Thurifer goes to the pantomime

The death of Christine Keeler late last year briefly brought back into focus the Profumo scandal, which almost defines the Sixties for many. It had everything: femmes fatales, erring politicians, sex and spies, debauchery among the aristocracy, criminals and hucksters, press hysteria and an outraged bourgeoisie. For those for whom it is a remote memory or lost in the mists of time, or those younger souls for whom it is ancient history, there are plenty of books and films that chronicle it, but the most vivid is a chapter in The Pendulum Years by Bernard Levin. In the last Diary I compared Levin favourably with William Hazlitt and he is at his coruscating best in his commentary on the hypocrisy that surrounded the events. He particularly lays into Lord Hailsham. Of an infamous television appearance, which I remember seeing at the time, he writes: ‘A count of the text shows that in one passage alone he called Mr Profumo a liar seven times in ninety words, and the force with which he pronounced the word was such that it seemed, by some strange phonetic mutation to be composed entirely of sibilants, so that it would not be fanciful to say that he hissed it at his interlocutor… the final “liar”… was pronounced with such manic violence that those watching might have thought that he was about to go completely berserk.’ He also records a further, elegantly brutal, oratorical assault on the hapless Lord Hailsham in the House of Commons by the barrister and fox-hunting Labour MP Reginald Paget. Where are his like now? We are reduced to the leaden prose of Sir Keir Starmer. He numbers Lord Hailsham among those who ‘compounded for sins they are inclined to by damning those they have no mind to,’ then he added that ‘when self-indulgence has reduced a man to the shape of Lord Hailsham, sexual continence involves no more than a sense of the ridiculous.’ Another Labour MP, George Wigg, called Hailsham a liar but was not called to order by the Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, which was taken, as Levin said, as ‘a rebuke… on the part of the Chair more deadly in its silence than those of Mr Wigg and Mr Paget in speech.’ Perhaps the loquacious Mr Speaker Bercow might take note.

A few years ago at a funeral a fellow mourner expressed surprise that I was there as he supposed I was not fond of the deceased. ‘Just to make sure,’ I said. In fact, I did rather like him. It is probably apocryphal but it was said that when a Hollywood mogul bewailed that no-one would attend his memorial service a ‘friend’ replied, ‘Give the public what they want and they will turn up.’ I now read that there is a company that will provide additional mourners to funerals, memorial services and wakes if there is a fear that too few will attend. This takes the Victorian convention of supplying a ‘mute’—usually some sallow child decked out in top hat, black suit and mourning bands walking in front of the hearse—to a new and unattractive level. These thoughts of mortality are in my mind as I tinker with my funeral arrangements to take account of changed circumstances. I do not favour the modern trend for funerals in white vestments, nor that family and friends should not be sad or cry. Although I believe firmly in the Resurrection I want tears, and lots of them. If the jokes in the eulogy (or, preferably, anti-panegyric) are good enough then there may be tears of laughter.

In the folklore of the Movement there is a story that after a particularly sumptuous High Mass—‘full Catholic privileges,’ rites, ceremonies, music, vesture—at St Alban’s, Holborn an overwhelmed spectator congratulated the then vicar, Fr Peter Priest, and wondered how it could possibly be matched the following year. Fr Priest replied, ‘next year, it will be on ice.’ St Alban’s has been beaten to it by St Wulfram’s, Grantham. Their second Christmas Tree Festival saw the nave turned into an ice rink for skating and with a toboggan run, surrounded by over a hundred trees. The previous Festival in 2015 attracted over 10,000 visitors. Liturgy on Ice could be the Church of England’s seasonal answer to Strictly Come Dancing.

The pantomime season is now over, but it was a memorable one. St Stephen’s, Lewisham presented ‘Neverland, or The Bridge Over the River Craggy’ for one night only. Parishioner Anne Kennedy provided plenty of wit and humour in her rhyming couplets, and it may have been supplemented by the occasional ad lib. Fr Philip Corbett (of this parish as well as vicar of St Stephen’s) led the cast with gusto. He was master of a patter song stuffed with theological terms of which the chorus, ‘With many cheerful facts about the Areopagitica’ gives some flavour. Rosalie Pretorius was a fine Peter Pan and sang beautifully. They were well supported by a cast of parishioners, not least the servers, Junior Church and the Mothers’ Union Choir. There was a large and appreciative audience, and a delicious pre-performance supper. Were that not enough, I saw another of the great pantomime artistes de nos jours at the Richmond Theatre. The force of nature that is Christopher Biggins, the luvvie par excellence, played Widow Twanky in Aladdin and was beyond praise. But—mirabile dictu—that greatest of theatricals, actors and entertainers, savant and philosopher Count Arthur Strong was in the cast. It was second heaven.