Thank you for calling

Wednesday 8th June 2011

NICK Clarke, the late Radio 4 presenter, teased me about it for years. He became a Cheltenham favourite. For his final appearance in the Town Hall, he needed help getting up on to that high stage, having had his left leg amputated following cancer.

He’s one of many people I remember when sauntering down the corridors of that majestic venue: Ian Dury entertaining awestruck festival staff with rat-a-tat-tat wit; Joseph Heller greeting everyone as if he’d known them personally for years; Laurie Lee asking after Titus, his former cat, who’d lived with me for a while and whom my younger daughter, then a toddler, tried to teach to read.

A decade ago, I organised and chaired an event for the Festival of Literature, with Nick Clarke, Sue Limb and James Walton acting as judges of a competition to find the nation’s best answerphone message.

This was held at the Everyman Theatre. And almost an embarrassing flop.

I had a device on stage to dial the numbers. Ringing tone and messages could be heard throughout the theatre. I was unable to speak to anyone on the receiving end, but, of course, had no reason to, those selected having been asked not to answer the phone during the one hour event.

The first four calls produced: an engaged signal; a child answering; number unobtainable; one that didn’t stop ringing because the owner had forgotten to set the answerphone before going to the pub.

Nick responded to each cock-up with a friendly dig at the chairman. Audience laughter closed in on mockery.

Whereupon, with panic setting in, I forgot to press 9 for an outside line and 01xxx was read by the machine as an internal call to…

“Stage door, Everyman Theatre.”

Deafening uproar.

Fortunately, from that lowest possible point, things could only improve. The winning message was:

“Thank you for calling. The answerphone is on because there’s somebody we don’t wish to talk to. Please leave a message. If we don’t get back to you, you’ll know who it is.”

RIP Nick, Ian, Joseph, Laurie. And thanks.

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