Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Ed Miliband made a good speech to the party conference. The word he hit time and again was “values”. It’s a usefully resonant term, speaking of morality as well as of economy, trailing association with family and tradition and honesty. And he encapsulated it in a neatly turned soundbite: “the wrong values for our country and the wrong values for our time: that’s David Cameron”.

I also thought he dealt subtly with the first subject that the commentators always bring up, this notion that his poll ratings are relatively poor. Those of opposition leaders always are low through their early months because opportunities to embed their strengths in the public consciousness are few. Miliband’s first few pages harked back to JK Galbraith’s coining of the “conventional wisdom” as something to be shunned, and he gamely bracketed it with consensus. He gave Ed Balls generous credit for opposing the conventional wisdom on the economy twelve months ago at a time – though he didn’t spell this out (but he didn’t need to) – when he, Miliband, was passing over Balls as the natural shadow Chancellor in favour of Alan Johnson.

Miliband on the podium today

He took some pleasure in reminding us of the credit he won on all sides for his stance on the hacking scandal: “I knew I was breaking rule one of British politics: don’t mess with Rupert Murdoch”. And he cited his own immigrant background to ally himself with those who feel excluded from David Cameron’s phantom Big Society: “21st century Britain – still a country for the insiders”. He ambitiously described himself as “the guy who’s determined to break the closed circles of Britain … we must take on the vested interests wherever they are because that is how we defend the public interest”.

The NHS is always fuel for a Labour leader’s speech and he duly got plenty of traction from a dazzling riff that ended with “the oldest truth in British politics: you can’t trust the Tories on the National Health Service”. I thought the applause would never end.

He also got off some sharply wounding points against perceived enemies of the people: Sir Fred Goodwin, energy companies (“let’s call a rigged market what it is”), Southern Cross, “runaway rewards at the top”, Nick Clegg (knockabout stuff) and the PM: “only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and the rich work harder by making them richer”.

In committing the party to be “pro-business” and for “co-operation, not conflict”, he was making an impeccably Social Democrat pitch. However, this didn’t stop the BBC’s Nick Robinson anticipating “We Told You So: Red Ed” headlines in the papers tomorrow – the Tory press, presumably. But it should be good for all shades of opinion that he wants to make Britain primarily a manufacturing nation again: “not financial engineering but real engineering”. We can all support his campaign for apprenticeships and his determination to favour productive business over asset-stripping: “growth is built on sand if it comes from our predators and not our producers”.

But I feared that there was too much revisionism and that much of it is wrapped up with a need the Labour leadership feels to apologize for losing public support. It surely isn’t necessary specifically to repudiate past policy positions, especially ones that are three decades old. The coalition government daily justifies its mistakes and its dire policies by blaming Labour for the “mess” it left. The Labour leadership has already left it too long to nail this lie credibly. Now is not the time to start handing the Tories abject quotes to be further exploited against the last government’s record.

A so-called Wordle of Miliband's speech; obviously they didn't load "values" onto the program

I don’t care for gesture politics. David Cameron evidently won a lot of credit for making a public statement of regret over Bloody Sunday. While I concede that he executed it graciously, I dispute that it cost him anything to do. He was five in 1972. Nobody blames him. The Heath government of the time was a very different beast from Cameron’s government and only four members of its cabinet are alive: Robert Carr (94), Peter Carrington (92), Margaret Thatcher (85 in a fortnight) and Jim Prior (84 in a fortnight). I don’t imagine that Cameron cleared his apology with any of them.

The “conventional wisdom” that Labour has much to apologize for is due for putting out to grass. It’s not the only old news. Jockeying the BBC’s live coverage of Miliband’s speech – disrupted, as was every other broadcaster’s, by a brief power failure at the Liverpool conference hall – Andrew Neil presumed to know what “people” think, as commentators are apt to do, for instance that they perceive Miliband as someone who “stabbed his brother in the back”. As a summary of the Labour leadership contest, it doesn’t survive five seconds of mature consideration. Anyway, why does no one suggest that Cameron stabbed David Davis in the back in order to win the Tory leadership?

Neil also banged on about the opinion poll ratings. As I tire of pointing out, opinion polls are a bankrupt pseudo-science, exemplified by Bob Worcester “calling” the 2004 US election for John Kerry quite late in the process on ITV. Look at the by-election results since the general election. Go on, look at them.

