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Gerry George's Memories - 8
The nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

At the height of his immense popularity, on the equally famous panel-game, 'What's My Line ?', Gilbert Harding wrote 'Along My Line', an autobiography, the anecdotes in which, culminated with his radical and rebellious reign, on BBC TV's most eagerly-awaited, weekly, Sunday night, slot.

It told of his days as a schoolmaster, a private 'crammer', and then a policeman, before turning his hand to broadcasting, and entering BBC radio, via the phenomenally successful, radio guessing game, ' Twenty Questions', in which he served as both panellist and chairman, before joining television's 'What's My Line ?' , under the ofttimes taunting, and partisan chairmanship of Eamonn Andrews.

It was a tongue-in-cheek, 'love-hate' relationship, between Eamonn and Gilbert - while in front of the cameras - but, once out of the studio lights' glare, they were the best of friends; and, often, after the show, the pair adjourned for a drink, together, in a quiet London pub, tucked-away, in one of the side-streets, near Portland Place, just around the corner from Broadcasting House.

In was while on such a 'session', that Gilbert's passion for rocking the boat, spilled over into their social life, and left Andrews laughing for many a year.

Having entered the lounge of a yellowing, varnished, dingy hostelry, not a stone's-throw from the studio - where, seconds before the cameras had been switched off, the pair had been locked in combat, pouring undisguised scorn and contempt on each other - they calmly took their places at the crowded bar, and started to unwind, downing double Scotches, and exchanging friendly banter, just like the best of pals, that they really were.

Amid the chatter, Eamonn could not help but notice, that from time-to-time Harding kept frowning, and staring-hard - through the curling cigarette smoke, and bobbing heads - at a smartly-dressed, lone drinker, in the tap-room, on the opposite side to them.

Then, after taking a few more glasses of the old 'gold watch' - his florid cheeks, rapidly taking on a purple hue - Gilbert began to loudly direct a litany of caustic comments, in the customer's direction, all of which sought to disparage Eton College, and any callow lad, unlucky enough to have been a student there.

Harding had no liking for Eton Boys, or the Etonian tradition, and he said as much, in a protracted harrangue, which got continually worse, as the Scotches flowed, and the minutes ticked towards 'closing time'.

Once 'Time' was called, and Gilbert's intended victim was showing signs of departing the pub, Harding - obviously peeved that his taunts had not prompted, even the slightest reaction, from the focus of his scathing assault - dashed forward, and accosted the homeward-bound drinker, with the question:

"What kind of an Etonian are you. I've insulted Eton College, and the Eton tie you are wearing, for the best part of the evening, and you haven't had the guts to defend your old school ?"

Clearly, at pains to adopt Gilbert's mood, the bemused man raised a quizzical eyebrow, and retorted: "Eton, guv: I don't know what yer on about ? I'm a 'Totter'; a dustbin man, and I salvaged this tie, wiv a few uvvers, while I was out on the van."

No-one was more amused than Harding, himself: he knew he had made himself look a fool, and though he took it in good part, the incident, nevertheless, did nothing to slake the 'fire in his belly', and he was to make many a similar gaff - both on, and off, the television - before he took his leave of this world...and left everyone mourning his loss.

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Lines down the middle of the road, those thick double-white ones, that help you get by, when you are crawling along seemingly unending carriageways, you're not familiar with - in the dark, or, in 'pea-souper' fog - were the subject of a lengthy 'on-camera' eulogy, after panellist, Lady Isobel Barnett, 'rumbled' the occupation of a very taciturn, and canny contender, who came very close to beating the panel, and getting one of those much-coveted certificates, during the early Fifties.

"I know what you do", she suddenly blurted out, beaming triumphantly - albeit, when, faced with nine answers in the negative, and just on the point of conceding defeat - "you are one of those lovely people, who paint white lines down the centre of the road...which saves lone motorists, like me, from facing a nightmare ordeal, when fog suddenly descends, and you haven't got a clue where you are, or where you're going."

Meekly the challenger, accepted defeat, and willingly basked in the reflected glory, which Lady Barnett then proceeded to pile upon him. Indeed, the dear lady didn't stop, and spent a good five minutes - during peak viewing - extolling the efforts of those who did this particular kind of work, and praising the government ministries involved, for their caring commitment, effectiveness and efficiency.

Sadly, within a few years, this beautiful and charming lady - by then, crippled with arthritis, and terribly depressed at the death of her husband - fell victim to Kleptomania, and committed suicide, after being prosecuted for stealing a solitary tin of salmon !

On paper, she was worth millions at the time, but, being a Justice of the Peace, a senior medico, and a pillar of society, she could not bring herself to face the shame, and degradation of it all: what a sad ending, to such a lovely life !

Strange; Lady Barnett was not the only former 'What's My Line ?' panellist to chose such a way out. Not all that long before, Jerry Desmonde - for years a popular panel-member on the same show - also killed himself, in a bout of depression, following a relatively trivial business dispute.

Can anybody out there recall any other interesting 'What's My Line ?' memories ? If you can, just E-mail me, and I will be delighted to put them on the website, along with my recollections.

Gerry George (Actor/Writer)

Next week:     The White Heather Club; Jimmy Shand & His Band; Kenneth McKellar, Moira Anderson, Jimmy Logan, and all those braw Scots wee lads and lasses, singing and dancing-in, the New Year, with their 'Aen Folk' ...way up North.

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