The Queen, the Happy Hooker and me

Queen Elizabeth Niagara on the Lake 1973

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I went to London to see the Queen and met the Happy Hooker, who led me astray.

In June of 1973, Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 90 today, made a tour of Canada and The Windsor Star newspaper sent me to cover it at the nearest city in Southern Ontario where she would be seen – London.

The Queen, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, was in the rain-soaked city for precisely 140 minutes to meet local dignitaries, receive a bouquet of flowers and a gift from the city, inspect an honour guard, sign the guest book, lunch with 500 local bigwigs, stroll through a roped-off section of Victoria Park (where the sun came out) and wave goodbye.

Xaviera Hollander (pictured below), the flamboyant and glamorous former call-girl and madam whose memoir titled “The Happy Hooker: My Own Story” had sold 4.5 million copies according to the New York Times, was on a lecture tour to speak about her life and sell her book.

Xaviera Hollander x325After the Star photographer (the wonderful Cec Southward) and I finished our coverage of the Queen, we repaired to the London City Press Club, as you would, for a libation or two before we drove back to Windsor. That’s where we ran into the Happy Hooker and I got distracted.

Many other out-of-town reporters had the same idea. The Press Club was extra crowded when Xaviera Hollander strolled in and she obviously expected that. She lost no time becoming the centre of attention not least for the physical affection she displayed toward an attractive young woman she described as her girlfriend.

Pretty soon, it became a press conference as Hollander was happy to take questions and give provocative answers. It was hugely entertaining but with a 120-mile drive ahead of us, Cec and I could stay for only a part of it. We went to the parking garage talking about her and I helped him load his photographic equipment into the trunk. Without thinking, I placed my notebooks on the roof of the car.

We drove off, and I forgot about the notebooks.

Back in the newsroom of The Windsor Star, I realised with horror what I had done. I phoned a fellow reporter who had also covered the Queen’s visit, a good guy named Dave Agnew who was doing a stint with Canadian Press. Generously, he reminded me of some things I needed for my news story and then I had to write a colour piece to go with it. He couldn’t help me with that.

There was only one thing for it: I had to do what reporters call a memory dump. I wrote down everything I could recall of that day. Next morning, the editors displayed the piece prominently on Page 1. Oddly, I recall most of it even now.

Here she comes!… There she goes!… Oh well …”

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – A visit by the Queen is part planning but mostly memories:

A single bagpiper rehearsing tirelessly at London’s armouries with the Queen hours away; the rumpled gentleman who had obviously spent the night in Victoria Park on a bench, where he still sat deep in thought, who when asked about the royal visitor shook his head and said, “I was unaware the lady was on her way” …

The little girl named Allison who found herself in wonderland when she was selected to present a bouquet to the monarch after she had written to her in her tidy Grade 3 handwriting to invite the Queen to tea – she mentioned her brother and sisters and gave their ages and a dog named Charlie who was four and a rabbit named Snowball and a hamster named Christa but she was afraid she didn’t know how old they were. She signed off, “Well, I better go now, so long Allison” …

Two ladies with their daily bet on what colour dress the Queen will wear; grown men sneaking into the hall after the Queen’s luncheon to grab souvenir menus; the kid selling $57 worth of ice cream on a cold and rainy day …

The crowd applauding an hour before the Queen arrives when the sun breaks fleetingly through the clouds; the awesome gasps at the real-life aura of this lady who is Queen; the cries of “She’s beautiful!” when she steps from her car in mint green coat and dress; the loss of words of young girls when the slimly handsome Duke stops to say hello …

The way that anyone who owned a uniform was wearing it from nurses to boy scouts to safety patrol youngsters; the safety patrol boy who took a picture of the Duke and the Duke telling him that it was too bad he couldn’t get a picture of the Queen too; the woman who lost her voice when the Queen asked if she got wet while waiting …

The barefoot kids running between the guard of honour and being chased by police; the crowd yelling at photographers to duck out of the way and the photographers trying to squat and take pictures at the same time; the reporter guiltily picking up cigarette butts from the freshly swept steps of Centennial Hall before the Queen emerges …

The five militia bandsmen who were late arriving from Stratford running to their positions before the Queen arrives clutching their hats and instruments; the captain of the Royal Canadian Regiment Assault Pioneers saying that if they’d been regular soldiers, they’d be in jail by now; the Assault Pioneer Guards with their 16-pound axes on their shoulders and shell casings tucked craftily under their tunics to prevent the blades from cutting …

The writers and cameramen who were politely kicked out of the gallery of Centennial Hall while the Queen had lunch – Inspector Perkins of Scotland Yard, the Queen’s chief protocol officer, informing them in clipped English tones that he didn’t know why but he been told to clear the gallery and the gallery was going to be cleared …

The kids wearing garbage bags to keep off the rain; the harried parents at the rear of the crowd holding up disappointed offspring who didn’t get to see the Queen; the cheers moving along the crowd lined against the barriers like a flame along a fuse …

The veteran BBC camera- and sound-men and the stories of their hilarious one-liners on the royal tour press bus; the dapper BBC commentator’s apologetic regrets that British television and press seemed to be paying more attention to Watergate than to the Queen’s tour of Canada …

The self-consciousness of the civic luncheon guests in their prim attire as they walked past the rain-bedraggled royalists who had to wait outside and the smugness on their faces as they clutched their invitations …

The seven gleaming Chevrolets that formed the motorcade, brand new cars with not a speck of dirt on the undersides but with the radios already installed for their work from now on as police cruisers; the faultless precision of the First Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment guard of honour; the little boy with a huge canvas bag and a pointed stick still plucking litter from the grass of Victoria Park moments before the Queen’s stroll …

The sudden doubts when it was all over so fast about whether or not the Queen had really been there at all and the eerie thought that the whole trip could have been staged without the Queen and as with the Emperor’s new clothes most of us wouldn’t have known the difference …

The lady walking away from it all saying “Well, I saw Prince Philip’s hand”; the business-as-usual attitude of the Holiday Inn with its huge sign proclaiming, “A hearty welcome, IBM of Canada”; the sign outside Metropolitan United Church across the street from the Queen’s honour guard, which said the 11 a.m. sermon was “We still need pioneers” …

The bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral peeling loudly as the Queen and the Duke drive away …

(Top photo shows the royal couple at Niagara-on-the-Lake on the same tour in 1973)

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Memories of Gregory Peck, born 100 years ago today

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “It all goes by so quickly,” Gregory Peck told me. “It’s like a flash. Suddenly, one is in the home stretch and where did it all go? How did it flash by so fast?”

That was when the “To Kill a Mockingbird” Oscar-winner was aged 66. He was born 100 years ago today and he died on June 12, 2003. Among the hundreds of entertainment figures I have interviewed over the years, Peck (pictured above right with David Niven in “The Guns of Navarone”) is still the one who stands out, not least because we shared the same birthday nearly 30 years apart.

I met him several times including two long interviews at his palatial Holmby Hills residence in Los Angeles and he was always gracious, engaged and illuminating.

He was in virtual retirement when I first spent time with him in 1982 following an almost 40-year career at the top after he became a star in his second film, “The Keys of the Kingdom”, in 1944. He immediately had a steady stream of hits including “Spellbound” (1944), “Duel in the Sun” (1946) and “The Macomber Affair” (1947).

Peck often made social issues part of his work, most famously as Atticus Finch, the stalwart Southern attorney who defends a black man accused of rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). In “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) it was anti-semitism, “Man With a Million” (1954) greed, “The Great Sinner” addiction, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1956, with Jennifer Jones pictured below) social conformity, “On the Beach” (1959) nuclear war, and “Captain Newman M.D.” (1963) mental health.

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He was a longtime member of the U.S. National Council of the Arts; he risked the blacklist when he signed a letter in opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee witchhunt in the 1940s; President Lyndon B. Johnson gave him the Medal of Freedom; President Richard Nixon put him on his enemies list; he campaigned against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons; supported gun control; and the Motion Picture Academy gave him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

In short, as well as a great movie star Gregory Peck was a good citizen although he downplayed that. “I never thought about it,” he told me. “I just did things I was interested in doing. I don’t think they made the world a better place. Maybe they haven’t done any harm. I’ve made movies that were said to have ‘social significance’ but there’s no way of knowing the effect on the audience’s thinking. Primarily, you set out to tell ’em a story and entertain them. If there’s a residue in the form of a fresh light on social issues – a bit of illumination – that’s the icing on the cake.

