Lost in France


ROGER TAVENER recounts his crazy chase around the south of France seeking the truth about a famous showbiz personality’s adulterous affair. You may guess who the celebrity might be but we have chosen to omit his name to avoid the attentions of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne, avid readers of this fearless but penniless publication.

IT’S a dank, drizzly day in Fleet Street, but a traditional long ‘lunch’ approaches. Always fun.

Never the negative daily ritual many naysayers think, either. They just don’t get it. So much positive, productive business is done in those five short hours. 

Although, at any one time, possibly a third never make it back after lunch. They wait for the first editions to drop around 10pm, having met up with the night staff …

(Fuck. Did I file that? Can’t remember. A swift one for the road before posing as a Daily Mail hack and using a knocked-off Vicky (Victoria) cabs’ docket home. I’d sign mine ‘George Best’. Thank you Lord Rothermere. Selfie memo: Remember to ask the driver : “Can I have a few blanks please?” )

Colleagues and kindred spirits conspire at the attitude re-adjustment centres. Rivals meet to trade stories. Outrageous gossip bounces off the walls. So do the patrons. Some conspiratorial chatter is even true. Not that it matters. Affairs are lunched and launched.

Absenteeism is unheard of. Sickies? Why bother. You’ll miss the party. Normal people do this stuff on Friday and Saturday nights. We do it all the time. 

One hardly ever sees anybody in the act of writing anything. Baffling.  

The proprietor’s profits are indeed well-invested in the excessive expenses doled out to hundreds of grateful lunchees.  

The morning editorial conference is happening. Now that can go one of two ways. The bad one being requested to stand-up someone’s not-so-bright idea on a slow news day.

It’s often a good pre-emptive manoeuvre to have an even earlier lunch to remove oneself from the firing line. Head for the loo, but keep going at marching pace to the back of the building and out via the tradesmen’s entrance, so to speak. Sneak under the radar to The Cartoonist.

Cover story, if needed: Dream up a spurious excuse (usually a half-decent, timeless tale held back for just such an occasion). 

Vital, uncheckable ploy: Replace the detested bleep’s batteries with duds. “Sorry. Didn’t get the message. Must have run out of power.” 

Early ‘tech service’ geeks have the job of replacing them using a special tool to get the backs off. Of course we all have one of these in our Bond-esque on-the-road-reporters-kits. 

Avoid known news-executive haunts. Chances are they’ll be in there before you.

The task? It’s believed a well-known showbiz figure, is shagging his secretary/pa/gofer. His fragrant wife is unaware. We don’t like that one bit. We’re slightly disappointed his love interest is a woman. Can’t have everything.

Often in the office you’ll look up to see nothing but a sea of abandoned chairs with jackets slung over the backrests.  (A scenario later to be known as the Parry Celeste. An abandoned newsroom in flight from the hierarchy’s pet hitman who never sleeps.)

The leaving happens silently in seconds. Giant characters like Akass and Gale, large guys in physical stature too, move like ghosts. One moment there, the next in El Vinos. 

Contact books are open. Briefcases are scattered on stained, curling carpet tiles. Fags burn down to the filter tips in never-emptied ashtrays full of centuries-old ash.  Carcinogen city.  Undrinkable coffee still warm. Secretaries gossiping. They know everything. 

Someone’s bright idea today, is, oh joy of joys, a shaft of beaming light slicing through the murk. And it’s heading my way, as the go-to-showbiz news guy. I light my tenth fag of the day.

It may well have been inspired by features executive Alan Frame; he has some influential ITK (in the know) entertainment industry contacts and connections.  

The task? It’s believed a well-known showbiz figure, is shagging his secretary/pa/gofer. His fragrant wife is unaware. We don’t like that one bit. We’re slightly disappointed his love interest is a woman. Can’t have everything. 

Nobody likes the showbiz diva, wed to a fragrant English rose. We all love the wife. Especially men. So he’s a legitimate target. This is fully in the spectrum of being in the public’s interest.

