Out of the Camp Ch.6 – The Roofs of the Rich
Having left Victoria Wine to go to Germany at the start of what I thought was going to be a career in music with Rare Amber, first touring in Europe and then the USA, and who knows what after that. But quite often life gets in the way and there’s little time to dwell on what might have been, especially when you have the rent to pay and food to buy to survive. I don’t recall applying or interviewing for the job, but I started working for a Radio Rentals shop on Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, driving around London installing TV aerials. It was a step-up in a way, in that it required some skill and experience in contrast to the delivery gig, and so the modest pay increase that came with the job was welcome. I started out as an assistant to another “aerial erector” as we used to call them in those days, but this only lasted a couple of months before I was given my own vehicle and issued with my own routes.
At home I was used to driving around town in Edinburgh repairing TVs, erecting aerials and meeting people, and I wanted this kind of freedom again, so I was delighted to be able to “hit the ground running” when I got the ‘promotion’. One thing that’s absolutely essential in this kind of work is a head for heights. In older UK cities with high buildings of 8-10 floors, little thought was given in the early 1900s to the safety of workers who might have to climb up through dark and musty garrets then squeeze through tiny hatches onto roofs with pitches so steep that one hand had to hang on to the peak or a handy ledge, while carrying out the work with the other.
Six or eight floors may not sound very high in todays terms, but ceiling heights back then were really high, so that might be the equivalent of say 12-14 stories. Of course, the much higher office towers or modern day residential blocks of flats or apartments had flat roofs with usually a parapet wall and so were normally much safer to work on. It never occurred to me back then or to anyone I worked with to wear a safety harness. In fact, I’m not entirely sure they were even available, not in the UK at any rate. The topic just never came up, not in all the years I did this kind of work both in Scotland and London.
I hadn’t been in the job very long before I was back in Mayfair again installing an aerial (antenna) for Group Captain Retd. Leonard Cheshire in his Shepherd Market Mews house. Mews homes for those unfamiliar with the term are located in narrow roads or lanes, usually cobbled, which typically run parallel with major roads, and back onto larger homes, and originally were stables with living quarters above. Today, stables have been converted to garages and, in fashionable areas the properties command a premium, often rising to six figures. GpCapt Cheshire’s home was located directly behind the Park Lane Hilton Hotel which made TV reception a real challenge surrounded, as he was, with high buildings. Well, I managed to get him some reception – no cable or satellite in those days! – and as I came through the attic and down the ladder onto his narrow landing, he was sitting on the stairs waiting for me with a tray of tea and biscuits. We sat there at the top of his stairs chatting and enjoying the tea. The reason I’m telling you all of this is because he was Britain’s most decorated WWII pilot who later established the Cheshire Homes for wounded veterans around the world. His wife, Sue Ryder dedicated her life to the relief of suffering during WWII and later to helping the homeless in addition to establishing a nationwide chain of thrift stores. As I was leaving, he walked down the stairs with me and as we reached the street, a neighbor called out to him and as I turned, walking towards us was Stirling Moss, the former world champion race driver.
One day I had an installation job on Marylebone High Street, in a flat above one of the many shops there. I parked the van, walked up to the door and rang the bell. While I was waiting, I looked over the work order, and checked the appointment time and the customer’s name which was Owen. After a couple of minutes more waiting, I turned and was about to walk back to the van to get a “Missed Appointment” card to slip under the door, when the door suddenly opened, and an elderly man stood there. I told him who I was, and he looked relieved, ‘said he’d been waiting forever to get his damn TV fixed, and invited me in. He apologized for keeping me waiting and explained that he had had the Prime Minister on the phone asking him for some advice and that he was getting sick of it, after all the PM was getting more money than he was, and it was a bit of a cheek bothering him with the Nation’s problems.
I didn’t know quite what to make of this and it occurred to me that he was having me on, plus there was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then he suddenly adopted a comic northern accent and said something daft, I don’t remember now just what, but that’s when I realized, Mr. Owen was in fact Bill Owen the actor. He burst out laughing when he realized I’d figured it out and that he was one of the regular cast of characters of the ‘Carry On’ movie series, and that I hadn’t recognized him. Anyway, he already had the kettle on and made some tea for us both and sat and chatted for probably half an hour. I’d told him about my music aspirations, and he surprised me by saying that he’d been a drummer then a big band singer which was a coincidence as I’d started out as a drummer. But then he told me he also wrote songs with Mike Sammes, that had been recorded by Pat Boone, Engelbert Humperdinck and Cliff Richard among others which really surprised me. A few years later he would of course be cast as ‘Compo’ of the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ TV show, and this really cemented his fame as the series became a worldwide hit.
Another time, also in Marylebone, just a few blocks from the High Street on Devonshire Mews this time, I had a service call to resolve a reception problem. When I knocked on the door, I heard footsteps running downstairs and the door was suddenly flung open and this chap stormed out and past me. I recognized him immediately as Nicholas Parsons, the actor and game show host but he disappeared just as quickly as he’d appeared. An elderly lady appeared a minute or two later and invited me in and led me upstairs to the roof, two floors above.
I asked her, “Was that Nicholas Parsons?” and she hesitated, then said “I can’t really say.” I gave her a surprised look and I guess I must have shrugged or something as she went on to explain that not everyone wants people to know they come here to see her. It turned out that she was a psychologist and in those days such therapy was viewed with some suspicion, even scorn or was regarded as just odd. When we climbed the second staircase and got to her roof there was a beautiful garden with loungers and small table and chairs revealing a cloistered oasis in central London. Actually, Nicholas Parsons just died earlier this year in January at the age of 97.
