Those who were living in the village in the 1960s to 80s will fondly remember Cuckfield’s famous resident humorist Basil Boothroyd who died in 1988 at the age of 78. Latterly he lived near the church in Cuckfield where he found the cars for weddings and funerals a bit of a problem - but he loved the bells.
He was assistant editor of Punch Magazine for 18 years (from 1938) - but also known for his radio programmes, and as a lively contributor to radio panel games such as ‘Call my Bluff’. He even accepted the challenge to write the official biography of the Duke of Edinburgh, which makes a very entertaining read.
To villagers who knew him - his voice was instantly recognisable - he was after all - a favourite radio voice of the 1960s. It was described by writer Simon Elmes as ‘a little husky and dry with a tone that always sounded a little put out’. There was a very good chance that you could have been in the bread queue at Trees and heard his unmistakeable voice from behind.
He was such an unassuming man who had the gift of making people smile. His name on the cast list for a Cuckfield Dramatic Society production would be sure to attract an audience from far and wide.
Throw away lines
Boothroyd travelled up to town four days a week while working on Punch. Stuart Jeffries, in The Guardian 25 July 2008, repeats a story he once told, and it's almost certainly true:
A fellow train passenger was sighing over a book. ‘Something wrong?’ Basil inquired. ‘Oh, it's nothing. I just can't get on with this,’ the woman replied. ‘I've been struggling with it for hours!’ Boothroyd asked if he could look at the book. He took it, turned it over and then threw it out of the train window. ‘There,’ he said. ‘That's better, isn't it?’
Fellow writer and contributor to Punch Miles Kington (1941-2008) recalled a story that Basil Boothroyd used to tell.
One afternoon Basil gave a talk at a Women’s Institute ‘somewhere in the depths of Sussex’ (almost certainly Cuckfield!): While he was on stage entrancing the good ladies of Sussex. He was taken aback to see a door at the side of the hall open and a man in a white coat come out and point at a woman in the audience. She pointed at herself and mouthed: ‘Me?’ and he mouthed back, ‘Yes, you’ and she followed him fearfully out of the room. Five minutes later she came back and the white-coated man pointed at another lady in the audience.
And this went on throughout his talk, until nearly half the audience had gone for their unspeakable rendezvous with the mad scientist.
Afterwards Basil said to his host, nervously, ‘The man in the white coat ... who was ...?’
‘Ah!' said the host. ‘We should have told you about that. You see, we only have these meetings once a month, so we like to combine the guest speaker with the visit of the chiropodist from Brighton.’
The dolls house
Humorist Alan Coren was the Punch Magazine editor for nine years - and his daughter Victoria recalled, in The Guardian in November 2007, how she learned important lessons about rivalry and jealousy, by the ingenuity and dedication of her father and his work colleague Boothroyd:
'Danielle's got a Sindy house,' I told my parents one December, ':… it's got four whole rooms, and doors and everything. My Sindy just sits on the floor. Hers can lie in a bed and sit in a chair and then go in the kitchen. It must have been very expensive.'
‘My father's eyes narrowed. But on Christmas morning, he had two black thumbs. My godfather, the brilliant old humorist Basil Boothroyd, had a bandaged eye. They were both suffering terrible hangovers. And my Sindy house had six floors, a stable and a fully working lift.’
Nuclear protection for a price
In a piece for Punch Magazine 22 August 1984 ‘The curious and amusing tale of a nuclear bomb shelter’
he mentioned a few local Cuckfield villagers’ names, as he often did in his writing and broadcasts.
The article concerned a resident at Balcombe who, in the height of the Cold War, had built a nuclear bomb shelter. He then advertised in the Daily Telegraph that he was ‘willing to share his shelter with 75 people’- he added that he planned to build a fortification above it to keep out uninvited guests. Basil picks up the story about the huge cost of being among the chosen few:
‘That could be us, if we keep putting off buying the tickets, a bad habit of ours, we haven’t got into Cats yet, and if I hadn’t done the script for this year’s ‘Hello, Cuckfield’ in the parish hall last month, with Pat, Gordon, Fluffy and both Majors in a knockout drag number, we could have missed that as well.
‘There’s a chance, all the same, of crashing the Balcombe defences even without the £6000 admission. I’d get Mrs MacSleaver to run us up. She has the aggressive approach. The fact is that time is on our side. I see that before Mr Emin can slap the fort on top of the shelter, he needs planning permission from Chichester, a long way off, and not quick, needing to find a sheet of Ordnance Survey to tell Balcombe from Barcombe and Uckfield from Cuckfield.
‘I know this from my on-going negotiations with them about tourists parking against our window boxes. Latest, they say they could only stop this sort of thing outside No. 8, and as our cul-de-sac ends at No. 7, they could easily give Mr Emin leave to put his fort up in the wrong place, over some sewage works. No defensive armaments, and we’re right in there, as I see it I don’t want to see it. Nicer to have our own place, our own people, with Gordon (the gravedigger) and Pat (the funeral director) and Fluffy (Fluff Newman the watchmaker) whiling away the time with local gossip.
