting white woodwork a dingy cream, splashing out on Victorian bric-a-brac, whatnots, antimacassars, cache-pots, jardinières and fishing trophies). I remember the shouts of “CUT!” from the famous director Bob Brooks, the lavish flowers they left behind — and the unforgettable visit of the producer John Cigarini, who recalls it differently.
“We filmed the home scenes in a house in Hampstead,” writes Cigarini in his book.
It was a hot summer’s day, and the house was pokey . . . I sat in my car for most of the day. I didn’t know that a journalist called Valerie Grove happened to own the house. A short while later an article appeared in the Evening Standard. In the article, she wrote “and then in came ‘Mr Big’, the producer John Cigarini. He came into my kitchen and put his feet on the table” (I certainly did not), “picked up the phone and started dictating, ‘1969 Mercedes convertible for sale’ . . .” (I probably did that) “. . . and then he went outside and fell asleep in the Mercedes . . .” (I definitely did that). It was all rather embarrassing. The day the article came out, someone had put “Mr Big” on my office nameplate. It was all very funny.
Perhaps I can refresh Mr Cigarini’s memory. The house where they filmed on that stifling day was not in Hampstead but nearer Crouch End. He calls it “pokey”: what cheek! It has five floors, of which his crew occupied three. When Cigarini strolled in, in T-shirt and shades, he ignored me (well, for all he knew I was just some lumpen hausfrau: I was eight months pregnant) and placed his be-trainered feet on the table, startling the nanny and children. Leaning back in his chair, caricature Hollywood producer, he reached for our phone and made a prolonged call to the Sunday Times Classified Ads department (in the morning! so expensive), dictating the sale of his open-top Merc “with hi-fi and whitewall tyres”, in which eye-catching motor he snoozed all afternoon.
But we parted affably (he tossed me a tenner for use of phone, when I griped) and a few weeks later, after my article appeared, he sent me a snapshot of himself on a pushbike, with a message: “This explains why I had to sell my car: I was being done for drunk driving.” How we roared. Then time passed. The ad started to appear on screen. And to everyone’s surprise, it became the hit TV commercial of the early 1980s: its screenings spanned over a decade and it spawned many comic parodies and cartoons, and turned the old actor, an opera singer named Norman Lumsden, into a chat-show celebrity. In December 1991 a spoof book called Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley topped the Sunday Times bestseller list.
But what makes Cigarini’s new book so hilarious to my friends (several have read it, and alerted me to it) is his account of running into me several years later at Mortons, a restaurant of which I am not an habitué. “After we had both had a few drinks,” he relates, “I really believe I could have seduced her under the table. In my drunken state I thought she liked the idea of ‘Mr Big’.” (The effrontery of the fellow!) “I didn’t do anything,” he adds, “but I should have, so I’d like to take this opportunity to tell all the men of the world: when you get to my age, regrets start to creep in, so be bold while you’re young and seduce women under the table and hit on the African maid when she’s flirting with you. The worst that can happen is a slap in the face, which is worse than living with the truth — that you could have nailed the goddess on her kitchen floor. God, I wish I had banged her.”
Well. I am slightly startled to being remembered as a goddess who might once have excited lustful thoughts in the kitchen, gigantic as I was in my Laura Ashley maternity smock. And I do marvel that in 2015 John Cigarini advises men to “take their chances” — with “the African maid”, indeed, Strauss-Kahn fashion — when we know this can land a chap in court, and quite right too. I also have to admit that I recollect absolutely nothing of a later encounter with him in Mortons, or anywhere, over “a few drinks”. On the other hand, given the drinks, it is all too possible. Oh dear. Even my memory, I have to conclude, may occasionally be fallible.