When something big happened in the 1960s, you could be pretty sure that Barry Fantoni would not be far away.
The Daily Mirror famously said of him in 1967: “Barry doesn’t so much know what is in — he decides it”. This is a man who shared a microphone with Ray Davis of The Kinks; who got a job writing for a revolutionary new satirical magazine called Private Eye; who wrote scripts for the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was; who presented A Whole Scene Going On, a television music show which attracted 16 million viewers per week; and whose cartoons graced the The Times for almost a decade.
Fantoni, who grew up in a half-Jewish, half-Italian household, has the kind of success story which could only have happened in the ’60s. The son of a painter in south London, he attended (and was kicked out of) the Camberwell School of Art, and in 1963 had his first cartoon published in Private Eye. As an artist who could write, talk and play a variety of musical instruments, he managed to meet and make friends with just about everyone who mattered.
Fantoni, now 72, retired from Private Eye two years ago. He also left London to live in a grand townhouse in Calais where he has been working hard on a new project. It is a detective novel about the world’s oldest private investigator — a Jew called Harry Lipkin.
He says: “I always harboured an ambition to develop the verbal side more than the visual side. If you paint a picture, that’s it. There’s only one of it and you have to go a long way to see it. But if you write a book, it can be in China tomorrow. That’s very thrilling to me — being able to communicate with the world rather than just the people next door.”
He was meant to be writing the story of his compelling life. Fantoni had been commissioned to write his memoirs years ago and he tried hard but eventually gave up. “The publishers advanced me a lot of money to write about my life. But I just couldn’t write it. It’s not about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out, and I’m not capable of it.
Instead he decided to channel his thoughts through the head of a superannuated Miami private investigator who keeps his pistol next to his dentures on the bedside table. “I find that all that stuff that happened to me has become condensed and morphed through the most unlikely of conduits. Although it may not be apparent, Harry
Lipkin contains a lot of what I think about the world.”
For all Fantoni’s famous friends, the inspiration for Harry Lipkin P.I. came from a less glamorous source — the Nightingale Jewish care home in Clapham, south London. “I know exactly when Harry was born and that was at Nightingale where my mum lived for the last months of her life. I used to visit her there every day like a loyal Jewish son. I organised some friends like Stephen Fry, Ian Hislop and Helen Lederer to go and talk to them and I spent quite a lot of time chatting to the residents. There was a man there. I can’t remember his name but he was about Harry Lipkin’s age. He was from the East End, talked incredibly loudly and frightened people slightly. I admired him — he had a spirit and a strength and a resolution. A lot of people get depressed about being in a place they know they will not leave until they die. But this man hadn’t given up yet. So Harry, the 87-year-old reprobate, was born.”
Fantoni was part of a generation which defined itself by its youth. He feels that, subconsciously perhaps, writing an elderly hero might have been his way of dealing with getting old.
“The Jewish community values older people and so do the Italians. When I’m in Italy, cars stop for old people and they are served first in restaurants. But in the UK that’s not the case. You walk down a street in London and people don’t even notice you’re there. So, maybe in a Freudian sense, Harry is my way of getting back at them.”
He feels, slightly guiltily, that he and his friends might have unwittingly exacerbated the problem. “In the ’60s we said that just because we happened to be only 23 we should be able to hold an exhibition. Or if I sung a song I didn’t need a man in a suit and glasses at Decca to tells me it was no good. At the time the prevailing view was that no one who was young had anything worth saying. The world changed as a result but perhaps as an unintended consequence, the old began to appear unnecessary. That concerns me a lot.”
While Fantoni and others of his generation have dealt well with the advancing years, others, he feels, have not. “At the Diamond Jubilee Concert, I watched Paul McCartney cavorting, looking like an idiot with his dyed hair, his ridiculous suit and his left handed guitar, singing silly songs to a half-dead monarch. What an appalling image.”
Rather than lauding McCartney we should be giving more respect to others of the era, he feels – like Fantoni’s friend Ray Davis. The two auditioned together at a Soho club, before renewing their acquaintance at art school. “We were playing that old rock and roll song Money. I looked at him as he sang and thought to myself: ‘You’ve got what they are going to pay for – the looks, the voice and the talent’. One day a bit later on, he called me up and said he had formed this band called The Kinks.”
Davis might have had the voice but Fantoni had the nose. BBC executives decided that, rather than have a sleek-haired presenter in a suit for their new music magazine show, they would go for, as Fantoni puts it, “the bloke with the big conk and the long hair who looks a bit like Ringo Starr”. It worked. The viewers watched in their millions and Fantoni was voted the TV celebrity of the year. (Cliff Richard came second, Tom Jones third and Mick Jagger fourth),
He maintains that in those days it was easy to flit between TV, music, writing and art. The scene was tiny — all based around Soho. “It was the kind of area you went to if you wanted to get a prostitute or bump into Dylan Thomas. The jazz scene was eight bands, two clubs and about 400 students who went to watch them. So when the pop thing exploded it was inevitable that the scene was defined not so much by its ability but its lack of numbers. I don’t think I’d have been able to have that kind of career if I was young now.”
Times have moved on. Fantoni’s great friend Peter Cook is no longer with us but, to his slight consternation, the Duke of Edinburgh still is. “I did a painting of Prince Phillip in his underwear in 1963. That gave me my start. And he’s still alive. I mean, how many times do I have to attack the guy? I’ve had to accept that if I don’t like the establishment and what it represents, then I can go to a country 21 miles away over the Channel. Most people haven’t got a clue who the Duke of Edinburgh is over here,” he adds with a chuckle.”