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Hitchcock’s man in Essex
JOHN Kennedy Melling, author, journalist, broadcaster, film-maker, dramatist, livery company master, showbusiness accountant and raconteur, is one of the star turns lined up for the 2012 Southend Film Festival.
JKM, as he is widely known, has been invited to talk about his association with Alfred Hitchcock. Audiences at the lecture, on May 5, will discover a captivating and multi-talented figure. They will also find out something about Alfred Hitchcock.
JKM refers to himself as a dilettante, but he is being unfair to Mr Melling. Dilettante suggests an amateur dabbler. Certainly he has played an exceptionally diverse range of roles in his 85 years, but none of them at half-cock.
For instance, he doesn’t just write about the history of the City of London’s ancient guilds and livery companies – he is the acknowledged expert on the subject. As an interviewer on the radio programme Movie Go Round, he landed the A-listers – hence Hitchcock. As a specialist in theatrical ephemera, the man has built up one of the finest private collections anywhere, which he houses in his home at a confidential address, somewhere in Southend.
On the eve of his Hitchcock lecture, Mr Melling took time out to reminisce for Memories about the one-man variety show that has been his life – a word as drab as career doesn’t really sit adequately with such a packed and miscellaneous CV.
The choice of venue was the BAFTA Club in Piccadilly, where fellow members include the likes of Nicole Kidman, and where absolutely everyone seems to recognise him.
Theatre and film have been his guiding passion, and he has acquired a range of working showbiz skills, some quite offbeat. “For instance, I can Can-Can,” he says.
Yet rather than taking his chances as a performer or writer, he chose a more secure and remunerative day job, while still remaining at the heart of the industry.
“The more clients I got as an accountant, the more I found out about showbiz. And the more I knew about showbiz, the more clients I acquired,” he says. His clients were always very co-operative in handing over knowledge that might be useful for his books and articles. After all, as he says, “people don’t want to upset their accountants”.
There was another advantage. Offered the opportunity, for instance, to make documentary films for Anglia TV, or write a book, he didn’t need to ask permission to take a sabbatical. “Being self-employed and my own boss, I always allowed myself time off,” he says.
JKM was following in his father’s footsteps when he became an accountant, but in other respects he carved out a niche that was all his own. As a child growing up in Southend, he had access to a huge range of entertainment. The town abounded in live theatre and variety halls, along with no less than 16 cinemas. “If there was anything at all of note going on, young Melling was there,” he says.
The exceptional knowledge he built up “from the age of about five” led to his first book, Southend Theatres. In 1964, he was invited to organise the foyer exhibition at the official opening of the Cliffs Pavilion.
During all those theatre visits, he also picked up and hoarded what were then regarded as throwaway items – old programmes, posters, tickets, cheap souvenirs, publicity photographs and discarded costumes. By 1974, when he was invited to publish his definitive book, Theatre Ephemera, he was the unrivalled expert on the subject.
In offering advice to collectors, JKM drew comprehensively on his own collection, which includes the original red-lined cloak made for the Count in the 1924 stage adaptation of Dracula and a pair of wings worn by Dame Margot Fonteyn in the ballet Les Sylphides. “I have worn the Dracula cloak at functions, and, as you can imagine, it makes quite an impression,” he says.
A sense of theatrical occasion is something which also runs through the livery companies of the City of London, with their richly decorated halls, their ancient rituals and ceremonies. “The livery companies have collectively influenced much of Britain’s history,” says JKM. Beyond the ceremonial, these ancient bodies continue to play a powerful role in the modern City of London.
Something else for which the livery companies have also been know down the years is secretiveness, but JKM has unlocked the doors of those magnificent buildings like no one else.
While other liverymen supped at the bar, JKM explored the archives and artefacts buried deep in the old livery halls. “I have been given what must be unprecedented access to their treasures,” he says.
His enthusiasm, knowledge and gift for hospitality clearly helped to break down barriers, but so did the fact he was regarded as “one of us”, and thus well connected.
As a young man, JKM became a member of the company to which his father and grandfather had belonged, the Poulters (founded 1368), and became the company’s master in 1980/81. His all-embracing study, London’s Guilds and Liveries, first published in 1973 and now in its sixth edition, unlocked this world as never before.
Something else JKM has collected, apart from theatre ephemera, are memberships. The list of organisations to which he belongs, either as a paid up or honorary member, reflect the multiplicity of his activities.
They range from the Royal Society of Arts to the US National Association of Chiefs of Police, from the Pickwick Bicycle Club to the Crime Writers’ Association. His varied jobs even included a stint as antiques correspondent for this newspaper, back in the Seventies. How can one man do so much in so many fields? One answer lies in the things he has chosen not to do. “In some respects, I’ve been quite cold blooded,” he says. “I’ve eliminated some things completely. I’ve never been to a cricket match. I never learned to drive a car.”
Something else missing from his past is a wife. He shared a house for years with the actress Barbara Miller, perhaps best remembered for her appearances in Blackadder. The bond was clearly closer than exists in many marriages, but was never, he says, physical. “We were both strong Christians. We lived together, but not in sin.” Barbara died in 1990, leaving her home in Blackheath to JKM. He continues to divide his time between there and Southend.
John has no regrets. “A wife would have got in the way,” he says. “If you ask how I’ve managed to pack so much in to one life, I think the short answer has to be I never got married.”
Some of what JKM has done will be, like the items in his collection, ephemeral. Others, like the books, have already demonstrated staying power across the decades. One item that will certainly a stand the test of time is a 16-minute can of film, made in 1963, now preserved at the British Film Institute in London.
When JKM interviewed Alfred Hitchcock, he knew he was taking on a tricky customer. “The advice was to ask Hitch the question, and duck.”
In the event, “Hitch” appears to have been another person to fall under the John Kennedy Melling spell. The two men built up a rapport, helped along by the Essex background they shared.
JKM persuaded Hitchcock to become patron of the Westcliff Cine Club, a vigorous group of amateur film-makers.
In 1963, Hitchcock made a film for the society. He stood in the Californian sun at Universal studios and spoke on camera about his Essex days. This will be shown at the Southend Film Festival. It reveals a lot both about Alfred Hitchcock and his work. For once, though, the great Hitch may be upstaged – by the man introducing him.
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