Whatever you think of the New Year and Queen’s Birthday honours – anachronistic, an agreeable way of rewarding endeavour, a baffling lottery, public recognition for public service – there is something intrinsically pleasing when a name leaps out from the long list of those honoured and you say ‘Hurrah!’
At least that was my reaction when I saw in the latest Honours that Richard Stilgoe had at last got his ‘K’. Stilgoe has been, for years, quietly earning a fortune from his brilliant lyrics for shows like Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera, and just as quietly ploughing much of it into good causes. No fanfare, no publicity, no attention-seeking – just getting on with the inspirational projects he has dreamed up and so passionately believes in. These include his Alchemy Foundation and Orpheus Trust which provide performing arts opportunities for young people with disabilities. All his American royalties from Starlight Express have been funding irrigation projects in India.
When reporting his knighthood, you might have got the impression that the award was for his countless appearances on Countdown, or for his contribution to musical theatre. ‘TV presenter and lyricist Richard Stilgoe for charitable work’ was the general line. A few papers got it right and used the word ‘philanthropist’ – a very different concept to ‘charitable work’.
I have known Stilgoe only slightly for a long time. ‘Dickie’, as he’s known to his friends, toured the country for many years with my chum Peter Skellern. I first met him when he and Skellern appeared in the West End performing their show Who Plays Wins. They gave me a copy of the (LP) album and kindly signed it for me. It was only when I got home, and having read the nice dedications from both of them on the front, that I turned the LP over to see that Stilgoe had written on the back: ‘Jeremy Nicholas is an anagram of Mincey J Arsehole’. Thanks Dickie – I mean Sir Richard! – who will tell you himself that his own name is an anagram of Giscard O’Hitler – and congratulations. Richly deserved.