Name Dropper, Chapter 5
Carrots and Clarinets, Chihuahuas and
By Peter Wills……..
Carrots and Clarinets, Chihuahuas and Contessas
One can get a little fed up of tyres and elephants and I saw the opportunity to make a move ‘upwards and onwards’ by joining a steadily growing privately owned hotel group, headed up by Sir Harmer Nicholls MP, later to become an MEP and eventually Lord Harmer Nicholls of Peterborough.
Sir Harmer Nicholls MP, was perhaps best known to the general public for his record in retaining his seat by hair’s breadth majorities. He held the constituency through eight general elections with four of those ending in recounts. In 1966 after seven recounts, he was found to have a majority of one! He was slightly better supported in 1974, when after four recounts he was found to have a majority of 22. “It’s a most uncomfortable way of making history,” he commented at the time, “but I enjoy living dangerously.”
He certainly didn’t live dangerously in business and was on the board of many companies and held the chairmanship of several. But it was his blossoming hotel group where he was very ‘hands-on’ in its development.
I joined the group as Sales and Marketing Manager when they had three hotels, the largest of which was the Victoria Hotel in Wolverhampton, situated right next to The Grand Theatre. So as you can imagine, in its heyday, many famous actors, celebrities and famous people had passed through its portals. Probably one of the most famous being Winston Churchill.
In this new era of its life, the stars still came and went, most of whom I may have only casually acknowledged as they passed through the reception area. But there were the odd occasions when an opportunity arose to become more involved. One of these was when the delightful old time film star and actress, Irene Handl came to visit.
Wherever Irene travelled, so did her two dogs – I think they were Chihuahuas but I can’t be sure. Anyway they were small, cuddly and well behaved and being the animal lover that I am, I went over to pet the dogs and, of course, engaged in conversation. Irene stayed at the hotel for two weeks, so I met her often, usually at lunchtime before she went to the theatre next door, when I would join her for lunch and talk about everything under the sun.
And so it was with Roy Castle when he was in pantomime at The Grand. One thinks that a life in show business is all glitz and glamour but it can be a very lonely life too and with only working at night, so to speak, with perhaps the odd matinee performance, the daytime hours are sometimes hard to fill. I have discovered that, away from the crowds and their own peers, most of the ’stars’ like to be normal people.
As a way of boosting business in one of the bars at the hotel, I persuaded the management to let me start up a folk club as they were the ‘in-thing’ at the time and a little later a jazz club. Fortunately, both proved to be highly successful and we soon became accepted as a venue that artistes wanted to play.
Most of them were just regulars on the club circuit but one folk act that was later to become a household name played my club as a virtual unknown outside of the circuit. He was a young man from Birmingham that we all know now as Jasper Carrot.
In those days, Jasper was much more of a folk singer rather than a comedian, but a lot of his songs had a comedy twist which went down extremely well with the audience. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure his fee for a night’s performance back then was something like £30.
On another evening, a totally surprise guest, at least as far as the audience were concerned was legendry clarinet player, Acker Bilk.
Acker had been staying over in the hotel following an engagement elsewhere, because he was visiting some friends or relatives in the area and I met up with him in the breakfast restaurant one morning and told him about our jazz club which was meeting that evening. He said he would love to come along and listen and, guess what, he brought his clarinet with him and thoroughly enjoyed jamming in with the visiting band.
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With the expansion of the hotel group, a hotel was purchased in Malvern, Worcestershire and as part of the refurbishment they incorporated a medieval banqueting room and a state-of –the-art health farm offering both daily and residential treatments. Sir Harmer’s daughter was made the director of the health farm and I became a sort of general manager. His daughter was Sue Nicholls, famous at that time for playing Marilyn in the TV soap, Crossroads. Although we employed professional staff, Sue and I practically ran the establishment and we went on to be good friends.
The health farm attracted a wide spectrum of clientele and although, in the main they were predominantly female, we had our fair share of males, particularly sportsmen. We became a recognised pre-match haven for football teams where they could relax, tone-up and prepare for important fixtures. Visiting clubs included, Leeds, Wolverhampton, Birmingham City, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Derby and several others. But although I enjoy watching a game of football, I have never been an aficionado and I have no recollection of names of individual players or managers. But, one way or another, I met them all!
We also became established as a destination for jockeys who needed to lose weight and get fit before important race meetings. They would often stay for a few days working to a strict diet and fitness regime in order to ‘make the weight’, I was privileged to meet three of the top riders of the time, Pat Eddery, Greville Starkey and Willie Ryan.
Of course, the hotel side of the business also attracted a cross-mix of guests. Malvern is renowned for its beauty and, of course, its famous spa waters. It also had the Malvern Festival Theatre which attracted real stars of the theatre. Unfortunately for us, they all stayed at the much grander Abbey Hotel, across the road. But for one very rich and slightly eccentric Italian Contessa, the tranquillity of the Mount Pleasant Hotel was much more to her liking. What her full name was or where she came from in Italy have been lost in the events of time, but she used to visit at least twice and sometimes three times a year just to stay for a week or so and drink the Malvern Spa water.
I believe she had first experienced the water (bottled of course) while cruising with her late husband, the Count, since when she had always had it shipped (no pun intended) to her home in Italy. However she preferred to drink “the real stuff” as she would say, hence her regular visits.
She was well into her eighties and although relatively fit and well, which she put down to the water, entirely, she was, as I said, slightly eccentric. She took to her bed almost immediately after dinner each evening but would quite often re-surface and, still in her very expensive and flimsy nightwear, come down the stairs to reception asking if the Count was coming to bed yet!
It was a couple of years later when I decided to move onwards and upwards as they say, wishing to broaden my horizons and, with a growing family, earn more money. And so I moved on to the next chapter of my life.
Look out for the next part of my story – “The Stars Come Out at Night” coming very soon.
With thanks to all the celebrities and personalities for their pure existence, without whom this book would not have been possible.
And with special thanks to all of those who took the time and trouble to act as ordinary people, happy to meet with ‘their public’ and discuss the facts of everyday life.
Also with sincere apologies to anyone I have left out. It’s either because I have forgotten you or the memory of you wasn’t worth recalling