Sunday, April 19, 2009

Just a Lifetime: Sir Clement Freud (1924-2009)

Clement Freud's voice was the first thing I noticed. (Naturally, when your first encounter with someone is on shortwave radio-- the BBC World Service in this case--the voice will necessarily be the first thing you notice.) It was a slow, low-pitched monotone, almost a growl, with something of the curmudgeon about it. "Lugubrious": the word so often used to describe it, and its owner, that it's become cliched.

It was a complete contrast to the voice of Kenneth Williams (of Carry On fame), another of the original panelists on Just a Minute. That voice was nasal, high-pitched, shrill almost, extremely camp, and delivering words at a rate at least twice as fast as normal or necessary. But still the conveyor of abundant wit and charm.

The object of the game was simple, ingeniously so: to speak, off-the-cuff, for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition on a randomly chosen subject. Like this on the subject "CHEEK":
Clement Freud: CHEEK is when someone of diminished responsibility, goes to the British Broadcasting Corporation and elects to be chairman of a panel game on the basis that he might have some idea of how to control people whose multisyllabic words he doesn’t understand, whose meaning he is unable to comprehend, and whose hours and time he is unable to keep. I’ve now said unable three times, and no-one has interrupted me…

Peter Jones:
Well I’m not interrupting ‘cos I’m enjoying it…

(Peter Jones was a regular contestant on Just a Minute for 29 years .)
The game has remained largely unchanged for more than 40 years. And Sir Clement Freud (24 April 1924–15 April 2009) was probably its finest and certainly its most experienced exponent.

"Without repetition, hesitation or deviation" seems an apt theme for Freud's own long and colourful life in which he was at various times: a soldier, chef, restaurateur, columnist, actor, author, nightclub owner, food and drink critic, parliamentarian, sporting correspondent, gambler, race jockey, university official, broadcaster, raconteur, wit, and God knows what else.

There are some wonderful anecdotes by and about Freud:
  • In 1978, Freud was on a parliamentary delegation to Japan and returned via China with Winston S. Churchill, a Conservative Member of Parliament and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. On the final day, he asked the Chinese Minister for Information why his junior colleague had been given a bigger hotel suite than his. The Minister, very embarrassed, explained that it was because Mr. Churchill had a famous grandfather. Freud, whose own grandfather was none other than the illustrious Sigmund Freud, observed drily: "It is the only time that I have been out-grandfathered."
  • During the Second World War, Freud was called up to serve with the Royal Ulster Rifles. Informed of Freud's origins (Austro-German, born in Berlin, although Freud was also Jewish of course), his Commanding Officer sent for him and inquired: “Mr. Freud, I don’t quite know how to put this, but are you sure you’re on the right side?”
  • A few days ago, Charles Wilson, Editor of The Times (of London) from 1980 to 1985 who first brought Freud to the paper, received his invitation to a supper for 15 that had been planned for Friday the 24 of April 2009, Freud's 85th birthday. It read: “This is to remind you of the time, date and location - although it may be wise to keep an eye on the obituary column.” Clement Freud: Witty to the very last. (You may cast your eye on the obituaries in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Telegraph.)

No comments: