Illtyd Harrington has last laugh as he ‘blazes away' at matinee funeral service

Friday, 23rd October 2015

TYPICAL of a man with such a delicious, waspish sense of humour, he left his friends and family with a smile rather than a watery eye.

For when the curtain had fallen on Illtyd Harrington’s coffin and it was time to leave the chapel, his final request rang through the walls of the Downs Crematorium high on the hill in Brighton: Blaze Away, the rousing standard sung by Josef Locke.

Mourners they may have been, but the gathering of around 150 had almost witnessed a Monday afternoon matinee of comedy and music as much as a funeral service. They departed to the lyrics: “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away…”

In truth, Illtyd, the former deputy leader of the GLC who became the New Journal’s literary editor and weekly columnist, only really spelt trouble for the hypocritical and egotistical characters he met along the way in a political career that many of those saying farewell believed deserved higher office.

His As I Please column, written until a few weeks before his death earlier this month, held little back.

But in this more intimate gathering, his kindness and generosity shone through as his life was reviewed by David Miles, a former fellow councillor in Westminster, his sister Kathleen and his nephew, the actor Richard Harrington, and others. 

Among the tributes a letter from Prince Philip was read, passing on condolences from the Royal Family.

Richard Harrington, Erica Davies, Chris Larkin and Suki Stephens

Illtyd's sister Kathleen Moffat and her grandson, Ryan

It didn’t matter which walk of life they were from, speakers’ anecdotes painted a picture of the same genial, principled man. Many of their tales began or ended in a party, or at least a few drinks in one of his favourite pubs, the old Perseverance in Paddington. 

His battle to get the first Freedom Pass for the elderly was recalled and his campaigns to open up the waterways, as was his guiding influence in trying to keep left-wing alliances intact when Ken Livingstone was leading the GLC. 

There were teasing lines about the way he was overlooked for a peerage and tracked by MI5 as a “dangerous” man; something to ridicule in reflection, however much it may have smarted in the past.

Kathleen Moffat, Illtyd’s sister, remembered the boisterous young boy who had popped out at 12lbs and immediately took centre stage in the family home in Merthyr. Family friend Chris Larkin recalled how he and Chris Downes, the theatre dresser for Dame Maggie Smith, and Illtyd’s partner for 50 years, had come to watch his shows in his formative years armed with cherry brandy and unmis­takable Muscovite hats. 

Buddhist Reverend Sister Yoshie Maruta and Reverend Gyoro Nagase, with Jane Sill

Audrey Millar with grandson Oscar

Oscar Millar, son of Gavin Millar QC, meanwhile remembered the generous man who stuffed surprise £20 notes into the pockets of cash-starved young people who he thought were too impover­ished to enjoy a 

drink in their youth. He apolo­gised for his hoarse voice, having been at a rugby match the night before. “Illtyd would’ve understood,” he said. “Because understanding was what Illtyd was all about.”

And Richard Harrington told how Illtyd had woken from a cancer operation a few years ago and immediately asked, typically, who had resigned from the cabinet that day. He had been warned that he might not survive the procedure.

A common theme was his love for London, a city which had become a political and social playground and which Illtyd only left for the south coast after Chris’s death in 2003.

Illtyd's brother Paul

Old friends from the National Youth Theatre: Dylan Hearn, Paul Roseby, Michael Bonehill, Caroline Bonehill, John Reid and, seated, Keith Palmer

The memories were mixed with the music of Paul Robeson and Maria Callas, and the Mack and Mabel soundtrack – music that Mr Miles joked had often been shared with Illtyd and Chris’s neighbours. Friends could almost hear Illtyd’s version of The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life when Bing Crosby and Al Jolson’s comical tune was played. 

The show was more than an hour old when the opening brassy bars of Josef Locke’s song sparked up. The stories of Illtyd’s escapades shared later at a wake at nearby Brighton Racecourse suggested it could have been at least twice that long.


Related Articles