Like most people waking up on this miserable day, the bank holiday felt even more downbeat with the announcement of the passing of Lord Attenborough – a man who definitely deserved his knighthood unlike so many these days.
Rare for me to encounter such an illustrious man but I did have the pleasure of meeting him – but sadly my encounter with him was the most humiliating experiences of my life.
I recounted in my book – how tom Holland eclipsed his dad – and I include it here again. It is a poignant tale and one I can recall very vividly. Readers will hear all day on TV and radio what a gracious and kind man he was and this is something I can attest to also.
He led an extraordinary life full of achievement and success with a legacy for us all. RIP.
Now read this extract and feel my pain…
Hearing about Princess Dianaâ€™s crash was one such occasion, and eerily I was in the Piccadilly underpass at the time, on my way home from the Comedy Store, having done the late show. 9/11 was another. Then, I was idly at home, my father-in law fitting a new porch to our house when my neighbour, Chris, popped round and suggested we put the television on. And the 2004 Asian tsunami was another when I can recall where we were when we first heard the news.
At this time, I donâ€™t think I had ever heard the word tsunami before and I stood in my kitchen spellbound, listening to the radio about the unfolding tragedy. The numbers were staggering, which I visualised by imagining multiples of full Wembley Stadiums. It felt even more poignant for the fact it was Boxing Day, a day to be with family and reflect. No doubt pictures recorded live were available also and I was rather pleased with myself that I didnâ€™t turn to the television. As much as I was intrigued by a thirty-metre wave, I didnâ€™t wish to see people who had drowned or the traumatised survivors either.
All day the shadows lengthened over Christmas when numbers of even two hundred thousand people were mooted. It was possibly the greatest natural disaster in living memory. Of course there are natural disasters every year, taking lives with glib abandon and we watch and we gesture and sometimes we respond to the appeals and sometimes we donâ€™t. But this event was different, because of the sheer numbers involved, but also because Westerners were killed and in great numbers. Tourist destinations as they were, the Western world felt connected and grieved collectively. The 2010 Pakistan floods affected seventeen million people, but the appeals struggled to make headway because the West didnâ€™t feel engaged. Another tragedy then and a subject for another book.
The Asian tsunami enveloped Scandinavia, Britain, France, America and indeed the whole world. News crews darted about the place mawkishly recording whatever they could and individual stories began to emerge. Rumours that Sir Richard Attenboroughâ€™s family had been decimated and endless pictures of survivors on location scouring notice boards in the hope to find their loved ones made heart-rending viewing.
The tsunami became a world event and I couldnâ€™t have known then what an impact it would come to have on my family: the opportunity it would create, the experiences we would have and the friends we would make â€“ an awkward reality emerging from such a tragic event, which I am always mindful of as I write this story.
The first time that the tsunami physically touched me was during a phone call from my friend, John Inverdale, the BBC sports journalist already mentioned in this book. John was involved with a charity golf day and dinner at The Royal Wimbledon Golf Club close to where I live. By now, the story of Sir Richard Attenborough had been confirmed, that three generations of his family had been killed in the tragedy, and the golf day was being organised by his son-in-law, a man called Jeffrey Holland. John Inverdale asked if I would talk for twenty minutes after the dinner. Although I am much more of a stand-up comedian rather than the raconteur who is better suited to such gigs, I didnâ€™t see that I could refuse. Add to this a rarefied venue and the occasion and I inked the date in my diary with some foreboding.
The day began on the putting green with an array of sports stars, a collection of celebrities of sort, friends, family and the most important people of all, the individuals paying top dollar to play. A welcome was followed by a two-minute silence and then the golf got started. Colin Montgomerie hadnâ€™t yet arrived having finished second in the British Open the day before, so everyone understood and hoped he would make it along later.
I didnâ€™t enjoy my round very much, thinking on every shot about the evening ahead, and with Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck in the field, I wondered why it was me speaking and not them.
Most of the sports â€˜starsâ€™ left before the meal as is sadly their way, but the evening was significantly augmented by the presence of Sir Richard Attenborough himself along with his family. I sat with the club pro during dinner and he remarked without knowing who I was that he pitied the poor sod who was having to speak after the meal.
There was no stage or lights and I felt very exposed and frankly, out of my depth as Jimmy Tarbuck suddenly took to the floor and did something rather extraordinary. I had never seen or met Jimmy before but of course I knew that he was a cheeky Scouse comic with a great line in the pub gag. On this evening, Jimmy was conducting the auction and before he began, he did a quick ten-minute routine, but not from his own repertoire. Instead, he used anecdotes and quips of our now-deceased and best-loved comedians. He told the one about Eric Morecombe, when Eric was asked by a one-armed doorman if he could attend the recording of The Morecombe and Wise Show, to which Eric replied, â€˜No, because you canâ€™t clap.â€™ A brilliant joke by the late Eric Morecombe, told now by the famous Jimmy Tarbuck. Everyone laughed apart from me. I sat there stony faced. More followed from the canon of Tommy Cooper, what Tommy said or did, and my mood darkened even further. Not only was I following Tarbuck, one of the UKâ€™s best-known comedians, I was following him doing the greatest lines of the very greatest British comedians ever. If Chaplin had spoken, no doubt Jimmy would have done him as well.
Before the auction, Jimmy brought the mood down and reminded us about the tragic events that had brought us together and that we should all give generously. Dessert followed and then I was due straight up after coffee, but before then Sir Richard indicated that he would like to say a few words. The room fell absolutely silent as this great man from such an illustrious family stood with the support of those on either side of him. I am not a skilled enough writer to adequately describe the pain that was etched on his face or the atmosphere in the room. He wept openly as he remembered those who had passed and finally, unable to continue, he needed to be helped back in to his seat. People were crying openly, but by some distance I was the saddest person in the room.
Anyone who has ever seen me perform will know that my boys and being a dad is a large part of my act and now suddenly, none of this material would be appropriate. It all had to be jettisoned and I frantically tried to think of material that might chime. I started to panic. What would I open with? Should I reference Sir Richard and then proceed to try and be funny and at least as funny as Eric Morecombe, Arthur Askey, Max Wall and Tommy Cooper, courtesy of our Jim. In that moment I decided that I just couldnâ€™t perform. There was nothing I could say for the moment and I just could not go on. I quickly rushed off to find Jeffrey Holland, the organiser, and hoped that he would understand. Interestingly enough, he was on his way to see me because he too had concluded exactly the same thing. Now was not the time for levity. He told me to relax and enjoy the evening and I could have cuddled him with relief.
It was a crying shame then that no one thought to explain this to his son who after coffee took to the floor to respond on behalf of his grandfather. He thanked everyone for coming, probably gave an indication of the amounts of money raised and then proceeded to introduce the very funny Mr Dominic Holland.
I sat there aghast with all eyes on me. I had a stark choice and both were humiliating. Do I take to the floor and struggle or do I refuse to go, something I had never done before or since? I chose to stay in my seat. At least this way, it was only me being embarrassed and not the whole room as happens when a comedian struggles. And thatâ€™s how the evening ended. I wanted to leave straight away but I was determined to stay. I needed to stay to front it out, even though I felt hollow inside.