I only ever saw him once.
It was at Lords, in the early Nineties. I was there with Lancashire CCC: we were there often that decade, getting to a helluva lot of One-Day Finals, NatWest Trophies, Benson & Hedges. It was the lunch interval, and I’d gone across to the Souvenir Shop, and was returning to my seat when I saw him, deep in conversation.
I recognised him immediately, from television, from pictures. The greying pudding-bowl hair, the dark glasses, the beard and goatee, the inevitable pipe, the cravat. He was a devoted cricket fan, and a Lancashire member, but I’d never made the connection to the possibility of his turning up to watch his beloved County.
I had nothing for him to sign so I didn’t interrupt him and his friend.But, like I said, we got to Lords pretty often after that, and each time I poppedone of his books in my bag, to be ready in the event of seeing him again. Of course, that sighting was never repeated.
I’d first discovered Peter Tinniswood’s novels in the early mid-Seventies, and I’d loved his work and followed him devotedly ever since. He was in the midst of his Brandon Family novels then, and the BBC sitcom version, I Didn’t Know You Cared was about to start. He’d been a journalist, a satirical sketch writer. He’d go on to create fantastic, surreal cricket stories. He’d later write extensively for Radio 4, plays and serials: these latter dominated the last ten years of his life.
He died in 2003 and it was the ubiquitous pipe that did for him. Throat cancer, and, despite an operation to remove of his voicebox, he passed away in early January, days after his 66th birthday.
I’d love to have gotten his signature on one of those wierdly stylised books of his. Not for any presumed value that a signature adds, but for the record of a moment of personal contact with someone whose mind has fascinated me, and for the chance to express my thanks for the hours of occupation someone’s imagination has forged for me.
What kind of writer was Peter Tinniswood? He was surreal. He was funny, black of humour to the point that it shaded into ultra-violet. He relished words, the sound, the rhythm, the sensation of them. He wrote in short paragraphs, and his early novels were decorated with titles for every page, knowing, ironic, bizarre summations of what was going on on that page.
Because of that relish for words, he was far more suited to books and radio than TV, though that was where his career began, on The Frost Report, with his early writing partner David Nobbs. He was unique, and he shouldn’t be forgotten. Most of all, he was a Northerner: born in Liverpool, brought up in Sale, just outside Manchester, a journalist in Sheffield. Though he lived for many years down South, the North never left him, and he used his words to shape it into a living, breathing, comic force.
I don’t have all his books, though I have read them all. I certainly haven’t heard anything like all his Radio 4 work. I’ve seen most of his TV series, one of which still stands out in my mind as an incredible piece of work that would still be ahead of its time even now.
For many years, I thought he was one of the funniest writers I have ever read, and although the later years of his career did considerable damage to that opinion, as I will later describe, and though I heard little or nothing of his output for Radio 4, those books from his early career are still as bizarre, hilarious and surreal as I found them when I first plunged into these deep waters.
So for the next few months I’m going to delve into those books, and take you with me into what animates this most unusual of writers, and just what dark and despairing comic glooms the northerner’s mind can encompass.