It was a hot Summers' day and my restaurant was busy with people taking lunch. Some inside and others on the pavement outside. Suddenly the calm and tranquility was shattered by the sound of furniture being thrown around and raised voices. The kerfuffle seemed to be coming from outside the pub next door- the Cavalier. Suddenly , in scurried Lionel Blair clutching a glass of Pinot Noir in one hand and his Greek salad in the other! His medallion swung across his chest as he raced to escape the unruly mob. Just another day at the Stage Door Bistro and Wine Bar!
All my life I seem to have been in the company of celebrities. Not just the Z - listers beloved of reality TV shows, but the ones most people have actually heard of. I can't switch on the tellie without seeing someone I've met.
In my younger days I helped at the same youth club as Cliff Richard. He even invited me to his baptism at a church in Finchley. About the same time I regularly met Ray Davies of the Kinks in a restaurant near Primrose Hill. Another of the sixties music scene with whom I came in contact, albeit some years later,was Paul McCartney. I was at Buckingham palace on the occasion of his knighthood. I was literally about 5 metres behind him when he was tapped on the shoulders by the regal sword! We had a chat whilst standing at adjoining urinals in the royal loo! That was also the day when Joan Collins came hurtling down a staircase and met me coming up .The resultant collision almost sent me crashing to the bottom, but I must say her apology seemed most sincere.
Do you remember Fyfe Robertson? A gangly Scott with a deer-stalker, tweed jacket and a curly pipe. Sold him a car when I was peddling motors in a garage in Ashdown Forest quite near his cottage. David Jason also parted with a sizable wedge when he needed a new motor, although this was for a Honda Accord not a Reliant Robin! Fortunately for me - and my commission cheque - his Del Boy bartering skills had not at that time been perfected!
John Cooper of Mini Cooper fame was a mate of my boss and he regularly popped in for coffee. Motorcycling champ Barry Sheen gave me the task of selling his motor home, and we regularly met to discuss progress on the sale. Unfortunately I failed to find a buyer and I haven't seen him since!
It was during the opening of a new showroom that Barbara Windsor came into my life. My abiding memory of her is her size. She is tiny! Well, most of her is tiny.It was the day before her debut in Eastenders.
Jeremy Clarkson on the other hand is huge! He towered above me when met a Citroen team - building day. His then co-presenter of Top Gear Quentin Wilson was there as well.
Many years ago there was a cabaret bar in Eastbourne. It was called the Kings Country Club. Strange title in retrospect since it was neither in the country nor a club. Anyway, it was there I stood shoulder to shoulder with Acker Bilk just after he'd blown Stranger on the Shore down his clarinet for the millionth time. I asked if he got fed with playing it. He just pointed at his pint and said 'it pays for this son'.It was at the same venue that Bernie Clifton and I discussed the merits of riding an Emu for a living - or was it an ostrich?
Most of my celebrity encounters have been at my restaurant - the Stage Door Bistro & Wine Bar which I opened in Carlisle Road Eastbourne. just off the seafront and opposite the towns' three thriving theatres and conference venues. By gaining a late licence and advetising in the theatre dressing rooms I was asssured a steady stream of thespians, musicians and other assorted entertainers.
Within days of opening I had Shirley Anne Field clearing tables, and the following week the charming Edward Hardwicke (Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett's Holmes) captivated us with tales from his film stage and television career. Other eaters in the early days included Van der Valk in the form of Barry Foster.Christopher Casanove of Dynasty fame was appearing at the Devonshire Park theatre with Linda Baron. Arkwright is not the only one to have snuggled up to nurse Gladys's ample bosom!
Simon Ward was a quiet sort of a chap, but not so his daughter Sophie who was always the life and soul of the party whenever she visited us. Talking of daughters of famous fathers, Deborah Moore - offspring of Roger - spent a week with us on one her first tours away from home. She seemed a little shy and insecure and preferred to eat perched on a bar stool where she could engage in conversation with my waitresses. Imagine lifting the phone to hear James Bond on the other end asking to speak to his Debbie! Another Moore was Patrick Moore who enjoyed a bottle of my finest Bordeaux before taking the stage at the Congress for his travelling rendition of the Sky at Night.
I always got my celebs to sign their names on the posters advertising their endeavours. Most included a complimentary line pr two. Christopher Timothy wrote 'the steak was ace'. Ainsley Harriot scrawled 'To Keith - keep it moist and sticky' and John Challis, best known as Boysie, simply recommended my customers to 'Eat at Joes'.
My favourite scribble however was from Dr Who Colin Baker who wrote 'Now that's what I call a Stage Door'.
Most of the stars were friendly, some overwhelmingly so. Some on the other hand where quite stand-offish. Nicolas Smith - Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served, refused to sign his poster on the basis that he didn't believe we'd put it on display! But who were my favourites? Trevor Bannister came on two tours and was just as delightful as he was when he played Mr Lucas, also in Being Served. I'll never forget Ami MacDonald's' squeaky voice nor Sue Hodge who demonstrated her famous cart-wheels last seen in the Cafe Renee on 'ello'ello where she played Mimi. Her 'boss' Renee, Gordon Kaye, came to us with his partner, the dancing instructor Barry from Hi de Hi. We sat up most the night talking. A true method actor, Gordon, reverting to his French accent whenever he spoke about his role in that classic sit-com. Also from Hi de Hi was Jeffery Holland - Spike - and Ruth Madoc who was exactly like her alter-ego Gladys Pugh. David Griffin who played the Entertainments Manageron the same show - and Hyacinth Bucket's long suffering next door neighbour, regularly turned up in all sorts of productions, always bringing with him his son whom we saw grow from nine years old to a young man over the years.