That Labour has missed some tricks under Miliband must be acknowledged. There are many ways of releasing public expenditure and easing the burden on the public, and most of them are rather more effective than a temporary lowering of VAT, the benefit of which is highly questionable. I fervently wish that Miliband and Labour had had the courage to oppose Cameron’s intervention in Libya. With his often quoted opposition to the Iraq invasion – at the time, not in retrospect – Miliband could have credibly articulated the case against the UK’s involvement.

Instead he declared that we could not “stand by” and watch Gaddafi killing his own citizens. Well, we stand by through many another repressive regime: Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Russia, China. We do precious little to assist in those events that we call “natural disasters” but that we know are, at least in part, the result of man-made climate change: floods last year and this in Pakistan; floods and earthquakes in Australasia; earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan; tornados across the Caribbean and the southern States; famine in east Africa.

Yesterday, The Guardian scared up a defence analyst who reckoned that the cost to the British economy of Cameron’s self-serving strut upon the world stage, climaxed by his complaisant speech to the UN last week, will be in the order of £1.75bn. And don’t imagine that the British will not go on paying for months to come yet. At the London Conference on Libya in March, Cameron declared: “We must ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid where it is needed … when the fighting is over, we will need to put right the damage that Gaddafi has inflicted”.

My feeling is that there is little deep-seated support for this war among the electorate. Had Miliband stepped away from the consensus, the conventional wisdom, he could have given voice and point to this indifference and turned it into respect for his integrity. Now he and Balls could show persuasively that, under their policies, the government would have had at least £1.75bn to spend on stimulating growth, bolstering the NHS, reducing tuition fees or whatever domestic policy seemed most welcome to the electorate at the time. Cameron would have crowed for a few days when it seemed that his Libya policy had been “a success” but, besides pointing out that the Libya adventure, like that in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not over till it’s over and even then not without consequence, Miliband could have asked on a regular basis “at what cost”?

Labour should by now have worked up a programme of sources of revenue for encouraging the economy and never mind behaving as if they have accepted the Tories’ obsession with hauling down the deficit. Shadow ministers also might spend a bit more time pointing out that government expenditure is actually going up rather than coming down, instead of fatalistically accepting that it was Labour who went on a colossal spending spree.

So, although I like and admire Miliband, am glad he is the Labour leader and believe he can and will win the next election, I think he and his under-powered team should have inflicted rather more damage on the coalition. It’s certainly not too late to make up the lack.

Monday, September 19, 2011


That whistling sound you hear emanates from Birmingham. It is in England’s self-styled second city that the Liberal Democrats are holding their annual party conference this year. The whistling indicates that all of them are desperately trying to keep their spirits up. For the realpolitik is utterly dire, not to say terminal.

Understandably, Nick Clegg and his fellow ministers in the coalition government tell us that their participation represents realism, that they exercise a benign influence on the more reactionary instincts of the Tories, that without their skilful playing of the hand that they have been dealt the electorate would presently be groaning under a far more painful burden.

For their part, the electorate appear to have none of it. I set no great store by opinion polls, as my regular readers will testify, but YouGov’s daily temperature reading has had Lib Dem support consistently below ten percent for so many weeks that it can hardly be gainsaid. This is as against the 23 percent the party took at the general election when, it is apt to be forgotten, they actually suffered a net loss of five seats on the 2005 result.

Of the 57 seats the party now holds, all but eight enjoy majorities below 10,000 and four of them are perilously marginal, which is to say they have majorities below 1,000. What is more, the new constituencies proposed for the next election by the Boundaries Commission would, by all calculations, deprive the party of more of the seats it holds – and hence a far bigger proportion of its total – than either of the other main parties. Given that the Lib Dems humiliatingly failed to secure voting reform in the May referendum, they are certain to emerge from their adventure in coalition electorally weakened, even before one starts to anticipate the actual judgment of the electorate.

Looking at the way the votes fall, it seems most likely that, whatever the outcome of the redrawing of the constituency map, the best hope of the Lib Dems winning any seats at all at the next election lies in a strong swing against the Conservatives. Lib Dem seats are concentrated, as they have been for many elections, in Scotland, the south west of England and London. Of their 43 seats in England, the Tories came second in 32. Any swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories is likely to cost the junior coalition partners dear.

And therein lies the paradox. Both Cameron and Clegg are pledged to fight the next election as separate parties, not to sink or swim together. The Tories can, with some conviction, argue that the Lib Dems have acted as a brake on their attempts to balance the books, an argument that will seem to be emphasised by the line that Clegg must and will take, that the Lib Dems have provided a degree of civilising restraint on the Tories’ more barbaric instincts. But unless the two parties of the coalition are to go before the electorate implying or even stating that the coalition has been a failure, they are both going to have to stand by their joint record.

The coalition has had some success in daily arguing that the measures they have introduced were made necessary by the “mess” left by Labour. Indeed, the greatest failure of Ed Miliband’s leadership, to my mind, has been his seeming unwillingness to nail this canard. I may be wrong; he may be playing a shrewd long game on that matter, as he clearly is doing on other issues. Be that as it may, though, Cameron and Clegg can hardly take their main stand in the election of 2015 solely on the record of Gordon Brown up to 2010. They will have to offer a persuasive narrative of their own time in government. “If it hadn’t been for our measures, it would have been worse” will not sound like a very catchy tune.

In a piece on the Lib Dem mood in today’s Guardian, Jackie Ashley buried this intriguing nugget: “there is a strong feeling among Lib Dems that Labour has lost its way and is failing to offer an alternative. They don’t feel under pressure from the left. As to the right, there are clearly deals being discussed that would help protect them from a stronger Tory performance”. Now, what ‘deals’ are those, pray tell? Frankly, I don’t believe it. There are more than enough Tory backbenchers who loathe being in coalition with a party they still consider to be sandal-wearing, bearded freaks for the Tory leadership to be completely unable to guarantee to “protect” the Lib Dems in the fight-to-the-death of an election.

It will be a miracle if the two parties can get through a three-week election campaign without damagingly bitter words being uttered, words that, for differing reasons, both Labour and the media will be only too delighted to repeat, magnify and analyse ad nauseam. Steve Webb, Lib Dem Minister of State for Pensions, told The Daily Telegraph on Saturday: “Different political parties will emphasise different aspects of a programme differently. We are not the same party, we have different … emphases”. The three dots do not indicate a cut in the quote but rather were meant by the reporter to illustrate a hesitation in choosing le mot juste. What Webb was demonstrating, ever so carefully, was the potential chasm between the two parties. If neither Labour nor the media can prise open this chasm in an election, neither will have done its job.

Were the Lib Dems “wrong” to go into partnership with Cameron’s Tories? It depends where you’re coming from. I didn’t want a Tory government, so Clegg’s making a Tory government possible was for me a capital offence. I suspect that view is shared by many who voted as an alternative to Labour – and indeed many who have always voted Lib Dem – as well as significant numbers of the party membership. These latter are in an excruciating position. The coalition is a fait accompli. To complain about it would be to undermine it. The party broadly understands that Clegg has a very narrow path along which to manoeuvre. To urge him to deviate from the path or to tax him for not doing so is, as politicians are apt to say, “unhelpful”. But what can a party member do if she firmly believes that this is a disastrous path? Resign or hold her tongue: these would seem to be the only options.

Some Lib Dems will be holding on to a notion that they might feel will save the party: that having (to coin a phrase) “broken the mould” by going into coalition with the Tories, they can happily show their … um … liberality by getting into bed with Labour after the next election, a union that would appeal to far more of the party activists than does the current affaire.

Polly Toynbee’s revisionist Guardian column on Saturday, pretending that she played no role in the electoral defeat of Brown, reckoned that “the last Labour government would have been improved by coalition with [the Lib Dems]: no Iraq; no imprisonment without trial; civil liberties upheld”. Well, that’s what’s called “a big if”. What’s more, it compresses successive Labour governments into a single entity. But one could equally imagine that, had the Tories been in power during those years, Toynbee might as easily now be writing that the same policies would not have been pursued if Labour had been in power. One should never underestimate how illiberal any party can be once in government. Has Barack Obama delivered the programme upon which he was elected? Does he practice as liberal as he preached?

In the YouGov polls, Labour has maintained a fluctuating lead for months. If successive by-election results be a guide, Labour is polling much better – and the Tories significantly worse – than the opinion polls record. The pain of the government’s austerity measures will get worse before it gets better. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the coalition is in fact redressing the deficit balance far more slowly than it claimed was necessary. And there is clearly a strong danger that the economy will go into double dip.

By disassociating Labour from the planned industrial action this autumn and winter, Miliband has ensured that the coalition cannot use the strikes against Labour. On the other hand, Labour will certainly pay a price among its own historic electoral base. If he can convince the electorate at large that, under Labour, such strikes would be avoided, he may make up that ground. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the unions themselves can persuade the wider public that such issues as pension levels draw sympathy.

