Crash, bang wallop what a picture


This wonderfully nostalgic picture of photographer John Downing and the late, great reporter Bob McGowan cycling on the deck of the Ark Royal on its way to the knacker’s yard, reminded me of good times with both of them, writes TERRY MANNERS. But one time, not so good. The day Downing and I didn’t smile — although we laugh at the memory now.   


IN THE early Nineties I became friendly with the actor and script writer George Layton.

He played medical student Paul Collier in the hit TV series Doctor in the House and went on to write other smash hit runs such as Doctor in Charge; It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and On The Buses.

We met by the pool in La Quinta Club, a posh timeshare complex at La Manga in Spain, on the shores of the Mar Menor, once a favourite haunt of Nick Lloyd and David Emery who would stage The Daily Express National Boys’ Golf Championship there for several years. Norman Dixon also took his notebook along.

La Quinta Club was a little independent state all by itself … upmarket villas; private pool and bars, plus restaurant with à la carte menu. Just a stone’s throw or two from the favourite haunts of our late Express buddy, gardener, pub manager and bridge player Peter Caney.

George was well known there and he had one of those faces everyone remembers, if not his name. On his arrival he would prance out to the pool waving to everyone to announce himself. He owned three weeks in the timeshare’s ‘green period’ which always had temperatures in their 30s. The women loved him and so did the club, he was their celeb, often hosting their functions.

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At the time I didn’t have a beer gut and I remember he liked my swimming, although I never saw him in the pool and often wondered if he didn’t like the water. He had not long written a successful book The Fib and Other Stories. 

We met up a couple of times when I managed to slip in the odd Jeremy Gates tour to the Hyatt Hotel on the resort and on one occasion he tried to sell me his three weeks in the ‘green period’ at La Quinta, pictured right, but I politely declined, not having a taste for timeshare, although this was five-star stuff, not the John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer style of timeshare. 

George was an interesting and entertaining guy with a string of successful TV appearances and scripts behind him, including Minder, and I wondered if Nick Lloyd would like a piece on him. Back in London I mentioned it to the boss. “Good thought Tel, take Downing with you.” And so began the journey to the last meeting I would ever have with the bouncy Bradford City supporting TV star.

George was thrilled that I was bringing Downing to his North London house. He had heard of our award-winning photographer and I promised to make sure he would get a full set of the Downing pictures.

We went in Downing’s car. The traffic was awful and we got lost. But John managed to navigate driving at breath-taking speed with one hand and getting directions from the desk on one of the biggest mobiles I had ever seen — the size of six Mars Bars. Mobiles were almost unheard of then and I was impressed if nervous. But being late wasn’t a good start.

Finally we skidded to a halt outside George’s big but not imposing Edwardian semi somewhere north of the River. Downing, being the pro he is, spent ages collecting all sorts of lighting equipment and bits from the boot of his car. We got later and later. 

But George opened the door wearing his usual winning smile. 

“Come in Tel, nice to meet you John,” he said. “Tea, coffee, something stronger? I won’t because I never drink when I’m working, it’s fatal. Once I start I will just keep drinking, hoping for inspiration that doesn’t come.” He explained that he was in the middle of writing a new six-part TV series. 

“A couple of coffees for us later perhaps George,” we said.

“Would you like to see the house?” 

We nodded.

George was very proud of his home especially his conservatory. It was huge, like a mini Kew Gardens. Green climbers and vines everywhere. There was hardly room for the chairs. But Downing didn’t think the light was right for the pictures and so we went on the guided tour to find the best spot. 

One room after another and up the stairs, three or four storeys I recall. Finally we entered a little room at the top where George worked and before us on the wall was the biggest picture of Fagin from the show Oliver I have ever seen. Beautifully framed. 

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“That’s me,” said George with pride, “playing Fagin in Oliver at the London Palladium. It is absolutely my favourite picture. It has pride of place on that wall and I often look up at it when I am writing. Even my wife loves it.”

Downing loved it too. 

“I must take some shots of that,” he said enthusiastically, dropping his bag and fiddling around with gadgets and meters I didn’t know the names of. He was already immersed in his mental vision of how things should be. I had seen him like this before. Totally committed. It was as if George and I weren’t there.

George himself was still admiring the picture.

“Shall we have a chat now George?” I suggested.

“Yes, let’s go down to the conservatory you can look at my potted whatnots.”

We adjourned leaving Downing to his stuff. I don’t think he even noticed us leave. Downstairs we settled in on white wrought-iron chairs among the greenery and we had a natter. Things went well and George told me how after finishing each script he would celebrate with a haircut, a close shave and a bottle of good wine. 

He went on to talk about writing his favourite sitcoms Don’t Wait Up, for Nigel Havers and Tony Britton, and Executive Stress, for Penelope Keith. 

We were laughing as he joked of doing the voice over for Sydney, a character in the long-running TV ad campaign for Tetley tea when suddenly there was an almighty crash, followed by another and the sound of smashing glass, then a bump. 

George flew off his chair and raced out up the stairs with me in hot pursuit. When I entered the room at the top George was standing with his mouth open.

“George, Terry, I’m so sorry. It was the light you see. I couldn’t get the light right to take the picture of Fagin … I had to move it. But it slipped …” said Downing.

Before us on the floor was the shattered remains of George’s favourite picture of all time. Time then seemed to stand still.

George tried to brush it off but his acting was bad.

“Nothing to worry about,” we appeased. “We’ll get it back to you. You won’t see the joins.”

Crestfallen Downing and I politely left that day with the bits and pieces of Fagin in carrier bags. After weeks of painstaking work the immortal picture was restored to all its glory and returned, along with a full set of pictures from our award-winning photographer, which George loved.

I did George proud in the piece … but we never spoke again. Don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I didn’t buy his timeshare eh?


© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre