Dodgem cars – not bash’em cars

I was born in Trafalgar Square, but whenever I tell friends where I was born, they look in disbelief as Trafalgar Square doesn’t seem like a good place for giving birth, but Charing Cross Hospital overlooked Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.

 

 

 

Cornwall Gardens Mews West, London
Cornwall Gardens Mews West, London My dad wan't the best gardener!

At that time, we lived in Cornwall Gardens Mews West in Kensington. Mews houses were built in the 18th and 19th century, originally to stable horses with basic accommodation for servants above.
Interestingly, they have no windows at the back, which prevented the servants from peeking at their lordships playing croquet on the lawn. Falconry was popular, so many of the small houses were used as cages to keep the birds. Falcons moult or mew, which made a mess and so they were called mews.


My father didn’t keep falcons or horses but always had a car in the garage. If only he had bought our house for a few hundred pounds because they now sell for millions.
Recognise an opportunity!

My father always drove a posh car, he might have been a getaway driver at bank raids but he certainly was a petrol head. More evidence of this was on a Saturday afternoon and my lovely mum was driven mad by his habit of drinking Guiness with his fiends and arriving home late. His dinner was always between two plates sitting on a steamer.

On this particular Saturday after a terrible row he took me to a local fair, leaving my poor mum in tears. He decided to take me on the dodgem cars. This was fun until I complained that we weren’t hitting anyone. He reminded me that they were called dodgem cars - not bashem cars. Not much fun for a 6 year old.

In those days the food was different. Mad scientists hadn’t started genetically modifying vegetables, fruit and cows and no pesticides on’em or up’em.

I spent the summer and Christmas holidays at my grandmother's cottage in Ingatestone. She had a black range fire and cooker and produced the best roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It was so good that she would serve a slice as a starter, then more with the beef. Sometimes we would have it with jam for supper.

I learned later that the secret was to roast the beef over the Yorkshire pudding so that the juices from the meat would drip into the mixture. Now the supermarkets have the gall to sell individual pieces of stodge which they call a Yorkshire pudding!

When I was 10, we moved to Harrow, which doesn’t feature as a tourist spot.

One day, much later, I took a girlfriend to my mothers' flat for a cup of tea. During the conversation, she casually mentioned she used to take me to Harrods to have my hair cut. That sounded very posh to me, but the truth is that Harrods was the only hairdresser within two miles.

Added to that bit of name dropping, my mum took me in my pushchair every day in Kensington Gardens. Royalty was everywhere, but none of them recognised me!

When I left school, I had no idea about a career because no-one advised me, so I went to the Labour Exchange and attended several interviews. I was rejected for the first job as a cleaner. They said that, because I had been to a grammar school, I would consider the job beneath me.

Then I was sent to a factory in Kingsbury. My first assignment was to file a pile of rusty bits of metal. I didn’t bother to go back after lunch. Then a career beckoned in the art world; I was offered a job at Winsor and Newton, famous for supplying artists’ paints and brushes. Another Rembrandt was about to be born − I was to start in the packing department!

I was twenty minutes late on the first morning because there was a local bus strike and the foreman told me to go home and be back after lunch. I didn’t bother, so that was the sad end of my artistic endeavours.

It had been a traumatic period, but I didn’t give up. I was offered two more jobs: one as a bus conductor, but I was too tall, and finally, a grave digger. I must be honest, damp knees didn’t appeal to me.

My mother had a friend who worked at Selfridges, so she arranged an interview to train as an architectural draftsman. I worked there for one year, but left because most of the draughtsmen wore glasses and I realised how tricky it would be to kiss girls if I ended up wearing specs!

Eventually, I got a job demonstrating Jaguars. Why they would trust a teenager to drive a luxury car, I don’t know! We were based at Henly's showroom near Regents Park. Henly was the main Jaguar dealership in Europe. The cars were popular with film companies, who would often use them in their latest production.

On one occasion, an MGM production team borrowed a Jag for a week. I sat in the car chatting to Van Johnson and Vera Miles between takes every day − that reminds me, she still owes me a packet of cigarettes. That was my first encounter with Hollywood stars.

I became friendly with Bob Brewster, who was Mr Henly’s chauffeur. Bob used to ‘borrow’ the keys to his Jag and we would drive around the West End, going to discos and clubs. I think it’s called 'stealing'.

One evening Bob had to pick up Mr and Mrs Henly at the Hilton hotel at 1 a.m. I was happy to catch the last train from Baker Street station, but Bob insisted on driving me home. The problem was, I lived in Harrow, 10 miles away and it was now midnight, so he only had one hour to travel from the West End to Harrow and back.

Bob should have been a Formula 1 driver because his judgement was perfect, but the Edgware Road was not the place to demonstrate his skills. He was driving at up to 90 mph, jumping red lights and no doubt causing other drivers to panic as he flashed by them with inches to spare. It was the most dangerous piece of driving I ever witnessed. It was the most terrifying ride ever! He dropped me off and arrived back at the Hilton at 12.59 a.m.

I learned later that he had been the driver in a bank robbery − why was I not surprised?

One afternoon, when I was in a coffee bar in Edgware, a man approached me and asked if I would like to model some summer shirts in the local park. I was with my friend Jack, who was the double of Stewart Granger. We were suspicious until he offered us £50 each for an hour in the sunshine. It wasn’t a fortune, but as we were both out of work, it bought us a few beers. This was to be my start in showbiz but I didn’t know it at the time.

Jack was not interested in fame and fortune but it intrigued me enough to contact Pat Larthe, who was a leading London model agent. Pat had helped many well-known actors including Michael Caine and Sean Connery. She recommended a photographer who was excellent.

The idea of modelling had never really appealed to me. In fact, I have strong views about talentless models earning fortunes for walking badly on a platform and not even smiling, but that’s another story for later.

 

 

My first on-camera job was at the Cineast Studios in Paris, the producers told me to have a sporting limp − don't ask! It was for the men’s aftershave, Mark Vardy.

The walls and floor of the studio had been painted grey, with four white lines going to infinity. Either side of these lines statues stood. I was surprised on the first take because the statues were in fact models who turned their heads very slowly to follow me as I walked towards a beautiful girl who looked very much like Grace Kelly. The model was married to the French chess champion.

When we finished the shoot, we were taken to a romantic little restaurant in the middle of Paris by the guy in charge, whose name was Clutterbuck, but I’m sorry I don’t remember his first name. I just remember a great atmosphere, wonderful food, wild strawberries and lots of garlic. I've looked for that restaurant whenever I visited Paris, but I never found it.

Steve in Mark Vardy commercial
My first commercial - Mark Vardy