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Sunday Sentiments

  • “Say cheese”

    Posted On November 25, 2004

    By Karan Thapar

    "Pride and prejudice "

    It was an odd, if flattering, comment and perhaps that’s why my jaw dropped with amazement. For a moment I felt like a bottle of wine rather than a subject posing for Lord Snowdon. He had just seen my twenty two year old wedding video and, no doubt, the contrast with my present-day white-haired appearance provoked the remark.

    My startled reaction made him laugh. It was a loud guffaw and definitely not what you expect from a man in a wheelchair. But it was also infectious. I laughed too. As a result our little session got off to a rollicking start.

    Snowdon is amongst the world’s most celebrated portrait photographers. He was also, for eighteen years, the Queen’s brother-in-law. In 1960, as Antony Armstrong-Jones, he married her sister Margaret. The wedding was the first royal marriage shown on television. But by 1978 it was over. They divorced, he re-married, divorced again, had a child out of wedlock and, it’s alleged, in 1996 his mistress committed suicide.

    But Snowdon wears such achievements lightly. He arrived snuggly ensconsed in a wheelchair, his thinning hair scattered over his forehead, with a large happy smile creasing his face. Far from plummy his accent is ordinary. In fact, the most striking part of his appearance were his baby pink socks. I suspect he knew that.

    “Where’s the telly?” he asked as he scanned my drawing room. Its absence seemed to disconcert him.

    “Banished” I replied.

    >

    “Oh”. His voice tailed off. I don’t think he approved. A shadow crossed his face before it broke into one of his warm smiles. I noticed that he smiles easily and uses it as an alternative to a verbal response.

    I took him to the TV room where his eyes fell on an old black leather Charles Eames chair.

    “Is that where you sit?” he asked. The smile was as broad as it could be.

    “No, that’s where Mummy sits when she drops in. It allows her to command the room!”

    “Well, that’s where I’m putting you.” He seemed to like the idea.

    From his wheelchair, which he pushed back to a far corner, he supervised the re-arrangement of the room. He knew what he wanted and with sure, quick commands obtained the look he sought.

    “Put the parents behind him.” His assistant, Dilon, dutifully moved two silver framed photographs from the left to the right. “And let’s get those nasty electricity transformers out of the frame.” Dilon did so. “Oh yes, and we’ll do away with the red carpet too. It makes things a bit cluttered.” Dilon bent down and rolled it up.

    “There we are.” Snowdon smiled. “Now” he said, turning to me, “I want you in the chair.”

    But as I sat down his face suddenly uncreased and the smile vanished. “No, no, no. Not quite. There’s something missing.”

    Dilon turned to face his master. I waited. Time hung in the balance.

    “I know” Snowdon chortled. “I want a bit of you on the telly. Have you got a video of yourself?”

    That’s when I dug out the old wedding tape. It’s the only thing I could find. It shows me dressed in a gold brocade achkan, my hair jet black (well, almost) and prancing around like a conceited cock. Snowdon loved it.

    “Oh yes, yes, yes” he said as he peered into his camera lens. His face was one big smile and I could see all his teeth. They’re huge.

    “Oh what a delightfully corny scene!” And he started to click furiously.

    From time to time I’d swivel, cross my legs or my eyes would look to the left and the right. If he liked what I’d done a sharp “don’t move” or “perfect” or “wow, wow, wow hold it” would freeze me. When the video ran out he noticed the TV had turned to black and stopped. “Now what?” he said perplexed.

    I explained and offered to get up, rewind and replay the tape.

    “Only if you promise you’ll come back and sit exactly as you are just now.” I did but he added : “Remember your left foot is in front of the other and at right angles to it.”

    An hour later, and after a hundred or more photographs had been taken, he looked at me expectantly. “Was that okay?”

    “You’ve given me a whole chapter for my autobiography!”

    This time it was the Snowdon jaw that dropped. Then he started to laugh loudly.


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