THE RUDEST MAN IN ENGLAND
Gilbert Harding, Britain’s “bilious bachelor of broadcasting,” has in six short years climbed to dizzy heights of popularity by demolishing with an acid wit anyone crossing his path. His considered opinion of Canada: Culturally, it stinks!
THE MOST highly publicized man in England, next, to Winston Churchill, is a huge unbearable bear of a broadcaster named Gilbert Harding. There are those who consider Harding the greatest phenomenon of his age. He has risen like a rocket in just six years from virtual obscurity in Canada to a dazzling limelight in Britain normally reserved for royalty. It is difficult to spend a day in the United Kingdom without being acutely aware of him. His photograph stares from billboards attesting to this and that; his name blazes on theatre marquees; his column runs in a Sunday newspaper; his autobiography appears in marathon installments in a mass-circulation magazine; his
hoarse Johnsonian tones blare out from the radio and his perpetually angry beefsteak face glowers from every television set.
Harding got where he is today through the use of a remarkably un-British trait. He is not only the most publicized man in England, he is also the rudest.
With an exhibitionism unique in English entertainment he consistently insults the vast audience of twenty-five millions who listen to him religiously on three national radio programs and one television show every week. As quizmaster of the radio feature, Twenty Questions, he once refused to give the audience the score. “If you have been listening you
won’t need it and if you haven’t you won’t want i anyway,” he growled.
He recently outraged the virtuously domesti British on his discussion program, We Beg to Differ by his stand on the question, “Should t he interest of children take precedence over those of thei parents?” “Unquestionably those of the children, boomed Harding, stunning the panel to silence “Conceived in casual lust or sullen habit they di not ask to be brought into the world.”
It is the blushing frightened contestants wh suffer the whiplash of his uncontrollable tongue o the television program, What’s My Line?, where h is one of a panel guessing the occupations of half dozen visitors. When a psychical researcher (ghos hunter) stumped the panel Harding asked incredv lously, “You don’t really believe in ghosts, d you?” To the contestant’s timid “yes” he replie disgustedly: “You must be barmy!”
Harding was fated to become a national idol froi the moment in 1947 when at the age of forty he gc his first big radio job as the peripatetic quizmastc of Round Britain Quiz. For although he infuriate them his listeners love him in spite of themselve If asked to explain their devotion they invariabl reply, somewhat sheepishly, “Because you neve know what old Gilbert will do next.” This reason understandable. An Englishman secretly admires man who dares to break the rules of national sel discipline, particularly when he does it in an ente: tainment medium where the next line in the serif is usually all too painfully predictable.
His meteoric rise has been a surprise to his frient and acquaintances in Canada, where bluntness more common and therefore less saleable. But thi are used to his rudeness. Twice Harding has been temporary resident in Canada. For part of 19311 was professor of English at St. Francis Xavier Ui versity in Antigonish, N.S. From 1945 to 19471 was assistant to the BBC’s Canadian representatie in Toronto and his recollections of these sojourns his recently published autobiography are headed 1 the statement, “Culturally Canada stinks.”
Variations on this theme have made him memo able in the principal cities of Continued on pagei
Continued on pagei
The Rudest Man in England
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 34
Canada which he visited ostensibly to promote good relations with the CMC. Bot even if he had never opened his mouth he would long he remembered for the eccentricity of his appearance. He is a big lumbering man with bluegrey eyes that seem to bore through his horn-rimmed spectacles into his ('ring-
ing and defenseless audiences. His face is jowly and is decorated with a drooping walrus mustache. His favorite attire for t he Canadian winter was an outsize overcoat, a dangling yellow scarf, a deerstalker’s cap and calf-length overshoes which he wore with the buckles flapping noisily.
This picture of Harding, ploughing painfully through the slush on a winter morning to his office in the CMC in Toronto, is engraved on the memories of the people who worked with him. So is his usual morning greeting the growl of an animal in pain often followed by
a plea i medicinal dose of stewed tomatoes.
