I collect autographs. It is almost but not quite as nerdy as train spotting and stamp collecting, but an odd thing in it’s own way. I try not to analyse the collecting thing but if I did, I might find some psychological deficiency in my make-up, something that forces me to make emotional connections to the rich and famous via their photographs and signatures. But enough of the deep thinking, collecting autographs is fun. Like many things in life, however, it is becoming a tougher challenge to get responses because a growing number of celebrities assume that a request for an autograph is just one step away from an online auction. I am sure their fears are justified, but I can put my hand on my heart and say, that apart from one, I have never sold any item from my precious collection. For the record, it was a Kenny Everett signed photo and it fetched £10 about ten years ago – all in the best possible taste, of course.
Whilst some celebrities do not trust the motives of some autograph hunters, it is true to say that some autograph hunters are sceptical about autograph providers. I will offer a true story. In the 1980s, I was working for a prestigious company that decided to sponsor a premium golf tournament. The face of the tournament was a very, very famous golfer – let’s call him Al Batross. One day, as I walked along one of the office corridors, I stuck my head round the door of the guy who was coordinating the event on behalf of the company. We chatted about the exciting launch and he even allowed me to hold the very first trophy. On his desk, I noticed a pile of photographs of Al Batross and I asked about them. The guy said that he expected quite a few letters from the public requesting signed pictures and he wanted to be ready for the onslaught. I commented that Al would be busy signing the photographs on top of his other commitments and the guy laughed saying that Mr Batross would not be signing the pictures. “He’s far too busy for us to bother him with a job like that. Someone from the office will sign them as ‘Best wishes, Al Batross’. Who’s going to know?” I was flabbergasted and to this day I wonder how many people have treasured signed photographs of Al Batross (wink, wink) not signed by him but probably by Doris in accounts or Colin in goods inward. The top golfer, no doubt, was oblivious to all of this but it stands as an example of how easy it is for autograph hunters to be duped.
But as I rummage through my box, I have to rely on my gut and believe that what I have in my possession are genuine signatures. My passion for collecting started thirty years ago when I began gathering biographical information about actor Stephen Boyd. Treasures here include signed correspondence from actors Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston, Honor Blackman, Gordon Jackson Leo McKern and George Baker , as well as major directors John Huston, Ronald Neame and Guy Hamilton. As I got a taste for it, I would keep an eye out for big name actors and actresses making appearances in London’s West End and try to illicit responses. I have to say that I have experienced more non-responses than responses, but it is a thrill when a photo turns up “to Joe” or, indeed, when a photo shows up at all. I had success with Brian Dennehy, Kathleen Turner, James Nesbitt, Jeremy Irons, Martin Shaw, Warren Mitchell, Peter Bowles, Timothy West, Ian McKellen, Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter, Felicity Kendal, Edward Fox and his brother James.
US stars tend to drift to the UK for the pantomime season or for short runs and it is a good chance to try your luck by writing to them via the theatre that will be their home for a couple months. In past years, I have scooped the legendary Mickey Rooney, Stefanie (Hart to Hart) Powers, Steve (Police Academy) Guttenberg, Henry (The Fonz) Winkler and Bea (Golden Girls) Arthur. Then there are the ones that are just worth a flyer. Most times it’s zilch but occasionally the postman delivers a nice surprise - US chat show king, Jay Leno, cult movie director Robert Altman, Richard Harris, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Laurence Olivier, Joan Collins. The only James Bond that replied was Timothy Dalton.
Writers are good at responding because they like writing, I suppose. Jilly Cooper, James Herbert, Wilbur Smith, Seamus Heaney, John Le Carre, Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy all took the time to compose a little note as well as providing an autograph. Politicians Edward Heath and the Reverend Ian Paisley are amongst the non-showbiz names in my collection. I remember writing to Paisley, in the 1980s, and asking if he had any ambitions. He responded with an emphatic “No”. Of all my autographs, my favourites are the three theatrical Dames – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg, and three of my favourite actors, Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Dyke and, western baddie, Lee Van Cleef. Lemmon and Van Dyke’s signed photos were personalized, adding to the thrill. Van Cleef just looked deliciously mean and moody.
My biggest disappointment was Robert Vaughn, hero from The Man From UNCLE days. I wrote to him during filming of TV’s “Hustle”. Some months later, I received back my original letter, clumsily folded and upon it was his scrawl. At least he replied, but I had higher hopes for Napoleon Solo.
As I said, autograph hunting is fun and here are a few tips if you want to get involved. Once you’ve found the address of an agent, a theatre, a TV or radio location or even the home address of the celebrity, write a nice, polite request, with a compliment thrown in. Keep your letter short and sweet, and always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Be prepared to wait for months or, in a lot of cases, forever. But once you get two or three hits, the whole effort will be worthwhile. Remember, first and foremost, do it for fun, be sincere and enjoy whatever comes. You might get duped or conned occasionally (Al Batrossed?), but mostly what you get will be the genuine article. It’s up to you what you do with your collection, but mine is staying as a little box of nice memories of the great and good that bothered to get in touch.
There, I’ve name-dropped like crazy, although I’ve only just scratched the surface. Time for me to, er, sign off.