Columnist: A golden find among the cultural losses....

Ralph Mellon reflects on the losses since the start of 2016
Ralph Mellon reflects on the losses since the start of 2016

We already know 2016 has been a pretty vivid year for celebrity deaths – especially in culture – and we’re only nine weeks into it.

If you love music, the obituary list makes astonishing reading. I thought the losses couldn’t get any bigger than Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but within a day came the shock news about David Bowie. Since then, we’ve lost Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Jimmy Bain, Maurice White, Dale Griffin, and even Sir Terry Wogan, and others, plus a handful of outstanding actors, authors and cinematographers, in addition to some in other equally worthy professions and walks of life.

However, in the midst of all these demises, I was pleased we had the unexpected chance to celebrate the rediscovery of a long-gone true comedy great – Marty Feldman. Not quite a coming back to life, but a fresh opportunity to appreciate a brilliant talent.

Although its origins are a little odd, Feldman’s autobiography, ‘eYE Marty’, appeared a couple of months ago, seemingly discovered in an attic full of boxes of writing and largely untouched for over 30 years. He reportedly finished it before heading ill-fatedly to Mexico to make the film ‘Yellowbeard’.

For me, it all seems a little strange, but, as a massive fan, it’s absolutely exhilarating, most welcome, and it took me less than one weekend to read it. Up to now we’ve only had the odd scattered radio and TV retrospective of his brilliance, recalling his early years as a writer then a performer on a cluster of radio and TV show, and then his greatest success in America in ‘Young Frankenstein’, before a rather melancholy decline.

It’s claimed the book is as close to his original manuscript and preferred layout as possible and, indeed, it tells of a very colourful life as a jazz musician and other escapades before he found fame. As you’d expect, there are many evocations of vanished eras , hints at the downward trajectory he felt was coming, and a great insight into the incredibly rich mind of that strange-looking bloke with the funny bulging eyes.

On his 21st birthday, he was beaten up in Cardiff by a Scottish dwarf. Now a life story isn’t worth reading unless it contains facts like that.

Feldman died, aged just 48, at the end of 1982 in Mexico City, where he had all but finished shooting ‘Yellowbeard’. It’s an atrociously unfunny pirate comedy – but do I have it and treasure it on DVD? Of course.

He suffered a massive heart attack, thought to have been brought on by the high altitude of Mexico City and the fact he consumed coffee, cigarettes and butter-smothered dairy products in Olympian quantities (a bout of shellfish poisoning was also proffered as a cause). Friends managed to get an oxygen cylinder up to his hotel room, only to find it was lacking in one rather vital ingredient, while an ambulance was called but then spent around four hours limping through the Mexico City traffic.

Ironically, David Bowie played a cameo in ‘Yellowbeard’ – but Feldman had met him in the mid-70s and says in the book: “I liked his work. He was an artist in every sense of the word.”