Harding disliked Toronto. Once at a dinner party a woman guest asked him where he lived. He replied that he lived on Jarvis Street where there are some dubious establishments. “Not a very fashionable address,” the woman murmured. “Neither, madam, is Toronto,” replied Harding. He enjoys recounting a fragment of an hour-long French conversation he once had with the late Cardinal Villeneuve. “What do you think of Toronto, Your Eminence?” he asked. “Ah, Toronto!” re-
plied the cardinal. “Toronto is not so much a city as a problem.”
In his autobiography Harding records that he was “thrilled by Montreal” but “revolted by Ottawa.” Calgary, gateway to the Rocky Mountains, he loved, but “alas on the other side is Vancouver, and Victoria on Vancouver Island; and that you can have. Etiquette was a fetish in Vancouver. Based on some never-never land of their own fantastic devising there was an atmosphere that hovered crazily between Kipling’s bullet-biting pukka sahibs and the chorus of the Gaiety at the turn of the century.”
Whenever Vancouver is mentione Harding’s face twists into an expression of pained disgust. “A terrible place,” he growls. “The people are more English than the English and not nearly so pleasant.” Recently when he was chiding Andrew Cowan, European representative of the CMC, for accidentally snubbing him, he said, “You always act like a native of Vancouver when you are wilh somebody important.” Once at a CMC party in Toronto, where there were a number of guests from Vancouver, Harding asked, “Why is everyone so proud of being born in Vancouver? I should prefer to be born in a water closet.”
What enraged him most about Vancouver was repeated references to his English accent. “I have not got an English accent,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “I can understand how you can speak English with a Canadian accent but I do not understand hov you can speak English with an Englis'* accent.”
Canadian Food Is Hideous
Harding’s English is perfect to the point of pedantry and his fruity baritone, which can rise to a crescendo of terrifying rage or move an audience to tears by its sonorous beauty, usually purrs dangerously along the edge of sarcasm. In any discussion about food, which always engages his emotions, it can assume all these qualities in quick succession.
Whenever he enters a British restaurant headwaiters cringe fearfully and bus boys scurry to heat up the plates and skim the grease off the gravy. He has a low opinion of British food and an even lower one of Canadian food, judging from his autobiography. “For a country which literally has everything, Canada is the most backward gastronómically in the world,” he says. “The people have horrible eatim manners. Ketchup is liberally poured over everything. Ice-cold milk is the favorite tipple. Dessert is tasteless frozen bits of cream and canned fruit. Tea is made with hot but never boiling water in which is dangled a little bag of poor quality tea leaves. Maddened by this you cannot even console yourself with a stiff drink.”
The memory of a meal with Harding makes many of his Canadian friends shudder. In their minds they see the results of an uneven battle of words waitresses weeping hysterically, redfaced waiters clenching their fists and striving for self-control and other diners staring with wretched concentration at their plates. Even if Harding liked the food he was likely to cause trouble. One friend gives the following account of what could happen to a pleasant dinner with Harding. Six men had enjoyed a good meal in a Toronto restaurant as Harding’s guests. The host was pleased. “I have enjoyed this dinner very much and so have my guests,” he said amiably to the waiter. “I should be happy if you would ask the cook to step in here as I wish to congratulate him.”
“Thank you sir,” murmured the waiter. ‘T shall pass your message on to the cook.”
“1 did not ask you to pass on anything to the cook,” purred Harding. “I merely asked you to invite him to step in here for a moment so that I may speak to him.”
“I’m sorry sir, hut the cook is busy preparing meals for the other diners.”
“The other diners are of no interest to me or my guests. Now my good man, if you would be so kind as to give my message to the cook I think we can dispense with your services.” The meal endec, as so many with Harding did, in a terrible row.
