How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear, review by Harry Leaderman

Nicholas Parsons and mayor Carolyn Heaps
Nicholas Parsons and mayor Carolyn Heaps

WHEN I walked through the doors of the Lamb Theatre last Sunday I knew very little about the artist and author Edward Lear. By the time I left, more than an hour and a half later I felt that I had actually met the man.

This was due, in no small way, to the knowledge and professionalism of the gentleman who told us about the talents and life of Lear, Nicholas Parsons, veteran of the stage, small and large screen and, of course, radio where he has been host of the Radio 4 panel game “Just a Minute” since it was first broadcast on 22 January, 1967.

It became clear from the outset that Nicholas has a great affection for Lear both as a person and as a writer and artist.

Once again the intimate atmosphere of the Lamb brought the performer and audience into close contact with each other as Nicholas drew us into the life of someone he described as “a lovely, gentle, giving person”.

Lear was born on 12 May, 1812, the 21st child of a middle class family in Highgate, North London.

Although there were 20 brothers and sisters before him not all survived into adulthood.

His father worked as a fruiterer for a number of years but then tragically decided to invest in the early days of the Stock Exchange and lost all his money.

Unable to pay off his debts he was sent to prison as a debtor and his family had to leave their middle class home and move to New Street so that they could feed him in prison, as was the way in those days.

At the age of four Edward and his sister Ann, who was 21 years older than him, had to leave the family home and she raised and continued to mother him until her death when Lear was almost 50 years of age.

He suffered from a number of illnesses throughout his life, including epilepsy, giddiness and depression, asthma and bronchitis. Nevertheless, he travelled widely and settled in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast of Italy.

He overcame his health problems by escaping into his own fantasy world which enabled him to write the nonsense works, poetry and limericks for which he has become famous (shades of Spike Milligan here?) as well as producing hundreds of landscape paintings, which he needed to do earn a living.

In addition to telling us the story of Lear’s life Nicholas treated us to numerous poems and limericks written by him, which would have been a feat of memory in itself, bearing in mind the very strange language used by Lear in his works.

For a person of Nicholas’s age (he will be 88 in October) this was a super-human performance and the audience had no problem in allowing the occasional lapse of memory, especially as he had to contend with the problem of noisy outsiders which tended to break his concentration.

The audience, which included Eastbourne’s Mayor, Carolyn Heaps, warmly applauded Nicholas at the end of his show and he responded by expressing his love of Eastbourne, having appeared at the Devonshire Park Theatre on a number of occasions.