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You Must Remember This
January/February 2016

Thirty years on: The 1983 Yellow Pages advert featuring J.R. Hartley

A biographer is used to taking people’s reminiscences on trust. But if you’ve mixed with the kind of people prone to write their memoirs — which is practically everybody, these days — you may start getting a tiny walk-on part in their books. And you may also get the nagging sensation of being the biter bit.

I am keen on accuracy myself, coming from the old Fleet Street school where Charles Wintour’s mantra, “For God’s sake get it RIGHT!” was emblazoned on the Evening Standard newsroom wall. Others seem to have no such scruples. Whenever I crop up in someone’s reminiscences, I find their memory irritatingly fallible. (The last one was, unsurprisingly, Piers Morgan’s diaries.) In the era of self-publishing and vanity autobiographies, untrustworthy memoirists can write whatever they like.

There’s an entertaining one called Confessions of a King’s Road Cowboy, by John Cigarini, subtitled Memoirs of a Terrible Name-Dropper, in which I am to be found on page 141. In the 1980s Cigarini was a producer of TV commercials. One of his most popular ads was the J.R. Hartley one, for the Yellow Pages. Entirely by chance, a locations man drove past our house and decided it would be the sort of traditional house Hartley would live in. In 30 seconds, the ad told the story of a nice old gent searching fruitlessly in bookshops for a book called Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley, and arriving home exhausted. “Dad,” says his daughter, “why not try the Yellow Pages?” So he rings a shop: yes, they do have the book and will keep it for him. His name? “J.R. Hartley”. He gives a beatific sigh. It was a neat little tale, now charmingly dated, wedged in the last century. Thirty years on I still live in that house. I am sitting now in J.R. Hartley’s chair. I clearly recall the day they came to film it — and naturally I wrote all about it at the time. It was such an adventure. They transformed the house (repainting white woodwork a dingy cream, splashing out on Victorian bric-a-brac, whatnots, antimacassars, cache-pots, jardinières and fishing trophies). I remember the shouts of “CUT!” from the famous director Bob Brooks, the lavish flowers they left behind — and the unforgettable visit of the producer John Cigarini, who recalls it differently.

“We filmed the home scenes in a house in Hampstead,” writes Cigarini in his book.

It was a hot summer’s day, and the house was pokey . . . I sat in my car for most of the day. I didn’t know that a journalist called Valerie Grove happened to own the house. A short while later an article appeared in the Evening Standard. In the article, she wrote “and then in came ‘Mr Big’, the producer John Cigarini. He came into my kitchen and put his feet on the table” (I certainly did not), “picked up the phone and started dictating, ‘1969 Mercedes convertible for sale’ . . .” (I probably did that) “. . . and then he went outside and fell asleep in the Mercedes . . .” (I definitely did that). It was all rather embarrassing. The day the article came out, someone had put “Mr Big” on my office nameplate. It was all very funny.

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