I had a moment, last week, sitting in my car, listening to news of the death of George Melly. We met in late 1974. I worked for Piccadilly Radio. At the time I presented an unusually long night-time programme that began at 11pm and finished at 6am. the following morning. Through his writing (more than his music) I’d become a great fan of George Melly. He’d accepted an invitation to join me as guest on my programme.
The Duke of Devonshire was standing, visibly agitated, by a doorway to his front garden as our mini-convoy drew up. I jumped out of the car first and hurried towards him bleating apologies. He was incandescent.
He arrived two hours late and stayed until the end, and then stood me breakfast in the Golden Egg on Piccadilly. We’d cleared two bottles of red wine by then. I don’t recall much of our on-air conversation (hardly an interview) except my description of George’s sexual evolution as “from homosexuality via bisexuality to fairly rapacious heterosexuality in less than a decade.” He considered this a moment and said, “Yes. But it doesn’t stop me fancying young fair-haired radio presenters.”
I went to his local gigs after that and we occasionally worked together on TV arts programmes when I moved to Granada. He nearly dropped us both in it one time. We were making a programme about the Buxton Opera Festival. Its Patron was Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, and he’d granted us an interview to be filmed at 10am on a Saturday morning at Chatsworth House. Our best plan was to stay with the crew in Buxton on the Friday night and get a good start in the morning.
The night was long, breakfast was bleary, though I was pleased that George looked splendid as ever, in a quieter suit than normal and particularly fine candy-striped shirt. We set off in convoy south for Chatsworth. Nobody had told us that His Grace and the Duchess had put their park at the disposal of the Country Landowners’ Association for the weekend. It was the biggest country show of the year, and Derbyshire was grid-locked. We arrived two hours late.
Devonshire was standing, visibly agitated, by a doorway to his front garden as our mini-convoy drew up. I jumped out of the car first and hurried towards him bleating apologies. He was incandescent. He held his wrist watch before his face and his arm shook so violently I thought he might go into spasm. I put both my hands on his shoulders in order to quell his quaking and, catching sight of George cowering at the rear wing of our car, said most forcefully, “Your Grace, allow me to introduce our presenter, George Melly.”
The storm subsided. The Duke, in tweeds and yellow socks, was charm itself. We filmed them in the rose garden, they talked of the magnificent refurbished Buxton Opera House, we shook hands and the Duke disappeared through the door where we’d first met his volcanic rage.
“Had you told Devonshire it was me who would be interviewing him?” George asked as we made our way back to the car. “No, I don’t believe I did.” I detected a slight movement in George’s considerable lips, “Why do you ask?” He’d turned away and was climbing in the back to the car, “Oh. Because the last time he saw me, he caught me in bed with his mistress.” I slapped him several times. “George, you bastard! How could you not tell me?” I calmed down and we cruised out of Chatsworth, against the traffic.
“You like the shirt?” he eventually asked, looking down at his fine-cotton pink and yellow breast. “Yes, I told you so at breakfast.” “Humm” he murmured looking out of the window, “Present from his mistress.” and before I could take it in, “Two every Christmas.” He turned to me with a big grin, “On the Duke’s account.” We roared all the way to Buxton. Gorgeous George.
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