Steve McQueen Drove Me Home

A young actress hitches a lift with Steve McQueen and our intrepid editor catches a cold breeze from a Royal benefactor.

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IT was a Saturday morning in the summer of 1959, and I drove to Brands Hatch race track in England with my fiancée who was practicing for the race on Sunday. It was fierce competition for pole position so I didn’t really keep track of time, so when I finally glanced at my watch it was less than one and a half hours to curtain up. Blind panic! As an actor you’re supposed to be at the theatre by the half (35 minutes prior to curtain up) or they put the understudy on. Without really thinking I ran to the control tower, explained the problem to the race commentators and asked if there was anyone who could give me a lift to London. The guy in the box put out a message saying there was an actress desperate to get back to London in time for curtain-up, and would anyone please volunteer to give her a lift. Then we waited for what seemed like three life times and finally a good looking guy who looked vaguely familiar turned up and said he would give me a lift. We ran down to the competitor’s car park and jumped in a car, I was too agitated to notice what make. Then with tires screeching we set off. At this point he asked me what play I was in (The Brides of March) and as I turned to look at him properly for the first the profile was unmistakable. It was Steve McQueen. We got to London after a ride worthy of any movie, running red lights and breaking all the rules, but just in time. I wish I could say we had a great chat along the way but, at that speed, talking was difficult. He did say he had just finished filming with Frank Sinatra. J.F.

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TIME was I seemed to bump into the British Royal family far more than was healthy for a lower-middle-class English boy.

There I was waving my plastic Union Jack in the crowd of schoolchildren assembled to greet the Queen off the plane at Kuala Lumpur, part of her 1972 Royal Tour. There I was again cheering on Princess Anne at the Montreal Olympics in ‘76. Then there were the years at a posh little prep school in England where I was never very far from the Queen’s gaze – her portrait hung in the main dining hall.

Later I worked as a reporter on a local newspaper in Norfolk – the royal estate at Sandringham fell within the paper’s circulation area and Boxing Day was never the same again. The entire royal pack – Lady Di included – would descend upon the estate to be photographed and filmed as they walked to Church.

It wasn’t until I left England again that I had my first taste of royalty up close and personal. I was working as a magazine editor in Singapore – for a publication that covered expatriate life in the former British colony. And into town came a youthful and slightly chubby documentary filmmaker who was making a show about Singapore expats. His boss was none other than Prince Edward, then third in line to the British throne.
In the wake of a slightly suspect career amongst the theatre luvvies, Edward had started a film production company called Ardent in the grounds of his royal estate, ostensibly to make films about royal yachts and the like; the history of polo perhaps. Or fox hunting. He hadn’t reckoned however on this young and ambitious filmmaker, employed from Channel 4 and a chap who appeared to have all the trappings of upper-class decency but none of the integrity. He was however little more than well-disguised tabloid paparazzi looking to make a name for himself.

In Singapore, the thrusting filmmaker befriended me as a fixer. I imagine he thought I might be useful in some way – I was after all the editor of a magazine whose readership fell nicely into his kill range. His plan was simple: he would pose as Edward’s official production representative, out in the tropics to make a documentary about the wonderful nature of post-colonial expatriates. It was little more than a very good cover for digging up the dirt on some of the more lascivious aspects of foreign life in the Lion City.
None of this was obvious or of particular concern to me at the time. It was flattering and rather fun to be involved with a Prince of the Realm. I was invited to visit the royal production house while on a trip back to England. First I was wined and dined by the filmmaker at the local pub, then it was back to the estate to meet ‘Eddy’, as he referred to the Prince. I was half way through a rather animated story to His Royal Highness when I realised, too late, I had been talking way too much. As I bumbled on he raised his hand to his chin, displaying the goldest pinky ring I have ever seen. Emblazoned with the Windsor Crest, it shone with centuries of historic royalty; the specter of Henry VIII appeared in the room. I shut up.

“Well,” he said as I stood there, admonished. “Nice of you to pop in. Do take care.” And with that I was ushered out past the discreetly armed security and back to Singapore.

It was few weeks later that I saw the first rushes of the documentary. It was horrific. Our canny tabloid chameleon had fooled everyone and succeeded in making all involved look selfish and spoiled beyond belief. There was the story of the young man who paid extra to his maid for her to iron naked in his flat. The tale of the expatriate girl (who he got steaming drunk) whom he had convinced to bare her breasts. There was footage of prolific partying, law-breaking and prostitution. The documentary, one could see, was not quite what His Royal Highness would have condoned.

When the shit hit the fan it was a PR disaster for the royal household, embroiled once more in a scandal only partially of their making in a year that turned out to be their annus horribilis. The production house was closed down and Edward was forced to distance himself from the whole messy debacle.

It was several years later that I encountered the Prince again. He was visiting Singapore on a trade mission, which I attended. We were told to form ourselves into semi-circular groups and wait for the royal personage to come round for a chat. When he reached our little cluster, I couldn’t resist bringing up our meeting – did he remember my visit to his studio? “ Oh yes,” he said. “Tony.” And then with another flash of his historic and clearly well-employed royal ring, he said: “Haven’t they caught up with you yet?” I’m still trying to live it down.

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