IT'S odd, come to think of it, that television, which brings so many well-known faces right in among the poinsettias and African violets of home, has not dampened the appetite for Famous-People Spotting. It seems, in fact, only to have whetted it - by making these mega-folk so easily recognizable. Besides, when they are framed by the ubiquitous box, such personages are only too aware of the watchers out there, and this makes them self-conscious and artificial. Much better to catch them unawares wheeling a trolleyful of Kit-E-Kat down the pet-food gangway in a supermarket or clambering out of a taxi in the rain.
In such circumstances, it gives you the strangest feeling that, after all, these talking images may inhabit the same ordinary old world as yourself - that they might now and then even do the same ordinary old things you do ... like feeling devastated at the checkout to discover they've spent more on the cat's gourmet needs that week than on their own survival rations ... or like wondering, as the cabman waits with obvious long-suffering, just how to calculate a 15 percent tip without counting it out on the fingers. Ah! so they are human after all! It doesn't half reduce one to a kind of admiring adolescence to realize that in all probability, say, Meryl Streep actually eats peanuts from the bag or that the Prince of Wales brushes his teeth.
It isn't that I want to bring them down to size. It's more a matter of getting a hold on something of the ordinary and everyday that surely lurks behind the super-image.
Like the first and only time I saw Henry Moore, the sculptor. Admittedly it was in the not-unlikely context of Lon-don's Tate Gallery, but the thing that surprised me most (after his unexpected shortness in contrast to the monumen-tality of some of his works) was that he was in a great hurry. I'd never thought of H. Moore in a hurry.
But while everyone else was wandering at leisure through the gallery, absorbing art, musing on the wonders of aesthetic achievement, this bustling Yorkshireman stomped by at a determined, head-down rate of knots. Was he looking for someone? Had he come to see just one work, and one alone? Was his wife waiting for him in the car outside? Had she given him ``Two minutes, Hen-ry, and NO LONGER!''? Whatever the explanation, his haste provided me with a whole new view of an artist whose work seems to belong to the timeless centuries. The view of Moore rushing.
Actors, I suppose, are particularly fascinating to the Famous-Watchers. It's such fun to discover that they have, if not feet of clay, then at least shoes with mud on them like everyone else. I was very struck one time on the underground to see a particular TV actor of comedy going down the escalator as I went up the other side. This man had made me laugh inordinately many times. The shocking thing was that he now, descending into the depths of Holborn tube station, looked so dreadfully unhappy that he might have been standing in for Hamlet. I had a new admiration, there and then, for the craft of his profession. I take it as given that to make others laugh there must be the capacity to discover deep wells of bonhomie inside oneself. That he also knew the other side of the mask made his comedy seem a richer talent than I had suspected.
One is sensitive, of course, that those with well-known faces may not always like to be watched. I always try to bury my curiosity in a book or behind a paper; or just to behave as though They Are Not Really Different. None of this works, but never mind. I'm sure they appreciate the effort and sympathize completely with the goggle-eyed stare that generally occurs when all such suppressive efforts have failed.
Not everyone is intrigued by the famous, of course. Some people take the dismissive line of ``Well, I suppose he's no better than the next man!'' Others are simply disbelievers. They can't credit that they are truly seeing someone renowned any more than a ghost.
I remember reading a story Osbert Sitwell told about himself. If memory serves correctly, he was sitting in a train opposite a woman who was reading one of his books. She seemed engrossed in it, and after a considerable struggle with what he probably quite rightly thought was his vanity, he leaned forward and asked her if she was enjoying it. ``It's not too bad,'' she replied, or words to that effect. Whereupon he told her he was the author. She then, I think, gave him a long, queer look of total incredulity, decided he was probably some kind of nut, shut the book and, studiously avoiding his eyes, gazed firmly out of the window for the rest of the journey.
My wife was at Gatwick Airport when she felt certain she spotted the dog-trainer Barbara Woodhouse. Just then, a woman, in a timid voice, hazarded, ``Excuse me, but aren't you ...]'' ``That's RIGHT, that's RIGHT,'' cut in Mrs. W. in that brusque, stentorian manner that had become so familiar to Britain's spontaneously sedentary canine population, ``I'M THE TV-DOGGIE-LADY!'' Maybe she felt a general announcement would best satisfy the curious.
Personally, I've never actually accosted the famous. I prefer the corner-of-the-eye approach. I enormously enjoyed, for example, pretending I wasn't listening to a conversation at a nearby table between Peter Ustinov and a journalist in an Edinburgh caf'e. And in seeming not to observe how the children of Terry Wogan (British talk-show host and broadcaster) preferred to sit at the opposite end of the Heathrow airport lounge from their household-name of a dad, presumably to avoid attention. And trailing around a Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam in the wake of Kenneth (later Lord) Clark, art historian, hoping to pick up a crumb or two of experience and taste ... invisibly.
After all, it's always possible that if one were to march up brazenly and introduce oneself, they might have no idea who they were supposed to be. Though for myself I've never had the slightest uncertainty. All of the distinguished characters I've spotted really have - without any doubt at all - been THEM. Take my word for it.