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Sir Clement Freud

Sir Clement Freud, author, TV and radio broadcaster, journalist, politician, club proprietor, wit and star of BBC Radio 4’s Just A Minute, died on 15 April 2009. He was 84.

All the newspapers note that he was the grandson of psychologist Sigmund Freud (whom he remembered with affection) and that he was born and spent his early years abroad. They also note that his elder brother was the artist Lucian Freud, with whom, The Times notes, he fell out early on:

They had not spoken since they were very young, because, according to Clement’s daughter Emma, Lucian had bet his brother that he could beat him in a race to Green Park. “When Clem ran off, Lucian then started shouting: ‘Stop thief! He’s stolen my money’.” Clement was so angry that he never spoke to him again. (When Lucian was once asked when it was that he fell out with his brother he replied: “I never fell in with him.”)

The Daily Telegraph recounts the same story, but places it (and his birthplace) in Vienna – even though the family moved from Berlin to England in 1933. (It was grandfather Sigmund who escaped from Vienna in 1938.) There seems to be a bit of confusion generally about his childhood; The Independent says he was sent to a school in Devon which he described as “a tough, anything-goes” place, while The Guardian insists he attended a prep school in Hampstead and St Paul’s school in London; the Telegraph has him – probably correctly – in all three places.

After the war (which he spent first as an apprentice in the Dorchester Hotel’s kitchens, then in the Royal Ulster Rifles – in which he finished as a liaison officer at the Nuremberg war trials) he spent some time in clubland, where he launched quite a few celebrity careers, as described by the Telegraph:

In 1952 he became proprietor of the Royal Court Theatre Club, making it a highly successful avant-garde dinner-and-dance venue in still-drab post-war London. He pioneered a menu of quality, took the stage with a decidedly lewd cabaret turn, gave Dudley Moore his first break and honed his skill in attracting headlines. He won two libel actions — one against the Daily Sketch for reporting that he arranged “hot babies” for his members (they were in fact young actresses babysitting at £1 a night), the other against the Empire News for stating that he aimed to break the four-minute mile on a diet of brandy.

But by 1956, The Times says, he had decided to extend his own repertoire:

In 1956 he got his first break in Fleet Street, becoming a sports writer on The Observer. By the mid-1960s he was writing in numerous places on various matters: humourous articles for the News of the World; cookery for The Observer; and sports writer for the original Sun. His byline also appeared in countless magazines, and by 1967 he was believed to be the highest-paid journalist in the country, earning about £30,000 a year.

Then came his rather unlikely TV fame, as The Independent relates:

His big break came in the 1960s when he and a basset hound named Henry featured in television adverts for pet food. Freud wrote characteristically witty scripts, but what really captured the attention was the way that Henry’s lugubrious appearance reflected Freud’s own hangdog looks. The public was fascinated by their corresponding airs of human and canine dolefulness. The adverts made him a lot of money and conferred on him a new status as one of the TV celebrities of the day.

It was at more or less the same time that he started appearing on the new Radio 4 panel game, Just A Minute, which he continued to appear on frequently until his death. The Telegraph comments:

Though Freud did appear on television between commercials, his hangdog, oyster-eyed look was not deemed a success. On the radio, however, his spontaneity and capacity to amuse were tailor-made for any programme requiring a facility with words and a quick wit, with Just A Minute the ideal vehicle. He was, unsurprisingly, an award-winning after-dinner speaker, despite, or perhaps because of, his rudeness toward other guests.

Lord Steel, writing for The Guardian, describes how he went into politics:

He came to politics relatively late in life, winning for the Liberals the Isle of Ely constituency at the 1973 byelection, caused by the death of the sitting Tory MP, Sir Harry Legge-Bourke. Freud was by then in his 50th year, and he held the outwardly rural conservative seat for 14 years, through the next four general elections, finally losing the redistributed seat of NE Cambridgeshire in 1987. During that time, he endeared himself to his constituents, who had taken to him as a character.

The Telegraph – perhaps somewhat jaundiced in its view because Sir Harry was Chairman of the Tory Party’s 1922 Committee – is less than charitable about Sir Clement’s political career:

Freud (‘Clay’ to his colleagues) strove to be a serious politician but was never accepted as one. During his early years in the Commons he was greeted with barks whenever he rose to speak. Never at his best in the chamber, he was a victim of his reputation as a funny man, which got in the way of determinedly serious performances. Though never short of a provocative opinion, he could seldom punch his weight.

Tam Dalyell is a bit more generous in The Independent:

He was very hurt that he could not get himself taken seriously as a politician; he hated being regarded as a media clown by parliamentary colleagues. He reflected that the Commons could be a generous place, but that it could also be cruel and particularly unpleasant to those members who were well known to the public in other contexts. “MPs of all parties, even some Liberals, always seemed to want to take me down a peg, whatever the content of what I was trying to say,” he reflected.

Nevertheless, he was an excellent attendee, and would listen, more than most, to what ministers and other MPs actually said. He would attend debates even though he had no intention of taking part.

Lord Steel comes up with a witty little snippet in The Guardian about his electioneering:

His wit was much appreciated. “We’ve lost the tree vote,” he announced. “More than 16,000 trees in the Isle of Ely have signified their intention of voting Tory,” was his response to a lavish poster campaign against him.

This wit extended into his marriage, as The Times notes:

Clement Freud was married to Jill Raymond in 1950. He liked to refer to her as his “first wife” — “to keep her on her toes”. The marriage was a happy one.

The best memorial to him of all, though, is The Guardian‘s tribute in clips, including several from Just A Minute. Well worth a listen.

(Sir Clement Raphael Freud, born 24 April 1924 in Berlin, died 15 April 2009 in London)

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