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Michael Coveney: Roger and out with magical musical memories

There was a packed house for Roger Hammond's memorial in the Actors Church in Covent Garden on Friday, and the twinkling levity and unerring jollity of the large and popular actor proved contagious, not least on the altar steps themselves.

He's a bit much, that rector in St Paul's, isn't he? He's called Simon Grigg and he's at least as merry as his surname-sake. He said he'd been asked by BBC Radio drama veteran John Tydeman, who'd organised the "do," what he was going to wear. "I'm sorry, it's Lent," he said, meaning it was the period before Easter, not passed round the parish. And then he did a twirl in his chasuble. "Well," he quipped, playing up to his thespian audience, fingering his surplice, "it's all about frocks, isn't it?"  

At this point, and the service had hardly started, I fully expected Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and co, to sashay down the aisle. After all, the new Archbishop of Canterbury had already been inducted by a Zulu dance company in Westminster Abbey, or was that a spin-off preview from the The Book of Mormon? The church and musical comedy have never been so intimate.

Roger Hammond discovered his showbiz side at Cambridge University (although he had already played Lady Bracknell at school), where his best friends and contemporaries included Tydeman, Clive Swift (who wrote a charming new piano piece for the occasion), Miriam Margolyes (who sent over an emotional recorded message from Australia, where she's filming in the outback), Waris Hussein and Ian McKellen, both of whom chipped in.

Waris read a very moving Indian farewell by Rabindanath Tagore, and Ian said that, in terms of attendance figures at hospital deathbeds, Roger had broken all records, he was that much loved. "Wherever Roger was," he said, "there was fun happening."

They had bonded, Ian and Roger, partly because they were both from the north, but also because they both loved Ivor Novello. After Cambriudge, they worked together first at Ipswich Rep, where they met Gawn Grainger, a mini-god in their eyes as he had played, as a twelve year-old, Ivor's son in King's Rhapsody.

Martin Jarvis, who trained at Rada with Roger, and recalled the parties he gave in a flat above a ladies' hairdressers in the King's Road, itemised jewels from his everyday vocabulary, littered with "very choice," "bliss" and "apply-dapply" (meaning delightful, perfect). "Oh, Mart, he's such a wurt," he'd say of someone who incurred his very uncharacteristic disapproval (the man loved absolutely everyone). But of someone he really, and rarely, disliked: "Oh, Mart, he's a complete turd-wurt."

Jarvis then launched into a filthy story based on Roger's appearance in the TV series Minder. He played an innocent gent on the street approached by a filthy tramp who offered him a blow-job in exchange for identifying the objects clutched in his hands.

Feeling secure from interference, apply-dapply almost, Roger replied, "Oh, very well then... two tame badgers and the Taj Mahal." Long pause. "Near enough....!!" The church rocked with laughter and the merry Grigg proclaimed that he'd never heard such filth in his transept since the memorial service for Victor Spinetti... and this one topped it. 

We had hymns, shimmering Debussy played on piano by Lucy Parham, Roger's wife Helen Weir reading a wonderful poem by Robert Louis Stevenson ("He has achieved success") and a recording of a slim-line, red-haired, eager young undergraduate - the man himself - singing a song with balloons on his feet from a 1959 undergraduate musical by Richard Cottrell and Clive Swift based on Love's Labour's Lost.

Not only that: Janie Dee and Mark Umbers sang Novello's "We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again" (and walk together down a country lane) from Perchance to Dream. 

In the week of the rippingly tart and satirical Book of Mormon, this was something else, a fabulous oasis of nostalgia, melody and memories of golden times past, of friendship and frippery, and honour paid by the leaders and cohorts of his profession to a treasured colleague and associate.

Rounds of applause are all the rage in churches these days (the Archbishop of Canterbury got one, so why not Roger Hammond?), almost as common as standing ovations at mediocre musicals. Hammond didn't just get a round of applause, he got a veritable tsunami of acclaim, hurrahs, bravos and cries for more.

So, apart from those already mentioned, who was there? I've not seen the old church so full for a long time, but I descried in the melee no less than Sheila Reid, Sandra Voe, Ian McShane, David Weston, Charles Kay, Ronald Pickup, Sian Phillips, Mike Leigh, Niall Buggy, Rosalind Ayres, Jeni Pearcey, Jan Carey, Iain Mackintosh, Jeffrey Wickham (who read the Prayer of St Francis with a fine, quick flourish), Kevin Moore, Stewart Permutt and Jeremy Conway.

It seemed appropriate that I spent some of the rest of the weekend catching up with forgotten musicals by Lionel Bart (Quasimodo at the King's Head) and Jule Styne (Darling of the Day at the Union, Southwark). Roger would have found something to enjoy in both of them, something twinkly and apply-dapply for a chill and freezing time of year when spring refuses to be sprung, probably because he's not here to make the most of it on a "jolly" or a get-together with favoured chums.


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