Handling fame the Norfolk way - like Ted, Jack and Sam

PUBLISHED: 11:28 02 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:28 02 March 2019

People’s naturalist Ted Ellis, an expert without “celebrity” airs based at  the Wheatfen Nature Reserve

People’s naturalist Ted Ellis, an expert without “celebrity” airs based at the Wheatfen Nature Reserve


Andy Warhol once said that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes - but how do you handle fame if you’re from Norfolk? Keith Skipper thinks he knows

I have been extremely wary of too much celebrity palaver ever since being mistaken for the referee after a Norwich City football fixture against Hull City at Boothferry Park in the early 1970s. I was there on reporting duty.

I politely declined requests from home supporters for my autograph despite warm assurances I had enjoyed a good game with the whistle, most notably in allowing it to flow and treating both teams the same.

A few admirers were slightly less flattering on working out who I really might be during busy social rounds as Norfolk’s answer to Terry Wogan. Trouble was no-one asked the question in the first place.

“You sound taller on the wireless” and “Can I please have a signed photograph for my Granny?” were the closest I came to ego-massaging plaudits. Pick of the deflating crop of introductions came at a village garden fete when the organiser announced: “We were hoping to get someone important – but we couldn’t afford it. Here’s Mr Skipper …”

Titter ye not seasoned watchers, as a captivating celebrity canvas continues to unfold from local pub to city catwalk. All legends in their own imagination ought to be taken seriously if Norfolk wants to maintain its reputation as a safe house for those of an impervious condition.

We’ve moved on from spotting dainty debutantes on weekend release at the church garden party or guessing the identity of the mystery benefactor behind free dumplings for all during a particularly harsh winter.

Fame and fortune now assume far more homely garb. Anyone, it seems, can request a fitting to join the ever-lengthening queue of would-be icons, role models, heroes and legends.

Why, a chef’s hat set at a jaunty angle or a pair of dancing shoes pointed towards open-mouthed judges can spark instant rapture in the lokes of Norfolk’s fashionable quarters. Who can forget that buzz of intrigue greeting a “Major Road Ahead” sign when a former prime minister found a coastal retreat in a settlement not far from Sheringham?

Local historians based at the Strictly Come Factual Academy in Sidestrand claim this is the most fertile area for spotting really important personalities from “foreign” parts since the rise of Poppyland in the 1880s.

That’s the evocative name pinned on the clifftop area just south of Cromer by roving London journalist Clement Scott. He knew the value of a flowery label! Poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and writer Theodore Watts-Dunton led the charge of artistic callers.

A building boom, with impressive mansions shooting up, was spearheaded by Lord and Lady Battersea. Overstrand became known as the “Village of Millionaires”. Souvenir industries blossomed. Eat your fluttering heart out, Chelsea-on-Sea!

Other prime locations renowned for attracting the cream of modern society, much of it trying hard not to curdle under probing television lights, occasionally hits a minor blip to the system. Southwold, still referred to by some of my superior friends as “Cromer with an A level”, is a telling example.

I recall the Orwell Bookshop, a regular haunt on my ventures over the border, closing after 21 years through rapidly falling trade. As usual, a lot people bemoaned the loss of an independent high street outlet while a list of “celebrity browsers” was paraded as part of the last rites.

As I never left that shop without buying something, it seems fair to make a couple of points. Purchasing books on the internet after sizing them up on local shelves can only hasten many more closing chapters.

“Celebrity buyers” makes a much more comforting headline in any survival campaign summoning the fame game into play.

I interviewed hundreds of well-known people over 40 years as full-time press reporter and broadcaster. Writers invariably collected best marks for being friendly, revealing and pleased to be with you. Top football club managers (and Geoffrey Boycott) invariably garnered most black marks for being grumpy, evasive and anxious to see the back of you.

Some characters handle fame better than others. Three Norfolk stalwarts in my lifetime immediately spring to mind as consoling examples of how to take adulation without giving away dignity and self-respect.

Winterton fisherman and traditional singer Sam Larner, “discovered” when he was nearly 80, Caister lifeboatman and historian Skipper Jack Woodhouse, who kept his thinking cap on for all television interviews, and people’s naturalist Ted Elis were engaging experts without airs, homespun celebrities able to cloak eminence in natural modesty.

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