Inspired by the following Decamot items: estuary, firefighter, bat, windmill, rambler, jewellery shop, tank, apple pie, monorail, peerGeorge Marshall sat in his sound proof booth, oblivious to the mounting suspense in the studio audience outside or the unseen public watching on TV at home; or in pubs and clubs up and down the land, a TV audience which was expected to peak at around 15 million, such was the unexpected popularity of ITV’s Jackpot game show and its latest Celebrity spin-off.
“You will have fifteen seconds” announced the host of the show, in carefully measured tones designed to heighten the tension “pick the right answer and you will be the very first contestant in the history of Celebrity Jackpot to win 10 million pounds for your nominated charity”
“Are you ready to hear the £10 million question? Remember, I cannot repeat any part of the question once I have started. So, George Marshall, entrepreneur and philanthropist, are you ready?”
“I am” came the confident response from their celebrity contestant.
“Here then is the £10 million Celebrity Jackpot question ….
“What and where is the longest monorail system in the world? Is it …”
A Kuala Lumpar Monorail?
B Chongquing China?
C Disneyland California?
George Marshall’s face gave nothing away as he weighed up the possibilities in his mind. He knew it wasn’t Disney’s theme park construction but smiled to himself as he thought of his American wife willing him to plump for one of her own personal heroes. She was always so loyal to her homeland, despite having lived along the Thames Estuary at Barnes with her English husband for 30 years.
“Have you understood the question George?” said the host as part of the familiar lead up to the climax of the show.
“I have” came the confident sounding reply although, in truth, he really didn’t know whether it was A or B.
He would have to rely on instinct when the closing countdown began, an MO which had served him well over the last three weeks when answering questions on such diverse subjects as the History of Classical Music, 20th Century fashion houses and the Russian revolution. He had successfully seen off three celebrity rivals. The exponential accumulator formula for calculating the Jackpot, built in to the show, had then catapulted him to the brink of making history as well as money.
“And so” intoned the host in a now familiar catchphrase closing patter, “live across the airwaves, I invite the millions watching up and down the land, to get behind George Marshall, entrepreneur and philanthropist, by joining in the final countdown; let the countdown begin … 15, 14 ,13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 3, 2, 1”
At its raucous drum rolled conclusion, there followed a dramatic pause of three seconds followed by the Host turning to face George Marshall and saying
“And Your answer is?” Another short pause for effect …
“B!” shouted George, confident now that he had called correctly, a fact quickly confirmed by the cheering all around the studio as he emerged from the booth to be greeted by his wife who threw her arms around his neck, unable to stop the flood of joyful tears.
The scene was watched in pubs and clubs nationwide, including the Windmill Inn at Whiteley Green near Macclesfield, Cheshire, one of thousands of similar establishments whose regular clientele popped in at lunchtimes, captivated by the programme’s combination of intellectual content but naff presentation.
They had all dutifully filled their glasses and joined in the collective countdown. Today, they had been joined by a small group of ramblers from the deep south on a rare mid-week excursion led by Stuart Johnson from Cobham.
“I say Stuart, isn’t that Bettina Bulmer as was?” asked membership secretary David James rubbing his eyes in wonderment
Stuart Johnson, the only rambler in the Surrey Ramblers Association who steadfastly refused to be tempted by the supposedly superior claims of real ale, put his glass of medicinal Pinot Noir to one side and took a closer look at the contestant’s wife, now draped around her conquering hero of a husband.
He knew straight away that David was right for he had fallen head over heels in love with the slim vivacious American 30 years earlier, when all of them, including George Marshall himself, had been members of the same youth club attached to St Mary’s C of E Church in Ewell village.
“You are spot on my friend, but it’s not really a surprise is it?” said Stuart, picking up his glass again, sipping thoughtfully as the memories came flooding back.
“Youth clubs in those days were the only dating agencies open to us. Just think, I put myself through formal confirmation by the Bishop of Guildford and the vocal torture of the Sung Eucharist in a fruitless search for sex!”
“Well” continued David James laughing “our old mate GM seems to have succeeded big time!”
St Mary’s youth club catchment area was solidly middle class although there were a few ‘outsiders’ allowed in including a small American contingent from the International School in Cobham plus the odd Dutch family attached to Shell UK on the South Bank.
