Audiences with Celebrities

Toilets, khazi, dunny, privy, netty: or, what you will. The water closet is one of the greatest comforts of  life, and I for one applaud its continued existence in my everyday landscape.

One might pause to question, though, whether it is the place to hold an audience.

Once upon a time a rather special throne was built: King Louis XIII used it during his royal audiences. It has a commode built in, so that one can discuss matters of state whilst taking one’s time answering nature’s call.

A court jester is fabled to have broached the irony that he liked to eat in private, yet was happy to use his commode in public.

While eschewing toilet audiences, the British had their foibles: as the account of a French ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I relates. For she received the Gallic visitor in her nightdress.

This audience, held in 1597, is extraordinary, inviting us into the very presence of Oriana just a few years before her death.

The ambassador was an envoy from King Henri IV of France. He appraises her with the eye of one whose master is very much interested in the Queen’s health and -more importantly- longevity.

His account relates how he was ushered into the presence of the great lady. She received him kindly, offering her hand.

He says: “She excused herself because I found her in her nightgown, and began to rebuke those of her Council who were present, saying. “What will these gentlemen say” – speaking of those who had accompanied me – “to see me so attired? I am much disturbed that they should see me in this state.”

The French king’s envoy didn’t seem to mind. He was just pleased to have an audience. And he began to observe her dress: Elizabeth was strangely dressed in silver gauze cloth with sleeves of red taffeta, the front of her dress open as if she were too hot.

At her throat were pearls and rubies, and at her forehead beneath the red wig were jewels.

“As for her face,”he relates, ” it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly, so they say, and on the left side less than on the right.

“Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly. Her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does; so far as may be she keeps her dignity, yet humbly and graciously withal.”

Her audience betrays her age, with a truth the portrait painters chose not to deploy. She insists on standing, because it is how she has always spoken to ambassadors. She appears impatient with the ambassador’s speech at times, but she is effortlessly courteous; ever the consummate diplomat. An audience with Queen Elizabeth in her nightie is still, it seems, a memorable and positive state occasion.

I read of an audience today which filled me with more awe than any monarch could inspire.

Koko the gorilla began her life as a small, spindly little baby gorilla at San Francisco Zoo.

A member of the Gorilla Foundation found her, and taught her sign language. At the age of 40 she knows around 2000 human words.

Last September, Telegraph reporter Alex Hannaford secured an audience with this most elusive of conversationalists. He arrived at an undisclosed location – a Californian ranch – to be taken to a hut where Koko and her partner live. He had brought hostess gifts from Toys R Us.

He flicked through a book about zoo animals and Koko, approving, signed for the door to be opened, and Alex to be welcomed in. The reporter observed gorilla etiquette fastidiously, avoiding eye contact until Koko approached him to brush his arm, and signalled for him to follow her through the house.

Astoundingly, as they built trust, Alex showed a picture of his newborn daughter and made the cradling sign which means “my baby”. Koko held the picture to her lips and kissed it.

And then they settled down to watch Mary Poppins.

Alex writes:  “If my day wasn’t surreal enough, it suddenly dawns on me that I’m watching Dick Van Dyke while sitting next to a gorilla – an arrangement that Koko seems perfectly content with.”

Reading his account, it struck me how startlingly courteous an ambassador the reporter made: and how regal and accommodating was this queen of gorillas, who has learnt to speak the language of a nearby powerful species.

Sometimes, the trappings of an audience are outweighed by the central character.


Picture is from a wonderful site- Pop Culture OCD- which reviews old documentaries each Monday, and reviewed Koko, The Talking Gorilla, a 1973 documentary. read more here.


42 thoughts on “Audiences with Celebrities

  1. I wonder about the central character. Sometimes it’s important that all respect be shown, but what about those who have done deeds that mean they are no longer due respect as they show none to others?

    How hard to have ones ageing under a very public spotlight. I’m very graeteful for anonymity

    1. Both issues touch on celebrity as it is now. i guess the consequences of being rude in an audience is bad publicity- Elizabeth stood to lose by this is she were rude and cantankerous….it must have been hard for her to lose her youth while all England watched. Hmmm.

  2. According to A.N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans – The Queen was displeased when her favourite, the Earl of Essex, encroached upon the privacy of her bedchamber and he was thereafter subject to her disfavour. But it appears from your post that she was quite ready to receive Ambassadors in her bedchamber. The fact that she was wearing her jewels would suggest that she was happy to appear in her nightdress. A.N Wilson may have got it wrong here, or perhaps it was because she was attracted to Essex although he was many years her junior!

    1. She was in her night wear according to the French ambassador, Rosemary: not sure that this was her bedchamber. Andre Hurault’s account appears in my Faber reportage book (Ed. John Carey 1987). In it, he is led across a ‘chamber of moderate size’ where the queens guards hung out, and from there into the Presence Chamber (apparently everyone remains covered in this room- not sure what that means). He waited there until the Lord Chamberlain came to lead him along a passage to a room called the Privy Chamber. This is where he meets Elizabeth. I believe Privy Chambers were a set of rooms rather than one: a bedroom, a library, a study and a toilet.

  3. I am much more interested in Koko and the exchange with the reporter Alex because if its uniqueness. The foibles of Kings and Queens throughout history can be good reading and entertaining, but, Koko and her history is something that really catches my attention.

