Glamour and Glitter
‘Um, no thanks,’ I said.
My wife, E, was constantly being invited to various media events and I’d long learned that I didn’t enjoy them. She usually insisted that I go; I’d go under great sufferance. Sometimes, unexpectedly, I’d enjoy them but they mostly bored me. You’d constantly see the same incestuous bunch of media people, dressed to the nines, self-congratulatory and pinning medals on themselves and each other. And, of course, constantly back-stabbing every one in and out of sight. Talk about big fish in a small pond!
'I think you’ll enjoy this one, we’ll be having dinner with Joanna Lumley,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I thought you’d be interested.’
This was 1995 or 6, several years after the first series of Absolutely Fabulous had hit British television screens and become such a huge hit. I’d seen the series on video courtesy of my friends G and M in London. And like all true queens, they were infatuated with the show and with Patsy. I’d enjoyed it too but I was much more in love with Purdey than Patsy! Although I may not have become quite the Patsy fan many of my friends are, I’ve revised my allegiances since then.
‘Yes, I’ll definitely come along!’
The dinner was being hosted by Mnet, the subscription television service who were just about to launch the first series of Absolutely Fabulous on South African audiences. As part of their launch, they’d invited Joanna Lumley out to South Africa on a publicity tour. Various dinners were being held in several major centres and we’d been invited to the Cape Town one being held at the Rotunda in Camps Bay. As E’s magazine had ‘scooped’ an interview with Lumley and she was going to be doing the interview, we were to be seated at her dinner table. We later found out that the mayor and mayoress would also be at the table, a very provincial touch despite Cape Town being South Africa’s second biggest city. A very South African touch, actually.
E had wangled some tickets to the dinner for a few of our friends who were grateful but terribly envious about our being the ‘chosen ones’. I’m not really one to get excited about such things, but I couldn’t wait.
In the weeks running up to the dinner, E agonised about what she’d be wearing.
‘I think I’ll have to get something new,’ she kept saying. This from a woman who’d recently returned from New York where she’d gone a bit wild with the plastic. I’d keep quiet or grunt in as neutral a way as possible.
‘What are you going to wear?’ would sometimes come my way, E’s way of trying to engage me in her quandary.
‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ll find something, I’m sure,’ my stock phrase when asked to think about clothes to be worn any time longer than an hour into the future.
In the end, she got a new outfit, some designer thing she looked marvellous in. And, as usual, I didn’t give the matter another thought until I was forced to the night before the dinner. I rummaged through my wardrobe and settled on the tuxedo I’d worn to our wedding, a fifties tuxedo that I’d bought in a charity shop. It looked good on me so E approved but she wasn’t so keen on my choice of shirt. She wanted one of my old silk shirts with a tie but I wanted one of the old collar-less dress shirts I’d found in an old department store that had recently closed down. You know the sort, the ones that you attach collars to with collar-studs. I wanted to wear it plain, without a collar or any other adornment around my neck. An argument developed - E insisted that I wear a collar or something around my neck.
We compromised on a cravat. A bit old-fogey-ish, I know, but just how gay is that!?
It was a beautiful night when we arrived at the Rotunda. A queue of cars had developed at the entrance to the car park; smartly dressed people were passing us in droves. Instead of getting stuck in the queue, we parked up one of the residential side streets. On the way to the entrance we passed scores of people that E greeted, the people that I hoped to avoid by not going to functions like this. We showed our tickets to the doorman at the entrance.
‘Oh, good evening Mr and Mrs F, please come this way,’ he fawned.
He was a short, fat man who wobbled with grace as he wove his way through the crowd and between the tables. As its name would suggest, the Rotunda is a very large circular room. The tables seemed to be arranged in spokes that radiated out from the centre. I saw our friends waving to us from the far end of the room where they were seated. He took us right to the middle to a large round table. The four people already seated there looked up at us and smiled.
‘Here you are,’ he said, pointing at our place names, ‘please enjoy your evening.’
The men at the table stood up, introducing themselves and their wives as they shook our hands. I don’t remember the names of the one couple but I recall that they were boring white suburbanites who for some strange reason were minor celebrities on the local political scene. The other couple were the Rev William Bantom and his wife, Cape Town’s first black mayoral couple.
We sat down and accepted glasses of champagne from a hovering waiter.
I was sitting next to Rev Bantom; there was a gap on the other side between me and E. Fortunately, neither of us was going to be sitting next to the boring couple - E was going to have Joanna at her other side. At first the conversation was stilted - even though we had an obvious topic, the fabulous Ms Lumley, to talk about, our fellow diners knew next to nothing about her. They certainly knew nothing about Absolutely Fabulous. But we battered along and I slowly warmed to the very personable reverend.
