Saturday, July 23, 2005

The sharp elbows of the aristocracy

When in November 2000 Judith Keppel became the first person to win the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? there were those who grumbled that she was too posh. And being posh is just about the worst sin imaginable in New Britain

But in this case "posh" was not being used to mean educated as, shockingly, it so often is. Because Keppel really is posh. She is granddaughter of the ninth Earl of Albermarle and great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of the Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII).

She is even a distant cousin of Camilla Parker Bowles, or the Duchess of Cornwall as we must now call her.

Yes, it is nicer when someone who obviously needs the money wins a big prize, as this rather prissy Guardian editorial pointed out at the time. But it is hard to begrudge Keppel her winnings. I am afraid that until socialism has been established educated people will continue to enjoy an unfair advantage in quizzes.

What no one mentioned at the time was that there is a precedent for someone with aristocratic connections winning a big TV quiz prize.

In 1957 Lady Cynthia Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith (second son of the Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith), won the pioneering ITV quiz The $64,000 Question. It is hard to find out much about the show in general (there is a little information here), but thanks to the miracle of the internet it is possible to discover four of the questions Lady Cynthia answered to win her prize.

Colin Clifford's book The Asquiths tells us that Cynthia Asquith was born Cynthia Charteris, the daughter of the Earl of Wemyss. She became well known as a novelist and writer of ghost stories and was a friend of both D. H. Lawrence and, says Wikipedia, L. P. Hartley. (Herbert, incidentally, was known as Beb and once dined with Lord Bonkers - see Monday.)

Cynthia also worked as secretary to J. M. Barrie, revealing a talent for winning money long before she became a TV star. She persuaded Barrie to alter his will in her favour on his deathbed. The result was that the considerable earnings from his estate went to her rather than to the three surviving Llewelyn Davies boys whom he had adopted.

The story of these boys and their role in the genesis of Peter Pan is well known. It was told in the recent film Finding Neverland and also in Andrew Birkin's trilogy of plays The Lost Boys from 1978, with their superlative performance by Ian Holm as Barrie, and his later book J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys.

If you want to know the depth of Cynthia Asquith's infamy, you should visit the wonderful website Birkin maintains. Click on Davies Family on the lefthand side, then Nico on the right and then Nico's letters to Andrew Birkin 1975-1978 in the middle.

If you scroll down to the letter dated 1975-12-05 and you will read:
When Uncle Jim got really ill, and was not expected to last the night, Peter made the Greatest Mistake of his Life and telephoned her down in Devon or Cornwall. She hired a car and motored through the night. Meanwhile Peter, I and General Freyberg went on watch - 8 to 12, 12 to 4, 4 to 8 am - each of us expecting to see JMB die. Cynthia arrived towards the end of Bernard Freyberg's watch ... still alive ... got hold of surgeon Horder and solicitor Poole with the will ... Horder gave an injection, and sufficient energy was pumped into Uncle Jim so that he could put his name to the will that Poole laid before him ...
Believe it or not, much as I would have relished the money, the two things that broke my heart were firstly that I had no say in the reproduction of his plays - how I would have loved to be consulted in the casting and management of this play and that, all of which I knew so well and had watched so closely as JMB told the various actors what was in his mind etc etc: secondly that the relatively small amounts that were going to my daughter and others of her generation were removed. All very sad.
But then aristocratic families do not gain their wealth by behaving honourably. Except on TV quizzes, of course.

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