After a long weekend in Scarborough I drove home through Harrogate to this church to find a specific grave. It was a still summer’s Monday evening when I backed the car into the cemetery. I had the place to myself and few cars drove passed Otley Road outside the church. War graves are kept clean and easy to spot and I could see them from the car. I had a stroll around the seven or eight I found and did a salute at every one. I always read the names and their ages not matter how far away the headstone is – everyone. Many were barely out of school uniform.
Here I am by the grave of a prolific star of television, films and stage. His most famous role was Klaatu is the film The Day the Earth Stood Still but he was a jobbing actor over three decades, more than 50 films and many American television series. He wasn’t like Richard Burton who courted fame but a far more successful actor who knuckled down and go on with it.
He was called Eric Rennie but his stage name was Michael Rennie. As a young man he was a car salesman and help run his uncle's rope factory but, at 26, changed his name to Michael then decided to try to become an actor. At 6' 4" he already had a presence which must have helped him win roles in repertory companies touring the countries. At 27 he won his first role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Secret Agent (1936). At 29 he married for the first time,
The first film was in the wartime morale-boosting The Big Blockade. He was just starting to draw the eye of director and film-maker when the Second World War beckoned. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was trained as a fighter pilot in England and America.
After the war it was back in front of the camera and he played second lead roles in two films with Margaret Lockwood (at leading actress at that time), I'll Be Your Sweetheart and The Wicked Lady.
Though successful in films his marriage wasn’t and he divorced his first wife. Perhaps this was because he had a mistress, Renée Gilbert (sister of the British film director Lewis Gilbert) which whom he had a son.
Through the war years he lived in The White House apartments in Albany Street near Regents Park in London (now a hotel), one of many celebrated and wealthy residents. Though London was heavily bombed this apartment block was considered fairly safe. It was built in the shape of a white cross and the German bombers found it a terrific navigation mark to find their way over London. Why bomb it?
At 38 he married again and was making a decent living as an actor. Aged 40 he starred with Jean Simmons (20 years younger) in many films though he wasn’t a well-known star. The laser light of Hollywood landed on him though and his talent and tenacity were spotted by eyes across the water at 20th Century-Fox. He was one a few British actors offered Hollywood contracts in 1949–50. Life stepped up a gear. Though born in Idle near Bradford he was anything but idle and film-makers could not book him fast enough. Many films ensued where he got a billing in the top five but he received top billing in The Day Earth Stood Still which made his name.
He blossomed in Hollywood (who would have thought it – a man from Yorkshire.) He starred and partied with most of the luminaries like Anthony Quinn, Vivien Leigh, Raymond Burr, Lana turner, Richard Burton. Another seminal role was as Harry Lime in the television series The Third Man (1959–65), an Anglo-America syndicated television series.
With his second wife he produced a son (David Rennie, an English circuit judge) but the married ended in divorce.
At 58 he moved from Hollywood back ‘home’ to Harrogate (probably to support his mother after his brother died.) Three years later he died him at just 61. He was on the way to his mother’s house when he suddenly died of aortic aneurysm. He was cremated and his ashes are buried in this rather crowded church yard.
I found this headstone after about fifteen minutes of looking. Typical man – I couldn’t see the bouquet of flowers right at my feet on the grave and walked up and down the cemetery a few times. The card with the flowers said, “All My Love, Darling on your 106th birthday.” Who left this bouquet? Who is Val?
I sat in the car and gobbled a sandwich with Pringles. I pulled onto Otley Road which was normally a busy run to Leeds. Mmmmm, think I’ll have a frothy coffee to keep my going for an hour, I thought, and immediately pulled up on a double yellow line. I rammed a cup between my thighs and spooned in coffee but somehow missed the rim when pouring boiler water and burnt my power plums. This was no pain to that distributed by Brenda Blood Bucket to me every Friday night at the Rubber Dungeon but I didn’t want to drive home wet.
My other trousers were in the boot so I got out of the car and dug them out of my case. Nobody around; one car came over the top of the hill and passed by. All quiet. I decided to change pants here on the road. I dropped my pants but before I could pull the others on a police van appeared on the brow of the hill. My heart sank into my naked legs as they slowed to a stop, window going down. At least I had not taken off my underpants, I thought.
Their pizza at the police station must have been burning as the one at the windows barked, “You can’t to that there, mate!” He seemed more narked that I was on a double yellow line. It would probably have been okay to be snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s flopped-out boob - but not on a double yellow line. With dry trousers but wet underwear I felt quite lucky and drove off, this time pouring a coffee while snaking through Yorkshire countryside.