During the mid 70s, my late brother-in-law, Richard Griffith, started having furniture auctions, to complement his Watlington estate agency, and to get a bit of local publicity. A bit old fashioned by today’s standards, it involved a lot of adverts in the local newspapers, and since it was early days for Richard, it also involved a great deal of fussing. I was the dog’s body, and destined to be the auction porter, who said – “Showing over here Sir.”
Together with general carrying duties, during the preceding day, I was also roped in for the constantly changing village hall display arrangements. This virtual game of musical chairs went on until early morning – everything having been moved twice and then reinstated to their original position – when I was finally able to collapse onto a camp bed, thoughtfully installed in the village hall by Richard, for my final job as night watchman.
And so the great day arrived, and the Lewknor village hall became packed with locals, the inquisitive, the occasional antique dealer, and a few well known faces too. One of these faces was Dame Celia Johnson. Accompanied by a ratty little man, who I thought to be her husband at the time – but by then Peter Fleming had been dead for some five years – he trundled the great lady around the preview, mumbling knowledgeably about each item, so perhaps he was a neighbour.
Dame Celia lived in some style in nearby Nettlebed, had been a friendly addition to the Oxfordshire community for years, and was known for her fun loving good humour. By then, in her mid 60s, she was still seen as a great star; her somewhat guilt strewn angst, familiar to most of her fans as she finally waved goodbye to the redoubtable Trevor Howard, on some forlorn British Rail platform. But on this particular day, she chose to be Lady Bracknell – to be seen and most definitely, to be heard – which everyone absolutely adored.
When the auction was over, my job was to help sort out the lots, and to make sure they were in the right hands. I remember that Dame Celia bought a small Victorian mirror with drawers under, and it was my job to carry this item to her car, past the fussy little man who she had arrived with, who scowled at me without offering the customary tip.
I must add that by now I was fully in character, and playing the part of a half witted local, who was enormously servile. But I was also particularly resentful about the unpaid token for my servility and helpfulness! On my way back to the auction hall, I came across Dame Celia nattering to Richard Griffith the auctioneer, and so I interrupted, in my assumed servile manner, and said –
“Excuse me, ma’am, I put your mirror in the motor, so it is quite safe,” and then looked at Richard Griffith – “Quite a turn out today, Guv, but not as good as last time. Eh?” Richard was obviously enjoying being the centre of attention, as well as a pillar of the local community, so I went on-
“You should have been here last time, Ma’am, when Mr. Griffif’ here, sold a Canaletto, and a Stradivari.” Dame Celia looked at Richard with considerable surprise, and mounting respect–
“Mind you, he didn’t get much for them,” I said; the great lady giving our intrepid auctioneer a inquiring, but surprised look, so in my best Oxfordshire accent I explained-
“But, that was because Stradivari was a terrible painter, and Canaletto made rotten violins.”
This made me feel much better, and escaping as fast as I could, I left Richard looking like a hugely embarrassed Uriah Heep, and profusely apologizing for my terrible behaviour. A few minutes later, whilst mingling in the crowd, I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder – ‘Oh God, I thought, now I’m for it’ – but, it was the ratty little man again. “I’ve been asked to give you this,” he said, handing over a fiver, and then swiftly disappearing from sight.
That was a lot of dosh in the 70s, so perhaps it was true? That Dame Celia Johnson did have a great sense of humour, one for which I will always be grateful, and what a wonderful brief encounter?
BY PATRICK BRIGHAM