Times Obituary: The irepressible Michael Green

michaelgreen

Even Michael Green’s best friends thought him a menace, albeit it a loveable one. It was to do with the way that he would flail his arms around when telling a story. No vase was safe. On one occasion a tray of champagne glasses was wrested from a passing waiter and pitched into the lap of the French actress Marie-France Duquette, an innocent bystander. 

When Green appeared on an Eamonn Andrews’s chat show to plug one of his humorous books, The Art of Coarse Golf, he wielded a seven iron in the studio to demonstrate how not to swing the club and, in his excitement, accidentally let go. It missed the head of Spike Milligan, another of the guests, by a matter of inches and, visibly shaken, the comedian barely spoke another word for the rest of the show.

One of the quirkiest humorists of his generation, Green created a minor classic with The Art of Coarse Acting, an affectionate but all too accurate exposé of the pretensions of amateur dramatics. The book was dedicated to those who perform to sparse audiences in church halls amid lethal props, while the coarse actor was defined as one who can remember his lines, but not necessarily in the right order. “The Coarse Actor’s aim is to upstage the rest of the cast,” it said. “His hope is to be dead by Act Two so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar.”

Green was to produce 15 Coarse books on subjects ranging from gardening to sex. The series sold millions of copies and remained in print for 30 years. To this day The Art of Coarse Acting remains essential “how not to” reading for amateur and professional students of drama.

upside down

Michael Frederick Green was born in 1927 into a lower-middle class family intent on keeping up appearances. His father, who had lost an arm to a German shell, was awarded a war pension, which maintained a modest home in a suburb of Leicester.

Childhood thrills for Green centred on football and rugby — especially rugby, which was then the chief spectator sport in the Midlands. His delight was not so much in the game as his father’s barracking of the players and referee, providing material that was to be recycled 50 years later for Green’s rugby column in The Sunday Times and in The Art of Coarse Rugby. The coarse rugby player was described by Green as differentiated from the rugger player in that he does not enjoy playing.

By 1939 Green was at Wyggeston Grammar School, and in the evenings an enthusiastic member of the local amateur dramatic society. His first appearance was as a schoolboy in Goodbye, Mr Chips, the James Hilton potboiler about an old schoolmaster. In the final scene, when Chips draws his last breath, Green was one of the heavenly youth choir singing Lord Behold Us With Thy Blessing while Chips suffered what became known as the All Purpose Coarse Death. “Mr Chips was heard groaning and tottering round the stage, clawing at furniture, until a crash announced he had fallen down,” Green said. “The author intended Chips to die peacefully, but this was more like the demise of Lucky Luciano.”

The desire to act or show off grew. Green noted that nobody seemed to pay attention when he was serious — only when he was fooling about.

coarserugger

After leaving school at 16 he started work as an editorial messenger with the Leicester Mercury. There he was tutored by a vintage reporter who told him of the days when the results of a football match were sent back to the newsroom by carrier pigeon (“It was supposed to home on a loft in the Mercury roof, but sometimes went to the rival newspaper instead.”) Green was soon writing up births, marriages and deaths. Attending inquests, where he discovered how easy it was to die from a scratch or a germ, made him a lifetime hypochondriac.

The true mark of his character, however, was a compulsion to do anything for a laugh, even when the inner voice was urging caution. The episode that entered the folk history of provincial journalism started with Green and another young journalist on night watch for German incendiary bombs. The overnight fire-watching job was unpopular, except with boys his age who were too young to be called up — for they could drink brown ale, use the typewriters and telephones and help themselves to the editor’s cigars. Bored with reading the editor’s private correspondence one night, the pair descended to the machine room to inspect the printing presses. The attraction of the start button was irresistible. As Green recalled, “the presses burst into life with a great roar and started to print the first and only midnight edition of the Leicester Mercury”. By the time he had found out how to stop the machines an enormous reel of paper had broken under the strain and he was knee-deep in newsprint. The next day Green was looking for another job.

He found one at the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, where they were always short of staff, it was said, because they paid the lowest wages. The paper was also distinguished by having files going back to 1720. Once a week it was Green’s job to search the records for a feature, 200 Years Ago. From this came the inspiration for his most endearing character, the dissolute Squire Haggard, whose fictitious journal first appeared in the Echo and re-emerged in the 1960s as part of the Peter Simple column in The Daily Telegraph.

The Art of Coarse Rugby preceded 14 other books in the series

Among the tips offered by Green was 'never take a penalty with a cigarette in your mouth. Always hand it to the referee. These little courtesies distinguish the gentleman.

In common with authentic diarists of the period, Haggard, in many ways a Hogarthian grotesque, was obsessed with exotic diseases (“Amos Bindweed died from Putrefaction of the Tripes”), executions (“Jas Soaper hanged for stealing a nail”) and disasters at home and abroad (“Plague raging in Cadiz”). Less authentic were Haggard’s romantic troubles (“Because of the wet weather my Rheumaticks are so bad I was unable to have my usual whore yesterday”) and his relationship with his tenants (“this day being that most sacred feast in the Christian calendar, viz: Quarter Day, I sallied forth to evict those behind with their rents”). Haggard made his appearance in book form in 1975 and in 1990 was adapted by Yorkshire Television for two series.

After war service in tanks and the education corps, Green returned for a brief spell at the Echo, where ambitions to write the great novel were eventually reduced to a fictionalised memoir, Don’t Print My Name Upside Down, while further incursions into amateur theatre gave him a taste for Shakespearian pastiche. This resurfaced years later in his Coarse Acting Show at the Edinburgh festival with All’s Well That Ends As You Like It and Henry the Tenth (Part Seven). In 1950 he became a sub-editor on the Birmingham Gazette, where he also reported on rugby matches.

