BY ANGELICA CAMPION

The first memory I have of my father Gerald Campion (who played Billy Bunter in the TV series 1952 – 1961), was on Christmas day 1963 at our house in Stone-cum-Ebony, near Tenterden. I was 15 months old. Having left the family home, he was back for Christmas to try to make it work, apparently. Maybe he’d had a row with his girlfriend.

I didn’t see him again until I was four when Mum and I drove up to London in the Mini. She fed the old style parking meter, and we walked down sooty back streets that I now know as Soho. I was shocked at how dirty everything was. A tramp sitting on the pavement proffered me chewing gum and shouted something. My mother dragged me along. What did he say? What did he say? I repeated over and over, and over again.  We suddenly turn and descend a narrow metal staircase leading down into a dimly lit room. Sunny day becomes night. We walk into stale cigarette smoke and sharp cooking smells and I know this is an adults’ place and I am too young to be here. 

Well this is Gerry’s club and this is Gerry. Mummy says this is Daddy and he does seem very familiar. I know it is Daddy. He is cooking large steaks in the tiny open kitchen and I stand and watch. It’s all hot and blackened and the steaks are cooking very loudly. Daddy wears an apron, stripy & grubby. He gives me a baked potato, but I am not offered a steak. When I don’t eat the potato skin he tells me off and says but that’s my favourite bit!  My Parents. This was to be the last time I would be in their company together. (Except for an unfortunate timing incident at Charing Cross station some twenty years later where she was in front of me and he was behind me. Is that your father hiding behind that newspaper rack?)

I eat the potato, but today they are standing above me and talking the language of staccato. I’m fidgety and slightly scared, their anxiety is as loud as the cooking.  Daddy gives me a sixpence for the fruit machine and shows me what to do. He puts his small pudgy hand over mine and we pull the handle together.

Instantly I win the jackpot – literally a waterfall of silver coins pour from the mouth of the machine – Can I do it again Daddy?! He seems surprised and annoyed and scoops the huge pile of shillings and sixpence’s out of the machine’s jaw and gives me a blue five pound note in exchange. Then my mother and I leave. I feel cheated. Maybe I thought he would come with us. I want to stay longer!

We clatter back up the stairs, up into the still sunny street and it’s daytime again. I blink in the sun. Typical of him to rob you of all that change she says.

We go to a small toy shop and I want to buy some Meccano, my dream unaffordable toy, now affordable!  I can see it on the shelf! My mother says I don’t have enough money, I must put most of it in the bank. I am disappointed with the wool sewing picture. Many times I have wondered how much Meccano I could have bought for five pounds in 1966.

The only other memory I have of Gerald when I was a child, is coming up to London again not too long after going to Gerry’s. We went to a large mansion flat where I sat on a shiny wooden floor, too young to interpret. Gerald was collecting me to take me to London Zoo.  He must have hated that day. He was still famous, the Billy Bunter series had only finished five years previously, and at the zoo people pointed at him – I remember that so clearly, Look! There’s Billy Bunter! Then we fed the elephants buns (buns for god’s sake –  Bunter and buns – no wonder they were bloody pointing). An elephant grabbed the paper carrier bag that the buns came in. How we laughed. Then the elephant ate the bag. The people pointed even more. My dad stopped laughing. He took me back to my mother and I didn’t see him again for ten very long years.

And I’ve never played a fruit machine since.

Gerald Campion 1921 – 2002.

Gerry’s Club, opened in 1955 is the longest running private members club for the acting fraternity in Soho – it is now owned by Michael Dillon.

www.alchetron.com/Billy-Bunter

 

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