In The Absence of Robert Morley

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 29-05-1979

A present for his 70th birthday – his biography...

By Christopher Long

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The ghost of Robert Morley made its presence felt in Chelsea last week when about 50 members of the American Women's Club, meeting for lunch in Cadogan Gardens, sipped their coffee and listened to the ghost's daughter-in-law describe how and why she had decided to write the 'great' man's biography for him as a seventieth birthday present.

"Buying presents for Robert is just awful," said daughter-in-law Margaret Morley, wife of TV personality Sheridan.

"Finding a sixty-ninth birthday present was bad enough, because he's one of those direct sort of people who either loves what you give him or else asks why on earth you got that of all things.

"Just like a child," she said, explaining that the biography seemed the nicest idea of a present she could think of – although the plan was nearly hampered by father-in-law's willingness to help her write it.

Mrs Morley, an American herself, is mother to three of Morley's grandchildren and made no attempt to disguise her joy at being in the bosom of such a talented and energetic family of personalities.

"I was terrified when I first arrived here in England with my new husband, thinking of what the family might be like."

"Would they be all Hollywood and astrakan rugs or a typical English family with kidneys on the sideboard for breakfast and butlers everywhere, one had wondered."

In the event, the new Mrs Morley met her parents-in-law making breakfast in their dressing-gowns on a Boxing Day morning, with Robert Morley politely inquiring whether she would prefer some toast or a bath.

Mrs Sheridan Morley's task, however, was more difficult than it might have been as she tried to give a sketch of the larger-than-life character who inspired her book, called, not surprisingly, Larger Than Life.

Robert Morley had been expected to turn up himself to meet the American Ladies who, with refreshing charm and elegance, had turned up for lunch and a chat over coffee afterwards.

Instead they listened to a brief tape-recorded message from the actor who could not turn up as planned.

This was because of a tight schedule in the shooting of Otto Preminger's latest film, The Human Factor, in which he plays a ruthless, gourmet doctor in the pay of British Intelligence – a key role in the film which has been adapted by Tom Stoppard from the book by Graham Greene.

"One thing's for certain, he's not going to stand any nonsense from Mr Preminger," said Mrs Morley, no doubt alluding to Preminger's legendary abrupt and autocratic manner.

"When he first arrived on location, Mr Preminger told Robert that if he wanted to know anything about him, then there was a biography available that he could read."

"'And if you want to know anything more about me', Morley replied, 'then there's a biography of me that you should read too!'"

But the generously built Morley is not unknown for his ability to put fellow-actors off their stride as well.

The American audience was so clearly enchanted by what they saw as the personification of English eccentricity that Margaret Morley described some of the more amusing practical jokes that her father-in-law had played on his colleagues – such as unscrewing bits off a brass bedstead in a West End stage play and handing them to mystified actors and actresses who then had the difficult task of getting rid of the bits without interrupting their performances.

He had even plagued one actress in a play which required her to push him round the stage in a wheelchair. Morley, however, had applied the brakes and felt her pushing once and then again, even harder, in an attempt to get the chair moving.

Trying to disguise her problem from the audience, her massive shove was rewarded by Morley releasing the brakes at the same moment, sending him careering off stage into the wings and toppling a mock marble bust onto his head.

The poor actress commented later that her fear of having killed Morley was only out-weighed by the certainty that Morley's wife would have killed her if she had.

Another alleged Morleyism, according to his biographer, was an occasion when Julian Orchard was left high and dry on the stage when Morley failed to turn up on his cue.

While Orchard ad-libbed and played for time, Morley was found in his dressing room watching one of his own films on TV.

"How could you do that to me," screamed an outraged Orchard later. "It was unforgiveable! Appalling! I don't know how you could do it!"

"Dear, dear," replied the culprit. "You know, darling, the trouble with you is that you're such a creature of habit."

Her audience listened politely as she chatted on, trying to find yet more gems to impart to them.

Questions from the assembled audience were few and far between and Mrs Morley filled the gaps with yet more assurances of how amusing the great man is.

Everyone was quite prepared to believe it, although there was a feeling that many of the stories she told were well-worn, oft-repeated fables from the family archives.

But if the number of ladies who bought signed copies of her book was anything to go by, then Mrs Morley's appearance had been a success.

Funniest comment of the afternoon came from the lady editor of London Bridge, the American Women's Club magazine. Clutching her copy, along with the other ladies, she asked Mrs Morley to assure Robert that one thing was certain – the bulk of the American ladies would be going to bed with Robert Morley tonight.

And that, no doubt, will be another story to add to the family archive...

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The original 'by-line' for this article read: 'by Christopher Young'. It's humbling and sometimes perhaps even necessary that pleased-with-themselves journalists can be so easily and heartlessly mis-identified by their own newspapers!

© (1979) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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