Peck volunteered that he had made some flops in his time but he quoted his old friend, the late actress Ruth Gordon: “She said, ‘Gregory, never discuss your failures. Why remind people?’ You’ve heard the old Sam Goldwyn line? ‘If people won’t go to the box office, you can’t stop them.’”

He offered “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1952), “Behold a Pale Horse” (1064) and “The Stalking Moon” (1968) as movies that he thought were fatally flawed but he said audiences thought so too.

“You don’t have to be very bright to recognise a well-done script when you read it,” he said. “But there were times when you spot flaws, some areas of the script where the tension let go or the interest lagged, and you think, well, we can fix this. We can do some clever rewriting and then with a certain clever way of playing the scene I’ll disguise its shortcomings. I’ll cover it with charm and the audience will never know it’s a bad scene. But they do. All you do is make it less bad; you don’t make it good.”

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He pointed to “The Macomber Affair” (1947, with Joan Bennett and Robert Preston, pictured above), which he regarded as very nearly the best film of an Ernest Hemingway novel ever put on the screen except that the ending is flawed. In the story, a woman is allowed to go free after she murders her husband on safari but Hollywood’s censors at the time, the Hays Office, objected.

“We had to devise a compromise ending, which practically ruined what was a very faithful rendering full of Hemingway’s irony, toughness and lack of sentimentality. But there are many things in the film that I think are excellent.”

He was fond of “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), an uncompromising documentary-like war picture about a group of men who fight and die for a worthless hill in Korea. “To me, that is a good film but it did not have box office appeal,” he said.

Peck allowed that he was miscast as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Beloved Infidel” (1959) and the film as a whole was not very good “but there are scenes of his despair and drunkenness that I think are some of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Over his long career, Peck also let some good roles get away. He turned down “High Noon” because he’d just had a hit Western – “The Gunfighter” (1950) – with a similar theme: “Gary Cooper was smart enough to take it and he did it beautifully. I probably couldn’t have done it as well but it was a surefire role.”

He said he rejected Frank Sinatra’s hit, “Von Ryan’s Express” because it came too soon after Peck’s blockbuster “The Guns of Navarone”. His consolation is that other stars also made mistakes. John Wayne turned down “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), a smash-hit war film for which Peck won the New York Critics’ best actor award.

Peck made no apology for making films that were pure escapism. He pointed out that in “The Guns of Navarone” when he, David Niven, Anthony Quinn and the others are dressed in Nazi uniforms in occupied Greece during World War II running down a street chased by real Nazis “if we turn right, you know they’re going to turn left just like the Keystone Cops. They always do the wrong thing otherwise the picture’s over. At any point, the film could have been 10-minutes long. It’s more of a swashbuckler than a war picture. We knew what we were doing and it is on the verge of being tongue-in-cheek but it’s legitimate entertainment with a background of high adventure.”

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He felt the same way about his hit horror film “The Omen” (1976) as he felt the script was so well-calculated that he was sure it would be popular although the scale of its popularity surprised him: “All the business about 666 and the devil, I thought that was all nonsense but Lee Remick and I (pictured above) make a good team and perhaps make the audience care about us as all these terrible things happen. We didn’t believe any of it for a moment but it was pure entertainment of a very old form going back to the gothic novel and people sitting around a campfire seeing who can tell the scariest ghost story.”

Peck was proud of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and grateful for his Academy Award but he said: “When I first started, I think I was nominated four times in about five years and I didn’t win. I didn’t particularly think that I should have. I mean, people like Laurence Olivier made ‘Hamlet’, Fredric March made ‘The Best Years of Our Lives” and Ray Milland made ‘Lost Weekend’. I sat there and was not at all disappointed and nor did I think I was robbed.”

After “The Keys of the Kigdom” (1946), “The Yearling” (1947), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1948) and “Twelve O’Clock High” (1950), he went 13 years without a nomination: “Then along came ‘Mockingbird’ but I wouldn’t have felt I was robbed then either. I mean, Jack Lemmon was up for ‘Days of Wine and Roses” and Peter O’Toole was up for ‘Lawrence of Arabia”. But apparently it was my turn.”