One Canadian friend recalls a horj rible lunch with Harding on a train to j New York shortly after the late Ernest Bevin, then Britain’s foreign secretary, j had suggested that the United States I should release some of her gold reserves j to Britain. While Harding was eating, j the conductor had the temerity to ask him for his ticket. Harding stared coldi ly past him and said to his companion: “Will you kindly tell this fellow I do not j wish to be disturbed at my lunch.” The ¡ conductor persisted. Harding ignored him until, in an apoplexy of rage the j conductor threatened to stop the train | and throw Harding off. Harding reached into his wallet, extracted his ticket and dropped it carelessly on the floor. The conductor picked it up, strode to the end of the car and in a booming voice addressed the other diners: “And these are the people who want our gold!”
The combination of food and trains seems to drive Harding to dizzy heights of arrogance. His English friends say that in 1948, when he was comparatively unknown, he happened to be traveling on the same train as Sir Cyril Hurcomb, chairman of the newly nationalized British railways. During lunch Harding asked for a glass of Scotch whisky. The waiter told him none was available so he settled for gin. A few minutes later Sir Cyril and a party came into the diner and a full bottle of whisky was placed on their table. Harding was indignant. He got up and walked toward them. “Which of you gentlemen is Sir Cyril Hurcomb?” he demanded.
“I am,” said the new chairman.
“I have a complaint to address to you,” said Harding. “How is it that I, one of the persons who own this wretched transportation system, should find it impossible to have a glass of whisky while you, my employee, can obtain a whole bottle?”
Sir Cyril shrugged apologetically and invited Harding to join him in a drink.
“I am afraid that will be impossible,” said Harding. “I do not drink with my employees.”
Harding’s dinner manners recently drew comment from The Times after he had behaved with spectacular lack of inhibition at a rural magistrates’ banquet. Harding arrived late, tired, grouchy, over-stimulated and in revolt.
To the embarrassment of his host he began immediately to growl about the food, the drink and the company. At one point he lifted a cooling partridge from a platter and with an expression of disgust on his face deposited it delicately in a bowl of Brussels sprouts being borne away by a waiter. When he rose to speak he tossed down his notes and announced to an astounded audience: “I have been dragged to this third-rate place to a third-rate dinner for third-rate people.”
The next day in published apologies to all concerned he announced that he considered himself fourth-rate. Two days later The Times published verbatim a speech by Lord Latham, Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, at another magistrates’ dinner. “All of us were
understandably distressed to see it reported that a gorilla was interposed in certain of the U. S. television records of the Coronation of our Queen,” said Lord Latham. “But I understand the manners of the gorilla were exemplary. We must regret that this cannot be said of the performance of a certain TV notability at a recent dinner. The only thing in the conduct of this person that we can readily accept is his statement that he is fourth-rate.”
Lord Latham’s indignation is understandable but he is wrong in his estimate of Harding. For Harding is a
first-rate entertainer. He is known variously as the Worst-Tempered Man in Britain, the Disgruntled Genius, Grumpy Gilbert, the Bilious Bachelor of Broadcasting and the Terror of the Airwaves. But he was also judged Personality Of The Year on a recent radiotelevision poll conducted by the London Daily Mail and the programs in which he appears got top rating.
He is as irritable and unpredictable on the air as at the dinner table. He argues, makes audible asides, interrupts the program and often gets rapped on the knuckles and told to
“shush.” Once he referred to What’s My Line? as “this nonsense,” and another time told a contestant, “I’m tired of looking at your face.’* Contestants who are coy, use fancy names to describe a simple job and cannot give a straight yes or no to a question annoy him and he tells them so. “You must be a very surprising restaurateur,” he lectured one contestant, whose business methods struck him as inefficient. “I shall find out the name of your restaurant and never eat there.”
The BBC, whose announcers usually apologize for a mispronunciation, has
fought a losing bailie against Harding. In April 1951 he was suspended from Twenty Questions for losing his temper and refusing to report the score to the radio audience. The suspension ended after five months because the public clamored so insistently for Harding’s return.
Since then comments about Harding by BBC officials indicate that their attitude has been progressively undermined. Early in 1952 when he was rude on What’s My Line? one official predicted, “If this happens again Harding will he out of the program.” A few months later when a reporter asked if there were many protests about another outburst the BBC replied wearily, “No more than usual.” Still later the same question got a cheery, “We get a number of complaints about Mr. Harding but by now we’re getting used to it.”
Last Christmas he was accused of appearing drunk on What’s My Line? He denied this charge and said he was ill with the flu. In his feverish irritation he agreed to answer a question “if I can make myself heard above this boisterous studio audience” and greeted the final contestant with “This is the last, we hope.” Protests poured in hut this time there was no talk of suspent on. “Ignore the attacks on you,” said Cecil MeCivern, controller of television, “we want you in the show.”
So, apparently, did the public for this broadcast produced more letters of support than condemnation. Many suggested cold remedies and cures for the asthma which he aggravates by smoking fifty cigarettes a day. Harding receives thirty to fifty fan letters every day. These his secretary divides into four categories: For Harding, Against Harding, Monstrosities and Fluffs. “It is a matter of great surprise and some grief to me that I get so many scurrilous letters,” he says. “Many listeners seem to think I’m a monster.”
The Monstrosities accuse him of being in the pay of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Communists; of being a cat-hater, a childhater, a woman-hater, a misanthrope, a bad-tempered grouch and a playboy. One regular denounces him as a “horrible horror.” His personal answers to the Against Harding sometimes run to eight pages of sparkling prose, the Fluffs (show talk for mistake) get a stock answer which says, “Yes I know. Wasn’t it monstrous?” The For Hardings provide him with delight and consolation. One daily missive always begins, “Good morning Mr. Harding,” and goes on to offer advice on almost everything.
Harding claims many writers misunderstand him. If he is good-natured on the air his fans complain that he “isn’t up to his usual style.” If he is his old grouchy self they compliment him for “the great act he put on.” This enrages Harding. Once when he was asked if he was churlish on purpose he replied indignantly, “If you are suggesting that I govern my conduct with an eye to the main chance I can only regard it as the slanderous product of a small mind. My impression is that I have lost a great deal more than I have gained by being unable to conceal my true feelings.”
Harding fights manfully and tirelessly against himself. He suffers agonies of remorse after every lapse and always apologizes. “Every time I behave badly I am always sorry,” he says. “But every time I am bad-tempered and misbehave everyone is interested. When I’m mild and gentle nobody’s the least bit interested.”
His name always draws a crowd so he is besieged with invitations to speak at public gatherings. Sometimes he has as many as thirty for a single day. He
accepts any fie deems worthy or interesting if they can be squeezed into his hectic life, some with disastrous results. For he is distracted and infuriated by the things most often encountered in such a program: bores, bad English, bad food, inefficiency, Aspidistras, talkative women, race prejudice, London traffic, pretension and injustice.
Harding’s success is remarkable not only because of his un-British behavior but also because he is not an entertainer by profession. He started life as a student clergyman and became a schoolmaster, policeman and law student before he drifted, almost by accident, into broadcasting.
He was born in June 1907 to Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Harding, the master and matron of the Union Workhouse, Hereford. His father died in his thirties and thereafter Mrs. Harding, as matron of the workhouse, struggled to educate her son and daughter. Gilbert attended a scholastically good but unfashionable school where he hated the uniform, the food and the discipline. In 1925 he won
I doubt if I shall ever see The child who thinks my bird and bee
Explanations can compare With others picked up who knows where!
IVAN J. COLLINS
a scholarship to Cambridge. He was perpetually harried by poverty; his scholarship money scarcely covered his modest fixed expenses. He tried to earn extra money during vacations by acting as a Cook’s guide to visiting Americans, an occupation he describes as “an arduous way to earn a few shillings.”
