Saturday 24 August 2019

Gay Byrne: 'A magnificent voice... just don't join in'

Gay Byrne warns us to hold on to our car keys, shares some Hollywood gossip, declares his love for Pavarotti and remembers an old friend

Gay Byrne. Photo: Kip Carroll
Gay Byrne. Photo: Kip Carroll

I met a woman coming out of a car dealers yesterday, and she was in a state of shock. She had lost her car key and had just paid €500 for a replacement. That's FIVE HUNDRED EURO for a car key!

She said: "That'll teach me to be more careful in future."

I said: "Yup, I guess it will."


There is a Hollywood actor called Frank Langella, the sort of guy whose face you know well, but you'd be hard put a name to him if you met him tomorrow in Grafton Street, which is highly unlikely.

He's been in hundreds of movies but never played the lead. But he was rugged and handsome and tanned and did a consistently good job.

And now in his 80s, he's written a book about his personal memories of the great Hollywood stars he met along the way.

Some of them, clearly, he knew only fleetingly; others he was quite close to and speaks freely about them, this side of libel.

The book, Dropped Names, is a treasure trove of gossip for those who like to hear juicy titbits about those whom they adored, or otherwise, on screen.

There's Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton, Noel Coward and James Mason, Richard Burton and Yul Brynner and Rita Hayworth and James Dean. And they're just for starters.

And yes, Marilyn Monroe was a barrel of trouble wherever she went - always late on set, keeping crews and fellow actors waiting around, rarely sure of her lines and inclined to bicker with people - and they all loved her to bits! How did she get away with that?

Yul Brynner was so disdainful of his fans that he had a Merc custom-made, with tinted windows (a major big deal in those days) so that his fans could not see him and therefore he didn't have to acknowledge their existence.

He played The King and I so often he actually ended up believing he WAS the King of Siam.

And Rex Harrison, that epitome of British graciousness and good manners and all things refined was the rudest and most ill-mannered man Langella ever met. And he was that way with everyone. Abrupt. Dismissive. Short-tempered.

And that's the odd thing about this book: according to Langella, most of these people ended up very unhappy. Remember, we are talking about the Golden Age of movie studios; all of these people were the shining stars of the Hollywood firmament, accustomed to being adored and adulated, being fussed over and treated as royalty and kowtowed to. But not at the end.

Rita Hayworth was as magnificent in real life as she was on celluloid, lusted after by millions of men all over the world and the envy of women everywhere. Not much of an actress but a skilled dancer - skilled enough to partner Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly anyway, which is a good start. And which is probably why she ended up having five husbands, including Orson Welles and the Aga Khan.

And yet she ended up a lonely and destitute old woman, pretty much alone in the world, three years of Alzheimer's disease leading to her death and, we are told, her funeral was sparse.

James Mason, of that especially beautiful voice, ended up a cynical and embittered man, who hated every aspect of the movie business which had brought him such success and money.

And Richard Burton, equally of that famed voice, avoided by many of his erstwhile associates because they could not take any more of his drunken incessant quotation of Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare - yes, you CAN get too much of a good thing.

Sic transit... etc. Be careful of what you pray for - your wish may be granted.


Contrary to what many people might think (and I have in mind especially those denizens of the old Time Warp, which is the radio programme I used to host on Sunday afternoons on Lyric fm before this disease descended upon me) I do not spend my musical moments listening exclusively to Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Bix and their ilk.

I have long been a fan of Pavarotti - is there anyone in the world who is not?

And I delight in the thought that since the adoption of his Nessun Dorma by the football lads, he introduced millions of people to the world of opera, singing, voice, music and all those related arts. And that has to have been a good thing.

All of this came flooding back to me a week ago - it must be the tablets - when, out of nowhere, there was conjured up before me a hazy, foggy recollection of RTE hiring two coaches and taking a gang of us from Montrose to Stormont to see Pavarotti in person. I cannot recall when this happened, or why, or how, because it would have been completely out of character of the RTE of the time. But off we all went, anyway, and we saw and heard Pavarotti in person and in Stormont.

I know - it sounds vaguely like a nutty dream, but it happened. And my outstanding memory of the trip was a snatch of conversation I overheard from the two lads behind me in the coach: "Oh, it's a magnificent voice - beautiful, no doubt, but he doesn't like you joining in all the same."

And I thought - and still do - there's a delightful TV comedy sketch to be written based just on that quote.

Anyway, we're going to have a Pavarotti Fest next year, if all the signs are borne out. It would have been his 85th birthday year and there is a major documentary in the making, telling his life story and his love stories; there's a West End show with the same theme and then, in some way tied into that, which I don't quite understand, 10 people will be able to buy a very exclusive package indeed to mark the occasion. It'll be called Pavarotti: Life in Art and it will consist of 130 hours of his recordings - 130 hours! - presented with a record player in a wooden display box designed and made by David Linley, son of Tony Armstrong Jones and Princess Margaret, and whose company is renowned for their breathtaking artistry in wood.

Talk about not dealing in muck. Some of Luciano's oil paintings will be included and the sucker punch is this: the customer, patron, guest, fan, whatever will be flown to Venice as a guest of Luciano's widow, Nicoletta Mantovani (how is it that whenever I hear that name I think of piano-accordions?) and they will have dinner together cooked by Pav's chef, whose name I don't know but it's probably either Fred or Luigi.

And the all-in price for the entire package - which is restricted to 10 buyers - is £85,000 (€97,000). Just in case you think you're developing a problem with your eyes, relax: the price is EIGHTY-FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS. Restricted to 10 buyers. Unless of course the demand is so great that they are forced to extend that number. Which wouldn't surprise me.

I was not at all sure about giving you these details this morning because I did not want to be responsible for a mad rush of panic-buying all over Ireland but I'll just have to take a chance on that.


On the Sandymount Promenade on a sunny morning, a man accosted me and said: "I'm from Kiltimagh - I just got here this morning and I'm with my friends. And there's a man in Kiltimagh who you had on The Gay Byrne Show many years ago and you liked him so much you invited him back." And in an all-too-brief and rare flash of lucidity I said: "His name is Anthony McNicholas and he was in the pig-breeding business. And he had an opinion about everything that was happening in the world and a most pleasing and amusing way of expressing it."

And the man said: "You got it. And he's now a star of local radio. And when I was talking to him yesterday he said if you're going to Dublin and if you meet Gay Byrne, tell him I was asking for him and send my best wishes."

And he did, and he did.

So, while all around me were huffing and puffing and being slightly demented about broadband and narrowband and the terrible phone signal in their part of the world, I got a goodwill message in the most direct way imaginable: personally, word of mouth, and with a handshake. The old-fashioned way.

Even the telegram boys were not that good.

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