One day I was sent to North Devonshire Place near the Marylebone Road to erect an aerial for the journalist, Bernard Levin. I don’t remember much about the job at all except the drama that ensued when I had to run a cable around a room which had floor to ceiling bookcases on every wall. The only way to do it without tearing up carpets or drilling through bookcases was to clip the cable around the top of the bookcases at ceiling height. Mr. Levin was very particular about how it was going to look and also that we weren’t going to cause any damage. Much of the architecture in that part of London is Georgian and so ceilings are very high, in which case a ladder would be required to get up there. The customer didn’t want us bringing ladders into his home and so provided an antique mahogany library step ladder with a hinged two-step lower section which pulled out. It was a beautiful piece with red leather inserts bordered by patterned gold leaf. Realizing immediately that this likely was a pretty valuable piece of furniture, I very gingerly stepped onto it and on up to the top step. As I reached up I couldn’t at first quite reach the cable and so stood up on my tiptoes, at which point there was a loud crack and the whole thing disintegrated below me and I crashed to the floor. Mr. Levin completely lost it and screamed, “You’ve completely destroyed it!” I picked myself up dusting off the splintered pieces of wood, apologizing profusely and trying to explain, but to no avail. He wasn’t interested in any explanation from me which was hardly necessary anyway since he was present throughout the entire incident, and he just stormed out of the room shaking his head and muttering. What had happened was, when I stood on my tiptoes my weight was suddenly concentrated into a very small area on the top step of the ladder and it was too much weight for the thin wood to support. It was difficult to identify the wood that the top was made of due to the lacquer and the leather covering it, but it seemed to have the consistency of thin plywood and so would never have been intended for much more than decorative purposes. As I started to pick up the pieces and clear up the mess, a lady came into the room and told me to leave it. She was very sweet and told me not to worry about it. I think she was probably the housekeeper. Anyway, Mr Levin didn’t reappear and so we finished the job – very carefully! using our own stepladder, and left. For those of you unfamiliar with Bernard Levin, he was a very famous author, journalist and broadcaster who worked for a number of publications including The Spectator and the Times of London, later starring in the first satirical UKTV show, ‘That Was The Week That Was’. He later was a panelist in ‘Face The Music’, a TV quiz programme, and later a host in a number of Travel Shows. He began writing in the 70s and published 17 books.
Rita Webb was a short, elderly, comedic, Cockney actress with a voice like a foghorn, who claimed that whenever the casting director needed a foul-mouthed old bag, they’d call her, and I absolutely adored her. Whenever I’d set eyes on her I couldn’t help but grin and all she had to do was open her mouth and let rip with a torrent of expletives and I was off. She lived just round the corner from the Radio Rentals shop in a 3-story semi-detached brick house on Chepstow Road and, occasionally she’d barge into the shop feigning rage over something on the TV and ranting “Why don’t you people put something on the telly folks want to watch?”, as if a TV retail business had any control over programming. Well, everyone from the back offices and workshop would pile into the store so as not to miss the show. She just loved to make people laugh. One day, one of the delivery drivers rushed into the shop saying there was a traffic jam round the corner and crowds of people were converging round her house as she was out there creating havoc.
A few of us ran out of the shop and round the corner to see what was going on and, sure enough, it was a scene of absolute pandemonium. There was scaffolding all the way up the front of her building and a group of maybe five or six workers were working on different levels of the scaffold. Or at least they presumably were working before she stuck her head out of one of the top floor windows and started berating and yelling at them about all the racket they were making, the mess that they’d scattered all over her yard, the time they were taking to finish the bloody job, and that she was just about fed-up to the back teeth of all of it, and of all of them. All of this, of course, laced with the predictable colorful language that was her forte.
What must have been surprising to passers-by, or folks in the cars and buses stuck in the traffic jam, and who didn’t know her, was the reaction of the workmen to her screaming and yelling at them. To a man they were helpless with laughter and clinging to the scaffold poles lest they should lose their balance and fall, as she appeared to all intents and purposes to be completely deranged and frankly, quite nuts! What she was in fact doing was reprising the type character she’d feature when working with such stars as Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Eric Sykes, Bernard Cribbins or Frankie Howard. If you’re a Brit of a certain age you’ll be familiar with this cast of characters but, if not, just Google them. Also, she was featured in a number of ‘Carry On’ films, episodes of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, the original ‘Maigret’ series and ‘Steptoe & Sons’, in addition Ken Loach cast her in a number of his movies. On one occasion she flew to Hollywood and starred in the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in a feature on the British Music Hall. Whenever I think of her, I can’t help but smile. Actually, that’s not a bad legacy to leave, is it? She died in 1981. I found these few clips of her doing her thing. One of them is set on a London Bus from the movie ‘To Sir With Love’, where she is gossiping with some other cockney ladies while sitting beside Sydney Poitier. Hilarious!
Anyway, the police finally did show up at her house and as they were likely from the local Paddington Green Station, they probably knew her. They got out of their car grinning from ear to ear and attempted to clear the blockage and get the traffic moving again not, of course, forgetting to tell Rita as they left to bloody well behave herself, to which she replied something to the effect, “Oh, bugger off! You know you really love me!”