Taxi Noir: Celebrity Passengers
One category of person that I didn’t talk about in my discussion of taxi passengers was the celebrity. People are always fascinated hearing about the famous people we pick up, so I’ll talk a bit about this today, and recall just a select few of the celebs I’ve come into contact with.
They say you should never meet your heroes. With a celebrity you admire, you don’t want them to be anything other than the person you imagine them to be. You want them to remain someone to admire. On two occasions in around 1990, I picked up Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballing legend, George Best, in Curzon Street. He was a well-known figure to drivers working evenings in Mayfair. I found him a quiet, charming, man, happy to exchange a few words.
Also in Mayfair, I picked up veteran actor, Stewart Grainger. This guy had presence in spades, a real character. Bound for Fulham, he wouldn’t stop talking and referred to Fulham Broadway as a “shit hole” and wondered about the punch-ups that occur at Chelsea Football Club. Irish actor, Richard Harris was another big name from around the same time.
I was particularly excited to pick up a musical hero of mine at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. He was a really nice, laid-back, guy who wanted to talk about the previous night’s television programmes on the way home to Primrose Hill.
Saturday June 2nd 2012. It’s the day before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and I accepted an account job picking up at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge. My passenger turned out to be the Duchess of Kent and she was going to Kensington Palace. She came over as posh and confident; but also polite. Rather than order me round to a nearby shop, she asks if I “wouldn’t mind”. When she returned with an umbrella she said it was “for tomorrow.”
I’m not sure how one addresses the Queen’s cousin, so I kept it neutral and treated her like anyone else. She seemed a character, and I felt she might be up for a chat over a pint sometime. Incidentally, I’ve never picked the Queen up in my cab, but I’ve seen her driven around London from time to time. You hear the whistles from the police motorcyclists first; then the traffic parts to allow the royal limousine to glide through. She never gets caught in traffic jams and probably doesn’t realise London’s traffic has increased since the ‘50s. I often wonder what she makes of the traffic cones and ugly concrete blocks that have sat outside Buckingham Palace for about a year.
One Saturday in 2013, former boxer, and eccentric celebrity, Chris Eubanks chased my cab down Baker Street (Patsy Kensitt also chased my cab down Baker Street once). He seemed a nice guy. Unlike most celebrities, Chris doesn’t try to blend in to the background. The next time I saw him he was standing in the middle of Berkerley Square waving his arms around like a Jewish comedian trying to flag a cab down.
It was a busy Saturday, that one. My next job straight after Chris Eubanks was an account pick-up at Scott’s Restaurant. Bound for Chelsea, I was startled to find we were being chased by the paparazzi on motorbikes. I learned later that my customers were Charles Saatchi and his new girlfriend. Saatchi had been all over the media recently following his messy divorce from celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson. The photo of the pair in my cab made the Sun on Sunday.
The actor, Michael Gambon was a very polite fellow. I’d just been watching him on TV after buying the DVD boxed set of The Singing Detective, a Dennis Potter work from the 1990s. More recently, he’d also starred in a Harry Potter film. That didn’t mean much to me. I should have told him I recognised him as The Singing Detective, but I let the moment go. I thought afterwards how I could have said I was “more Dennis Potter than Harry Potter”, but my chance had gone. I regretted not speaking to him properly and told myself to seize my chance the next time a celebrity I admired got in my cab.
Turning a corner one afternoon in May 2017, I was aware of a man hailing me. He was out of my line of sight, but on stopping I immediately recognised him as Monty Python star, Michael Palin. This one made me nervous. Palin is widely regarded as the world’s nicest guy. Would he criticise my route? Would he be furious if I dared speak to him? Would he abuse me in a torrent of four-letter words if I mentioned the Pythons? This man was a comedy genius and no mistake – a pioneer of modern British surreal comedy. I needed him to remain a hero and I wasn’t going to do anything to let him spoil my image of him.
Remembering how I’d let the moment pass with Michael Gambon a couple of years’ earlier I knew that in matters of celebrity encounter, regret weighs more than fear. At the end of the journey I overcame my nerves and we exchanged a few words. Michael was exactly how I imagined: like an old-style university professor, and as approachable and self-effacing as he is on his TV travel programmes. I’m glad to say that my image of Michael remained intact.
Many Lords and Ladies have ridden in my cab. I was intrigued about the Conservative Party Chief Whip I picked up. Imagine going to a party and saying you are the Chief Whip!