He said he was pleased that “To Kill a Mockingbird” had taken on a life of its own: “It’s played in junior high schools all over the country in their civics course; they read the book and watch the video and then they write essays about what the film meant to them. I have a bunch of them on my desk. That’s rather nice. It goes on and it probably will for a while. It’s probably not going to drop out of sight suddenly.”

Peck did some TV in the Eighties – “The Blue and the Gray” U.S. Civil War series and “The Scarlet and the Black” war picture are worth watching – and he had one more big picture, “Old Gringo” (1989) opposite Jane Fonda, but he accepted that his career at the top was over.

“It’s always been play to me. I felt lucky to be paid for what I would do for nothing if I had another means of income. It was a good career. One tends to forget the difficult times, the struggles, the clashes of temperament, the futile attempts to make a good film out of a bad script. I’ve been a very lucky individual because I’ve had many times when I could not ask more from life.”

He was delighted that he was able to play his hero Abraham Lincoln onscreen even though it was a cameo in “The Blue and the Gray” and he didn’t claim it was a great performance.

He said, “It’s a good reminder to Americans of what kind of people preceded us and what they did for us; that it’s worth preserving and that, if there are changes that have to be made to preserve it, then we’d better get busy and make those changes.”

Peck paused and laughed. “I think I’ve veered off into cracker-barrel philosophy. I think I’ve spoken my own eulogy.”

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FILM REVIEW: ‘The Railway Children’ on stage

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – There’s a perfect family treat available at 400 cinemas across the UK and Ireland on Easter Monday with the first screenings of a film of York Theatre Royal’s acclaimed stage presentation of “The Railway Children”. Continue reading

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Six things we learned from the 88th Academy Awards

CHRIS ROCK

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – There were not many surprises at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday but we did discover a few things about Oscar, predictions, balloting, marketing, music, and sentimental choices.

1/ Hollywood will always protect the brand. Continue reading

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THEATRE REVIEW: Gemma Arterton in ‘Nell Gwynn’

Gemma Arterton in Nell Swynn x650

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Jessica Swale’s thoroughly entertaining play “Nell Gwynn”, about the strumpet turned actress who beguiled a king of England and became a queen of the London stage, is filled with laughter and music and a few tears and best of all Gemma Arterton in the title role. Continue reading

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Art meets science in space at the Natural History Museum

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The Natural History Museum’s exhibition “Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System”, on show now through May 15, is as good as a movie as it takes visitors on a journey through space with spectacular still images and clever dialogue, and it even has a terrific score by Brian Eno. Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren in ‘Trumbo’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The infamous treatment of filmmakers in Hollywood during the communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 1950s should have made for a powerful movie but Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” misses the target. Continue reading

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Academy Awards diversity: a look at the numbers

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – In the discussion about diversity in the top prizes of the Academy Awards, the depth of the problem for the Academy is clear as in the 14 awards from 2001 to last year, on the AMPAS database I could find only one Latin American (Benicio Del Toro) nominated for 70 acting spots and only two black men (America’s Lee Daniels and the U.K.’s Steve McQueen) and two female directors (Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow) were among the 70 nominees for best director. Continue reading

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London Critics’ Circle film awards: Ovation for Alan Rickman

Branagh, Dench CC 2016

By Ray Bennett

LONDON  – There was only one standing ovation at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards Sunday night and it was for someone who was not there: Alan Rickman, who died on January 14.

The audience responded immediately and enthusiastically when Kate Winslet, as she accepted the award for best supporting actress for “Steve Jobs”, said tearfully that it seemed odd to celebrate in a week that had seen the loss of her co-star and director. The applause was loud and sustained. Continue reading

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David Bowie: When Ziggy played guitar

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – On Oct. 8 1972, a new young artist from England played his sixth U.S. concert in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre. This is what I wrote in The Windsor Star newspaper two days later: Remember the name. In rock ‘n’ roll there was Elvis Presley and the Beatles and now there is David Bowie. Forty-three years on and that hasn’t changed.

After an extraordinary career, Bowie has died of cancer aged 69. I was lucky enough to see him perform several times in Detroit but I’ll always remember that first revelation.

My review continued: Continue reading

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