What is certain is that Cameron and Osborne will be unable to find any argument to justify cutting tax rates for top earners at a time when everyone else is under the cosh. If Vince Cable can head that one off, as he likes to pretend that he can, there might be some credit for the Lib Dems. If he can’t, will he stay in government? There must be quite a few Tories hoping that he will lead sufficient Lib Dems out of the coalition to precipitate an early general election, on the argument that Labour isn’t ready and the Lib Dems will be wiped out. Such a possibility is what keeps Cable and co on board. Truly, as Cable’s wife Rachel Smith put it in a World at One interview today, they are between Scylla and Charybdis. And as Cable himself spelt out today, things can only get worse.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Thursday was the 115th anniversary of the birth of Howard Dietz. He’s a largely forgotten figure now and you may well wonder why anyone would want to remember a guy whose day job was that of publicist. Ah, but Dietz was no ordinary publicist. He was the most successful in the role that anyone has ever been in Hollywood. Here’s how.

Dietz got his first job in publicity with Samuel Goldfish. Goldfish was one of the many chancers and would-be entrepreneurs who showed up in the newly established film colony in the early years of the 20th century. It didn’t hurt that his wife’s brother, Jesse L Lasky, was in the same business. With Oscar Apfel and Cecil B DeMille, the brothers-in-law founded the Jesse L Lasky Feature Play Company. Their movie, The Squaw Man, under DeMille’s direction, is now officially designated the inaugural Hollywood feature. The barn in which they shot it houses the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

A succession of mergers led to the creation of Paramount Pictures but Goldfish fell out with the new boss, Adolph Zukor, and he left. In 1916, he set up a new company with the Selwyn Brothers, sometime theatre producers, under the combined title of Goldwyn. Because he liked the sound of it – and of course it made it sound as if the whole company was his – Goldfish changed his own identity from the literal translation of his Polish name to Sam Goldwyn.

This is where Dietz comes in. He dreamt up a logo for the company, using a short piece of footage of a lion, whom Dietz dubbed Leo. He also proposed a fancy Latin slogan to go round the lion’s head: Ars gratia artis (Art for art’s sake). It was probably Dietz himself who first glossed the company philosophy as “Money for God’s sake”.

In 1923, the Selwyns forced Goldwyn out of the company and their new partner Lee Shubert (whose Organisation is still a potent force in American theatre) soon sold the whole outfit to the cinema chain Loew’s. In turn, Marcus Loew went into partnership with Metro Pictures and Louis B Mayer’s company and so – to supply Loew’s with product – MGM was born: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Sam Goldwyn himself never had any role in or dealings with MGM.

But Howard Dietz did. He became LB Mayer’s right-hand man for more than thirty years and the logo he had created for Goldwyn was adapted for MGM and was soon the most famous studio image in the business. That in itself ought to bestow immortality upon him.

Goldwyn's version of Leo the lion

MGM hit the ground running because Mayer and Dietz picked up the silent epic Ben-Hur, then in production and financial purgatory, and turned it into a public relations triumph. From then on, Dietz could do no wrong in Mayer’s eyes. He was a meticulous hoarder of paperwork – a man after my own heart – and his archive of MGM’s publicity machine is the largest of any kind in New York’s Public Library for the Performing Arts,

But Dietz was also a wit of legend – he was welcomed onto the Algonquin Round Table, the ultimate accolade for a humorist at that time. Here’s a sample. Hollywood’s most hated man of the age was Harry Cohn, the boss of Columbia Pictures. No would-be actress got her starlet break at the studio unless she first succumbed to Cohn’s voracious and brutal appetite (Rita Hayworth was a brave exception whose working life Cohn made a misery). Minions got fired for daring to look at him and it was widely believed that he spied on them all. Writer Ben Hecht nicknamed him White Fang.

When Cohn died suddenly, his funeral was the biggest in Hollywood since that of Valentino. Dietz swept his arm across the massed studio executives and declared: “See? Give the public what they want and they turn out for it”.

But Howard Dietz had another string to his bow. For thirty years, he wrote lyrics for musicals, most regularly with the composer Arthur Schwartz. Their most famous remains The Band Wagon, originally a stage revue for Fred Astaire and his sister Adele in 1931 but far better known in its movie version made 22 years later, also with Astaire. For the movie, Schwartz and Dietz wrote some new numbers including ‘That’s Entertainment’, a notably witty lyric that in time became a much-loved anthem of showbiz.

