Richard Harris

The Fighting Thespian

The actor Richard Harris liked a drink. It is 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.

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.

Covent Garden Market Porter Badge
Covent Garden Market Porter Badge

One fine summer morning, in 1971,I was making my way to meet my Dad at the Globe in Bow street. As I passed the Kembles Head, on 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 punches.

There was nothing too unusual about that, except one was Richard Harris. The other I recognised as a porter.

The porter clearly had the measure of Harris. He landed several punches, while Harris threw haymakers, all of which missed their target.

Plod Arrives

A group of men exited the pub. Then a bystander suggested on them should call the Old Bill.

“We are the Old Bill,” one of them replied.

They intervened and saved Harris from further embarrassment.

My father, who knew Harris’ adversary, later told me what had transpired.

The porter had gone to the Kembles for a quiet drink.

The pub acted as the ‘local’ for officers from Bow Street Police Station. Consequently  it was the last place in the market where one would expect trouble, unless of course Richard Harris was knocking them back.

Harris was drinking with several police officers, and he immediately lobbed a few choice remarks at the porter.

It was not the wisest thing ever done by Dumbledore, unless of course he wanted to provoke a fight.

As my father once said, “You need to 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.

Police laid no charges. 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.

Irony

Richard Harris was a fine actor, but on this evidence not so good with his fists. Yet he was 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.

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