‘Not that we have to be under a sewage works to do that - we manage alright in The Ship, The White Hart or The King’s Head - where I'm just off, actually, now I’ve got this scare over. They’ll all be in one of them. I might pin down this rumour, just starting, that the village sign is being moved a hundred yards down the High Street so that Chichester can stick a mini-roundabout in. We small communities have to get together and fight a thing like that.’
There are many other references to Cuckfield and local people in this article - which can be read at the Cuckfield Museum.
Boothroyd was a prolific writer, he wrote 19 books between 1941 and 1987 mostly collections of his Punch articles, together with his biography of Prince Philip and his autobiography. He was a popular after dinner speaker, and a speech writer for some leading luminaries. He was a comedy scriptwriter for films and TV. He wrote ‘AJ Wentworth BA’ with Arthur Lowe in the main part, and the 1979 TV Series ‘Diary of a Nobody’ … and much more.
In a revealing interview for the Hurstpierpoint College Magazine ’Hurst Johnian’ in May 1966 he was asked about how he made his breakthrough into his professional writing career - and replied that he was accepted after the third article he had submitted. ‘It was about cricket, which Punch was mad on at that time, and since then I have written virtually every week for 28 years … I expect to write one article a week, because I have to pay the grocer somehow [that would have been Hoadley's at the time]!’
He went on about the pressures of being a successful writer’ I've got bits and pieces which want writing. I was phoned by the BBC this morning, to point out that the broadcast billed in the Radio Times for next Thursday afternoon hadn't yet been recorded. And I said: 'Not only that, it hasn't been written'. There is nothing more terrifying than to see one's name in the Radio Times saying: 'This brilliant chap is going to scintillate at half past four' and you have nothing there but blank paper!
Mark Gale in the Md Sussex Times, recalled in Boothroyd's obituary: 'When I saw Mr Boothroyd in the summer on the occasion of the publication of his autobiography 'A Shoulder to Laugh On' he told me: “As one gets older so the business of writing comedy gets more difficult. When you are young and cheeky you think you can get away with anything. It’s a lot harder when you are older; you have self doubts. You look at the paper in the typewriter and wonder: God is that funny - I don’t know anymore".'
Simon Elmes neatly summed him up … when he opened his mouth, he became the raconteur, the star of the golf club bar, with many a comic story ending, classically, with a beat pause and then his wry, slightly regretful tagline … if you see what I mean’.
When Boothroyd was challenged as to whether the stories he told really happened he would always respond: ‘The events in each story I tell actually happened, but not necessarily when I said they did, not necessarily where I said they did and not necessarily to me.’
In an obituary tribute, Alan Coren said of Boothroyd: ‘He was probably the most professional writer I have ever known; and consequently both the most self-punishing and the least self-satisfied.
'Few have worked harder to make a sentence right, or to conceal the effort that had made it so, few have truffled longer or deeper in our bottomless vocabulary for the one word which would corral the elusive thought, and very few indeed have sat like him, staring at a typed semi-colon for half an hour and deliberating whether or not a full colon might produce a more effective pause.
'Then coming back two hours later and making it a comma … It prevented him from writing novels – "I might spend the rest of my life re-polishing the first thousand words”.'
PG Wodehouse said of Boothroyd, ‘There are very few humorists you can rely on to be funny every time. In fact I can think of only one. He is a writer of whom I never miss a word.’
Additional notes: We learn more about the Balcombe nuclear bomb shelter in the Evening Argus dated 1 April 2004. John Emin built the nuclear bomb shelter under his £1.5m house in Crawley Lane, Balcombe for £250,000 in 1982. The report quotes Emin, ‘I built it as a business proposition not because I was scared for my life. But as a pragmatist I thought it might one day be used.’ Comedian Bob Monkhouse and industrialist Lord Weinstock both expressed an interest. Once the Cold War was over there was no demand for nuclear bunkers. He sold only two copies of the design for £30,000, and made a huge loss. The house was subsequently sold.
Sources and references: Philip: An Informal Biography of H.R.H.Duke of Edinburgh, Prentice Hall Press, 1971
‘The curious and amusing tale of a nuclear bomb shelter’ Punch Magazine 22 August 1984 can be viewed and read in full at Cuckfield Museum.
‘Hello Again … Nine Decades of Radio Voices’ by Simon Elmes, Random House 2013
Tribute website to Miles Kington: www.mileskington.com
Hurstpierpoint College Magazine 'Hurst Johnian' in May 1966. [pdf]
Obituary Mark Gale, Mid Sussex Times 4 March 1988
Photo: Basil Boothroyd, publicity photo 1971
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.