TOM UTLEY: If I can’t recognise my beloved niece, what hope for my own Friends Reunion?


Last night’s showing of Friends: The Reunion reminded me with a jolt that I have a similar theatrical get-together coming up.

Well, I say it’s similar, but as far as I’m aware there are no plans to film the 50th anniversary gathering of the cast of Gloves For Mr Busby, a school production in which I played a modest part at the age of 16.

Another difference is that I have yet to be offered an appearance fee of $2.5 million (about £1.8 million) — the sum reportedly paid to each member of the cast of the cult U.S. sitcom — simply for turning up at our reunion. 

On the contrary, it seems that I’ll be required to pay my share of the bill for our planned trip down memory lane at the Garrick Club in London.

Last night’s showing of Friends: The Reunion reminded me with a jolt that I have a similar theatrical get-together coming up

But before I air my thoughts on the pros and cons of such reunions, I must unburden myself of an acutely embarrassing experience I suffered at a London Underground station the other day. I hope its relevance will soon become apparent.

I had just boarded the Tube at Victoria, on my way to the Mail’s offices in Kensington, West London, when I noticed a pretty young woman on the platform, waving frantically at someone in my carriage.

Rebuked

As the doors slid shut, I looked around me to see whose attention she was trying to grab, with a view to alerting them to her presence. But like good citizens, all of us in the carriage were observing the lockdown rules and sitting miles apart. The only person she could possibly be waving at was me.

But who the devil was she? The more I looked at her, with a puzzled expression I couldn’t suppress, the more I realised that there was something familiar about the eyes looking at me above her face mask. But I couldn’t for the life of me think where I had seen her before.

Was she perhaps a work colleague, past or present, or maybe someone I had met at a party or a wedding?

I had just boarded the Tube at Victoria, on my way to the Mail's offices in Kensington, West London, when I noticed a pretty young woman on the platform, waving frantically at someone in my carriage

I had just boarded the Tube at Victoria, on my way to the Mail’s offices in Kensington, West London, when I noticed a pretty young woman on the platform, waving frantically at someone in my carriage

I dismissed the idea that she could be a reader of my weekly musings, who might have recognised me from the photograph on this page. 

That was because I imagine the average age of my followers to be about 85 (and jolly privileged I am, too, to have readers who belong to a generation still firmly grounded in common sense). This woman on the platform, by contrast, looked no older than her mid-20s.

It was only when the train started to pull out of the station that the sudden, awful realisation sprang upon me that this woman was none other than my darling niece, Olivia, whom I had last seen just before the world stopped last year.

I leapt up from my seat and waved maniacally back — but not before she’d realised that her senile uncle had at first failed to recognise her. I have to admire how she rebuked me.

When I arrived at the office, my phone went ping with a message from Livvy. In it, she quoted an extract from one of my past columns, in which I’d lamented my increasing difficulty in putting names to faces.

I repeat it here: ‘One possibility, of course, is for super-forgetters like me to come straight out with the truth and say: ‘Look, I’m terribly sorry, but I simply can’t remember who you are or why we know each other.’ 

But how silly we look — not to mention rude — if the answer comes back: ‘I’m Olivia, your niece!’

At the bottom of this quotation, Livvy had appended an emoji of a wry smile. Touché.

When I wrote those words only months ago, I thought I was cracking a mild joke. It didn’t occur to me that a day would come when I really would fail to recognise my niece, whom I’d seen at every family gathering since her birth 27 years ago (and that’s not to mention her frequent TV appearances since she reached adulthood).

But now, it seemed, that dreadful day had arrived — and it’s only a partial excuse that when I failed to recognise her at Victoria, she happened to be wearing a mask.

Buddies

Which brings me back to the planned reunion of the cast of Gloves For Mr Busby, a production at Westminster School staged for three nights only in 1970 (yes, I know that the 50th anniversary fell last year, but our reunion has been delayed by lockdown).

My question is this: if I failed to recognise my own beloved niece, whom I last saw as recently as March last year, how on earth am I supposed to remember the names and faces of my school friends from half a century ago?

I dismissed the idea that she could be a reader of my weekly musings, who might have recognised me from the photograph on this page

I dismissed the idea that she could be a reader of my weekly musings, who might have recognised me from the photograph on this page

That’s the worst thing about these reunions. Almost invariably, I find myself sitting next to bosom buddies from the distant past, racking my brains desperately to remember who they are — or anything about our time together — and afraid to ask them outright, for fear of seeming abominably unfriendly.

Of course, this was not a problem for the cast of Friends, who were last together 17 years ago. Not only are they all world famous, but in the unlikely event that they needed to refresh their memories before the reunion, they could simply watch a repeat or two of the sitcom.

No such luck for me. Indeed, I notice with a shudder that some of the names on my list of invitees to our reunion — people I must have known like brothers when we were in our teens — ring not the faintest bell with me today.

And who knows what they look like now, after the ravages of half a century? If my own haggard features are any guide, their faces will have changed completely since their youth. Beyond recognition, you could say.

There are other respects, too, in which the reality of these occasions differs from what I’ve read about Friends: The Reunion. If the reviews are to be believed, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston and Co hugely enjoy themselves, swapping fond stories about their past times together.

Smug

In my experience, real-life reunions aren’t a bit like that. For one thing, they bring out the ugly competitive spirit in almost everyone there.

Those who have done well in life tend to boast about their achievements, inflaming the resentment of the rest of us as they talk casually about their beloved hideaway in the Virgin Islands or the brilliant successes of their young (‘We’ve got two, actually; Tobias is just down from Oxford with a first and Hermione is having a great time in New York at Goldman Sachs’).

I’ll never forget one reunion, at which a former schoolmate asked me: ‘With so many grown-up sons still living at home, Tom, do you find you can get by with only two cars?’

Grrrrr. My family has, in fact, never owned more than one car at a time, you smug so-and-so. A friend no longer.

Then there is always someone who has been nursing a grievance for decades about something we said in the 1970s, or the day we called his ball ‘out’ on the tennis court, when ‘it was quite clearly in’.

As for that forthcoming reunion at the Garrick, I note that our host for the evening will be the famous Dominic Grieve, whom I remember as a piping 14-year-old in Gloves For Mr Busby, before he went on to become the Attorney General under David Cameron.

Well, at least I will recognise him. But whether I will be able to control my tongue, after the first celebratory bottle or two, over his contemptible efforts to overturn Brexit, now, that’s a different matter entirely.

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