David James family was fairly typical. His father worked for the Prudential, but he was also a local part time firefighter. There was even a Filipino in the group called Angie, whose mother worked for one of the American families. It was hardly the United Nations but they all gelled, especially when it came to putting on the annual Christmas Show to raise money for MENCAP, Stuart and David’s particular charity of choice.
It was a genuinely collaborative effort, although most of the actual writing was done by Stuart Johnson and Bettina Bulmer, who, in those days, was a lively singer/dancer who most people thought was destined for a career in showbusiness. George Marshall was one of those human beings who seemed born to go through life care free. Blessed with matinee idol good looks and a pleasant personality he could do no wrong.
He joined his father’s small furniture business after university and built it in to a national chain – the only serious rival to Carpetright whose founder Lord Harris had been created a life peer by Margaret Thatcher. GM, as his youth club mates always called him, had recently set up a think tank called Business for Betterment funded by likeminded entrepreneurs whose main aim was to reduce the size of the state whilst promoting capitalism’s caring capabilities.
As well as being a scion of the brewing family, Bettina was a stunning blond, so Gregory’s parents were mightily pleased to think their son was marrying well on all counts. But GM never had a problem attracting members of the opposite sex, much to the feigned annoyance of his legion of friends, most of whom found it hard to find the right words to woo anyone, never mind someone as beautiful as Bettina Bulmer, Stuart Johnson chief among them.
“You will be wanting to hire George as a speaker now he is really famous” said David James referring to Stuart’s day job as Chairman of an International Speaker bureau now run by his son and a dedicated team of Millennials.
Stuart laughed nervously at the very thought. Few business leaders actually sought that kind of recognition. Most were too busy with their enterprises to bother. Television shows featuring business like the Apprentice or the Dragons Den occasionally threw up personalities in whom there was a passing interest, but the truth was that many well-known entrepreneurs rarely cut the mustard as speakers. Why would they?
Two days later Stuart took a call which he secretly hoped would never come
“Hi Stu baby! Long-time no speak! Jimmy Page gave me your number! He’s part of my Linked In group!”
The American accent had hardly softened with the passage of time; the irrepressible enthusiasm of a former American beauty Queen from Idaho unmistakeable as it forced itself down the Vodafone network.
“Hi Bettina – good to hear from you!” he lied through clenched dentures “Congratulations on hitting the Jackpot!”
“Thankyou! Thankyou!” she gushed “Wasn’t Georgie brilliant – a real star at last?”
“Indeed, he was” agreed Stuart trying to anticipate Bettina’s motive; after all this was the first time they had spoken in over 30 years. “What can I do you for Bettina?”
“Oh, do call me Betsy baby – you always used to at one time if I recall” “We’ve all passed a lot of water since those days Betsy” replied Stuart knowing full well that irony would go straight over her head “But, seriously, what’s on your mind? If I can help I will of course but lady show business can be a fickle handmaiden”
“Stop speaking in riddles Stu baby – I need your expertise – can we meet for coffee soon? How about Franco’s in Mayfair tomorrow at 3.00 pm? OK?”
Franco’s establishment on Jermyn Street was one of Stuart Johnson’s regular haunts where, amongst other attractions, you are entertained in the lavatories by the mellifluous tones of Stephen Fry reading from AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh; so not an obvious choice for a full on excitable American cheerleader.
Stuart organised a discreet corner table hoping Bettina Marshall would be able to control the decibel count to barely audible. In anticipation he used his mobile app to click his Signa hearing aid system to broadcast level high and Spatial Configurator to “one to one”.
He need not have worried as Bettina Marshall arrived directly from Harvey Nichols wearing casual clothes from tip to toe; a Trivano striped cotton top by Marlene Birger over Hoxton gingham slim leg jeans by Paige and a pair of Oversized Runner trainers in white leather by Alexander McQueen; a vision of upper middle-class chic.
Bettina Bulmer had aged gracefully but was still a head-turning ash blond with expertly applied make up and a dazzling smile. They exchanged perfunctory Italian style cheek to cheek kisses as Bettina was clearly on a mission and wanted to get on with the business in hand.
