The most exclusive book launch ever

27 10 2010

Long ago and far away, one of the high spots of my year used to be the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. I’d skulk around the Town Hall towards the end of the summer, waiting for the brochure to be published. I’d then mortgage next door’s first-born to buy tickets. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn up at a dozen events.

Ironically, my ticket-buying decreased exponentially as my salary rose. An endless stream of politicians and celebrities seemed to outnumber the writers and actors we’d seen in the past. And I baulked at paying ten or 12 quid for 50 minutes of someone mentioning their book every 30 seconds. The final straw was the splicing together of a bloke who’d written a book on a plague in 19th century Hong Kong with some totally irrelevant woman from a drug company. And yes, guess who was sponsoring the event. Welcome to the corporate world of 21st century literary gatherings…

Last year I didn’t go to anything. This year I bought two tickets – and what good ‘uns they both were. Veteran TV comedy writers Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman) were first up and proved to be genial and chatty company as they talked about their move from television writing to the stage.

The high spot, though – and here I declare an interest for a very dear friend– was Chris Stevens and Fenella Fielding, one of the stars of my youth. Chris’s new book, Born Brilliant, was out the following day. It’s a biography of comedian Kenneth Williams, and Chris had access to hitherto unpublished papers.

Most people remember Fenella from the Carry On films (particularly Carry On Screaming and that classic line “Do you mind if I smoke?” Cue smoke rising from the settee). And yes, she still has that glorious, husky voice and gorgeously striking looks.

They proved to be a feisty double act, who dealt with great panache with some fairly hostile questions from the floor. Clearly some people don’t like to hear that their heroes might have had feet of clay . . .

The book signing afterwards proved to be good value. Fenella is clearly remembered fondly by fans, who queued up to bring her little gifts and to get scrapbooks of cuttings autographed.

Afterwards, the three of us retreated across the road for a pizza where we were royally entertained by Fenella’s no-nonsense stories and dry wit. As Chris said, it was the most exclusive and best book launch ever . . .

Buy the book. It’s a riveting read.