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Friday, February 08, 2019

Comic Cuts - 8 February 2019

Today's Comic Cuts column is going up a little later than usual because I was in London on Thursday helping to film a segment for The One Show. I was contacted last month by a BBC production office who were tasked with putting together four and a half minutes on the subject of Harry Bensley, the man who claimed that he walked around the world in an Iron Mask.

I first wrote about Harry here on Bear Alley way back in 2014, turning it into a slim book in 2016. The text was expanded for the current version of the book that was first published in the summer of 2018. There's a new draft of the book available at the moment where I've tidied up a couple of things for clarity. It's a complicated story and The One Show can only give the subject a few minutes, a stripped back version covering the main facts. If you want to explore further, well... there's a book...

So how did I end up wandering around in front of a camera in Trafalgar Square with social historian and author Ruth Goodman watching a K-Pop video being shot and then going to watch some shoes rising and falling... rising and falling... rising and falling... like breathing... at a shoe museum?

As these things usually do, it began with an e-mail from a guy called Paul from the BBC in Belfast asking whether I'd be willing to chat about Harry Bensley with a view to maybe being interviewed for a segment on The One Show. Why, yes, I would like to chat about Harry Bensley, I thought.

After a couple of interviews with a researcher (Hi, Siobhan!) trying to straighten out and simplify the storyline until a rough script could be prepared. I was due to travel up to London on the Thursday for filming at Galeria Melissa in Covent Garden at around 3:30pm. This is the aforementioned shoe museum, based at 43 King Street, which used to be the location of the National Sporting Club, where the wager between the Earl of Lonsdale and J. P. Morgan was laid down that set Harry Bensley on his way around the world in a mask. Well, that's the story, anyway.

On Wednesday, the plan changed... could I be in Trafalgar Square for 2.00pm. As I'd planned a little redundancy into the train times, I could, and easily.

I'd planned to do a little exploring of old haunts and wander down Charing Cross Road looking in some of the old book shops. But London is changing and the area where Tottenham Court Road meets New Oxford Street is just one huge building site. Denmark Street (the site of the original Forbidden Planet) is all scaffolding and the bar where FP and Titan did all their signings has gone, replaced with a rather boxy looking. The Forbidden Planet that was in New Oxford Street is now a Korean and Japanese supermarket.

There were only two secondhand bookshops down Charing Cross Road, neither of which had a particularly good SF section, so I headed off to Trafalgar Square early.

The first thing I noticed was another change. When I was a kid and we were taken to Trafalgar Square by my Mum on Nan, it was packed out with pigeons. One of the attractions was feeding them and then scrambling around on the sticky back of a lion that was covered in pigeon poop.

Well, there are only one or two pigeons these days thanks to the banning of bird seed sellers in 2001 and the 2003 ban on feeding the birds. You could still feed them on the North Terrace (outside the National Art Gallery), but that was banned in 2007. And if that wasn't enough, Ken Livingstone (who must have really hated pigeons) brought in hawks to scare off the stubborn ones who liked hanging out in central London, spending over £350,000 to kill 130 pigeons (just £2,729 per dead bird) between 2003-09.

It has definitely reduced the number of pigeons, but there's still a gull on the head of every statue.

At precisely two o'clock the phone rang and Paul tells me they are about to arrive at Trafalgar Square. We met up and he introduced me to cameraman Austin and to Ruth Goodman who will be interviewing me. We find a corner of a fountain where we begin filming. You'll be able to see some of these bits when the piece goes out, so I'll just say here that it involved answering a few questions, usually a couple of times so I could get the answers straight and get the information across concisely (anyone reading this will realise that even my writing rambles).

Then we had to walk across Trafalgar Square, avoiding the Asian girl in the tight top who was dancing like she was under attack from ants but was almost certainly trying to film a K-pop video, avoiding the conga lines of tourists also crossing the square, and trying to remember not to stare or gurn at the camera as I passed by.

Then it was off to Covent Garden and the former home of the National Sporting Club, now the Galeria Melissa, a shoe museum. This bit will actually come ahead of the Trafalgar Square part of the interview in the finished piece, so I had to avoid actually naming Harry Bensley, as he is only revealed after the Galeria Melissa interview.

I only saw a couple of rooms of the shoe museum, the psychedelic entrance hall, the room of hanging shoes and a nicer little nook with a couple of comfy armchairs. There was a bit more chat about the Iron Mask and what the wager involved. I'd spent the morning wandering around the kitchen and living room reciting "the trip involved 160 towns and cities across 40 counties in the UK, in each of which he had to get the signature of a dignitary – the mayor or a doctor – to prove that he had been there. Then he had to visit 19 countries, Ireland, North and South America, New Zealand and Australia, Japan and China. Then Africa and through Europe, back to the UK." I think I managed to repeat this almost exactly three times, along with some additional lines about a companion and a mention that he had to find a wife.

We were finished by five. The last shot was Ruth and I walking into the room with the hanging perspex boxes of shoes. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing these were all modern classics and the rising and falling of the boxes was quite hypnotic.

And that was the filming over. Ruth headed off for her taxi, I headed off for the underground and Paul and Austin headed off to the airport. I arrived at Leicester Square tube station still buoyed by adrenaline. That lasted about two minutes. Believe me, there's nothing like being bumped and buffeted around on the Northern Line to bring you straight back down to earth.

I don't know when the film will appear, but I'll be sure to let everyone know. I'm hoping that it will give the book a little bit of a boost – it only costs £5.50, so it's not a hugely expensive item, and if you're ordering something else that's not expensive enough to get free postage, it might just nudge you over the free postage limit, which means it has only cost a couple of quid.

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