Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

‘Not Wanted On Voyage’ • Rose Collis • Arts Council

Some 60 years ago, Nancy Spain and Gilbert Harding, two of the most famous personalities in British television and radio of that era, unwittingly found themselves at the centre of a celebrity gossip story which had the tabloids vying with each other in a feeding frenzy more befitting of contemporary media. And the names of Nancy Spain and Gilbert Harding became inextricably linked.

Having written A Trouser-Wearing Character, the first, and only, biography of Nancy Spain, (published in 1997), I had long believed the unlikely yet genuine friendship with Harding – including the long-running and hilarious rumours that they might marry − was a subject worthy of dramatisation, either for the stage or television. In the years since I wrote the book, there had been first a stage play and then a radio play about Harding, but with Nancy only making a cameo appearance in both. I was also surprised that BBC4 hadn’t seized the opportunity to make a drama about either of them, as it had for the likes of Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Hughie Green, et al.

I felt that a central story focusing on the contrasting aspects of the two famous friends was ideal for such a purpose: Gilbert Harding was a guilt-ridden and unhappy gay man who loathed his fame. Nancy Spain was at ease with her sexuality and her celebrity status. And yet they cared deeply for each other, despite their differences. Both were kind, generous, witty, impressively literate — and refreshingly frank. Dubbed ‘The Rudest Man on Television’, Harding’s friend Brian Masters, said he was ‘the one person whom everybody in the country knew… truly the first ever Television Personality, a man celebrated for being himself.’

But the irony was that these two famous public figures, known for their unflinching outspokenness, privately both harboured a whopping great secret that could have destroyed their careers overnight. And so in 1954, when they were in the middle of the Atlantic, Jamaica-bound, they found themselves bombarded with telegrams from Fleet Street reporters who believed the ‘trouser-wearing N.Spain’ and the ‘irascible bachelor’ would be entering into distinctly unholy matrimony, they had to tread a careful line between truth and deceit — lest the ‘steady ship’ in which their reputations sailed capsized and sank with all hands.

As is often the way, it was two anniversaries that re-ignited my longstanding desire to explore and celebrate the friendship between these two extraordinary personalities of their time: firstly, 50 years since the sudden death of Nancy Spain in a plane crash and second, 60 years since…

Read more: ‘Not Wanted On Voyage’ « Rose Collis.

3 comments on “‘Not Wanted On Voyage’ • Rose Collis • Arts Council

  1. Mary

    This was a great read Sarah ~

  2. First Night Design

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Rose is a great writer. She’s a friend of mine from when I was running the original R&V website and she was doing research for her marvellous book about Coral Browne – well worth a read.

  3. Mary

    Thanks for the suggestion Sarah!!

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