A move to Fleet Street came in 1953 with the offer of a job on The Star, then one of a trio of London evening papers. The Star was by far the weakest of the three, a sweatshop stuffed by old hacks desperate to put off retirement. Green stood it for four years before going freelance to write documentary features for Rediffusion, London’s independent weekday television service.

coarse golf

Part-time work on the sports desk of The Observer helped to build his reputation as a reporter who could enliven the account of an otherwise dull match with a few laughs at the expense of the players. This led to an offer from Hutchinson to write The Art of Coarse Rugby. Among the tips offered by Green was “never take a penalty with a cigarette in your mouth”. “Always hand it to the referee. These little courtesies distinguish the gentleman.”

The Art of Coarse Sailing and Even Coarser Rugby appeared before he really got into his stride with Coarse Acting. The spin-offs from this book included a coarse acting competition and a sell-out appearance at the Edinburgh festival where professional actors gave their worst in rehashed classics such as The Cherry Sisters and, in homage to Beckett, Last Call for Breakfast. In 1979 the coarse acting one-act plays came to the West End.

Having lived on his own for many years in west London, where he declared his garden a nature reserve to save cutting the lawn, Green met his future wife through a shared passion for amateur dramatics. He and Christine, a pianist and music teacher, were actively involved in the Questors Theatre in Ealing. On the night they met she was serving behind the bar and he ordered six G&Ts. 

After 23 years together they were married in 2004, when he was 77 and she 55. “He was one of life’s natural bachelors,” she said, “always nervous about being tied down. Even then he bolted when we got to the register office. We had to cancel and try again another day.” She described him as “maddening, but lovely” and the untidiest and clumsiest person she had met. “Always spilling things. If there was a room completely empty apart from one small object he would somehow manage to trip over it.”

Mickey, as his friends called him to wind him up, was convivial to a fault and considered a regular in a number of Fleet Street pubs. This is not to suggest, however, that he was a dissolute figure, or an unhealthy one — he not only continued playing tennis into his late eighties, but managed to avoid maiming his opponents with flying rackets.

Michael Green, humorist, was born on January 2, 1927. He died of a heart attack on February 25, 2018, aged 91

13 comments


Comments

Newest | Oldest | Most Recommended

Grumpy Granny 8 1 hour ago

The Art of Coarse Rugby and Coarse Sailing  were our books of choice when  our daughter was born ,truly distracted me !

Flag

Recommend

Reply

Steve Iles 2 hours ago

Only last night we were laughing about the Art of Coarse Sailing and the dance of the muddy death.

Flag

Recommend

Reply

Simon Miller 2 hours ago

I had that edition of Coarse Rugby throughout my teenage years but it disappeared in one of my brother’s raiding parties from university, luckily a ‘68 hardback was found in a Second-hand bookshop in those pre-eBay days!

If anyone had written a biography of my rugby days, it could have been mistaken for a (poor in comparison) companion piece to Michael’s hysterical tome! 😁

RIP Michael.

Flag

Recommend

Reply

John Pearce 4 hours ago

A lovely evocation of a funny and genuine man. 


His two volumes of memoirs - "The Boy Who Shot Down an Airship" and "Nobody Hurt in Small Earthquake" - deserve a mention [which they don't get above].  Honest, unpretentious and beautifully written, they are I think his best work, evoking a series of worlds - the rural midlands, flourishing local journalism, the Saturday football "pink" editions, hot metal Fleet Street, the shabby genteel lower middle class, life as part of a conscript army in the last days of WWII - which have gone for ever.  His description of the moment when they switched the teleprinters off on the day when the News Chronicle went bust - "it was as if a heart had stopped beating" - is genuinely moving. 


I suspect the books are long our of print, but you could get copies on Amazon or the Advanced Book Exchange. 

Flag

4Recommend

Reply

L G 4 hours ago

is it ok to laugh out loud at an obituary?  Brilliant piece.

Flag

3Recommend

Reply

Chris Adams 5 hours ago

A wonderful 'coarse obituary' which was so delightful to read. I am sure he would have enjoyed it too.

Flag

4Recommend

Reply

Iain Sanders 5 hours ago

I have a feeling it was a lot of fun researching his.

Flag

2Recommend

Reply

Steve Young 6 hours ago

Avidly read them many years ago. RIP MR Green.

Flag

1Recommend

Reply

Iain Macleod 6 hours ago

He was the JK Rowlings of my generation. As someone who was almost allergic to reading books it was the art of course Acting, Rugby etc that I read with a passion and woke up a reading bug that my awful school education had almost killed.


Thank you Mr Green


RIP

Flag

Recommend

Reply

brian wright 8 hours ago

I still think The Art of Coarse Rugby was one of the funniest things I've ever read. 

Flag

8Recommend

Reply

M A KYLE 11 hours ago

He was a wonderful comic writer and reading his works was great experience. They still sit in pride of place on my bookshelves. Anyone who participated in Am Dram will testify to the total accuracy of The Art of Coase Acting. May his memory survive.

Flag

4Recommend

Reply

grumpygit 14 hours ago

shame it wasn't Philip Green

Flag

Recommend

Reply

Gillian Palmer 15 hours ago

A man of utter genius, charm and wit who was possibly the greatest influence of any on my university theatre of the 1980s...so happy to learn that he lived so long and went with a proper sense of drama...rip, Michael


My favourite moment that sticks in the mind, from his Mozart opera


Continuo: "Here comes the Burgomeister, he is a risible fellow who ever enjoys a jest, I will wear his hat and how he will relish the confusion"


Song (Chorus): "The Burgomeister's Hat"


Joy


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre