In the 1930s, rugby, rather than football, was the main spectator sport in the Midlands and young Michael was an enthusiast not so much for the game but more to enjoy his father’s barracking of
the players and referee. He recalled : "My first contact with the Welsh was as a small child, sitting with my parents in the members stand at Welford Road, Leicester. I recall my father going purple in the face and I asked "Mummy, why is Daddy waving his fist at that man in the white shirt ?" Mother gently replied : "Because he's a Swansea player, dear,"
Taught English by "Doc" Outram, who believed in the power of words, his taste for amateur dramatics first blossomed playing schoolboy in the school production of the James Hilton classic, 'Goodbye, Mr Chips.' He was one of the heavenly youth choir singing "Lord Behold Us With Thy Blessing," while Chips drew his last death in what Michael would later call an as 'All Purpose Coarse Death' which he described as : “Mr Chips was heard groaning and tottering round the stage, clawing at furniture, until a crash announced he had fallen down. The author intended Chips to die peacefully, but this was more like the demise of Lucky Luciano.”
Michael also indulged his passion for drama the evenings an enthusiastic member of his local amateur dramatic society and he had already learned at school that trick of comedians : that nobody seemed to pay attention to him when he was serious, but only when he was fooling about.
Too young to be called up to serve in the War, he was assigned with another young journalist to night watch the offices for German incendiary bombs. Although this had a few perks : brown ale to drink, typewriters and telephones to use and the editor's cigars to smoke, they still found it tedious and bored with reading the editor’s private correspondence one night, they descended to the machine room to inspect the printing presses. Apparently, the attraction of the start button was irresistible and “the presses burst into life with a great roar and started to print the first and only midnight edition of the Leicester Mercury.” By the time he had found out how to stop the machines an enormous reel of paper had broken under the strain, he was knee-deep in newsprint and the next day he got the sack.
He found his next job at the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, where it was said that they were always short of staff because they paid the lowest wages. It was here that he conceived the fictional character who would later become Squire Haggard. He recalled : 'Our weekly companion paper The Northampton Mercury and Herald boasted the oldest complete files in Europe, going back to 1720, and once a week it was my job to descend into the basement where they were kept, and make an extract for the feature '200 Years Ago'. The old files were fascinating and frequently the chief reporter would have to send someone down to dig me out and return me to work. The thing that struck me was how dismal the old news was. It consisted largely of lists of deaths from such outlandish diseases as 'griping of the guts', news of disasters at home and abroad, executions and outbreaks of Plague.'
He was called up and conscripted into a tank corps and then the Education Corps in the Army at the tale-end of the Second World War in 1945 and after serving for two years returned for a brief spell at the Chronicle, where he still nurtured ambitions to write the great novel and made further incursions into amateur theatre which gave him a taste for Shakespearean pastiche.
Working as a 'scout,' he found it was "something of a celebrity in a rugby-mad town like Northampton and it was heady stuff at the tender age of 21." He recalled that the "Saints were an extraordinary bunch. They were a great club side full of England internationals and big names in their own right yet off the field" and “I conducted my first post-match interview with the captain Don White in the shower, fully clothed, after he dragged me under when I ventured into the changing room. I didn’t bat an eyelid which rather impressed Don I fancy."
In 1950, he became a sub-editor on the Birmingham Gazette, where he also reported on rugby matches and three years later
moved to London and Fleet Street with the offer of a job on The Star, then one of a trio of London evening papers which had seen better days having started life in 1788 under its original title 'Star and Evening Advertiser' and was the first daily evening newspaper in the world. He left in 1957 and it closed three years later.
Michael indulged his passion for the theatre by acting in productions at the Questors Theatre in Ealing from 1953 which he recalled 59 years later in 2012 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TIFWhShLHE&t=0m50s
At the age of 28, he went freelance to write documentary features for the new Rediffusion television service. In addition, part-time work on the sports desk of 'The Observer' helped to build his reputation as a reporter who could enliven the account of an otherwise dull match with a few laughs at the expense of the players. It all started in a fit of temper when he was outraged by a sub-editor's snooty dismissal of works 'team rugby' and carried his anger into a pub diatribe directed at then Sports Editor, Chris Brasher, about the paper's coverage : "It's all Harlequins and Twickers and Old Whitgiftians and this dear old game of ours, and all that rubbish. Why don't you give some space to the real rugby, the sort played by ordinary blokes like me".
What he meant by 'real rugby' was "that great mish-mash in most of our teams. Varsity types, farmers, tradesmen, impoverished journalists, lawyers, butchers, doctors, bus conductors. Some were very decent players who couldn’t be bothered to train and most of us were cowards. I used to quake with fear before most matches and cringe at the size and apparent Olympian fitness of the opposition as they ran out. In all honesty the first couple of pints after the game were usually to celebrate my survival."
His subsequent 'The Art of Coarse Rugby,' published by Hutchinson in 1960, offered tips like : 'Never take a penalty with a cigarette in your mouth. Always hand it to the referee. These little courtesies distinguish the gentleman.' It was intended to to go with a republication of 'The Art of Coarse Cricket' by Spike Hughes, who in turn had intended the title as a reference to 'coarse fishing' a term which originated in the 1800s when fishing was a recreational sport for the gentry who angled for game fish - salmon and trout, as opposed to other fish, which did not make as good eating and were disdained as 'coarse fish.'
