Time and place: Griff Rhys Jones - 26/07/2009
The actor and comedian, 56, spent a bucolic early childhood in West Sussex, where he and his siblings ran wild in the woods and his father passed on a passion for sailing.
Whenever I drive through West Sussex, I am instantly transported back into an era of cocktail parties, where women wore rustling silk dresses and ice crackled in elegant glasses filled with gin and tonic. Us children would be trussed up in itchy flannel shirts and ties, and stood, open-mouthed in wonderment, as we were offered Coca-Cola.
These weren’t scenes played out in our house, a small lodge nestled in a vast pine forest. No, these were the monthly events held at the mansion on the other side of the woods, occupied by Sir Geoffrey Todd, who ran the sanatorium that stood between our house and his.
My father was a junior doctor, specialising in diseases of the chest, and the “sani”, as we used to call it, had been specifically built and set up by King Edward VII to treat tuberculosis. It was a real showpiece, and the king was passionate about it; so much so that he would spend dirty weekends at the lodge with his mistress, Mrs Keppel. I’ve never understood quite how he managed it, as he was a rather stout fellow and the lodge was beyond tiny.
However, he loved being there, and decorated it to palace standards, adorning every surface with bright red paint and gold twiddles. I know this because when I drove my tin car too viciously at the skirting board, the white paint would chip off and a scarlet glimmer would shine through. “That’s the royal paint,” my mum would state proudly.
For a five-year-old boy, the surroundings were the stuff of Christopher Robin. The back door would swing open after breakfast, and my brother, sister and I wouldn’t return until teatime. There were other doctors’ children living in the hospital grounds, and we would congregate in the woods. We had a free rein, and would often get up to mischief, but there was one unspoken rule that we never broke; we were never to cross the hospital boundary or risk being seen by patients. We were extremely fearful of ...