Trevor bloody Howard and the last mystery

There will be no more mysteries, ever.

Some time in 1981, Debbie rang home from her university accommodation. “Hello Mum!” she said. “Trevor bloody Howard!” replied Beryl.

You see, a few weeks earlier, they had been trying to remember the stars of Noel Coward’s classic film Brief Encounter. They had come up with Celia Johnson quickly enough, but they were stumped when it came to the actor playing the charming doctor who so carefully removed the grit from Laura’s eye. With no internet to settle the matter, and no Halliwell’s Film Guide to hand, the question remained unresolved for weeks until Beryl had her light bulb moment. Frustrating, for a while, but imagine the wave of relief and joy when the answer finally came in.

The internet age had still not arrived when Debbie and I, on holiday in the Lake District, found ourselves reaching for the name of, you know, That Woman who starred in all those swimming movies in the 1940s and 50s. Our reference books were out of reach. Phil will know, we thought, he’s a film expert. Nor had the mobile phone era arrived for us, so we paid hotel call charges (remember those?) to phone him. Unfortunately he couldn’t help us. When we got home to our books, we identified the lady as Esther (bloody) Williams. And later we discovered we should instead have called my Auntie Speff – she knew the answer straight away.

And how entertaining those pub arguments were: we could argue all evening about trivial facts, becoming more certain the more we drank, with no ready access to information to settle the matter. Phil (yes, it is he again) once rang me from a pub where he was in dispute with a fellow customer, and put me on the line to explain to this stranger why he was in the wrong about the Honeycombs or Wayne Fontana or something. Whether this persuaded him I cannot say, but it was an interesting diversion, which would not arise in the smartphone era.

The brain is a strange thing, but when it fails us we learn something about it. Those elusive names: Him, in that awful Cadfael. Her, Beattie in the BT adverts, married to Him, who wrote Bar Mitzvah Boy. Her, Room with a View and Bellatrix. Him with the luvvie voice in Never the Twain, mercilessly spoofed on Spitting Image, dropping hints for a knighthood. Him, the first artistic director and frequent actor at Shakespeare’s Globe.

These treacherous names flick on and off in my head like Christmas lights (and have done for many years, so I claim this is not a consequence of ageing), and when they elude me, I try to shun the internet, and discipline myself to locate the answer in my brain’s imperfect filing system. I get better results if I abandon my frenzied pursuit for a while and change the subject: a later approach, as if from a different angle, often brings the answer in as a new pathway is found inside my head.

When the internet arrived, and search engines became efficient, it became easier to find facts and answers, but also easier to spread lies and errors – so the truth is easy to find, but not always easy to identify or confirm. Nevertheless I assumed that these trivial teasers would die out. But at least two more exquisite, tantalising mysteries awaited me.

One had teased us for years, which even the internet had failed to resolve. It was a film we saw at the cinema, in our first year or two together. All we could remember was a gag where an overweight, greasy fellow with a quiff is asked “Have you ever been told you look like Elvis? He takes it as a compliment, and replies “Thank you very much.” But what was the film?

We never saw it on TV, and numerous attempts to Google the answer failed. I posted the question on film message boards without success. Finally in 2010 I grew so frustrated that I resorted to old-fashioned technology, and flipping through my old diaries found in the 1988 volume a scribbled entry naming a film which had left no other trace in my memory:

Armed with the title, Stars and Bars, I soon confirmed from the comments on the IMDb entry that there was indeed a late period Elvis lookalike in the plot. This had to be the one! Debbie had a birthday coming up, so I bought a VHS – the film hadn’t made it to DVD – wrapped it in multiple layers and presented it to her, labelled The last mystery.

When we watched it, two things became clear. Firstly it was indeed the film with the Elvis joke in it, and we duly celebrated solving this ancient riddle. Secondly it was a truly terrible film: no wonder we had forgotten it, no wonder it hadn’t made it to DVD. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in this “goofball” “comedy” as a British art expert in pursuit of a Renoir in the US southern states was so dreadful and embarrassing that Hollywood even withheld his customary Oscar.

The last mystery turned out to be the penultimate mystery. Many years ago, no doubt out of consideration for my biographer, I transferred all our old reel-to-reel tapes to cassette. Later Rob kindly digitised them, and among the readings and sketches of our teenaged years, and low quality recordings of One Road by Love Affair and Build Me Up Buttercup I found a song I didn’t recognise. What on earth was it? I thought it rather plodding and dreary. The lyric went:

I am the singer and I will sing a song
All about the people and you can sing along

At the end of the muddy recording was the unmistakable sound of Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s voice, tantalisingly cut off before he named the song. So it was presumably recorded from Pick of the Pops one Sunday afternoon: I couldn’t find a likely title which had charted, so most likely it was played as a new release.

Shazam, SoundHound and repeated Googling over a number of years failed to identify the song, until one time – more in hope than expectation – trying yet again, I landed on a lyric site which credited it to Cliff Richard. Well I know what Cliff sounds like, and this certainly wasn’t him, but at last I had a lead, and I soon identified the song and recording as Raymond Froggatt’s The Singer. Case solved. I remember Froggatt being heavily promoted: we used to laugh at his name, and wonder why he hadn’t chosen a new one, as Harry Webb and Reginald Dwight did. He did have some success, scoring top ten hits as a writer with The Dave Clark Five’s The Red Balloon, and Cliff Richard’s Big Ship. But this song never scratched the charts.

That our most teasing riddles were posed by Stars and Bars and The Singer suggests that the most satisfyingly difficult questions are likely to emerge from the mediocre and the downright awful. But I suspect that’s it. There will be no more mysteries, ever.

And yet…where did we have that Chinese meal?

11 thoughts on “Trevor bloody Howard and the last mystery

  1. Me to a ‘T’. If that neurone doesn’t pop open with an answer tout suit, then after a couple of days I worry because I have forgotten the question!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Memories of an 80s dinner? I remember a small place off Gerrard Street patronised by the local Chinese, sitting at a large table with a “lazy Susan” for the shared dishes. Or maybe not…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could be. We often used to eat in Chinatown before a film or theatre trip. I certainly remember the Chinese meal with sake the evening I met Debbie…❤️❤️❤️


  3. I also am a diary man having written one up every night before I go to bed since I was 13 having had “The Schoolboy’s Diary” for Christmas. Sounds as if mine are like yours, with no commentary – purely factual. Bit late to change but I often muse that it would be interesting to revisit my diary of 50 years ago if I had been a bit more descriptive.
    “Met Marilyn Clare at the Lanchester Polytechnic Disco. Brilliant night and those hotpants! Could this be the real thing?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, my diary was mostly just functional, but I would also fill it retrospectively for the historical record. As for Lanchester Poly, I think you should get on and write *your blog!


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