Then there was Frazer Hynes, ex Emmerdale Farm, and his former wife Gemma Craven, though thankfully not at the same time as they had recently undergone a very public and somewhat accrimonious divirce. She came back the following year in the same production with co-star Peter Duncan who is best known for his skills with producing things from Fairy Liquid bottles.
Susan Penhaligan who, though having advanced a few years, was alluring as ever she was in Bouquet of Barbed Wire. She came on about three tours and always made us her first port of call. Frank Finlay from the same production also ate with us on many occasion and was the epitome of charm and good manners. There was a time when George Sewell was never off our screens. Remember his long suffering Police Inspector in the Detectives? He was another of our favourites and on his frequent visits over the years aways ate his supper at the bar rather than with his colleagues at a table. One of his blundering DC's in that series was another regular eater Robert Powell. Strange as it may seem I'll never forget his eyes! And it's not every day you have JC in your bar!
Then there was Lorraine Chase who took me out for a meal, and Sandra Dickinson who didn't. Jill Greenacre from Brittas and Lewis Collins from a TV drama the name of which escapes me. Tim Brooke Taylor and Roger Lloyd Pack. Hannah Gordon and Brian Murphy. The list goes on!
Wendy Craig was fabulous. She spent ages one evening with one of my waitresses who was too young to remember Butterflies, and took through her career. Another of my girls got to sing the World Song with Luke Goss. When she left me I gave her his signed poster as a memento of one of the greatest moments of her life. Other visiting musicians included the legendary Humphrey Littleton and singer Helen Shapiro.
Then there was the star we nearly met! The restaurant was packed . It usually was late at night when a big name was in town because there was a good chance you'd get your programme signed and see your idol at close quarters. Anyway, this night a burly minder came into the bistro to request a table for his charge and my daughter Penny explained that we were full. She had actually turned away Bill Wyman of the Stones! Well, she didn't know who he was. It didn't exactly go down well with the expectant crowd I can tell you!
Eastbourne hosts a major tennis tournament each year just across the road from the Stage Door. A young Venus Williams graced our establishment on more than one occasion as did most of the other international tennis stars including Martina Navratilova. One year she had just launched her auto biography and the newsagent over the road had a life size cardboard cut out of her in the street advertising her book. Within seconds of it being put out it was descended upon by stampede of somewhat 'butch' ladies who proceeded to tear it limb from limb each taking with them a piece of their disembodied heroin!
I'm a bit of an Archers fan so when a number of the cast rolled into to town to perform their readings of rural poetry, I looked forward to providing them with sustenance. I got to talk to Edward Kelsey who's clipped accent sounds nothing like Joe Grundy and Rosilind Adams - Clarrie, who's does! Felicity Finch thankfully does not have Ruth's awful brogue, but Nigel Pargitter in the form of Graham Seed sounds exactly like his character. Tamsin Gregg, better known as Debbie Aldridge, was fab and just like the character she is currently playing in the Green Wing.
One year the Lib Dems held their conference over the road, and Ming Campbell was a daily visitor as was Shirley Williams and other assorted politicos. In their wake came Michael Brunson of ITN (what a misery) and Tom Bradby.
Eastbourne Theatres always have a Summer Season and one year it was Scissor Happy - an audience-participating farce starring Lionel Blair and many of the personalities mentioned earlier. While most stars prefer a quiet corner when off duty, Lionel was ever the true professional, and loved nothing more than meeting his fans. Most days - sometimes twice a day, he would take up his position at the table facing the door and treat everyone he met like an old friend. I can honestly say that by the end of the six week run I was able to count him amongst my friends!On the last night he and the cast invited my daughter and me to join them at the Bucaneer for a drink. I think he was a bit wary of going into the Cavalier after his experience a few weeks earlier! Not long ago I got a message from him saying how disappointed he was to find the Stage Door gone.
Not all memories where happy. One night Dennis Waterman came in with Patrick Mower. They had spent some considerable time in the Cavalier beforehand. I'll leave the rest to your imagination, but needless to say they weren't welcome back!
Ask any of my staff and they will tell you who the greatest star was. He wasn't a celebrity in the true sense of the word, but his almost daily presence at the Stage Door made more of a lasting impression than all of the stars added together. He was Professor Britten. A man of some seventy years who looked much older due to failing health. When his taxi arrived, there was a rush to be the one to help him across the pavement to our door. There he would stand for a moment, wearing a double breasted Saville Row suit, a floppy bow tie and black and white patent leather shoes. On his head a wide brimmed black Amish hat, and in his hand an ivory topped cane. Every day he would climb onto a bar stool where he would flirt with my girls! 'My dear friend' he would say as I approached. He always called me that. Sometimes we would take him home. He lived in a small annex off his son's house where he spent his days surrounded by teetering towers of text books and piles of academic papers. His writings helped to teach the children who attended his beloved Montessori schools. He was a Buddhist. He came to it late in life.
He died too soon - he still had so much to give. The last thing he said to me was 'Goodbye my dear friend'
He was buried in a cardboard coffin under a tree in a copse.
The Stage Door Bistro and Wine bar is no more. I sold it and the new owners got it badly wrong. It was probably the worst decision of my life. But it still lives on in the memories of all who visited it and worked there.