It becomes my duty to bring the asshole down. A pleasure and a privilege. Especially as we discover he is currently in the South of France, feathering his love nest. And his new bird is probably there.

I “check it out”. Er, light another fag and thumb, theatrically, through my brick-thick contacts book. Is he under L or fucking W? Or T for Twat? I’m not going official yet. He’d do a runner. I’ll back AF’s info. 

And a few days on the Riviera can’t be bad. 

A full-view mock phone call to Tim, the speaking clock, and I confidently approach the desk to authoritatively tell news editor John Jinks the good news.

“You’d better fucking go then.”

john-downing

After that full briefing it’s arranged I meet ace staff snapper John Downing, pictured, (‘Downing’ as in ‘Bailey’ or ‘Lichfield’ or ‘Snowdon’ ) at Heathrow in about 90 minutes. Tight. The tickets will be there. Flight to Nice will booked.

“Business class?”  - “Fuck off.”

Derek, the Express travel fixer - a truly lovely bloke - will sort it. He hands me five hundred readies sterling and a bunch of traveller’s cheques. Maybe a grand in total.

I’m going to need it. I have my eyes on the exclusive five-star Grand Hotel, St Jean Cap Ferrat, a short jet-ski to Monte Carlo. The choice of billionaires. 

As Beaverbrook once said, to paraphrase: “You won’t become a millionaire working for the Daily Express, but on occasions you will live like one.”

We strove to live up to the great man’s sentiments. 

Sadly the Hotel (usually full despite its re-assuringly expensive exclusivity) only has junior suites left. Today’s 2017 average price is a ‘deal’ at 1,290 euros a night. So it was similarly pricey back then. We take one each, even though they have two double beds. 

We aren’t about to share. One must be optimistic. We might get lucky. More of that later.    

The time-tested ruse was to get the hotel to send the bill, including much drink and food, (‘entertaining contacts’ ) direct to the accounts department, thus spending nothing and pocketing the advance cash. It seemed they didn’t ever check.

The aim was never to cash a travellers’ cheque. Bank it. On no account hand any back … This was writ large and bold in the black book of ‘Dark Arts’ expenses claiming.

So, during a few exceptionally perfectly chilled bottles of white in the garden overlooking a sparkling Côte D’Azur, we plot our approach. We will always refer in conversation to our quarry as ‘Twat’. If overheard nobody will get suspicious and our cover won’t be blown.

Under no circumstances will we hit him. Despite the provocation we know we will be forced to endure. Because he is ALWAYS a Twat. Swearing is allowed.

Oh, and I’m wired with a new toy, a voice-activated Olympus dictation recorder. Its mic disguised as a cufflink poking out from my cuff. It’s the reason I never take off my jackets. Far too much trouble with wires everywhere. There’s a spy shop in Holborn that sells this stuff.

We might have a glass in one hand and a bottle in the ice bucket, but we are on the case and operational.

An obsequious concierge confirms Twat is in town. A re-assuringly fat tip is discreetly palmed into the hand behind his back.

Another bottle. Another visit to the concierge. He tells us the street Twat has moved into. Doesn’t know the house name. No numbers. A slightly smaller tip. Do better next time garçon.

Ok, time to tool up. It’s 3pm’ish. Perfect. The vastly experienced Downing gets a long lens, a portrait lens and wide-angle for his top-of-the-range Nikon.

Me? Hotel pencil (won’t leak in the heat to ruin cream linen suit) and The Grand bedside notepad. Neither will likely appear in front of our quarry. Business card. Met Police press accreditation. Sunglasses. The suit is suitable and fortunate.

Oh, and I’m wired with a new toy, a voice-activated Olympus dictation recorder. Its mic disguised as a cufflink poking out from my cuff. It’s the reason I never take off my jackets. Far too much trouble with wires everywhere. There’s a spy shop in Holborn that sells this stuff.

We find the street. This is going to be a little difficult. Huge mansions hidden behind equally huge walls and prickly anti-burglar hedges which would rip intruders to shreds.

But here’s a house with open gates. Someone’s delivering garden furniture. Opportunity knocks. 

The double front doors are wide-open revealing a sweeping staircase and palatial rooms beyond. This is classy.

We yank on the chain to pull the dangling doorbell and three giggling milfs, late 30s mid 40s? in tight, painfully fluorescent lycra gym-wear, shimmie towards us.

We explain we have a business meeting with one of their neighbours, but can’t find his house. These girls don’t work-out. But they do like a drink and a spliff and a good time. You know, you can just tell …

They are pretty vacant. And don’t know anything about anything. It doesn’t help us in our quest and personal mission to prolong our stay in paradise.

Who owns this place? Maybe he or she might know.

marquess bath

The main milf asks: “You want to speak to Alex?”  Please.

A few minutes pass. It looks like a bum door-knock.

It goes dark. A vast shadow obscures the Mediterranean light filtering through the ivory- coloured marble hall.

The Marquess of Bath looms forth. The Loins of Longleat. Alexander Thynn, also titled Viscount Weymouth, greets us like old friends. 

Ah, makes sense now. The giggling girls are wifelets. He bloody lives here as well. Mental file: This is a feature story too as I recall some controversy back home. That can wait…

Some rapid-fire bullshit follows, oh, what a coincidence, my father knew your father, we’ve met before in Wiltshire blah more BS blah. 

The Marquess, pictured, is an old hippy - know what I mean? Vague, trusting and, thankfully,  bonkers and totally indiscreet.

“He lives down the road a bit, around the corner, it’s called  xxxxxxxxxx. I walk the dogs that way. He’s got a team of British landscapers there at the moment installing an English country garden overlooking the ocean. Beautiful. I think someone said it’s costing nearly a million pounds. He’s here now inspecting the work and is often accompanied by a young lady.”

Excellent. Coming nicely together. Now for the full frontal. 

We find it, but the gates are locked. Intercom. Only to be used as a last resort. Too easy to be told to “Fuck off”  and then the target is warned and will get us beaten-up by a Twat Swat squad.

But our luck’s in again. A dumper truck exits and we nip in, using the ensuing dust cloud for concealment. We scuttle along the drive. Downing is firing-off shots, we might never get another chance of the house, gardens, labourers. Any fucking thing. This is gold.

Set-back. 

No reply at the house. Decision time. Do we leave and return later that night? But we might not be able to get in as the workers will have gone home. Or the Twat might leave for England and we’d have nothing.

I decide to put a note on The Grand’s headed paper, together with my Express card, under the door. And the same in the letter box in the wall outside. 

Something like (to spoof my real note): “Dear Mr Twat, We are in the South of France at the request of the Monaco royal family writing nice lovely things about the principality and King Rainier said you were installing a lovely English country meadow on French soil because you don’t like their flowers.

“We thought it would make a lovely feature article for one of our soft fucking weekend magazines. It would pleasure your millions of senile fans to read about such a lovely thing. Did I say this would simply be a lovely article about how brilliant you are…? 

“Like there’s a part of a foreign field that will be forever England. We’re definitely not anything to do with those nasty, unclean drunken news people. We don’t go near them.” 

It obviously worked a treat.

By the time we’d walked up the hill - after stopping for a rapid downing (haha) of a wine-coloured refreshment in a harbourside bar - there was a message under our doors. 

(Fucking Urgent. Ring the desk ASAP. Do not approach [redacted] under any circumstances. Make absolutely NO further contact. REPEAT : leave the Twat alone (my addition) ).

I meet Downing in the bar. We gather our thoughts. The barman wheels a telephone on a trolley to us outside in the garden. I light a fag from the second pack of the day. The Med’s still sparkling. We don’t want to go home. We will say there are no available flights out today.

We’ve timed it for the afternoon conference. The big players will be in there. I’ll only have to deal with the assistants. Easy.

nicklloyd

It was pretty clear. Editor, Nick Lloyd, pictured, had received a personal screamer from the incandescent and loathsome litigant who had melted the telephonic lines between France and England. He was going to sue for trespass, invasion of privacy, invasion of everything apart from his back passage. No doubt someone else was looking after that particular area of concern.

He will shut the Express down through the libel courts. Not bad going, I thought, as I haven’t even written anything yet. And if something’s true…

It proves the jumped-up Twat is engaging in adulterous naughtiness. He insists we leave the country immediately. Or else. Yes, my Lord, your request is my command. Fuck you.

“So the boss says get out as soon as you can and don’t go near him. Or you’re fired.”

Ok. We’ll be back in 24 hours. Rest assured there will be no contact with the Twat. All cool.

Downing and I have another bottle. I have another Marlboro red. I’m very worried. I’ve nearly exhausted my second packet. Can’t stand Gitanes or Gauloise. 

We won’t waste the night. We fancy some of the world’s most expensive lobster for our trouble. 

We return to the harbour bar and some excellent wine and mussels.

A gang of chic chicks are enjoying the evening sun at outside tables. Somehow we get talking, as one does. Downing’s an old laid-back smoothy. Girls like photographers. Come to think of it, they generally like reporters too. Blokes don’t. But we don’t care about that.

We tell them the story. No BS. 

They are 20-something daughters from wealthy French families staying in movie star-style holiday homes. 

Beatrice Cherie’s parents are both Parisienne airline pilots. And loaded. They have an extravagant all-wooden boat (apparently the most expensive type) moored in nearby Beaulieu-Sur-Mer harbour. It has a jeep on the back of it.

We share a few drinks and stories. Beatrice, knowing I’m a showbiz writer, says her best pal Kristina is releasing a pop record. So what.

She’s David Niven’s daughter. Oh. That’s different. The English icon and epitome of charm died a few years earlier.

His house in the Cap is still the family home and has always been off-limits to the press. She’s sure she’ll do an interview with pics.

I can feel an extension coming on. To our Riviera stay.  And we have booked for two nights … Old Niven is right in the Express’ slot and we’ll get into the family album etc etc etc. Easy.

Apparently she felt his presence there, especially around his favourite chair in the garden where, immobilised by motor neurone disease, he spent his last days looking at the sea he loved.

Fuck the Twat. We’re staying. He’s soooo yesterday’s story. Or so we thought..

Beatrice says she will meet us at the hotel at 10am and she will drive to see Miss Niven after clearing it with her.

It’s lobster-time at the finest restaurant for miles.

Fuck me. Fucking fuck me. I drop my fork. My face drops. My eyes are bulging out of my head. Downing asks if I’m having a stroke. He doesn’t seem too concerned though. Perhaps he has designs on my untouched lobster and the remains of the bottle.

It’s not too busy being midweek and it’s started to rain. Downing has an emergency camera in a bag. We take the best table in the open-air marquee which is hanging off a rocky ledge overlooking the ocean. There is only one track in and out of this place.

The bottle arrives. We’ve checked into the night desk to say we’ve pulled off the story, but might have another which is really good. Gotta tease them.

Night news editor David Eliades, always a pleasure to work with and a calming influence when emotions are running high, says good, enjoy yourselves. 

It’s probably the talk of the office that the editor has chickened out of the story. David says: “Everybody believes we should have nailed him.”

The lobster arrives. I’m facing the entrance.

“Fuck me. Fucking fuck me.” I drop my fork. My face drops. My eyes are bulging out of my head. Downing asks if I’m having a stroke. He doesn’t seem too concerned though. Perhaps he has designs on my untouched lobster and the remains of the bottle.

“Fuck it.”

I tell Downing to act normally. Not to speak and NOT to look over his shoulder. 

This is tricky.

The Twat has only gone and walked into the restaurant arm-in-arm with his secretary. Clearly they’ve just got off the nest. The body language is plain. She’s besotted. The Twat is just thankful he’s loaded because she wouldn’t be sitting there if he drove the No 69 from Penge to Badger’s Mount.