“I think George’s efforts deserve to be recognised Stuart” was her opening torpedo “with all your contacts, I knew you would know how to go about it”
“Recognised?” said Stuart taken aback “In what way?”
“You know” Bettina continued in urgent highly confidential whispered tones designed not to be overheard “In the New Years Honours list by the Queen, to become a Lord or a Knight or whatever. You know - an official honour!”
“But ….” Stammered Stuart struggling to keep up, which is as far into his sentence he got …
“Come on Stu babes, I’ve seen your website – you are dealing with them all the time … Lords, Ladies, Knights of the realm, captains of industry – if you can’t help I don’t know where to turn. Dearest George is too timid for his own good – he deserves to be up there with Lord Sugar, Lord Harris …”
“Hold on a minute Bettina – sorry, “Betsy babe” – but I might be in danger of missing something. From where I sit, George Marshall, your husband, my old mucker from youth club days, has done alright for himself by any yardstick you care to use. Does he want an honour? Does he even know you are here?”
“No of course he doesn’t” responded Bettina with just hint of irritation in her voice “he’s more interested in preserving the bat population than promoting himself!”
The tears now welling up in her eyes would have melted the coldest of hearts, so Stuart Johnson had no chance.
Thus, began a covert two-year campaign by Bettina and her household, guided step by step by Stuart Johnson, who had never done anything like it in his life before and wasn’t sure he even approved of the honours system. Like the monarchy, it tended to divide opinion.
There are those who think it is way past its sell-by date; for others it represents a civilised way of recognising public service or outstanding achievement by a fellow citizen. Whatever your political persuasion, the process of granting awards exists and might as well be used to advantage unless and until parliament decides otherwise. Stuart hoped this would be the pragmatic view taken by one Gregory Marshall if they were successful.
The process began by downloading a Nomination for a UK National Honour form from the cabinet website which ended up, eventually, with the Honours Secretary, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 4th Floor 100 Parliament Street London SW1A 2BQ.
“There is nothing more we can do, Betsy” said Stuart as they added a slice of apple pie to their afternoon tea at Franco’s some six months later “according to my contacts, we are not allowed to lobby. That’s it. It will be considered by the committee in due course. The New Years honours list is published in December – all we can do is wait with fingers crossed”
Bettina looked Stuart directly in the eye for the first time since their first Franco meeting. She held his face in her hands and kissed him gently on the lips, a tear again making an involuntary appearance.
“Thank you for everything Stu babes – I know it hasn’t been easy for you – but I knew I could rely on you of all people. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve never forgotten those youth club concerts we put on. We were one hell of a team, weren’t we?”
As always with Bettina, Stuart Johnson just couldn’t find the words but managed a hug and a lame .... “fingers crossed, Betsy babe - what will be will be”
The Daily Telegraph of 30th December 2019 printed the New Years Honours List in full. 1123 people from all walks of life received a variety of awards including a CBE in the Philanthropy section for George Edward Marshall for his pioneering work on funding environmental projects through the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) whose primary focus had been endangered bat species.
“Hi Stu babes! We did it! He’s got a CBE and an invitation to the Queens Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in June! We couldn’t have done it without your help so a million thanks Stu babes!”
Bettina Bulmer-Marshall was back to her ebullient self again and off Stuart Johnson’s back at last.
“I’m so pleased for you Betsy. Take care of yourself now but go off and celebrate!”
“Not before I order some new notepaper for myself!” she said
“New notepaper, Bettina?”
“Yes, with Lady Bettina Marshall on the heading. Meghan Markel isn’t the only American in town you know. Now she’s got some competition!”
Stuart Johnson wondered how to respond but decided that discretion being the better part of valour, he would say nothing at this time. If his unpredictable volcanic American friend needed picking up at some future point, he could always suggest she change her name by deed poll to Lady Bettina Marshall.
Replacing the receiver, Stuart went over to the old partners desk in his study. He opened up a concealed compartment and took out a heart shaped box containing a solitaire diamond engagement ring.
He had purchased it 30 years earlier in a moment of impulsive madness from Gordon Marks, a jewellery shop on Cobham High Street, intending to bounce his American co-writer into some form of relationship but he had lost his nerve at the last minute when he saw that he had been beaten to it by George Marshall.
Now seemed the right time to sell it and celebrate a lucky escape. Or was it?