Guests may be living or dead, so that means there’s an enormous field to choose from and the question requires some serious thought. However, one person immediately springs to my mind, who would certainly liven up the party.
I can remember sitting at the table, as an eleven-year-old just starting to learn French, and attempting to decipher the blurb on the HP sauce bottle label. Gradually, as my knowledge of French improved, the HP label began to make sense to me and I read it so many times that eventually I knew it by heart. “Cette sauce de haute qualité est un mélange de fruits orientaux, d’épices et de vinaigre de malte …”
HP sauce was ubiquitous, found in all working-class homes and on every café table serving cheap food, and that particular message must have been read by millions. Probably many, like me, could have recited it if asked. However, it took a genius to turn it into an arty chanson, and the immortal Marty Feldman was the one to do it. I cried with laughter when I first saw this sketch on TV, forty-odd years ago, and I still find it hilarious.
A combination of strabismus and Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism) gave Marty his unforgettable eyes, which he exploited to the full in his performances. However, quite apart from his grotesque appearance, he was one of the greatest comedians Britain produced in the twentieth century, both as an extremely successful writer and as a performer of comedy, working with highly gifted colleagues such as John Cleese and Graham Chapman. His breakthrough on English TV came in the nineteen-sixties, with The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show, precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Marty was responsible for sketches such as “The Four Yorkshiremen” and “Class”. I am very grateful to Youtube for making it possible to watch some of his sketches again, although sadly many have not survived intact. If the HP Sauce Song left you unmoved, perhaps this will convince you of his mad genius.
Marty would have been 78 last month, but died aged 48 in 1982. His sketches live on, as do some of his more famous quips:
“Money can’t buy poverty.”
“The pen is mightier than the sword and considerably easier to write with.”
And the most poignant of all:
“I am too old to die young, and too young to grow up,” he told a reporter a week before he died.