Alexander Chancellor’s diary: Picking golden oldies, Ken Dodd, and the sadness of Jack Nicholson

Plus: why William Rees-Mogg would turn in his grave to see the Times today

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

An excellent test of character is a person’s response to being offered an Oldie of the Year Award. There have always been those to whom the word ‘oldie’ is in itself an embarrassment. When Richard Ingrams founded the Oldie magazine in 1992, he was warned by many that it would fail because of its name. Nobody wanted to be thought old, he was told, and therefore nobody wanted a magazine that would portray oldness as something to be proud of. Ingrams overcame most of these qualms with the humour and irony he brought to the magazine. Nevertheless, I was nervous when I had to telephone Lord Falconer, whom I had never met, to tell him he had been chosen for an Oldie award. Lord Falconer is a political heavyweight who served as Lord Chancellor in Blair’s government. Furthermore, since leaving office, he led a campaign to legalise assisted dying, a cause for which he might reasonably have expected recognition from a magazine called the Oldie. But the award I was offering him was not for any political achievement. He had been a heavyweight in every sense, and I told him he had been chosen as ‘Oldie Slimmer of the Year’ for having shed five of his 16-and-a-half stone. This is, of course, a considerable achievement, fully deserving of an award, but I feared that a politician of his stature might not see it that way. But Charlie Falconer came up trumps. He sounded over the moon, as if he had just been given some signal honour, and accepted with alacrity and enthusiasm. What a splendid man!

Craig Brown, one of our panel of judges, successfully pressed the case for the comedian Ken Dodd to be made our principal Oldie of the Year. Dodd is one of Craig’s heroes; and in his portrait of him in the current issue of the Oldie, he writes that ‘in a just world, he would be Sir Ken or Lord Dodd of Knotty Ash’ (as opposed to a mere OBE). Dodd may be 87, but his stamina is intact. He is to perform in Dudley, Chesterfield and Bridlington next month, and Craig points out that ‘the standard Ken Dodd show is five hours’. ‘He aims to crack six jokes a minute, or roughly 360 an hour,’ he writes. ‘It is the speed and quantity of his jokes that matters rather than their quality.’ We got a taste of this at the lunch at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand on Tuesday, when, presented with the award by Gyles Brandreth, Dodd took out a bunch of little cards from his pocket and started firing away with no obvious end in sight. It was a bravura performance, but one that even a man of Gyles’s enormous skill at such things couldn’t manage to halt (or perhaps he didn’t want to). After a while a few people with appointments started sidling out of the room, but it didn’t matter. Here was a master in full flight.

Opinion polls regularly show that old people are generally happier than young ones; but many are not, even among those who still enjoy good health. One who is being denied contentment in old age is the 77-year-old actor Jack Nicholson, who can’t get women out of his head. ‘I’m still wild at heart,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘But I’ve struck biogravity. I can’t hit on women in public any more. I didn’t decide this. It just doesn’t feel right at my age.’ This may be good news for women, but it’s left Nicholson feeling listless and lonely. After a lifetime of relentless womanising, he now lives alone in Hollywood and spends his time playing golf, taking rests, and watching films. ‘I would love that one last romance,’ he says, ‘but I’m not very realistic about it happening. What I can’t deny is the yearning.’ Poor chap.

Perhaps Nicholson should seek to emulate the character he played in that excellent 2002 film About Schmidt, in which Warren Schmidt, a lonely retired employee of an insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska, responds to a television charity advertisement by sponsoring a small Tanzanian boy called Ndugu Umbo, to whom he writes long, rambling letters about his troubles. There comes no reply, because Ndugu is illiterate, but one day Schmidt gets a letter from a man in Tanzania telling him that Ndugu much appreciates his letters and financial help and enclosing a child’s drawing of two stick figures — one big, one small — holding hands under an African sun. Schmidt weeps with joy.

The Times, once the national family newspaper, knows no boundaries any more. A headline in its ‘Weekend’ section last Saturday read: ‘Is the “cowgirl” position dangerous?’ I wouldn’t expect many Spectator readers to know, any more than I did, what the ‘cowgirl position’ is. But if you’d read the article — written by a ‘sex counsellor’ — you would have learnt that it means a woman sitting on top of a man. The danger referred to is that it could fracture the man’s penis. I know that the newspaper once had a famous advertising campaign with the slogan ‘Top People Take The Times’, but I don’t think that will do as an excuse. I think of William Rees-Mogg and weep.

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