And his Fondness for a Fight
It was widely known that the actor Richard Harris liked a drink. It was also true that he was fond of a fight. He was certainly in the right place to combine both pastimes when he visited the Kembles Head in Covent Garden, one fine summer morning in 1971.
In its heyday, Covent Garden market offered plenty of pubs to anyone desperate for an early morning pint. For example, The Essex Serpent — aka The Snake Pit — opened at 6 a.m. Most of them served food and so, when breakfast time arrived, porters would often head for the nearest pub.
I was making my way to meet my Dad at the Globe in Bow street. As I passed the Kembles Head, at the corner of Long Acre and Bow Street, a chair came flying through a window. Moments later two men hurtled out of the door and began trading ‘right-handers’. Nothing too unusual about that, except one was Richard Harris. The other I recognised as a porter. Harris, who was getting the worst of the proceedings, was soon joined by a group of men from the pub.
A bystander mentioned something about calling the Old Bill, to which one of the group replied: “We are the Old Bill, mate”, before stepping in to save Harris from further embarrassment.
My Dad, who knew Harris’ adversary, later told me what had transpired. The porter had gone there for a quiet drink. Since the Kembles was regarded as the ‘local’ for Bow Street nick, it was the last pub in the market where one would expect trouble, unless of course Richard Harris was knocking them back. The Thespian and some lads from the Met were already ensconced at the bar when the porter arrived. The interloper immediately became the beneficiary of a few choice remarks from Harris. Not the wisest thing ever done by Dumbledore, unless of course he wanted to provoke a fight.
As my Dad said: “Choose your words carefully, son. You never know who you’re talking to.”
A number of porters were former professional fighters and most could take care of themselves if things got a little tasty. Harris obviously fancied his chances when told to: “Put up, or fuckin’ shutup!”. Wrong again, Richard.
No one was charged and inevitably Harris’ reputation was enhanced by a few more column inches. The episode made the Evening Standard front page by lunchtime and the TV news by evening.
Richard Harris was a fine actor, but on this evidence not so good with his fists. He was, however, blessed with a deep sense of irony. He was later to remark, when backing a campaign to save a London drinking club: “You can go there anonymously, have a pint, have a chat with your friends and remain unmolested.”
He died on October 25th 2002, less than a mile from the Kembles Head, in the University College Hospital, my own birthplace in Gower Street.