1964 - Brendan Behan at Lime Grove

Characteristically of this crazy time, it was appearing drunk on television, not his writings, which first aroused public interest in Brendan Behan. As I was the interviewer concerned in this hilarious episode, I should like, now that the poor fellow is dead, to record exactly what happened.

It was the idea of Catherine Dove, then working on Panorama, to get Behan to Lime Grove. His play, The Quare Fellow, was running, under Miss Littlewood's spirited direction, out at Stratford. Though it had been well reviewed, no West End management had evinced any interest in it. On the morning after Behan's Panorama appearance, Miss Littlewood told me, she had five eager inquiries.

I arranged to meet Behan at the Garrick Club in the early evening. He arrived in a fairly high condition, with his delightful wife and carrying some kind of wreath he had acquired in the course of the day's festivities. One or two members peeped in curiously as we took a few noisy drinks before leaving for Lime Grove. There, in the entertainment room, refreshment continued to be available, and Behan was soon singing, shouting obscenities in his customary style.

The other Panorama items were perfect. Woodrow Wyatt was to question two brass hats from the War Office on civil defence. Then there was an item about finishing schools, in which a headmistress and some of her charges were to appear. At one point they all filed into the entertainment room, heard Behan holding forth, about-turned and filed out again. After they had gone, Behan turned to me and asked with some anguish: "Didn't I see a lot of pretty girls in here just now?" I explained that he had been dreaming.

As Behan grew drunker and more boisterous, doubts began to be felt in the higher BBC echelons as to whether he should be allowed to appear at all. I argued strongly that he should. After all, I contended, this was the man who wrote The Quare Fellow. Let us, then, present him as he really is. Leonard Miall in the end agreed, only adding beseechingly: "If he uses the word c---, don't laugh." I readily accepted this condition. As it happens, I do not find the word particularly amusing.

On the set it was apparent that Miall need have had no apprehension. Behan was incapable of speaking coherently at all, which perhaps was just as well. When the cameras came on us I put my first question and, allowing Behan to mumble a little, answered it myself. All television interviews are really like this. Behan's was simply an extreme case. Towards the end of our time I asked him if he would care to sing. In a thin, reedy voice he managed to give a rendering of a song in his play.

Afterwards we returned to the entertainments room. I left him there, roaring out the Internationale at the top of his voice, with the two War Office brass hats giving every indication of being about to join in. It was the pleasantest and most rewarding evening I ever spent in Lime Grove.

In subsequent remarks to the press about the interview Behan was extremely considerate and friendly in his references to me. I liked him, except that, like all drunks, he was a bore. Drunkenness is a device to avoid having to think of anything to say. As Johnson observed once to Boswell, it leads to a confusion of words with ideas, which is conversationally disastrous.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser