The Lion of Eaton Square

The Lion of Eaton Square

In the spring of 1976, I met a very charismatic woman called Moira Kelly, in the cafe at Central School of Speech and Drama. I had just completed a 3yr Acting Course and was wondering what my next move should be. I was sitting with Julie who, as a fellow student and flatmate, was asking herself the same questions when… in walked two women. They immediately caught our attention as they went round the cafe talking to various people and then after about 15mins, left. We immediately went and asked someone they had spoken to, Karen, who they were and what they wanted. She said they were trying to find actors for some weird project they wanted to do. It was unpaid and required a 6 month commitment. They had been gone for about 5mins but I leaped to my feet and ran out onto the Finchley Road and started to try and find them. And I did. They came back to the cafe where Julie and I started to ask about their project and eventually convinced them that it was exactly the kind of work we wanted to do. Moira, who was to direct this production, gave us her address and said we should be there at 9am the following Monday. Her address was 115 Eaton Square [“Knock very loudly, I’m miles from the front door and it takes me a while to get there”].

The following Monday, we arrived at the address. After knocking for a while, we realised that the door was open anyway and in we went. There were a number of things to take in. The large hall, the great winding staircase and next to the front door, the largest pile of unopened letters I’d ever seen.

This house had a history. It had been squatted since the early 70’s as it’s owner, Bernie Cornfeld, had started to come under investigation for the collapse of his Investment Company [IOS]. He did a runner to Switzerland and was jailed for a measly 11 months. When he was released, he took great pleasure in taunting the British Government by appearing in the Tabloids whilst obviously sitting in the lap of luxury in Switzerland. He was the ultimate example of the unacceptable face of capitalism. He couldn’t return to Britain because he would have been arrested and so all of his many properties stood empty, including 115 Eaton Square. Even in Eaton Square, very few of the houses are wholly owned by one person…including a mews and all it’s related buildings. But this was one such.

Eventually Moira came running down the staircase and greeted us. All we knew at this stage was that we were going to do an adapted version of Eugene Ionesco’s play, ‘Amedee or How to get rid of it’. She immediately ushered us in to the first room off the hallway. It was a Ballroom. Stripped of all it’s furniture, it was a large empty space and perfect for rehearsals. One extraordinary thing from it’s former life remained. The Chinese, hand painted, silk wallpaper. Oh and a Dumb Waiter in the corner, for transporting meals etcetera, to and from the kitchens below.

Within about ten minutes, the rest of the cast arrived, one by one. This was initially confusing as the original play only has a cast of two but I think Julie and I had anticipated that this wasn’t going to be like anything we had done before. The first surprise was Nancy Diuguid, an American actress who had been in the year above us at Central. She had quite a fearsome reputation at college, partly because she was a Feminist and openly Gay. She was also a fine actress and as I was about to discover, not at all fearsome. We had all assumed that she was destined for great things. Her presence gave Julie and I some confidence. If she was involved, then it must be alright. The next cast member shattered that illusion somewhat. I think his name was Mick but I can’t be sure. Moira had found him homeless and wandering around Kings Cross Station. He had never acted. Next came Cookie. Again, someone who had never acted. And, arriving late and establishing a pattern, Robert Gotobed [Yes, that’s his real name.He later became the drummer with the cult punk band, Wire.]. Robert had also never acted before. He had a unique quality… he never spoke. I mean literally. In the few months that he was with us, he barely uttered more than the occasional word or phrase. There was a pattern emerging here. It transpired that Moira didn’t really like trained Actors. They had too many cliched responses and didn’t know how to think outside the box or be natural. Nonetheless, she had decided to cast Nancy and I as the old couple who lived in a top floor apartment in Paris. The surprise was that Moira had decided to double cast the production, so Julie and Robert were also cast as the old couple. A very strange and sometimes uncomfortable adventure was about to begin…

For those of you that selected this story to read about a lion, I will tell the rest of the above tale after I’ve told you about Clyde [not Hudson as the Daily Mail fantasised].

The above story is there to set the scene for one of the many strange events that happened during that sun-blasted summer of 1976.

We had been working for a few weeks and the ballroom had become our home. The house appeared to have a largely theatrical connection at the time, with members of Gay Sweetshop and an ICA contingent. As Julie and I were commuting from Swiss Cottage every day, we didn’t always get to meet other residents of the house. I now know that one of the other residents was Keith Allen [Actor and Father of Lilly Allen the pop star] and you will find his description of events in his autobiography. Our experiences differ somewhat but time can cloud memories and whose to say which of us has the best recall…anyway…

One morning, there came a knock on the front door and although Moira didn’t like distractions, someone had to answer it and Julie went to see who it was. She came back a few minutes later with a puzzled expression on her face and said we probably needed to have a discussion about what had just transpired. She explained that there was a man at the door who wanted to know if he and his partner could stay for a few days. After all, there were plenty of empty rooms going begging….but there was a further complication, they had a lion cub with them. My heart started to race. I had always wanted to have direct contact with a lion since reading ‘The Serengeti Shall not Die’ as a young boy. It was one of the very few books that I had read as a child, along with Gerald Durrell’s wonderful books. I asked permission to go out and speak to this man [and hopefully see the lion]. Moira was already annoyed at this interruption and indicated that this should not be allowed to effect our work. I went outside.

When I got there, Martin, the man in question, was standing by a grubby Thames van and chatting with his partner in the passenger seat. I asked him what the story was and he explained that a friend of his who worked in Manchester Zoo had offered him the lion cub as they had too many lions. After a too successful breading programme, they needed to find alternative homes for some of them. At the time there was no legislation regarding the keeping of dangerous animals…any one could own one. Even Harrods sold lions in it’s pets department, along with just about every wild creature you could think of. My Dad took me there as a child and I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to buy me a Camen or baby alligator. [ If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the extraordinary story of the two Aussies who also raised a lion cub that had been purchased in Harrods, in the Kings Road. The moment when they go back to Africa after two years absence, where they had taken their cub, called Christian, to be rehabilitated by George Adamson of ‘Elsa the Lion’ fame, is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest moments on film. I won’t spoil it. Just Google ‘Christian the Lion’. You won’t be disappointed].

Martin then allowed me to have a glimpse of Clyde through the rear window. He had told me that Clyde was 11 months old and in my ignorance, I had expected to see something about the size of a large dog. What I saw was a stunning creature that filled the rear of the van and clearly wanted to be out. An 11 month old lion cub is actually fully grown, not with the bulk or mane of an adult lion but full height and length. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. He said that they planned to take him to Africa and rehabilitate him but they couldn’t find a hotel to take them whilst they arranged the flights. I completely believed his story but then I was also pretty desperate to spend as much time with this stunning creature as possible. I would probably have believed anything he told me. I went back inside where an animated discussion took place and eventually an agreement was reached. He could stay as long as serious security measures were put in place and that none of us should allow his presence to distract us from our work. He was in.

I didn’t see him again for a day or two. I had promised Moira that he wouldn’t be a distraction and I kept to my word. However, the thought of him upstairs in his allocated room, was eventually too much for me to bare. I started to take every opportunity to go to the top of the house and spend time with him during our breaks. The room he was kept in was no bigger than your average bedroom and he absolutely filled that space. Both physically and psychologically. Touching him or stroking him took me a while to master. Martin said that just a touch or light stroke was likely to irritate Clyde and that what he really enjoyed was a good firm slap on his back or rump and heavy petting [in it’s original meaning]. One of the first things I remember experiencing, was his tongue. Think of a kitten’s raspy little tongue and multiply that by 20. You are immediately aware that this is a tongue that can strip flesh from a carcass. I gradually built my confidence with him and got to a point where I would grab him by his fur and tussle with him. Even letting him walk up to me and rise up and put his paws on my shoulders and stare me in the face. I was in seventh heaven despite the fact that Martin had warned me that I should never, under any circumstances, let Clyde get on top of me because he would then see me as prey. Throughout these visits, there were always other people present and despite my growing confidence, I never lost the sense that, if ever I should find myself alone with him, it might be a completely different matter. This ‘tame’ lion could, if he wished, kill me!

After a while, some of our neighbours started to become aware of Clyde’s presence. Two of whom were Lord Boothby and Princess Radziwill, who was Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister. Lord Boothby was best known as a friend of Mrs. Thatcher but more interestingly, a friend of the Kray Twins. In fact he had a relationship with one of them. However, someone in Eaton Square was very unhappy with Clydes existence and had told the press. The next thing we knew, they were ‘camped’ outside the house and we had to adopt strategies for getting in or out. We all agreed that we would not speak to them. They were relentless though and one morning, as I was about to enter the house via a basement window, two of them appeared behind me and introduced themselves as being a journalist and his photographer from the Daily Express. They insisted that all they wanted was a quick look around inside the house and a photo. I naively thought that if that would get rid of their perpetual presence outside, it might be worth it. So I scrambled through the window and went round and opened the basement door which had frosted glass and an iron grating over it. We ascended to the hallway and just as we arrived, to my utter horror, Clyde appeared at the top of the stairs. I had never seen him outside his room before and never unaccompanied. If I was panicky, the two guys with me were terrified. We all just turned tail and made for the basement and out of the door we had just entered by…so did Clyde. As we got outside, I slammed the door behind me. Almost immediately, Clyde’s face appeared up against the frosted glass. The two men were visibly shocked, as was I. They disappeared and I just sat there stunned, my heart pounding.

Shortly after this, an anonymous letter was sent to the house. It said that there was a gun permanently aimed at the house and if Clyde were ever to appear outside, he would be shot. The police took this very seriously and as a result, they posted a police officer outside the house. He was really nice and wanted to know if he could bring his daughter along to see Clyde. I wasn’t there when it happened but I remember talking to him a few days later after he had brought her and been up to see Clyde. He had instantly become a convert. At a time when the Police were not always in tune with the squatting movement, there was something rather surreal about having a police guard outside.

Events were about to take an unexpected turn though. Rumour had it that Martin’s girlfriend had appeared on page 3 of The Sun, with Clyde. Then Martin, his girlfriend and Clyde, disappeared one weekend. When they returned, they were driving a brand new Range Rover. Apparently, they had been invited to fly out, by helicopter, to the Shah of Iran’s ‘yacht’ in the Mediterranean, to be part of the ‘entertainment’ for a party on board. The Range Rover was their payment. The dream [or fantasy] was crumbling before our eyes. These two were just in it for the money and it was decided that they should leave. Before they left however, there was just one further encounter that I had with Clyde…

One day, after I thought Clyde and Martin had left, I was upstairs frying a chicken in one of the working kitchens in the house. Before I knew it, in walked Clyde. My heart took a leap. I really wasn’t expecting to see him again. I called out to Martin that Clyde was free. As his old room was just next door, I expected an instant response but response came there none. By now, Clyde had strode up to me. As I had cooking on the stove, I decided not to engage with him and to carry on whilst at the same time calling out more and more frantically to Martin. “Clyde’s free, can you come and get him”. My voice got louder and louder but by this time Clyde had decided he wanted to play and without warning, he started to but me up against the stove and then he took one of my bum cheeks in his mouth and started to roll his head from side to side. I was now terrified as he started to ‘play’ with me like a rag doll. I didn’t feel any pain as I tried to go with the moves he was making. How long this lasted I don’t know. Probably only seconds but it felt like forever. Then Martin appeared in the door and seemed to find the situation amusing. He said I should just smack Clyde on the nose and he would release his grip. Sure, he wasn’t the one with a lion chewing his bum. Smack him on the nose? What if that angered him and he decided to take a chunk out of me? I must have been giving out fear pheromones by the bucket load but eventually did as Martin instructed and to my great surprise and relief, Clyde scuttled away like a naughty puppy and Martin took him next door and locked him in. As I say, this probably happened over the course of a few seconds, but that wasn’t how it felt. Talking of feeling, I eventually calmed down and decided to see what the damage was. He had neither torn my trousers nor the flesh beneath. I was bruised for some time but no blood was drawn. Upon reflection, I realised that it was probably the chicken that I was cooking that he wanted to get at…I was just in the way. Who knows? I never saw him again.

I’m afraid there was one final chapter to this story that was shocking and shameful. A few days later, I had to go back upstairs for some reason and as I passed Clyde’s former room, I thought I heard a noise. I knocked on the door but by then Clyde had gone and so I tentatively entered and found a scene of complete squalor. Clyde’s diet had consisted of whole chickens and the room absolutely stank of rotting chicken pieces. The floor was covered in old newspapers, that were Clyde’s equivalent of kitty litter. I nearly gagged. Then I heard a rustling sound and when I went to see what it was, I discovered an emaciated baby lion cub…abandoned! It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I simply couldn’t comprehend the cruelty or mindset of someone who could do that. We called the RSPCA and they came and took the poor little cub away.

I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I have no idea what happened to either Clyde or the tiny cub. It all sounds fantastical now but at the time, Clyde was something of a side issue for the rest of us and things were about to spiral out of control. Within a few days, Robert Gotobed also disappeared. Effectively bringing our whole project to it’s knee’s. After nearly 5 months of the most intense physical and psychological rehearsals, that was it. Whether we were ever going to be performance ready, I’m not sure. Moira said she had a venue booked for the Edinburgh Festival but without Robert and the 5 months of work that had bought us to this point, we were never going to be able to replace him and get somebody else up to speed in a couple of weeks.

I’m a bit reluctant to admit this but I don’t think our project was ever going to reach fruition. In fact I don’t think it was meant to be seen. [Only one outsider ever saw what we were trying to achieve. He was Morgan Sheppard. A much respected member of The Royal Shakespeare Company and cast member of ‘Marat/Sade’,the film, directed by Peter Brooke]. He seemed to think that we were on to something and was very complementary about the process. He even tried to help us repair the damage caused by Robert’s exit but it was too little too late.

P.S. I have recently been contacted by Martin [ Clyde’s handler ] and he wished to state that Clyde was never allowed to roam free and that no lion cubs were ever kept in squalor. He also wished to state that Keith Allen played no part in the Eaton Sq events relating to Clyde. Out of fairness, I felt I should add his comments. Chris Morton, June 2019.