Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Shot in the Dark

My dear friend, crime-fictionist Mark Timlin, creator of British private eye Nick Sharman and the literary reviewer for The Independent on Sunday (as well as a rock ’n’ roll roadie), pointed me recently to this informative piece about his fellow London gangster writer, Martina Cole, published in The Scotman. This reminded me that Martina can be a real character. I could tell you many stories about her that would make you cry with laughter, but the funniest was when she appeared at the London Crime Scene Festival in 2003.

Over that weekend, I’d been interviewing various writers and generally chilling out at the National Film Theatre (NFT) bar with a few beers. Things were winding down on Sunday, when Martina suddenly came running up to me and, excitedly, pointed to my (pre-digital) camera. “Ali, I just heard that Herbert Lom is coming tonight. Is there any chance of your taking a photograph with me and Herbert Lom?” she pleaded. “He’s my favorite actor; I love his stuff.” Checking my camera, I saw that I had only one empty frame left, and no more rolls of film after that. (I was already on my fourth!) I said that I’d try to organize the photo, after speaking with Maxim Jakubowski, the Crime Scene literary organizer, but warned her that I had only one frame remaining in my camera.

I wandered down to the Green Room, where I found Maxim guarding the entrance. He explained that Mr. Lom was attending the festival only in order to introduce one of his films, and that he’d be around for an hour, at most; he wouldn’t have time to meet the press. Hoping for a better answer, I went to see the NFT’s Adrian Wooton, who had organized the film selection at Crime Scene and might have greater clout with Mr Lom.

Finding Adrian in conversation with Mark Timlin, I interrupted and asked Adrian whether he could arrange for me to escort Martina Cole to meet her idol Herbert Lom and allow me to take a photograph of the two of them.

Adrian wasn’t hopeful, but said he would do his best. He told me to fetch Martina and meet him at the Green Room entrance. I raced back up the stairs to the bar to tell Martina what I’d learned. When (with Adrian’s assistance) we were soon thereafter allowed into the Green Room, we found Herbert Lom sitting with his entourage. The actor’s public-relations escort asked me who I was, and I explained that one of Britain’s best-selling crime writers would like to meet Mr. Lom, as she was a big fan of his work. The PR woman smiled and asked who I was--at which point Martina, in her broadest East London accent, shouted across the room, “It’s all right, luv, he’s my security man,” and winked back at me. At which point one of Mr. Lom’s minders, a big beefy chap, appeared and eyed me up and down. I am sure he wondered if I was any good as a bodyguard. I just smiled menacingly and said, “Try me, son,” giving him my best Bruce Lee stare. Convinced, the minder escorted us to Mr. Lom’s table and asked if we wanted drinks. Martina had her usual vodka and tonic, while I took my tonic with gin.

It was fun listening to the elderly Herbert Lom and Martina Cole chat away, and then it came time to take their photograph. I was nervous, since I had no room for error. As I held up the camera, Martina beamed, and the elderly Mr. Lom asked for my name. I told him, and then he asked which of his films I’d enjoyed the most. I replied, The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken, from the novel by Stephen King.” He looked at me, puzzled. “I can’t remember that one. Did I star with Peter Sellers in that one?” he asked in all seriousness. Then we had a 10-minute conversation about his film career, but he still couldn’t recall The Dead Zone. Of course, he’s starred in so many films, is it any wonder that his memory slips a bit? Besides, he’ll turn 90 years old next September.

Thankfully, the photograph turned out fine (you’ll need to scroll down the page to find it). I sent the negative to Martina Cole, and she told me later that she had an enlarged print made and that it is now framed in one of her houses.

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