In the mid 1990s, following a stint as a writer on the Birds of a Feather TV show, I took a job with Stoll Moss Theatres as a box office clerk.
I either worked in their huge fifth floor phone room overlooking Shaftesbury Avenue flogging tickets for Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbusters or I was farmed out to work at one of their many West End theatres.
One week it might be Drury Lane, the next the London Palladium or Her Majesty’s. For a few weeks I was seconded to the Gielgud Theatre, which had become ultra busy with a new hit play. I was glad for the posting because that’s how I came to meet Terence Stamp.
Growing up I had enjoyed Stamp’s performances in movies such as Far From The Madding Crowd and the hilarious camp James Bond parody Modesty Blaise but of course he was more than just an actor. Stamp was one of the ‘faces’ of swinging London. An East End boy forever being photographed with stars like Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot and Jean Shrimpton on his arm.
Today he is affectionately remembered for playing Ralph/Bernadette Bassenger in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And Superman fans, of course, will remember him playing General Zod in two of the films.
And at some time along the way he found time to write three brilliant autobiographies starting with Stamp Album.
One afternoon he walked in to the theatre and asked me whether there would be a couple of decent seats for the following day’s matinee. I checked the computer screen and said that there were a couple of centre stalls left.
After he had paid for them and was about to walk away, I suddenly remembered an article about him that I had read in a newspaper the previous week. I asked him “Is it true that you have a complete collection of all the Rupert Bear annuals?”
He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes and smiled. “Yes it is” and then with deadly seriousness, “are you a fan of the little bear?”
I wasn’t prepared for this and immediately started trying to remember details about Bill Badger, Pong Ping and Edward Trunk the elephant. “Well, er… yes. I read him as a child,” I replied. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the annuals.” I prayed that he wasn’t going to enter into a ‘Rupert Bear’ discussion because although I enjoyed the books as a 5 year old immensely, I wasn’t up to a round of Mastermind on the subject.
His face lit up. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t I pick out an annual or two from your childhood and bring them back here tomorrow? You can have a leaf through while I’m watching the play. I’ll take a guess at your age, I’m normally pretty good.”
And with that, he turned on his heels and walked off into Shaftesbury Avenue. I had found the whole conversation extraordinary. But nothing was going to prepare me for what happened next.
The one thing I had forgotten was that the next day was my day off. I was busy doing nothing in particular at home when around about a quarter to three in the afternoon the telephone rang. It was the General Manager of the Gielgud Theatre. He sounded highly agitated.
“Miles, what the hell is going on here? I’ve got Terence bloody Stamp of all people standing in my outer office. He’s holding three bloody Rupert Bear annuals which he says he’s brought for you to look at!”
I confirmed the previous day’s arrangement but it didn’t improve things. The theatre manager was still wound up about the incident for some reason. Maybe he had better things to do with his time. He had a show about to go up and the last thing he needed was to be discussing books about the Nutwood chums and their yellow-trousered leader Rupert.
I tried to put my boss at his ease. “OK. Could you just thank him from me and put the books in my pigeonhole. I’ll pick them up tomorrow.”
“Pigeonhole??” he squawked. “I can’t put them in a pigeonhole. Mr Stamp is insisting that I place them in the theatre safe. He says they’re worth a few bob.”
“They probably are. Best place for them,” I added.
“I’ll suppose I’ll now have to write him a receipt. In future, could you please leave your book sharing activities outside of this building? We are a theatre and not a library.” And with that final statement he hung up.
The next day, I stood with my back to the theatre safe as the manager twiddled the combination lock and opened its heavy door.
He then carefully took out the Rupert Bear annuals and handed them to me. “Mr Stamp said you are to keep them for as long as you want and then would you please return them to him at his apartment at Albany. I suppose you know where Albany is?”
Indeed I did. It was a block of flats on Piccadilly where many famous people had their London residences. From Terence Rattigan to Graham Greene, the great and the literati had lived in rooms off its corridors. It was also where Raffles the Gentleman burglar lived in the books by E.W. Hornung but somehow I didn’t think the manager would be interested in that snippet.
I looked at the books all in mint condition with their colourful eye-catching covers. Memories of past Christmases came flooding back. They were from my 4th, 5th and 6th years on the planet. Terence Stamp’s calculations on my age had been spot on.
“How do you know someone like Terence Stamp anyway?” asked the manager slamming the safe door shut.
“I don’t,” I replied. “I only met him two days ago for the first time.”
The manager didn’t believe a word of it. “Oh yes. And he entrusted you with his prized Rupert Bear annuals did he?”
“Well, yes,” I said.
The poor man just couldn’t get to grips with it at all. Terence Stamp, Rupert Bear, box office clerks… what was the West End coming to?
That night I took the books home and read them all from cover to cover. All the gang were there - Algy Pug, the Fox twins, Podgy Pig, Tigerlily and Gregory the guinea pig. They were from the Alfred Bestall period and beautifully drawn. The stories were good too, imaginative and page-turning.
The next day I visited the Albany building of apartments and returned the books to Terence Stamp. “Glad you enjoyed them, Miles,” he said with a smile. “Always call me if you want to borrow any more.”
So the man who once shared a legendary Belgravia bachelor flat with Michael Caine before either of them was famous was a fan of the little bear in the yellow checkered trousers, red sweater and scarf.
And he is not alone, Rupert has many high profile followers. Monty Python’s Terry Jones is a big fan and even rates the books alongside Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
Paul McCartney liked him so much that he produced a film and accompanying song called Rupert and the Frog Song.
The strangest things happen in life…