Tag Archives: Michael Palin

The Book They Tried to Ban (Excerpt)

Here’s another excerpt for your delectation: this one’s about celebrity passengers. From Manor House Station to Gibson Square- and Back Again is now being printed up. I expect it to be released early next month.

Celebrities

Most celebrities go about their business quietly without drawing attention to themselves. Some try to disguises themselves with hats, scarves and dark glasses. It’s always nice to pick up well-known actors, musicians or footballers. I always respect their privacy and would never try to engage them in conversation if I got the feeling they wanted to be left alone. I don’t like to be intrusive, and I don’t like to give anyone any reason to show any irritation.

They say you should never meet your heroes. With a celebrity you admire, you don’t want them to be anything other than the person you imagine them to be. You want them to remain someone to admire. On two occasions in around 1990, I picked up Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballing legend, George Best, in Curzon Street. He was a well-known figure to drivers working evenings in Mayfair. I found him a quiet, charming, man, happy to exchange a few words. I also picked up Chelsea player, Roberto DiMatteo. A star, for sure; though not quite in the league of George Best.

Also in Mayfair, I picked up veteran actor, Stewart Grainger. This guy had presence in spades, a real character. Bound for Fulham, he wouldn’t stop talking and referred to Fulham Broadway as a “shit hole” and wondered about the punch-ups that occur at Chelsea Football Club. Irish actor, Richard Harris was another big name from around the same time.

I was particularly excited to pick up a musical hero of mine at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. He was a really nice, laid-back, guy who wanted to talk about the previous night’s television programmes on the way home to Primrose Hill.

Saturday June 2nd 2012. It’s the day before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and I accepted an account job picking up at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge. My passenger turned out to be the Duchess of Kent and she was going to Kensington Palace. She came over as posh and confident; but also polite. Rather than order me round to a nearby shop, she asks if I “wouldn’t mind”. When she returned with an umbrella she said it was “for tomorrow.” I’d never been into the grounds of Kensington Palace before so I needed her to direct me from Kensington High Street. There’s a turning with signs saying “authorised vehicles only”, then further up there’s a police checkpoint. The police looked in the back of the cab and waved us through (it’s harder getting out as they stop you and take down the cab’s details).

I’m not sure how one addresses the Queen’s cousin, so I kept it neutral and treated her like anyone else. She seemed a character, and I felt she might be up for a chat over a pint sometime. Incidentally, I’ve never picked the Queen up in my cab, but I’ve seen her driven around London from time to time. You hear the whistles from the police motorcyclists first; then the traffic parts to allow the royal limousine to glide through. She never gets caught in traffic jams and probably doesn’t realise London’s traffic has increased since the ‘50s. I often wonder what she makes of the traffic cones and ugly concrete blocks that have sat outside Buckingham Palace for about a year.

One Saturday in 2013, former boxer, and eccentric celebrity, Chris Eubank chased my cab down Baker Street (Patsy Kensitt also chased my cab down Baker Street once). He said he’d left his umbrella in Selfridge’s, so he got me to stop there, before going on to Mayfair to collect his car. He then asked me my opinion on the best way to get to Brighton. He seemed a nice guy. Unlike most celebrities, Chris doesn’t try to blend in to the background. The next time I saw him he was standing in the middle of the road in Berkerley Square ostentatiously trying to flag a cab down.

It was a busy Saturday, that one. My next job straight after Chris Eubank was an account pick-up at Scott’s Restaurant. Bound for Chelsea, I was startled to find we were being chased by the paparazzi on motorbikes. I learned later that my customers were Charles Saatchi and his new girlfriend. Saatchi had been all over the media recently following his messy divorce from celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson. The photo of the pair in my cab made the Sun on Sunday.

Songwriter Nicky Chinn knew the way from Sloane Square to St John’s Wood and directed the route to the letter. At the time I was playing bass in a rock covers band. I told him we were rehearsing “Blockbuster”, one of many hits he co-wrote for The Sweet. He was flattered. Another songwriter, Mike Batt, was on his way from Bayswater to Mayfair. His musical credits include writing the music for The Wombles, and for discovering Katie Melua. He was a polite and pleasant man.

Marc Almond stopped me on a quiet weekend morning at Holborn Circus. He was going to Camden Town. He proved to be a quiet and pleasant chap (for younger readers, Marc was the frontman for 80s techno-pop band, Soft Cell. Get on your smart phone and look it up).

One evening I had a cab ride with a dead man. I stopped on Shaftesbury Avenue in the dark and realized my next customer was to be Les Dennis. It was freaky because his character had died the previous night on Coronation Street. He was on the phone talking excitedly about a new play he was about to start. When we exchanged words at the end he proved to be a really nice guy. He told me the person he’d been talking to on the phone was Bobby Davro, a comedy contemporary.

A comedian taught me a new route from St Pancras to Barnes in leafy south-west London. The impressionist, Alistair MacGowan, wanted me to use the Westway to Shepherd’s Bush, then drop down through Hammersmith and over the bridge into Barnes. It’s a longer route than any Knowledge Boy would take, but it was quick. My passenger was as posh and as serious as I expected him to be (I never expect comedians to tell jokes and be funny).

One celebrity customer I admired was the actor, Michael Gambon. He was a very polite fellow. I’d just been watching him on TV after buying the DVD boxed set of The Singing Detective, a Dennis Potter work from the 1990s. More recently, he’d also starred in a Harry Potter film. That didn’t mean much to me. I should have told him I recognised him as The Singing Detective, but I let the moment go. I thought afterwards how I could have said I was “more Dennis Potter than Harry Potter”, but my chance had gone. I regretted not speaking to him properly and told myself to seize my chance the next time a celebrity I admired got in my cab.

Turning a corner one afternoon in May 2017, I was aware of a man hailing me. He was out of my line of sight, but on stopping I immediately recognised him as Monty Python star, Michael Palin. This one made me nervous. Palin is widely regarded as the world’s nicest guy. Would he criticise my route? Would he be furious if I dared speak to him? Would he abuse me in a torrent of four-letter words if I mentioned the Pythons? This man was a comedy genius and no mistake – a pioneer of modern British surreal comedy. I needed him to remain a hero and I wasn’t going to do anything to let him spoil my image of him.

Remembering how I’d let the moment pass with Michael Gambon a couple of years’ earlier I knew that in matters of celebrity encounter, regret weighs more than fear. At the end of the journey I overcame my nerves and we exchanged a few words. Michael was exactly how I imagined: like an old-style university professor, and as approachable and self-effacing as he is on his TV travel programmes. I’m glad to say that my image of Michael remained intact.

Many Lords and Ladies have ridden in my cab. I was intrigued about the Conservative Party Chief Whip I picked up. Imagine going to a party and saying you are the Chief Whip! I bet he’s popular with the ladies. Well, a certain kind of lady anyway.

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