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Big Hitters & Small Gems

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There were times during Wimbledon fortnight when it seemed there were more actors and comedians watching the tennis than appearing on stages or making movies.

Royal box visitors who flashed up on our television screens during the changeovers included Maggie Smith (a die-hard tennis fan), Robert Redford, Trevor Nunn, Bruce Forsyth, Miranda Hart, Michael McIntyre and James Corden.

Corden took his place for the Murray/Nadal semi-final on Friday, which started at 5.30pm, and looked very pleased to be there. But he must have left soon after Murray won the first set, because he was due on stage at the National Theatre in One Man, Two Guvnors at 7.30pm.

A friend had spotted this and rang me, anxious to know if Corden would be back on stage for the Saturday matinee, for which he had tickets. But he was later reassured by the box office that Corden had even got to the Friday performance. He'd had a car waiting: "He has not missed a single performance since the show opened," said a spokesman.

I, too, missed the end of the match as I had to attend a birthday party in the Orangery in Holland Park. The birthday boys were music critic (and co-founder of Loot magazine) Dominic Gill, and the writer and political activist John Hoyland.

It would be hard to think of a more pleasant way of spending a summer evening than talking, eating and drinking in the Orangery itself and in an adjacent marquee on the lawn alongside the peacocks, ornamental ponds and summer saunterers.

Gill's neighbour, the redoubtable journalist Katharine Whitehorn, was the star of the show, but the cast list also included opera librettist Amanda Holden, directors Jonathan Chadwick and Lisa Goldman, music critic David Murray and countless friends and relatives.

The sociable atmosphere continued on Sunday afternoon, as Rafael Nadal was crushed at Wimbledon by Serbian maestro Novak Djokovic, in St James', Piccadilly, with colleagues and family gathered for the memorial service for playwright Pam Gems, who died aged 85 in May.

Tributes were paid by directors Nancy Meckler, Sue Dunderdale, John Caird and Sean Mathias (who said that rehearsals for Gems' version of Uncle Vanya had had to be called to order by NT director Richard Eyre because of the amount of laughter cascading around the building); by actors Ian McKellen, Frances Barber (wearing earrings the size of dinner plates), Denise Black, Timothy Spall and Trudie Styler; and in spirited performances by Isla Blair (as a magnificent Mrs Pat Campbell) and Kelly Hunter (reprising her knockout version of "Falling in Love Again" from The Blue Angel).

The audience was an eclectic roll call of honour, too: directors Jonathan Miller, Trevor Nunn, Mike Bradwell and Richard Wilson; playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker; and a fantastic line-up of exceptional actors, including Zoe Wanamaker, Jennie Stoller, Diane Fletcher, Sheila Allen, Gawn Grainger, Tony Rohr, Peter Eyre, Graham Seed, David Foxxe, David Schofield, John Shrapnel and Julian Glover.  

Gems was described as a young firebrand in an old woman's body, a pioneer and a prophet, the only true bohemian, warm-hearted and deliciously rude, a great spirit, and champion of the underdog (who was usually a woman).

McKellen held up the trouser-less teddy bear he'd been given by Gems on the first night of her Uncle Vanya. Mathias, who directed it, said that when Gems gave the actors notes, these were known as "P G Tips"; and he, presumably, as the tea boy. Barber said that Gems had frightened RSC director Ron Daniels into giving her the role of Camille by saying that she'd sleep with him if he didn't.   

And Spall, recalling the less than favourable notices for Gems' Aunt Mary supplied by "our dear friends, the critics," revealed that the great Alfred Marks, who'd been lured back to the stage by the role of a transvestite garage owner with a hidden writing talent, tottered on to the stage on the second night, in a pair of high heels, "holding on to the pain of bad reviews and a very large scotch."  

It was a joyous occasion, and we spilled out into the courtyard, mindless of the derring-do at Wimbledon, ignorant even of a Serbian president punching the air and crying, "Yes, yes, yes!"

Instead, we relished the memory of Pam Gems' eight year-old granddaughter, Lupa Gems, singing "Danny Boy," and the sight of two of the most extraordinary, and largest, decorative flower arrangements ever seen at a memorial service, a veritable riot of delphiniums, peonies and sweet peas, tribute to a fine lady and her passion for gardening. 


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