What to fucking do? We’ve been told not to approach under any circumstances or we get sacked.

But that’s not in our nature. That’s not the way we roll. Downing’s confident and can work anywhere and I’ve got the Sun and Mail constantly after my head. The controversy will only enhance our job opps. Worse comes to the worst we can flog the two stories.

And, in any case, I like a bit of aggro. And there’s a bloody crusader on the front of the paper.

It has to be done. Fuck it. We will ignore the editor’s order.

We must defend the cuckolded wife's honour.  We’re aware this will be painful for her. But not as painful at looking at the Twat’s ugly, cheating mug for the rest of time.

First we need confirmatory pics. He has to be papped. I tell Downing to casually walk to the loo. It’s on our side of the room, at an angle to their table which would possibly afford clear profile shots. The couple are holding hands over the table for eff’s sake. Hurry up and get it.

Hindsight proves it was wise to post the interview request. It meant Twat hadn’t a clue what we looked like.

Downing moves like lazily like a lynx sizing up its prey through the corners of those heavily-lined eyes. Eyes that have witnessed front-line fighting and real bloodshed  in theatres of war around the world. This, is in comparison, is a piece of piss.

I can’t see him. Where’s he fucking gone? He’s surely not really having a piss is he?

I’m looking in a different direction when Downing returns. He doesn’t say anything.

“Well, what the fuck happened?”

“You told me not to say anything,” he teases. “Got it. Lobster’s getting cold. Another bottle garçon.

“I went outside because the lighting was better and they couldn’t see me in the dark. Got a roll of film out. Must be something useable. Yes. Got both faces and holding hands. Need more though. They have to leave.”

It’s good to work with fucking pros.

The ideal opportunity was about to present itself .

I saw him ask for the bill. We saunter out to hide in the bushes and trees along the narrow track. I would be on one side. Downing the other, with the moon coming and going behind clouds behind him for limited natural light. Although he was going to spray them with flash too.

It was my task to stop them in their tracks and hit the Twat with the big questions. Downing would have pix of them holding hands walking up the road and of me then confronting them.

Then back to the pub for de-briefing.

The confrontation, however, was to take a very unexpected turn.

Every cloud has a silver lining and this one was raining on us all quite heavily.

First phase executed perfectly. Downing bangs off shots of them as they walk along under a large black umbrella. The rapid-firing flashlight blinding them and the boof-boof-boof of the motor-drive creasing the air like a sub-machine gun.

Shock and awe. Brilliant.

Startled, the Twat fears an assassination attempt.

But I leap in front of him to assure him he is safe and how does he feel about shagging his secretary while his wife’s at home. And various other scurrilous accusations which I know will rile the hell out of him.

He’s so furious he’s literally jumping up and down in frustration.

He lets out a primeval scream and launches an attack with his heavy umbrella. It’s raining blows on my head and shoulders. The flash is popping madly so I assume Downing is getting all this. It wasn’t hurting but I’m glad he didn’t try to stab me with it.

“I fucking told your editor to get you to leave and he assured me you would go. How dare you disobey me. This is the worst thing ever. I can’t believe you didn’t go when you were told.

“You’re not allowed here. This isn’t for you. I’m going to call the police. I know where you are staying. I’m going to jail you. 

“I’m going to sue you. You’re finished. I’ve got so much money I can fuck your life up.”

“Oh fuck off you twat. Now, are you screwing this bird or not. Lie if you want.”

He lets out a primeval scream and launches an attack with his heavy umbrella.

It’s raining blows on my head and shoulders. The flash is popping madly so I assume Downing is getting all this.

It wasn’t hurting but I’m glad he didn’t try to stab me with it.

The girl is screaming and pulls him off, not for the first time that day I guess, worrying that he could get in trouble for assault. As if.

We’ve got enough. I ask if he has anything else to say because there’s a nice way of doing this over a drink back at the hotel. Crisis management Twat, you want to do the full and frank confession?

