Percy Saltzman Interview: Random Brushes with my Lords and their Harpies

Random Brushes with my Lords and their Harpies

I interviewed Lord Porn in his flat in London, England, in the latter half of the last century (circa 1970).

CBC-TV had sent me and a small team of two to do a few interviews on film (long before video tape) with Paul Robeson, Rex Harrison, Lord Altrincham, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, Gilbert Harding, and Lord Porn.

Rex Harrison, as it turned out, turned us down, even though the CBC offered him the magnificent fee of $2000.00, a really big bunch of bucks in those days.

Paul Robeson, a far more deserving chap than Sexy Rexy, was offered the paltry sum of $200.00, which speaks volumes for the CBC's scale of values. He too turned us down. Good on him.

The rest lined up like sheep for the slaughter.

Gilbert Harding was a celebrated star on UK TV. He made his mark as an acerbic panelist on the Brit version of "What's My Line".

He had an acid tongue. Two examples will suffice, dating from his days in Toronto, as the BBC rep to the CBC.

He lived on Jarvis St., the noted red light district in downtown Toronto, where the only other red lights were on the CBC cameras, and the biggest erection on the street was the CBC-TV tower. It eventually came down, Viagra notwithstanding.

Yes, CBC-TV and CBC Radio shared this same street of ill repute with the whores of Hogtown.

CBC Radio occupied the former premises of Havergal, the high society high school for pampered virgins of the veddy wealthy.

Anyhoodle, one fine spring Sunday, Gilbert Harding, as was his wont, padded down Jarvis St. in his robe and slippers, seeking a Sunday paper. He happened to pass a police cruiser parked by the roadside, its windows rolled down (a warm day).

Now the police had lately been implicated in random shootings of teenagers, so Gilbert stuck his head into the cruiser's open window, saying, pleasantly enough, "Killed any kids lately?", and ambled on.

On another occasion, Gilbert was planning a trip Toronto-Washington, D.C., on BBC business. On the entry form was the question: "Is it your intention to overthrow the government of the United States?" His reply: "Sole purpose of visit."

I interviewed Gilbert in his home in Hove, Actually. It was pleasant enough. Not long after that, he committed suicide. I feel vaguely responsible. Fortunately, most of my other interviews were less deadly.

Lord Altrincham was notorious at the time for having publicly criticized the Queen, citing her dowdy dresses, her conservative views, her above-the-battle bearing.

He strongly advocated she live in each of her Dominions for extended periods of time, so as to permit her subjects to get to know her better, and v.v.

Imagine the rumpus that raised!

But I found him inoffensive enough, not at all the red-eyed rabble rouser you might have imagined him to be. Good on him.

As for Lord Porn, he was not, of course, born Porn. His born name was Frank Pakenham, aka the Earl of Longford, often ridiculed in the UK press as Lord Wrongford, and after his tangle with pornography, as Lord Porn.

His wife, Elizabeth Longford, was the well-known biographer of the Royals and the Rich. But I repeat myself.

Now, we, the CBC crew of three (Vi Crone, Bob Crone, and me, aka the Old Crone) interviewed Lord Porn in his London flat.

His wife was away, so we never met her, although her spirit permeated the place - in spades!

You see, Lord Porn suffered from the English Disease: uxoraphobia, or fear of one's own wife.

Nye Bevan had that too. He was scared to death of his termagant wife, Jennie Lee, also a Labor M.P.

Jenny was a lady, with the tongue of an iguana, and the sting of a scorpion. I know. I interviewed her at a later date in Toronto, and I cowered the whole time.

That interview, and a subsequent one with Han Suyin, author of "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing", still haunt my nightmares to this very day, several eons on.

But I digress. Back to Lord Porn. He was very finicky about his flat. We three CBC Crones must not leave any trace of our intrusion. He barely gave us a glass of water and then insisted we wash and dry it spit-clean. He fluffed out all the couch cushions to erase any signs of our colonial zitz marks. We weren't allowed to smoke, lest our ashes and bad B.O. perfuse the baronial air:

"Bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations."

You might gather from all this, that I was animadverse to Lord Porn. Not at all. I quite admired the man. Of Anglo-Irish descent, he displayed the charm and the wit of the elfin Erse, and had had a noble career as a Labor Lord.

That he looked and talked like the pixie in "Finian's Rainbow", merely added spice to his Irish charm. He never actually said, "Begorra", but he looked like he was about to, at any moment.

He took up cudgels on behalf of the jailed Myra Hindley, the British Ilse Koch, the notorious murderess of the Moors. For this he earned the sobriquet, "Lord Wrongford".

The London "Times" once said of him: "Everyone asks the wrong question about Lord Longford, viz., is he barmy? Of course he's barmy. What we should be asking is, "Is he right?" Who dares dispute the mighty Thunderer, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street?

He and his wife of nearly 70 years were still going strong in their tenth decade. She was always immaculately turned out, while he looked like he had been sleeping rough for months on end in his tattered suit, his bald pate adorned with a piece of grayish elastoplast.

And that's all the corn on Lord Porn.

Bye the bye, on a separate occasion back in Toronto, I also interviewed another Labor Lord, Lord Soper, of soapbox fame. He was famous for prating from platforms in Hyde Park on matters superfragilistic, socialistic, and expialidocious.

A handsome man with a Barrymore profile, he looked better sidewise, than straight on. Many of us do. Some of us have a good side, some a bad side. Only a few have no side. Of course, we all have a backside.

Now to Nye, the Labor Minister, renowned in history as the sponsor of the storied British National Health Plan, a model for the world.

Nye was a silver-tongued orator, the sharpest wit, the master of the cutting rejoinder, in the House of Commons.

He once referred to Sir Stafford Cripps (aka Sir Stifford Crapps), as a "dessicated adding machine".

He frequently tangled with Winnie the Pooh-Bah, in the House, no mean opponent he (as Hitler found out), who gave as good as he got. Their battles in the House were legendary.

Nye was a Welshman with coal dust in his veins. He had his reputation as a people's tribune to maintain.

It would ill behoove him to reveal that he and his Jennie owned a cottage in the country.

So, when we arrived to film the interview, Nye stipulated that on no account were we to show his Shangra-la. So we complied. During the filming outside on the lawn, we pointedly pointed the camera away from the cottage itself.

The cottage was 800 years old - and smelled it. It gave me a funny feeling to soak in an atmosphere dating back to King Canute, coming as I did from gory Toronto, where old was the day before yesterday.

Oh yes! And what I did not remind Nye of, as we chatted on his hoary greensward, was that 30 years earlier, I had met him on my own turf.

`Twas in Vancouver, B.C., in the doity thoities, when we had shared the same platform, in the Vancouver Arena, while trying to seduce the sweaty mob with luminous visions of a socialist society.

He was, of course, the battle-hardened veteran from over `ome, while I was but a tyro, a tenderfoot in the cause.

His mellowbell tones contrasted sharply with my gaucheries as I vainly strove to create a platform presence.

He held the audience in the palm of his hand, while I was trying to extricate my left foot from my mealy mouth.

So, I carefully avoided reminding him of our previous close encounter of the dreadful kind, and he, the perfect gentleman, gave no sign of recall, either. Or maybe I was just a minor blip in his memory bank.

To this very day, the dreadful memory of that nigh-to-Nye debacle in Vancouver keeps recurring like a bad belch.

So there you have it. My random brushes with my Lords and their Harpies.

In my time, I have met people plain, and people fancy.

Plain is better.

   "When Adam delved
    And Eve span
    Who was then
    The gentleman?"