How Lord Olivier saved the kipper


FAST FOOD: Laurence Olivier and his wife, the actress Joan Plowright, enjoy a breakfast of kippers while travelling to London on the Brighton Belle


JAMES DAVIES was a star writer on the Daily Express for decades. His interviewing skills and pleasant manner saw him selected for a BBC “Day in the Life” film feature in 1979. The one copy we have of that programme is featured at the bottom of this page. 

It wasn’t the first time that editor Derek Jameson had chosen the writer for the honour of starring in a documentary, as James explains...

In June 1980 we were approached by German television who wanted to spend a week with a reporter. The paper had a lot more clout then, I guess.

It was a damn sight more gruelling than the BBC jaunt.  The director, Helmut Rompa, was an award-winning film maker with an ego to match and a reputation to protect.  On day one they arrived at my house in Buckinghamshire at seven in the morning to film me having breakfast.  My dog promptly bit one of the cameramen!

Then three of them climbed into my car for the 23-mile journey to the office. Trying to drive down Western Avenue in rush hour with a long lens shoved into your left ear while being interviewed is no joke, believe me. They then filmed me at my desk to the accompaniment of much collegiate amusement and ribald remarks.

Rompa wanted an assignment that would resonate with a German TV audience and it just so happened that the Picture Desk diary — bless their cotton socks — had Laurence Olivier having a train named after him. Utterly British and eccentric, of course. Cue Kraut delight.

Features would not normally have touched it but I was duly sent to Euston with the entire Suddeutsche team in tow where Larry, wonderful old ham that he was, played it like a first night in the West End, even lapsing into schoolboy German.  

Half way through this farce Rompa whispered in my ear: "Ask him what he considers his greatest role." He had been asked this question many times before and would generally cite a Shakespearean masterpiece like Richard the Third or Hamlet.

Larry placed one hand upon his forehead, stared meaningfully into the distance and intoned in that wonderfully modulated voice: "Saving the kipper on the Brighton line".

'The British sense of humour,' muttered Rompa, a tad dismissively I thought.

I tried to explain to an utterly mystified director that Lord Olivier lived in Brighton, travelled by train to the theatre or film studio where he was currently engaged, and had breakfast in the Pullman restaurant, always ordering the kippers. British Rail, in their misguided attempt to save money since no-one else wanted them, had arbitrarily taken them off the menu only for Olivier to launch a high-powered campaign to have them restored.

"The British sense of humour,” muttered Rompa, a tad dismissively I thought. However, at the end of the week, aided by some excessive consumption in Fleet Street watering holes, he pronounced himself satisfied and took his huge retinue back to Munich, to my exhausted relief.

I collared Jameson later. "Why me?", I asked. He grinned: "You talk proper", he said. I took it as a compliment.

There is a corollary to this yarn.  Months afterwards I was at my desk when the front hall rang.  There was a German couple dying to see me, I was told.  I went down to find a middle-aged pair brandishing that morning's Express, asking if I would autograph it for them. They had seen the film and loved it. I obliged.

But I couldn't help asking what they thought of the Olivier interview. "Wunderbar" or something like it, they said. "And the story of the kippers on the Brighton line?"  Blank stares.  Rompa had clearly cut the bloody best line out!

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