The quotable Sam Goldwyn

I am playing the album of another of their shows as I write. The Gay Life was based on stories by Arthur Schnitzler and has a charming score, much of it sweetly sung by a young Barbara Cook. The show has been revived since its opening fifty years ago come November at the Shubert Theatre (yes, that Shubert), but under a new title – The High Life. Language evolves, after all. The original book of Show Boat (the leading man of which is called Gaylord Ravenal) had the line “Gay’s a little queer today”, but – surprise – you never hear it in modern revivals.

My own favourite Howard Dietz writing is for a little ballad called ‘Confession’, too risqué for most singers of its vintage (the only contemporary recordings I know are by Mabel Mercer and Judy Holliday, both of whom could do faux naïf convincingly, but differently). This is the lyric in its entirety, set to a deceptively simple up-and-down Schwartz melody:

“I never kissed a man before.
Isn’t that a shame?
I never kissed a man before –
Before I knew his name.

I never got a taste for wine.
Isn’t that a sin?
I never got a taste for wine –
It can’t compare with gin.

It’s nice as nice can be,
My faith is at last restored,
To know that vice can be
Its own reward.

I always go to bed at ten.
Isn’t that a bore?
I always go to bed at ten –
But I go home at four”.

Young Arthur Schwartz

In the 1970s, I worked successively on the film section of Time Out, as the assistant editor of Plays & Players and then as Time Out’s television editor, so for a few years I frequented screenings, openings, receptions, launches and other kinds of industry bash. One ran into all sorts of interesting people at these beanfeasts. A particular aspect of cultural history contributed to the mix among these circles. The investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee – otherwise known as the McCarthy witch-hunts – had propelled a number of leftish Americans from Hollywood and New York to London in the late 1940s and the 1950s. By the ‘70s, although there were no longer blacklists (formal ones, at least), many of that generation had elected to see out their days here. They liked London.

One face I saw around quite often – and knew to say hello to – was that of Howard Dietz’ old partner Arthur Schwartz. I don’t recall that we ever had an extensive conversation – I should have shown more gumption – but I seem to think that he very readily sat down at the piano, as composers are apt to do. I do remember that he was a little man with big glasses and a fine head of hair, the jet-blackness of which must have been enhanced (he was in his 70s).

Jesse L Lasky Jr pre-beard

Another figure on the scene then also connects to Dietz. Jesse L Lasky Jr was (of course) the son of Samuel Goldfish’s brother-in-law and an accomplished figure in his own right. He had forty-odd screenplays to his credit (eat your heart out, Joe Eszterhas), of which the most famous was also the best-known to be directed by his Dad’s old colleague Cecil B DeMille – The Ten Commandments.

I retain a strong mental image of Lasky, a dynamic little man brimming with good cheer and inquisitiveness. His chin beard and flyaway sweep of hair strongly resembled Charles Dickens, a resemblance I do not doubt that he cultivated.

Anita Loos in her heyday

Another vivid memory is of two fabulous ladies from the dawn of Hollywood who could be seen on the ’70s London scene. Long a London resident, Bessie Love appeared in masses of silents and early talkies (Griffith put her in both Birth of a Nation and Intolerance). She was still occasionally appearing on the London stage, including in Harold Rome’s doomed musical version of Gone with the Wind at Drury Lane. Anita Loos had a long and vibrant career but secured her immortality by writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as long ago as 1926. I cherish an image of them yakking together at some event, both got up in the style of their youth – wafty, brightly-coloured silks, cloche-like hair, startling makeup. I don’t think this is fantasy. The faces in the image are those of palpably old but feisty dames. Still fabulous, though.

Young Love (Bessie)

But my fondest memory of Hollywood in 1970s London came about when I wrote of The Philadelphia Story. George Cukor’s elegant high comedy was playing at one of the revival cinemas – the Everyman, perhaps, or the Starlight – and I thought Time Out’s standard listing was weak so I rewrote it, mentioning the Oscar-winning screenplay. On publication day, I got a phone call. An American voice came on the line, quavering and drawling: “This is Donald Ogden Stewart. I wrote the screenplay of The Philadelphia Story and I just wanted to say that that’s the nicest thing anyone ever wrote about the movie”. As you may imagine, I was dumbfounded. However, we got talking, I established that he lived in London and he readily agreed to do an interview. I rounded up my chum Geoff Brown, who knew a lot more about vintage Hollywood than I did, and we went over to the house.