You could tell the wife and we could time it so damage limitation is maxed.

But he’s not playing. He’s not falling for that one.

We scuttle off. He’s still issuing threats into the dark, damp night air.

We stop off at the Harbourside bar. Drink and phone call to the desk. The proverbial is about to hit the fan.

It’s going to be a long night. And so it proves in more ways than one.

The girls have also returned for a night cap.

eliades

I speak to David Eliades, pictured. He guffaws. Well done. Bloody brilliant. He’s looking forward to the call from the Twat. Write it and file it.

So while I’m putting it together Downing is liaising with the agency he’s sending his pix through to London. They pick up the film by motorbike and process and send.

Then the party begins. We’re getting sacked in the morning and we’ve got a pocketful of cash.

Somehow I end up back at the hotel with Beatrice. I think we left the bar at about 3.00 am and she didn’t want to drive. Something like that. 

There’s another note under the door. 

“Got the words and pix. And we’re going to run it …”

I don’t know whether that is good or bad.

Anyway the rest of the night is a bit of a French farce.

BC is in the spare bed. I sneak across and creep in.

She says : “Go to sleep” and gets out, and into the bed I’ve just left.

I try again, several times, with the same result. I’m doing this for England you understand. We’re supposed to be useless lovers compared to the French.

The bed swap ritual ends eventually when I finally get the message.

What a wanker. I still cringe with embarrassment.

We check in early. Good scoop they say. That’s all. We appear not to have been sacked. Strange.

They’re keen on the Niven story and it’s another beautiful day in the south of France.

BC has picked up her car and we head to Lo Scoglietto (The Little Rock). Kristina Niven is waiting to greet us.

For years she was the child who didn’t exist. She’d been adopted by Niven and his wife Hjordis in the 60’s when just two weeks old. But they made a pact to keep her existence secret so she would have a ‘normal’ upbringing.

(It was recently claimed she was really Niven’s by a one-nighter with an 18-year-old Swiss girl…)

The amazing house, which has has the Med on three sides, had been previously rented by King Leopold of Belgium and Charlie Chaplin.

Niven instantly fell in love with it and bought it from a former French resistance leader.

Kristina still lived in the family home and showed us around. No journalist had ever set foot inside. And only extremely rare photos had ever been taken by one sycophantic, obscure Swedish magazine.

It was a time capsule still resonating with wild Hollywood parties and the ghosts of  screen idols from the golden age of cinema. You could feel it.

Nothing had been changed and, poignantly, the charismatic actor’s favourite garden chair positioned looking south across the Med remained untouched. Nobody ever sat in it while he was alive and certainly not after his death in 1983 from motor neurone disease.

It worked well as a glossy mag feature. But had a news lead too. She had been in a coma for weeks and suffered brain damage in a road accident. Her dad was in pieces and had stayed at her hospital bedside throughout.  

“Niven’s secret heartbreak.” 

Kristina was making a full recovery. Her pop career was a bit of a car crash however.

There was more. In the end what could have been a two-hour trip lasted for two weeks as BC showed me the mountain villages and hidden harbours tourists never see. On a visit to cave dwellings we stopped off at St Paul De Vence and bumped into Bill Wyman, on the run from potential under-age sex charges.

Ironically, Nick Lloyd had turned down an exclusive chat in Marbella with Mandy Smith I had offered.  It was supposed to be the damning tell-all.

Anyway Wyman was fair game and he was duly fronted up. 

Then, in a bar in Beaulieu, another exclusive walked through the door. Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic Challenger team had failed in their bid to cross the ocean in record time.

In an attempt to avoid newsmen he limped into the relatively low-key harbour to hide and lick his wounds. The stricken vessel was secreted in a tatty boat shed away from prying eyes.

Not for long. A member of Her Majesty’s Press was in town.

 And what could have been a two-hour trip turned into a jaunt lasting nearly two weeks. And I still had a job to return to.

Tavener’s Tales: Quest for the Black Widow


© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre