Guess who’s coming to dinner – Torin Douglas invites his fantasy dinner party guests

During Evensong in Lent, members of the congregation at St Michael & All Angels Church, Bedford Park, reflect on issues of faith. On the theme ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner…’, they can each invite three guests who have influenced or inspired them. Why did they choose them, would they get on and what would they like to ask them? The first speaker was Torin Douglas MBE, former BBC media correspondent and director of the Chiswick Book Festival.

Image above: Torin Douglas MBE. Photography by Roger Green

Guest blog by Torin Douglas

When Father Kevin invited me to give this talk, I thought what a treat. To reflect on my life and the people who have influenced and inspired me, and then imagine the great dinner party we’d have. But no sooner had I started thinking about it, than I realised it would be harder than it sounded.

Just three people? Going through my long list it looked more like we’d be feeding the 5,000!
So you may notice some sleight of hand in my choices.

And if you’re looking for a spiritual theme, I think you’ll find it in my belief that laughter and books and plays and talks can be life-enhancing: the arts lift the spirits and make people feel better and the world a better place. In Lent here at St Michael’s, we’ve often called it ‘Delighting in God’.

You may also detect my world view, shared with Cahal Dallat of the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project, that all literary roads lead to, or from, Chiswick!

And so to my choices.

Image above: Clare Balding with Hunter Davies at the Chiswick Book Festival

From the age of about 8, I wanted to be a journalist, and it was something I never grew out of – somewhat to my father’s alarm. He wanted me to get a proper job. In my teens, my heroes were mostly journalists – and most of those I liked tended to be funny ones who wrote newspaper and magazine columns. Some also wrote plays and poems – and I liked the idea of that too.

Writers like Keith Waterhouse and Michael Frayn, Bernard Levin and Alan Coren. My bookshelves are full of their collected works and plays – and lots of TV scripts for Monty Python and The Two Ronnies, Yes Minister and Blackadder.

Not all were humorists. I was inspired by Simon Jenkins’s work as a young editor of the Evening Standard, when he took up and led the campaign to save Covent Garden from being knocked down by the Greater London Council. Little did I know that at exactly the same time, here in Bedford Park, an equally successful heritage campaign was being launched to save the first garden suburb from a similar fate. It was led by the Bedford Park Society and the vicar of this church, who created the Bedford Park Festival, under the patronage of John Betjeman. Within a month of that first Festival in 1967, 356 of the houses were listed for preservation.

Hunter Davies was another inspiration to me as a writer and then editor of the ground-breaking Sunday Times Magazine. And Max Hastings, first as a writer and later as editor of the Standard and the Daily Telegraph, showed me the impact that good journalism can have. He and Simon Jenkins co-authored a book about the Falklands War, where Max famously yomped into Port Stanley ahead of the soldiers.

Image above: Max Hastings at the Chiswick Book Festival

It was a real pleasure for me to bring Hunter Davies and Max Hastings here as speakers at the Chiswick Book Festival – indeed Max has become a regular, and the church is always packed. I later met Simon Jenkins when he was on the Millennium Commission, which transformed many parts of the UK with millions of pounds of National Lottery money. I was at the British Museum press conference, reporting for the BBC, when Simon announced the scheme to build the Great Court, which turned a huge closed-off courtyard where they stored books, into the wonderful space we see today, transforming the way the Museum works and welcomes visitors.

And though St Michael’s never got any Lottery money when it was fundraising to rebuild its Parish Hall, that building has had an equally transformative effect on the life of this church and the local community. Without the vision and bravery to go ahead with that project, St Michael’s would be a poorer place and we wouldn’t have the Chiswick Book Festival and many of the Bedford Park Festival events, and all the education and social and welfare activities that go on in the Hall.

But I don’t have room for any of those people at my dinner party!

Image above: Tom Stoppard

The journalist-turned-playwright who I’d like to invite is the one whose work inspired me at school to put on plays, and to believe – quite wrongly as it turned out – that I too could write entertaining and clever dramas.

Tom Stoppard has been called “our greatest living playwright” and “one of the great thinkers of our time”. In a 50-year career, on stage, screen and radio, he is credited with bringing ideas back into British theatre – and at the age of 29 he became the youngest playwright to be staged by the National Theatre, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

He began life as a journalist – but not a very good one, as he admitted. When he was interviewed for a political job on the Evening Standard, he was forced to admit he didn’t know the name of the Home Secretary. His response? “I only said I was interested in politics – I didn’t say I was obsessed with it.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was first performed on the Edinburgh fringe where it received a rave review from the Observer’s critic Ronald Bryden, which led the National Theatre to ask for a script. Its 1967 production was so successful that it went on to Broadway where it won a Tony for best play. The Sunday Times’s Harold Hobson called it British theatre’s “most important event” since the emergence of Harold Pinter.

Images above: Tom Stoppard scripts and programmes

I was 17 at the time and all this had a big impact on me. I still have the National Theatre programme and I also saw Stoppard’s next production, a one-act play called The Real Inspector Hound, which is still one of my favourites. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it plays around with the theatrical form. Two theatre critics, who are watching the setup of a country-house murder mystery, gradually find themselves drawn from their seats into the production on stage.

In the play, Stoppard brilliantly parodies both the world of the theatre critic and creaky plays like The Mousetrap and he was well served by the actors who first played the two critics. Ronnie Barker was Birdboot, an established theatre critic with a lecherous eye on the young female lead, while Moon, the younger second-string critic, constantly bemoaning the lot of the stand-in and the understudy, was played by Richard Briers. Again, little did I know that 40 years later we’d be neighbours and I’d be interviewing Richard here at St Michael’s – or at least trying to get a word in edgeways!

Image above: Richard Briers judging fancy hats at Green Days in 1997

I’ll come back to Tom Stoppard in a minute. But first, I want to introduce my second guest.

Philip LeBrocq was one of my English teachers when I was doing A levels at Eastbourne College. He was one of those inspirational teachers who not only fire you with enthusiasm for the books but do a great deal more. In 1968, one of our set texts was the plays of DH Lawrence and a trilogy was on at the Royal Court – one Saturday we went up and saw all three plays on the same day.

The Real Inspector Hound was not one of our set texts but when I asked if we could put it on at the school – with me in the Richard Briers role – Philip said yes. Not only that, we put it on in his classroom which we turned into a studio theatre, with proper lighting, an elaborate set and girls from a local school in the female roles. He directed and we got every ounce of humour out of the script – more so indeed than some professional productions I’ve seen, which completely missed some of the more subtle jokes!

We also put on Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners in the school chapel – a play in which Bible stories spring from the experience of four prisoners of war locked in a church overnight.

And though I didn’t become a comedy writer, Philip inspired at least one pupil who did. Paul Mayhew Archer, who wrote The Vicar of Dibley with Richard Curtis, was at Eastbourne at the same time as me and he always says it was Philip who encouraged him to write a sitcom.

My wife Carol and I are still in touch with Philip and his wife Sally, who are now in their 80s. They live in Jersey but till recently came regularly to London and I’d often get a text saying he’d got tickets for a production and did we want to come? We’ve had very jolly lunches and dinners – and sung carols for charity with them at St. John’s Waterloo.

Philip is larger than life and huge fun to be with, and I know he wouldn’t be daunted by coming to dinner with Tom Stoppard.

 

Images above: Torin Douglas MBE with Philip LeBrocq; Lady Antonia Fraser at the first Chiswick Book Festival in 2009

For my third guest, I want to choose a woman because all-male gatherings can be a bit boring – with the exception of course of the St Michael’s Men’s Society, which meets each month at the Tabard! I thought of inviting Darcey Bussell, who I interviewed here recently in the Upper Room Winter Lecture. She was truly inspiring and again she showed the remarkable power of the arts to lift the spirits – the church was packed and just buzzing at the end and, as Carol said, everyone was smiling.

I could have asked Darcey Bussell lots more over dinner but in the end I decided to choose a Lady rather than a Dame – Antonia Fraser, who spoke in this church on the very first evening of the very first Chiswick Book Festival, back in 2009.

I did a history degree at Warwick, which is where Carol and I met. Lady Antonia’s best-selling biography of Mary Queen of Scots was published in 1969, the year I went up. 40 years later, Orion Books published an anniversary edition in paperback, and she was invited here by her publisher Malcolm Edwards and his wife Jacks Thomas – they too live in Chiswick and were part of the original Chiswick Book Festival team, with Fr Kevin, Dinah Garrett and me.

I can still remember where I was when Jacks rang to tell me we’d got Antonia Fraser. I suddenly knew – if I hadn’t before – that this was going to be a proper book festival. The church was packed for her event and at the end she complimented us on the intelligence of our questions. A few years later I found myself standing next to her at the National Theatre and I reminded her she’d spoken at the Chiswick Book Festival and she said “oh yes, that beautiful church and such intelligent questions!”

I’m delighted to say that she’ll be at this year’s Festival in September, talking about Harold Pinter with Michael Billington, to mark the 60th anniversary of The Caretaker, which of course Pinter wrote at his flat in Chiswick High Road.

So those are my three guests and the reason I’ve chosen them. Fr Kevin suggested I should then consider: whether they would get on, whether they have much in common, and what questions I would like to ask them now?

I’m pretty sure they would get on. Philip LeBrocq would love to have dinner with Tom Stoppard and Antonia Fraser – and in Must You Go?, her book about her life with Harold Pinter, there’s a picture of Pinter and Stoppard playing cricket. Michael Billington – Pinter’s biographer and another Chiswick resident – wrote that they had a lot in common: “They were good friends, passionate about cricket, fastidious in their use of language and increasingly vocal in their built-in antagonism to the abuse of human rights.”

To get the conversation going, I thought I’d pick up some themes from Tom Stoppard’s plays.

One of my favourites is Night and Day, which is all about journalism. I chose it when I was a guest on the BBC World Service book programme, The Word, and it contains a wonderful line that encapsulates the contradiction between the freedom of the press and the bad behaviour of some newspapers. This was long before the phone-hacking scandal which I covered as the BBC media correspondent.

Milne, the idealistic young reporter, says “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” Ruth, played originally by Diana Rigg, replies: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

I think that would be a fruitful area for discussion, particularly in today’s Fake News world, as politicians try to bypass the mainstream questioning media.

Another fruitful area would be film, because Stoppard, like the Oscar-nominated Pinter, is also a great screenwriter. Hollywood turns to him when it wants a blockbuster script knocked into shape – from Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Shakespeare in Love, which won seven Oscars, directed by John Madden who lives here in Bedford Park.

We could pick up some of the themes that Father Fabrizio has addressed in his Lent film reflections at St Peter’s church in Southfield Road.

And then there’s Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, which Carol and I are going to see next week and which he says is his most personal. It’s set among the Jewish community of Vienna in the first half of the 20th century and follows the lives of a prosperous Jewish family who had fled the pogroms in the East. According to Stoppard “Quite a lot of it is personal to me, but I made it about a Viennese family so it wouldn’t seem to be about me.”

His four grandparents were Jewish and died in Nazi concentration camps. The second preview performance, in January, was on Holocaust Memorial Day and the audience were given a memorial candle as they left the theatre.

The Spectator critic wrote: “Stoppard’s brilliant tragic-comic play opens in the Jewish quarter of Vienna in 1899. We meet a family of intellectuals and businessmen who are celebrating their very first Christmas. The eldest son, Hermann, has married a Catholic and become ‘Christianised’ in order to smooth his path through Austrian society. ‘The Jews know a bargain when they see it.’”

I’d love to ask Antonia Fraser what she thinks of Leopoldstadt. When her memoir about life with Harold came out, one reviewer wrote: “So the Jewish boy from the East End and the Catholic aristocrat embarked on life together and it was bliss, for all that her parents, the Earl and Countess Longford, initially disapproved…”

Food for thought….