    1. I felt the same, Lou. Interviews with monarchs suddenly seem rather jaded when contrasted with a conversation between species: and with such a wonderful relative of ours, as well.

      1. An interview with Koko would be my preference, too. It is beyond heartwarming to see how love, patience and time can bring such a meeting of the minds between species. Too bad those methods are not employed with more success within our one species!

        Work with Kojo and her kind continues:

        Love how this post evolved, Kate. 🙂

  4. Love this, and the Koko interview would have made my century. I have had some brief audiences with leopard, lion, snakes bushbuck and wildebeest which have left me feeling extraordinarily privileged. Can’t think of one that worked as well with a human, though. Not even Nelson Mandela. Although I did enjoy a fleeting country lane meeting with the Queen, but that wasn’t exactly an audience!

  5. President Lyndon Johnson did the same thing as Louis 13 but not as a matter of convenience or efficiency. He relished in having officials listen to his bowels vacating during conferences with staff and officials as a way of expressing his contempt for the liberal eastern establishment of the Kennedys as was the origin of many hold overs from the past administration. In my opinion his foreign policy stank much more than his bowels.

  6. From Elizabeth I to Koko. However you do it, Kate, you do it so well that I never tire of your posts.

    Our first house was small. Very small, but, the one bathroom in it, before we remodeled. was rather large. The four of us could brush teeth, style hair, sort laundry . . . well, you get the picture. The door closed, but, never had a lock on it for reasons none of us can explain. Our family did fine. A closed door meant knock and wait. Our girls were playing with the three girls from next door and I, well, I needed to use the facilities. There I sat when the door flew up and little Michelle from next door looked at me and said “Hi, Penny. I’ll close the door so you can have privacy.” She then proceeded to sit on the edge of the tub and carry on quite a conversation about some childish thing or another. It was a memorable audience. tee hee

  7. I’ve always felt rather sorry for your royals. They are born into that life, with no choice in the matter, and relegated to it for life. No privacy, all kinds of duties and obligations, whether they like it or not. It has always struck me as being condemned from birth, albeit with ample financial compensation.

    1. You make an excellent point, as usual, PT. They didn’t choose to be born into the royal family. I have the greatest admiration for those who took the responsibility and shouldered it much like those Indian luggage carriers on their railway systems; it appears a back breaking burden, but much is to be gained by assuming it. Elizabeth 1 , Victoria and Elizabeth II were notable in the way they did this.

  8. We watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes this week . . . including the signing between Caesar and his “family” . . . until he learned to speak.

    While the plot holes were many, the movie raised interesting questions about man’s relationship to “beast.”

    1. You know, I’ve not seen that, Nancy: and now I find I’d like to. have you followed Karen’s link to the Gorilla Foundation website? There are some amazing videos of interviews with the lady who trains and works closest with Koko. She is the most amazing person and says the project has shown us the ‘personhood’ of animals. They are ‘people’ – well-formed personalities capable of empathy and expression just as we are – and the whoe project raises the question of how justified our man-made divide between man and animals is.

      I feel vegetarianism coming on.

    2. Knowing that animals suffer is one of the many reasons I became a vegetarian. I feel better knowing that I am not contributing to that suffering.

      The movie is very telling about how man (a two-legged animal) sets himself above and apart from the “lesser apes.”

  9. And I would meet E I in a heartbeat. She has always fascinated me. I’ve always wished a woman or two could’ve written about her in the moment, other than letters and such.

  10. I am reminded of the earlier talk of epitaphs. What a thing to put on one’s own–the most unique event of your life. “Here lies Alex Hannaford, who once was invited by the Queen of the Gorillas to watch Dick van Dyke on film.” Think of the wonder of future generations if we all had such stories to tell…

    1. I know. Lucky Alex 😀 Journalists are the most incredible people: they manage to combine living it large with writing for a living. Of course, it can be dangerous; I guess a fully grown gorilla could be quite an opponent if stirred to anger. But you’re right. What an epitaph!

  11. I’m not sure what I would prefer to do more, Kate, communicate with a king or a queen, or communicate with an animal. I’m erring on the side of the animals though, especially as Spudley the Cat has taken to speaking a few words in English… I must say that I wouldn’t like to be doing business when I’m doing – er – ‘on the throne’… my concentration would have gone completely for starters! 😀

    1. I’m sure Spudley would look askance at you were you even to attempt such a thing, Tom. I feel sure he has ‘cat ambassador to the human race’ written all over him 😀

  12. You know what worries me… One of these looks more intelligent than the other! One is thinking and considering a response… Wow, what a photo 🙂

  13. I’d rather have tea with Koko – infinitely more interesting.

    Holding court while on the loo! The mind boggles at people’s behaviour – I had a client who felt it quite OK to floss his teeth while discussing his business processes (and my husband wonders why I prefer not to do much consulting work these days). Ewww!

  14. I’m kinda reeling from the picture that the Virgin Queen didn’t really look like Cate Blanchett! I’m disappointed! But also fascinated. I think the KoKo audience would indeed be so spectacular. You spanned a lot of time and geography in this one, Kate, and it was both interesting and informative. Debra

  15. Louis XIII’s special throne rather takes me aback. Not sure I could have got through an audience with him sitting on that thing. Elizabeth’s dishabille seemed both comfortable and contrived. But Koko was the soul of gracious audience-holding. We still have much to learn from our other-species friends.

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