Coffee-break memories : Camp Freddy

Here’s one to enjoy a brew and a biscuit over in our latest Coffee-Break Memories article.

All those men who live in the county town of Northampton and prefer a traditional trim and a good old chin-wag will almost certainly know of AG Watts and Son. Before I take you for a stroll down Recollection Road, I’ll state here and now that this isn’t an advert for the said emporium – think of it more as a scene-setter.

I haven’t sat in the chair there for a very long time, but when I was a pup and throughout my late-teens and adulthood it was my chosen crop shop. Despite the length of time which has passed since my last ‘number two back and sides with a good trim on top please, Jim’ I recently walked in and sat down in the small queue to the greeting from Jim saying: ‘Hello Mike, everything okay?’ It was like I had never been away at all and in no time I was beckoned to sit in the chair for the chop.

If you travel between Northampton and Oxford you will recognise this place on the A5/A43 roundabout. But when it opened in 1994 it was Tanswell of Towcester who were retail dealers for Rover and Vauxhall – I used work there back then. Ownership passed to the Wayside Group and more recently now trades as Lancaster Volkswagen.

After the usual reciprocated questions of where had I been and what was I up to etc., Jim then remarked: ‘Camp Freddy died a little while back.’ It was at this juncture that the memories came flooding back. The man in question worked in show-business for quite some time, nothing headline grabbing of course, but at weekends he would ply his craft in a handful of Midlands-based clubs working as a female impersonator.

I got to know Freddy through the small Rover dealer I worked with years back and his custom in the aforementioned barber’s shop. He was funny – rib-achingly funny, charming, flamboyant and light on his feet – hence the colloquial nick-name of Camp Freddie. Everybody he knew was treated to the same loud greeting of hello darling or duckie or my dear, he was every camp showbiz stereotype all rolled into one.

He used to intimidate quite a lot of folk and scared the wits out of the young lad who worked at the garage washing and delivering/collecting our Service Department vehicles. In fact, rather like a well-trained police dog or retired race horse, Freddie could sense your fear and hone on in your weakness – his camp and innuendo dial would be turned up to eleven in a true Spinal Tap-style. But from my point of view he was nice chap… not to mention one who spent a fair sum of money over the counter.

Fred told me he bought the van as some of the grubbier clubs he performed at had no dressing rooms. The van seemed a better option than the men’s toilets don’t you agree?

Every bulb, fuse, wiper blade, routine service – you name it would see Fred explode into the dealership. He drove a very worn out Rover 820 and also owned an equally beaten up Leyland DAF 400 Hi-Loader. Fred told me he bought the van to change into his act at some of the flea-pit clubs otherwise he would have ended up changing clothes in the gent’s toilets. It makes sense if you think about it – after all, it was Britain’s Biggest Van according to its advertising of the time.

On one particular occasion his car was in for some work and, for whatever reason, our delivery lad wasn’t around to collect him from his home. Fred lived in a quaint Northamptonshire village called Blakesley which was roughly three or four miles from our Towcester dealership. I called him on the ‘phone to clarify the address and where to find him and jumped into one of our 414 SLi courtesy cars. After a short and picturesque drive, I found a pretty-looking old farmhouse.

The house was rather run down, but located on a fair chunk of land and I was greeted at the door by Fred. I was beckoned inside for a cup of tea, which I accepted, and for about twenty minutes or so we put the world to rights in the comfort of his kitchen over a pot of tea in the haze of one of his Panatella cigars. After a very short while of listening and looking around from where I sat, it became apparent that the old boy was living on past glory – a shame really.

He shamelessly name dropped here and there of stars he had worked and socialised with. Names like Jimmy Edwards, Eric Sykes, Danny Kaye, Tommy Cooper and so on were banded about.

He told of his halcyon times fixing and arranging shows for theatre and occasional television. He shamelessly name dropped here and there of stars he had worked and socialised with. Names like Jimmy Edwards, Eric Sykes, Danny Kaye, Tommy Cooper and so on were banded about. If it hadn’t been for the fact I had to get back to work I happily would have sat there all afternoon listening to his golden anecdotes. The days when stars were just that – bright lights of top class entertainment.

The fact that hanging off hooks and the backs of chairs all around the house were his costumes seemed a little strange at first but he said that performing on stage, even in some dreadful venues, meant he still kept a toe in the water. Looking back now it’s obvious that he was fading away living on past glory and memories, but back then he was a jovial eccentric customer who I also occasionally used to sit close to in a small barber’s shop.

Fumbling about with a rusty hasp and staple the doors were pulled open to reveal an Alvis – a TE21 I think, a Frazer Nash and a tatty looking Rolls-Royce Corniche Mulliner Park Ward.

I recall steering the conversation back to work and car-related topics when he asked if any of our mechanics were happy to work on older vehicles. Asking what exactly was he thinking of he got up and we wandered round the back of the property to a big old barn. Fumbling about with a rusty hasp and staple the doors were pulled open to reveal an Alvis – a TE21 I think, a Frazer Nash and a tatty-looking Rolls-Royce Corniche Mulliner Park Ward.

To say I was mesmerised would be an understatement – especially when he pulled back a tarpaulin to reveal a Rudge-Whitworth motorbike which was just as dilapidated as everything else he had shown me that afternoon. I jokingly said something like being a drag queen surely must have made him a lot of money what with the big old house and collection of vintage vehicle collection on two and four wheels. His answer was utterly priceless…

Something I learnt many years ago in my profession… it’s wise to always keep a little something tucked away.’

Nothing better could be said – sleep well Camp Freddy…

Mike Humble


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