In 1928 Harding left Cambridge with a third-class honors degree in history and began preparing for ordination into the Church of England at the Community of the Resurrection, Huddersfield. His tendency to talk too much was quickly noticed and he was made to put a text over his head, “I will heed unto my ways that I offend not with my tongue.”
In Cambridge lie had been attracted to Roman Catholicism by G. K. Chesterton, with whom he was friendly. As a student clergyman, he moved still further in this direction until on June 29, 1929, he became a Catholic. Soon after he got a job as a lay teacher in a Catholic monastery at an annual wage of seventy pounds. He found this life too restricting so he moved first to a private school in Kent and then to Scotland. While there Father Bede Jarret, a Dominican, helped him negotiate a year’s appointment as professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.
Harding admits he felt “a tingle of pleasure and excitement at being in the New World for the first time” and that he enjoyed “every moment of the long train journey from Montreal, where I landed, to Antigonish.” This warmth was soon chilled, however, by the annoyances of life in Nova Scotia; the liquor laws, and what he regarded as the frustrating stupidity of his students and their fanatical anxiety to win games instead of merely playing, a North American attitude to sport that seems to mystify some Englishmen.
In moods of frustration, he often told his students they were hopelessly illiterate. Even today he shudders at the memory. “The standard was appalling,” he says. Once he got so worried that he wrote an anguished letter to Stephen Leacock at McGill University. “What can one do? Where can
one start?” he pleaded. Leacock replied characteristically: “1. Don’t be impatient. 2. Try to make them want to learn. 3. Get them interested in a play and make them act it. 4. Be content if you can get them to write a single paragraph in good English.
5. Don’t think too much of yourself.
6. Don’t be impatient.”
But Harding is impatient and his rugged individualism was too much even for the hardy individualistic Scots of Antigonish. He quarrelled with his superiors and toward the end of the term, when he received word that his mother was ill, he asked to be released from his agreement. With a sigh of relief St. Francis Xavier University let him go.
At home he accepted a succession of short-term teaching posts, none of which contente ! him. Still less did his next occupation, as a constable in the Bradford police force. He made this uncongenial choice because of his friendship with police officials whom he met while visiting his mother in Bradford during a period of unemplovment.
As a policeman Harding was a failure, although he holds a certificate for exemplary conduct and passed his grammar exams regularly with 98 percent. “Sometimes I deliberately forfeited the odd two percent in order not to appear too much like the Child Christ in the Temple,” he said. His hatred of authority was quickened by the rigid discipline in the force and an injured knee made pounding a beat intolerable. He was given a desk job, chaffingly called “the Professor” and made aware that he was one of the oddest misfits the Bradford Police Department had ever seen. Release came by way of an invitation to teach for a year in Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. By the end of this engagement he was again on the prowl, thoroughly sick of being a schoolmaster.
One of his most consistent ambitions had been to become a lawyer. At the age of thirty he began to study law, coaching students for examination in his spare time. He was almost ready for the Bar finals when war broke out. He packed up his books and applied for enlistment but during the phony war none of the services appeared to want an officer named Gilbert Harding.
“I had one very good reason for not going into the ranks,” Harding explains in his autobiography. “For years I had earned my living by being violently offensive and sarcastic to young men. 1 knew they would now be captains and majors—only too anxious to get their own back.”
The BBC, however, did want Harding. He speaks fluent French and German and was persuaded to work for the monitoring service preparing bulletins on enemy broadcasts for the government.
One of his duties was to relay a daily report to Churchill. Once when he was off for two weeks the Prime Minister asked the BBC, “Where is the man with the succinct mind?” It was during this period that Harding discovered hatrue vocation—to talk for a living. He was occasionally asked to lili in at a microphone when regular broadcasters were ill and he was good at it. In 1943 he applied for and obtained a position in the BBC’s Outside Broadcasting Department, and two years later was sent to Canada as assistant to the BBC’s Canadian representative in Toronto.
When Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, formerly of the BBC’s Outside Broadcasting Department, was recently in Toronto on business a taxi driver, detecting his accent, asked, “You don’t happen to know a big fellow named Harding, do you?” Vaughan-Thomas
admitted he did. “We miss him,” said the cab driver nostalgically. “When he was here it was a three-ring circus every night.”
Harding rarely rode on public transportation. His frequent use of taxicabs was memorable not only to the drivers but to the dispatchers. This is a sample of how Harding sounded ordering a cab: “Harding calling. Placed here by the British Broadcasting Corporation to live in squalor among the colonials on a miserable pittance. I wonder if you would be so good as to send one of your splendid taxicabs around to pick up my rotting body. I have just been along to my doctor and he assures me that it is rotting. I should like you to convey me to the despicable hovel in which 1 am unfortunately condemned to live.”
This routine was sometimes varied by an elaborate explanation of why he needed the cab, where he was going and what he expected to do when he got there, piusa few Harding maxims about life in exile, thrown in for good measure. If a busy dispatcher dared to interrupt the recital he would be silenced with a howl of rage.
The Toronto police are not likely to forget Harding either. In his autobiography he gives the following account of his arrest at a time when the newspapers had been criticizing the police because a teen-age boy, suspected of stealing from cars parked in the area of Jarvis Street, had been shot by a constable: “I went from my flat to the local drugstore at the corner to buy some soda water, ginger ale and cigarettes, leaving some guests in the flat. When I did not return after fortyfive minutes they instituted a search for me and found that I was in the precincts of the police station charged with being ‘drunk and disorderly.’
“What happened was I had seen two policemen at the corner who were making people move on, even if they were only standing for a minute. I stood there looking at them and they promptly told me to move on.
“ T can stand where I like, can’t I?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get on your way, bud,’ they replied.
“ ‘What are you looking for? Another small boy to shoot in the back?’ I asked, somewhat nastily.”
One of Harding’s companions that evening supplies another version of this story. Harding, he says, stepped out of his apartment in stocking feet and fine fettle and seeing a police car parked at the curb he walked over, stuck his head in the window and leered, “Good hunting chaps! Shot any little boys lately?” The enraged constables charged him at once. Harding protested, standing on his rights as a free citizen in a democracy and quoting verbatim long passages from the policemen’s handbook he had once committed to memory in Bradford. The police arrested Harding and charged him with using abusive and obscene language, obstructing an officer in pursuit of his duty, being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest.
Much of his time in Canada was spent traveling from city to city on BBC business. Inevitably on his travels he was invited to Antigonish, which had acquired a radio station since his days there as professor of English. He did not look forward to the visit—so far as he knew the university still resented his cantankerous departure. One day he mentioned his concern to Alexander Johnstone, a former deputy minister of marine, a friend and a graduate of the university. Johnstone offered to investigate.
After his enquiry he sent a telegram which Harding cherishes as “the most charming thing that happened to me
in Canada.” The telegram read: “Look not mournfully on the past. It comes not back again. You are eagerly and affectionately awaited.” “I was, too,” says Harding. “I had a wonderful time.”
Although Harding has been described by Canadian acquaintances as “a thoroughly unpleasant and dangerous character,” “the foremost exhibitionist of our day” and “that wild Englishman;” although he has offended most of the women who were his hostesses, quarrelled with most of his friends and broken up most of the parties he attended, he would, on the whole, be “eagerly and affectionately awaited” if he should decide to return to Toronto. “Harding can be the most charming man in the world when he wants to be,” says J. Frank Willis, supervisor of feature broadcasts for the CBC. “It is very difficult to stay mad at him for long.”
Many Canadians would like him to return but Harding can take Canada or leave it alone. “If I ever return
to Canada I shall never go west of Calgary,” he says. “Ah that wonderful view of the Rocky Mountains! And that’s all I want to see of the Rocky Mountains too!”
