The diaries of Kenneth Tynan

23 February 1974

I spend a weekend at a snug little hotel in Hampshire with Nicole. On Saturday morning we motor to Bournemouth, where I spent most of my summers up to the age of eighteen, and revisit the beaches and chines where I first learned about sex, masturbated to the devoutly awaited weekly magazine London Life, worshipped the concert party on Boscombe Pier, experimentally inserted the blunt ends of fountain-pens into the anus of my cousin Betty, contemplated suicide (at twelve) in the belief that I was pregnant, etc.

The trip is less traumatic than I had feared (and hoped): but as we drive along the front I notice that Phil Silvers—perhaps the greatest comedian I ever saw on the Broadway stage, king of the one-line impromptu, last survivor of the last generation of comics who were actually reared in burlesque, is appearing live at the Pavilion in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Phil is an old friend and has never appeared in England: I did not even know he was in the country.

So we go to his hotel and call his room: it’s 11.30 a.m. but his voice sounds impenetrably fogged and thick. He arranges to see us after the show (which is on tour in hopes of a London booking), but I conclude that he is hungover—which is odd, considering that when I knew him well in the States, he (like most Jewish comedians) was a teetotaller.

Kenneth Tynan. November 1973.

With fellow ...Forum cast members Bill Kerr (back), Joan Turner and Jimmy Thompson. December 1973.

In the evening we see the show. The theatre is only half-full, and Phil, well, his timing is still flawless, his mime is exquisite, his mastery of the audience complete—but he moves haltingly and his voice is hoarse.

I explain to Nicole that she has not seen the great man at his best. When we go backstage, he embraces me with real feeling (I’m always moved by the way Americans remember me with far more affection than Englishmen) and asks me what I thought of the show and him. I say that I loved him, and as soon as he recovers from his sore throat—At this his face falls. ‘Thought I’d covered that up,’ he says; and goes on to explain that two years ago, after a triumphant opening in Los Angeles, he had a stroke and spent ten weeks in the hospital, since which time he has had to learn to talk (and walk) all over again. I am appalled by my gaffe. He adds that he started rehearsal for the current production on walking sticks.

Over supper he tells us, with not the least trace of self-pity, that he has lately been divorced, leaving five daughters and an ex-wife to be supported. We reminisce about Jack Benny and Groucho (and the girls I introduced to Phil when he first visited England—Kay Kendall, Claire Bloom and Jill Bennett were among them: like many of these Jewish non-drinkers, he has total recall). We laugh a lot: but I have the bleak and comfortless premonition that he may not have long to live. I hate the fact that I never devoted a full-length essay to this matchless, whiplash clown, now slowed down so much by infirmity that he might be performing underwater. Even in this shape, however, he is better value than all but a tiny handful of British comics—among them, of course, Eric Morecambe, to whom Phil pays characteristically generous tributes.