David Niven had one quality which every storyteller should aspire to. It’s nothing to do with the way he told a story, his delivery or timing. It’s much more important than that.
In this final clip he tells another story in which he makes himself the fall guy in his own joke. It’s a much more personal story than the last two, and beneath the humour of the situation there is an under current of sadness that, I think, explains how he came to have this quality.
My comments are below, what do you think?
1) He’s seems a lot more relaxed to me in this clip. He’s still touching his neck and face quite a lot but his smile is more convincing because his eyes are joining in. He’s genuinely enjoying telling this story.
2) What’s up with Parkinson? He’s clearly enjoying the story immensely, even though, I know for a fact he’s heard this same story many times – and it appears in Nivens book about his early life. He knows what the punchline is, he’s enjoying the process of getting there.
3) Listen again to the story and have a think about what Niven is telling you, and what he isn’t telling you. Because while he’s distracting you with the funny story of how he lost his virginity, he’s also telling you that he had “a creepy” stepfather and that at the age of 15, nobody in his life cared enough to know where he was at night. He wasn’t even allowed to sleep in the family home. For me, this “tragic” aspect of his story adds depth and poignancy. He knew what it was to suffer but he never dwelt on the pain, he found the humour in the story and moved on.
Look at this guy? What do you see? You see a charming, well dressed, well spoken englishman. Niven, with his Sandhurst training, was perhaps one of the last generation to be educated to be “an officer and a gentleman” and it was a role he practised to perfection all his life. But his childhood was miserable. His family aspired to the “upper class” but didn’t have the money to back up their aspirations. His mother didn’t have any time for her children, His stepfather considered him an inconvenient disappointment. His rebellious antics would have got him kicked out of the army if he hadn’t resigned his commission. He landed on his feet in Hollywood but his first wife, the love of his life died in a tragic accident and his second wife tried, unsuccessfully, to drink herself to death for the next 40 years.
Niven knew what it was to be an outsider and his experience put him in touch with people from all walks of life- from street walkers to manual labourers, from movie stars to prime ministers.
We are perhaps too far removed in this century to understand what it meant to be a “an officer and a gentleman” We are jaded by the knowledge of the fatuous slaughter of the first world war, by the association with an out moded patriarchy, by the abuse of class privelege.
But a “Gentleman” could be just that. A gentle man. A gentleman might carry steel, but he wore silk. A gentleman was honourable, respectful, polite and protected the weak against the strong. A gentleman might have felt entitled to a certain kind of treatment- but in return he assumed that you were entitled to the same treatment.
And that for me is David Niven’s most important quality. He made other people feel special. At his funeral the biggest wreath was delivered from the porters at London’s Heathrow airport. The card read:
“To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.”