Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

The original David Niven

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

My frame of reference is the opposite of elastic. The only reason I mentioned David Niven the other day is because I’m reading Bring On The Empty Horses, so he’s the only person in my head.
His anecdotes certainly aren’t as weird as Sion Jenkins’s (“Jeremy Bamber and I would often discuss cookery”) but some of them are pretty damn curious.
  That’s often because Niven’s prose is so concise. Most people take forever to tell an anecdote, maundering on with ages of unnecessary loose detail. David Niven packs everything in so tightly, it’s like running through a wind tunnel of facts.

  “Errol Flynn met his match once. His dog Arno fell overboard and drowned, and a particularly nauseating gossip columnist called Jimmy Fidler wrote a snide piece about Flynn failing to rescue his dog. When we found him sitting with his wife in a nightclub on the Strip, Flynn flattened him with a single punch. Mrs Fidler, however, stuck a fork in Flynn’s ear and they both took him to court for assault.”

That’s it. No detail of the court case. No detail of the dog’s drowning. Just one tight paragraph of canine tragedy, gossip columns, punches, forks in ears and legal action. I know some conversationalists who could really learn from this brevity.
At other times, the anecdotes are odd because David Niven – who seemed so proper and polite, so twinkly and Richard Briersish – is completely unbothered by the most appalling behaviour from his friends. On one occasion, he and Errol Flynn go waterskiing with David Niven’s girlfriend.  Flynn then cuts the rope, leaving Niven stranded in the sea, surrounded by sharks, and zooms off in the motor boat to have sex with the girlfriend. Their friendship continues completely unscathed. Niven doesn’t even mention it at dinner.
  It’s possible that the other men in Hollywood thought David Niven was the biggest sap of all time. Here’s another story which caused no more than a chuckle from our hero.

  “I drove up to Clark Gable’s house with a particularly attractive companion, a happily married lady from San Francisco. Clark’s butler decided that she was just his master’s type, so he slipped an old-fashioned Mickey Finn into my drink and drove me home semi-conscious.”

  Dear old Clark! Funny old butler! (No mention of what happened to the lady, stranded among lusty strangers while her drugged date was stretchered home.)
  Maybe it’s nothing to do with how forgiving Niven was, or how terrible the others were, and all to do with a strange attitude towards women? Another of the Errol Flynn anecdotes includes a strong candidate, I would argue, for the most inappropriate exclamation mark of all time.

  “On the day of his wedding in Nice, with his adoring new wife holding his arm and looking trustingly up into his face, Flynn was handed a document that turned him to stone. A seventeen-year-old French girl, named Denise Duvivier, was accusing him of something she said had occurred aboard his yacht one year before – rape!”

Rape! Another mishap for the old rogue! Luckily, Flynn gets off. The chapter ends with David Niven walking past the mouldering hull of the old yacht, and shedding a tear for all those happy memories.

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Andrew Ryan at 12:42 pm on August 13th, 2008

When Flynn died in 1955 he was shacked up with his 16-year-old ‘protege’ Beverly Woods. They’d been together since she was 14. He had just starred with her in the film Cuban Rebel Girls, in which he played himself helping Castro in the still-ongoing revolution against Batista. It was no ‘Robin Hood’.

I noticed in ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ that Niven doesn’t mention Flynn’s fall from grace. Is it brought up in ‘Empty Horses’?

Victoria Coren at 5:07 pm on August 13th, 2008

I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t got to the end of the book. But the chapter on Errol Flynn is finished and I doubt we’ll be hearing more about him; there’s certainly no mention of shacking up with teenagers etc. (It’s explained that Flynn may have had some underage sex by accident, since the girls on the boat always looked much older than they really were - that old chestnut). There is discussion of a few lean years in Hollywood, drinking too much and running up debts, but it’s all very sympathetic. Our last glimpse of Errol Flynn has him lunching with Niven and describing how much he enjoys reading the Bible…

Alex Beaumont at 3:13 am on August 16th, 2008

Hello Victoria/Vicky,

What is your view on betting on Big Brother. I guess that most weeks it is easy money but would you ‘invest’ in it?


Victoria Coren at 8:27 am on August 20th, 2008

Hi Alex, I’ve made a bit of money betting on Big Brother in the past, but watching the series is too much of a time commitment and it just isn’t interesting enough so I gave up a couple of years ago. Haven’t seen a single frame of this series at all.

Allan Schmid at 2:32 pm on December 31st, 2008

I read The Moon’s a Balloon while bicycling alone around the north of France as a 19 year old (1975 I think!), and felt sad when I finished the book.  He had become a ‘friend’ for those nights I stayed up late reading of his exploits.

I loved the story about how at a fancy dinner party one night he was whisked away to the table, preventing him from taking a leak.  At one point a friend passed him an empty bottle under the table to his great relief. 

When I returned to the States, I headed immediately to the bookstore & ordered Bring On the Empty Horses.  I wanted to thank you for reminding me of these wonderful memoirs and agree with you about how engaging and tight his stories are.  Whether embellished (as in the facts) or not,  I had such a fun time reading them.

Tony Plumridge at 11:12 pm on August 12th, 2010

Errol Flynn’s great! He was really good in Robin Hood. I have recently purchased it on dvd. It’s the 65th anniversary special edition, which includes:
*digital transfer from restored picture and audio elements
*revealing documentaries on the movie’s making and the technicolor process
*Audio commentary
*Music-only audio track
* “Warner night at the movies” (1938) hosted by Leonard Maltin
and galleries of art/photo/publicity materials.

Victoria Coren

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