For me, the most rewarding sections of D.J. Taylor’s wonderful history, “Bright Young People“, are those that focus on Elizabeth Ponsonby. Taylor’s use of Elizabeth’s father and mother’s diaries allows him to tell a personal story of love, disapproval and despair. He also manages to fashion a narrative of generational conflict and a clash of moral and cultural codes that not only offers an insight into the period but is likely to resonate with anyone who has ever been an errant youth or a worried parent (or, as in my case, both).
The Pellys at Norman Hartnell’s party
The lists of increasingly disreputable house-guests that the senior Ponsonbys had to endure make for fascinating reading. The names mentioned are those of Elvira’s acquaintances, if not in every actual instance then in general type and tenor. We encounter Hugh Wade, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Sandy Baird, Paddy Brodie, Ludy Ford, David and Babe Plunkett Greene plus assorted theatricals and other creatures of the night (“Little Monica” and “Pansy”) – it is like The Blue Lantern on tour.
At one such gathering the name of Kim Peacock crops up. Peacock (dismissed loftily by Lady Ponsonby as “a shiny cinema actor”) is worth noting as he seems to easily qualify as a likely member of the “set”.
Kim Peacock 1901-1966
An actor on stage and screen as well as a director and writer of plays (“Under One Roof“), if he is remembered at all today it is as Paul Temple (“Radio’s Favourite Detective”) whom he played from 1946 to 1953. Alongside his acting career, through his footballer father, he became the proprietor of the Watford Observer, a very successful provincial newspaper. A former journalist, Philip Young, described him as “eccentric” and “unmarried” but “very pleasant nonetheless” – the inference is, I think, obvious. Equally telling is Nicky Haslam’s memory of him as “handsome” but also as someone his parents refused to let the teenager visit because of a “recent scandal”. When you add to this a reported fondness for a drink and the good life, then we are on familiar ground. Kim may not have been a regular at Elvira’s but it would not surprise me if he was.
During the War he served as an Officer in the Royal Navy. Like Arthur Jeffress, he found himself in charge of theatrical shows. He collaborated with a future Doctor Who, the Chelsea -born Jon Pertwee. Pertwee was himself to become something of a “Man About Town” in the 40s and 50s, being a friend of Stephen Ward’s and a connoisseur of club life, high and low.
Jon Pertwee 1919-1996
The Paul Temple connection is fortuitous, as that show probably did more to maintain the stylised image of a Mayfair world of clubs and cocktail parties in the Austerity years than any other fictional creation.The characters of Paul and his wife, Steve, became the nation’s favourite “sophisticated” couple, their lifestyle as much a part of the programme’s allure as the mostly incomprehensible and nonsensical plots. The recordings featuring Peacock are lost but are being lovingly recreated by the BBC and are worth a listen. Still available are the Peter Coke (who replaced him as Temple) and Marjorie Westbury versions from the 50s and 60s, some of which were themselves re-recordings of episodes from the Peacock era. I don’t know if Peter Coke was any relation to Elvira’s party-guest Sylvia Coke, but he was from the appropriate background. The son of a Naval Commander, he spent his early years in Kenya before attending Stowe School. Like Peacock, he was also a playwright and a very successful one.
Peter Coke 1913-2008
Coke,whose remarkable career included antique dealing and the rather specialist profession of shell artist, lived to the ripe old age of 95, for many years with his long-term partner, Fred Webb. Marjorie Westbury, who played Steve for almost 25 years, never married. Kim Peacock has, posthumously, at times been listed as a female playwright of the inter-war years. It’s a funny old world.