Harding is pained by the realization that he has a reputation as a grouch. For in his opinion he is not a grouch, nor is he rude. “Being rude means being unkind,” he says. “I am never willingly unkind. I believe there are more people who like me than don’t, although I can’t say why.”
One reason is that he is a gay, witty, stimulating companion and when he wills it his manners can be as perfect as his diction. He can also he extraordinarily kind. In spite of his cantankerous attitude to their country he lavishes attention on Canadians who come to London. Arthur Hill, Canadian actor from Mel fort, Sask., and his wife Peggy Hassard, of Vancouver, came to London five years ago and settled temporarily in an enormous apartment block. The turnover in Canadian and American tenants was so great that the management had difficulty keeping track of them. One evening the Hills’ telephone rang. The operator was nearly in tears.
“Are you Arthur Hill?” she asked in a quivering falsetto. “I’m so glad,” she sighed when Hill said he was. “I have an angry gentleman on the line who says he has been searching all over London for you!” Lister Sinclair, Toronto writer, had written asking Harding to help the Hills. In his letter he had said, “They will approach you.” “What a shocking idea,” said Harding indignantly. “Does he think I have to be approached?” Thereafter he took the Hills in hand, making appointments for them and following up the results. “We have never encountered such overwhelming kindness,” recalls Hill.
Many Canadians, both resident and visitor, enjoy Harding’s lavish hospitality. Recently, when Gladstone Murray, Toronto public relations counsel and former general manager of the CBC, went to London, Harding hired a night club and threw a party in his honor for more than 150 guests. liven at home in his rambling, mid-London flat Harding is always surrounded by people. He confesses he cannot bear his own company. But he loves the sound of his own voice. He can talk for hours, often does, and when he is talking formally or informally he will not tolerate interruptions. Many a hostess has had to coax him out of a sulk when a thoughtless novitiate cut in on his discourse.
A misogynist, Harding explains his attitude to women thus: “It is my
general kindness and sympathy toward them which makes me hesitate to inflict my troubles, my bad manners and my worse habits on any of the widows and spinsters who write me constantly offering partnership. The idea of having to swallow the News of the World at the same time as having to endure the stuff the average housewife is pleased to call coffee would drive me to despair in less than one week.”
Harding is an obvious target for unmarried women because he is rich. His various activities (broadcasting, writing for newspapers and magazines, endorsing advertisements and occasionally appearingas himself on the stage and screen) bring in an income estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds a year, making him one of the highestpaid entertainers in the country.
This apparently doesn’t comfort him as much as it should. In his autobiography he says that once when he was sick, he “thought bitterly of the shams and pretensions of public life —especially when one has earned one’s notoriety through the phony media of radio and television.” He often thinks, he says, of a prediction made by his grandfather when he was a schoolboy: “I see no future for him except in the music halls.”
In a sense a music-hall comedian is just what Harding has become and he would have preferred another more dignified future. For really his protests are not meant to be funny, although by some strange alchemy that maddens him they become so when they filter through his choleric nature to fall on the temperate ear of the British public. These millions of wellbehaved people laugh indulgently and forgive him for all the faults they would not dare to exhibit themselves. And they will not let him go.
In 1951, early in the life of What’s My Line?, Harding tried out as question master. A disastrous mix-up in the prearranged order of the contestants’ appearance drove him into such a frenzy that he announced, over the air, “This is the last time I’ll ever appear on television.” The next day his telephone rang steadily with pleas begging him to reconsider. One London newspaper gave him an admirable chance to backtrack. It reported him as saying, “I quit. I’m through.”
“The mere fact that I was supposed to have used such vulgar Americanisms proves that I said no such things,” he said.
The public forgives Harding because, says Angus Wilson in the Observer: “He is the chap who ticked off the colonel; the fellow who refused to be bound by red tape; the cove who didn’t give a damn for the foreman; in short the man who defies that symbol of all starchy authority, the BBC. No wonder the popular papers play him up and their readers worship him, for in him vicariously they get their own back at the boss.” ★