Donald Ogden Stewart with his Oscar

Don and Ella lived in a fine pile hidden behind trees on the road called Frognal near the Finchley Road in north London. The house, we learned, had belonged to Ramsay MacDonald at the time that he became Prime Minister in 1924. The first-ever Labour cabinet meeting was held in the library. We stood in the room and “felt the vibes” – no doubt the phrase we used at the time.

The house was fascinating. Ella was a determined collector of art and objets and you couldn’t stick a postage stamp on any wall or flat surface because the space was all taken. She too was festooned with heavy decorations around her neck. It was no wonder that she was apt to stoop.

Young Ella Winter

She and Don entertained us for hours. In many ways, Don deferred to her for indeed her story was the more compelling. As Ella Winter, she had been quite an adventuress. Born in 1898 of German parentage in Australia (I only just discovered that), she studied at the LSE and then worked in the States. She became a friend and trusted confidante of a well-connected woman, Eleanor Roosevelt (Eleanor was Ella’s own full name). In 1924, she married a famous American. Thirty-two years her senior, Lincoln Steffens was an investigative reporter at a time when his trade was known as “yellow journalism” and “muck-raking”. Steffens had visited Soviet Russia within eighteen months of the October Revolution of 1917 and upon his return he made a remark that became legend: “I have seen the future and it works”. During their marriage, the Steffens visited the USSR but they could not sustain his earlier enthusiasm.

Steffens died in 1936. Don Stewart was among those who attended the memorial. “I knew the widow was going to speak and I expected some old dame but … well … out steps this sex object,” he declared in his Jimmy Stewart-like drawl. “So I thought I better marry her”. He had a good ear for the evolving use of language. I could listen to him for hours. A skinny beanpole and physically frail at nearing 80, he kept a lively mind, much stimulated by Ella’s combative style. He covered an inability to remember anyone’s name by calling everybody Toots (rhyming with Schutz).

Muck-raker Steffens

Geoff dropped out of the picture but I kept up the relationship and was a pretty regular visitor to the house. On one occasion, invited to tea, I arrived horrendously late, having completely neglected to allow for the nightmare of getting across north London by public transport on a Sunday afternoon. I was met with a small gathering seated around the tea and the perfectly evident response of Don and Ella that they hadn’t the faintest idea who I was.

It didn’t matter. There were further visits. At one social event, I enjoyed a long and absorbing conversation with Kenneth Tynan in the famous library. Another gathering revived a tradition, as Don explained, that they’d pursued back in California. The guests would all sit around in the library with tea and cake and there would be an invited speaker who, ensconced in a fine leather armchair, would hold forth on a current topic. On this occasion, the topic was the Ellsberg Papers, an issue of public disclosure in Washington that exercised the chattering classes at the time.

Don at work in the 1940s

After the talk, I went to pick up my glass of mulled wine that Don was doling out in the conservatory. “So, Toots” he demanded. “What did you think of the speaker?” He quickly read my face and, before I could summon an intelligent sentence, went on recklessly loudly: “Yes, I know what you mean. I knew that guy’s father and – can you imagine? – the father was just as boring as he is”.

Don died in August 1980, Ella a few short weeks later. Anita Loos died in 1981, Arthur Schwartz in 1984, Bessie Love in 1986 and Jesse Lasky in 1988. All the other London-based Hollywood ex-pats driven out by the blacklist – Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield, Sam Wanamaker, Larry Adler, Betsy Blair, Alexander Knox – have passed too.

But one remains. She was not in flight from HUAC but rather from a meteoric career that abruptly fizzled out. On January 12th next year (if she is spared, but she was interviewed on radio as recently as February so we can hope), London will celebrate the 102nd birthday of Luise Rainer. Her Hollywood period ran for just three years, but after she picked up her second successive best actress Oscar (for The Good Earth in 1937), public expectation was so high that the producers didn’t know what to do with her.

Luise Rainer in 2003

To get a sense of how old Rainer is, contemplate that she was once married to Clifford Odets, a figure who seems preserved in truly ancient history. Nevertheless, she was a lively presence around London well into her 90s. Somehow having Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Brandon and David Soul in residence doesn’t seem quite as magical.

PS: After I posted this blog entry, I noticed that Sunday’s Observer had included in its Review section an extract from a 1957 interview with Charles Chaplin. By a remarkable coincidence, the piece was written by Ella Winter. Sadly, it does not appear in the on-line edition of the paper.