He got to the heart of the book's 'coarse philosophy ' when he said : “It was a very British, its only ever appeared in English actually and I seriously doubt if the French for example would ever ‘get’ the ‘coarse’ philosophy at all. Essentially it was – is – about losing and being rubbish and incompetent while aspiring to such much more and I suspect only us Brits find that gentle egopricking genuinely funny."
Michael, in his own rugby playing days had joined Leicester ATC, Leicester Harlequins, Leicester Thursday, Stoneygate, Old Wyggesdonians, East Midlands Wanderers, Northampton Wanderers, Birmingham Press XV, Ealing and Lyons Sunday XV. Recalling Scottish full-back Tommy Gray, who played for the Saints he said : "He enjoyed his smokes and every Saturday, last man out of the changing room, he would stub his smouldering fag out on the tunnel as he ran onto the field. It somehow connected him very directly with the rugby I played.”
Pursuing his successful coarse formula he published 'The Art of Coarse Sailing' in the same year and 'Coarse Acting' in 1964, inspired by his experiences at the Questors Theatre, in which he described a coarse actor as : 'one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts – Messenger, 2nd Clown, an Attendant Lord. His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.'
'Sept. 16, 1777: Rain. Amos Bindweed d. from Putrefaction of the Tripes. Jas. Soaper hanged for stealg. a nail. Shot unusually large poacher in a.m. Because of the wet weather my Rheumaticks are so bad I was unable to have my usual whore yesterday. As she insists on payment in advance my servant Grunge had her instead, rather than waste threepence. This distressed me not a little as it was my favourite. Perverted Polly of Lower Sodmire. For dinner ate a rook pie and some pigs' cheek, together with a pease puddg. My portion of the puddg. appeared to be bad so I gave what remained to my wife Tib and was forced to expunge the taste with a quart of claret, item: To purgatives, £0.0.2d .'
He then took 'The Coarse Acting Show' to the 1977 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and 'The Coarse Acting Show 2' to the 1979 Fringe in which professional actors gave their worst in rehashed classics such as 'The Cherry Sisters' and, in homage to Beckett, 'Last Call for Breakfast' and in same year the one act plays reached the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End. In 1984 the Questors Theatre performed the 'Third Great Coarse Acting Show' and in 1988 took 'Coarse Acting Strikes Back' to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In 1981 he returned to history with the publication of 'Tonight, Josephine : And Other Undiscovered Letters' amusing and imaginary, written by historical figures and ventured to autobiography in 1988 with : 'The Boy Who Shot Down an Airship' containing his 1940s reminiscences of his National Service experience.
In 1990 came 'Nobody Hurt in Small Earthquake,' about his post war journalist and sub-editor experiences in Northampton, Birmingham and London and in which he, movingly, described the moment when they switched the teleprinters off on the day when the News Chronicle went bust as : 'It was as if a heart had stopped beating.' In the same year he saw 'Squire Haggard' adapted for Yorkshire Television and run for two series, based on his character and played by Keith Barron and written Eric Chappell, it centred on the Squire's attempts to restore the family's fortunes by any means necessary.
In 1985 the Questors Theatre produced its first Carol Concert and Michael was subsequently commissioned by Tim Godfrey to produce 'Coarse Carols' : 'The Pigge's Ear,' a low-budget carol for choirs which can't afford to do the 'Boar's Head Carol' and 'The Merry Sage and Onion,' a genuinely meaningless carol to provide an alternative to 'The Holly and the Ivy.'
Always famous for his zany and slightly eccentric behaviour, when he appeared on an Eamonn Andrews’s chat show to plug one of his humorous 'The Art of Coarse Golf', he wielded a seven iron in the studio to demonstrate how not to swing the club and, in his excitement, accidentally let go. It missed the head of Spike Milligan, another of the guests, by a matter of inches and, visibly shaken, the comedian barely spoke another word for the rest of the show.
His involvement with The Questors, the biggest amateur dramatics troupe in Europe continued and in 2012 he wrote 'Coarse Shakespeare' for the Theatre : "There's All's Well That Ends As You Like It' which I wrote to go to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977 and that's a Shakespearean comedy, as you know, like all the best Shakespearean comedies it's totally unfunny to a modern audience. The second one is Henry X, Part 7, which is a real history take-off and the third is Julius and Cleopatra. A Roman story with Cleopatra complete with snake dying in the end." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TIFWhShLHE&t=2m23s
“I trust ‘coarse rugby’ is still alive and kicking – very badly no doubt – on various muddy wastes around the country. Hopefully there are some sides where having 15 players is still considered something of a luxury. Please tell me this is so. I would be interested to hear from the modern-day keepers of the flame."
Michael didn't get to write his great novel, but he did see 'Coarse Rugby' go through 25 reprints and sell 250,000 copies.
I would still rate Michael's The Art of Coarse Acting as one of the funniest and true to life books I've ever read. Outstanding stuff. Dave GreggReplyDelete