'I wonder when she's going to arrive?' I whispered across to E.
'Let's hope it's soon!' she replied.
About 20 minutes later we were suddenly aware of three people standing at the table. She'd arrived! The room had quietened for a moment and then got much louder. Everyone was looking towards Joanna. With her was one of the local bigwigs from Mnet and a pleasant-looking but rather nondescript middle-aged woman. We all stood up as introductions were made.
'Good evening, everyone,' said Mr Mnet Bigwig, 'this is Joanna Lumley and Myfanwy X.’ (*)
Both of them smiled broadly as we all shook hands then sat down. Myfanwy was sitting between me and E. Every eye in the room was on our table but Joanna seemed oblivious to them, choosing to direct her attention solely at us. Their glasses were filled by the hovering waiter and we clinked glasses.
She charmed us immediately. Her interest was sincere and relaxed, putting everyone at ease. Before long, the room seemed to close in upon us and I almost forgot that we were sitting in the middle of a huge room surrounded by scores of people all there to see Joanna. We found out that Myfanwy and Joanna are first cousins and often travel together when Joanna isn’t travelling with her husband. She too was engaging and interested and I took to her quickly. We also discovered that they were much of a same age even though Joanna looked years younger and light-years more glamorous.
Our second glasses of champagne were being sipped when Mr Mnet Bigwig stood up and talked over the microphone. His speech was brief – not much more than welcoming Joanna to Cape Town and a bit of information about when Absolutely Fabulous would be on air. He also suggested that should anyone want to chat to Joanna or ask for an autograph, they wait until after the main course, before dessert. Fortunately, we hadn’t been subjected to a long gushing speech.
I don’t remember much about our conversation except for the fact that we seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing our respective childhoods in the ‘colonies’. Joanna and Myfanwy discussed their family’s connection with the Indian subcontinent and I discussed mine with Mozambique. I’m sure we discussed the New Avengers, Girl Friday, Absolutely Fabulous and other Lumley roles. We probably discussed the, at the time, new political dispensation in South Africa. And, the mayor, being such an obvious example of that, was, no doubt, very involved in that conversation. Although the other table guests were not excluded, certainly not by Joanna, there were times when it felt as if the only people there were Joanna, Myfanwy, E and I. This is not to say that the other guests felt out of their depth, far from it, but there seemed less of a connection despite Joanna’s impeccable manners and inclusive anecdotes.
Before long, we’d finished our starters and were about to sit back and relax before the next course. A trickle of well-wishers and autograph-hunters began to make its way towards Joanna. A trickle that turned into a tide.
‘Please everyone, there will be time for chatting to Ms Lumley after the main course.’ Mr Mnet Bigwig tried his best to deter the fans but it took a while before he stemmed the flow.
At that point I remember looking around the room and being aware of something rather gay about many of our 'fellow-diners'. It wasn’t anything obvious like feather boas or the clashing of overly-pungent colognes. I think it may have been the preponderance of a particular trendy, over-tanned, and sometimes over-buffed look amongst many of the men. I’d almost forgotten how much of a gay icon Joanna had become! One especially flamboyant character was a well-known local actor whom, in later years, I often played pool against at Castro's pool bar down the road from Manhattans.
Throughout, Joanna was perfectly gracious and charming. As she was later, after the main course, when faced with another surge.
She and Myfanwy disappeared quite quickly after desert but we stayed on talking to Rev Bantom and our friends who’d come up to find out what she’d been like.
‘So you won’t be so offish about coming to these events next time?’ I was asked when we were in the car going home.
'Not if she’s going to be there!’ I said with a smile.
In my ignorance at the time, I didn’t realise what kudos I’d gained that evening in the eyes of a lot of my friends. And future friends! Since then, of course, I know when to dredge up that evening if I want to impress people. And here I am doing it again!
I wonder to what extent Joanna remembers that evening? Probably not a lot beyond being in Cape Town and going to a publicity dinner. I suspect that she has very little or no recollection of who was at the dinner. So, in the very unlikely event that she heard about Rev Bantom’s resignation (read dismissal!) as mayor of Cape Town in 2000 for downloading child porn in his office, I’m quite sure she’d not have realised that she'd had dinner with him that night.
The Rotunda gave me my brush with fame and real glamour. Unbeknownst to Joanna, it gave her a brush with a fellow-traveller of Gary Glitter's.
Alternative titles for this post:
- Purdey and the Paedophile
- Paedophile's Patsy
- any other suggestions?
(*) I don't remember her surname