Clement Freud 27

My predecessor as Rector of the University of Dundee, Sir Clement Freud MP, has died. I very much doubt many of today’s students had ever heard of him. For the last two decades he had disappeared from public view, and it is difficult to recall just how very famous he was back in the 1970s.

He had the intelligence to see that a great salon and dinner party wit could be turned to wider use, and he pioneered the roles of media personality and celebrity chef, as well as being long associated with Private Eye and with all of those Radio 4 comedy programmes. His hangdog looks and completely deadpan delivery contrasted with a wit that was razor sharp.

But he was also deadly serious about his Liberal politics, which had a strong radical and libertarian streak that found a home in Cromwell’s old hometown of Ely, at a time when towns still felt a link to their history that was based in a continuation of traditions of thought and of local institutions.

He led the campaign against the compulsory wearing of seat belts, arguing that there were now so many intrusions on our liberty in this life, that at least we might be left to choose how we leave it. I recall at the Saffron Walden by-election of 1977, where we were both campaigning for the Liberals, he made a speech on the subject that was among the funniest I have ever heard. He improvised a sketch between a policeman and a motorist stopped for not wearing a seatbelt. Freud made fun out of the many exceptions in the legislation, including the one that said you did not have to wear it while stationary. He queried how a policeman could ever really prove you were not wearing it while moving, and feared accidents as officers craned their necks at speed to look into other vehicles.

I didn’t actually agree with him, but it was a comic tour de force. I wish he had still been more active to take on New Labour’s comprehensive dismissal of the very notion of individual liberty.

A few weeks after Saffron Walden, I was at Dundee University as a student listening to his Rectorial address as he was installed for his second term. He urged students to think radically. He told the tale of an engineering student who was set an exam question asking how he would measure the height of a tall building using a barometer. He gave this as the student’s reply. Where I put some dots, Freud was able just to rattle off the appropriate formulae without using notes, and sounding like he actually understood them:

“I could use four different methods. First, I could measure the air pressure at the bottom of the building, then go up to the roof and measure the air pressure at the top of the building, and using the formula…… I could calculate the height of the building.

Second, I could drop the barometer from the roof, time how long it took to rach the ground, and using the formula ….. I could calculate the height of the building.

Third, I could measure the height of the barometer, go up to the roof, lower it on a piece of string, measure the length of string needed for it to touch the ground, add the height of the barometer, and I could calculate the height of the building.

But I think I would use the fourth method. I would enter the building and find the janitor. Then I would say to the janitor “If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.”

I was more than once the beneficiary of Freud’s largesse as he took groups of apparently random students out for boozy meals. Fot the student charities’ campaign he produced The Rector’s Cookbook, a collection of recipes that could be cooked in one pan on a single gas ring – in those days a not unusual sole cooking facility for a Dundee student.

He did a promotional piece for STV in a student flat in Springfield, equipped with a fold-away gas ring that swung out from the wall. Halfway through his cooking demonstration the cooking ring collapsed, the pan clashed to the floor, spraying everyone with chilli, and a jet of yellow flame shot across the room, setting fire to the bedclothes. Freud turned to the camera and said, in the slowest and most deadpan voice imaginable as the room blazed around him: “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect demonstration of the conditions which students have beed reduced to under the Labour government.”

I did not say so at the time, but my own Rectorial address in 2007 was in parts a deliberate hommage to Freud. The speech was imagined in his voice.

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27 thoughts on “Clement Freud

  • Anas Taunton

    Clement Freud was an archetypal, yellow-bellied, yellow card or no yellow card, Jewish media political trivialiser. Please don’t use him as a role model, Craig

  • anticant

    I have a less rosy view of Clement Freud than Craig – he was insufferably self-promoting and pompous in the dealings I had with him – but there’s no need to be racist, Anas.

  • Craig


    You already had a yellow card for attacking people for being Jewish, or at least including Jewish among a list of negative attributes. This is a red card now. I don’t want to see you here again.

    Anticant – Of course Clement had negative attributes. Mostly they were ones I share! But it is not, I think, a wrong tradition except where people were exceptionally bad, to concentrate on their good points when they have just died.

  • Jon

    @Anas – ditto most of the comments here. You can’t expect to use Jewishness as an example of a negative trait and not be pilloried, here of all places. If your difficulty with people of Jewish faith is really the political mean of Israelis and their sympathisers around the world, then your target should be Zionism, or neo-conservatism, or even just (a)political ignorance.

    As a British man, it would be unfair, for example, for me to be hated by Iraqis for the actions of my country, as I have opposed the war consistently and insist that it was not carried out with my agreement. I believe my country has been complicit in the deaths of 0.8-1.3m Iraqis in this war alone, and a million before that in sanctions. So, if I was the target of a racist diatribe that cited my Englishness as a negative trait, I would hope someone would stand up for me, and insist that I am judged for my beliefs, not my race.

  • anticant

    Sorry. Craig, but I don’t subscribe to the “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” hypocrisy. When I say that Freud behaved “insufferably”, I mean just that. He agreed to make an appeal on a public platform for a charity benefit, and instead of doing what he had been asked [and briefed] to do he merely made a momentary reference to the charity without saying anything about its work, and spent his whole time on the platform – about ten minutes – making silly Clement Freud-type jokes: total self-puffery.

    Jon, life IS unfair and in view of this country’s complicity in much international skulduggery during the past decade, I fear you and I must expect to be hated by many around the world because we are British, however loudly we protest “not in my name!”

  • George Dutton

    “But it is not, I think, a wrong tradition except where people were exceptionally bad, to concentrate on their good points when they have just died.”

    You should ALWAYS look at the whole and not just their “good points”.

    As for Clement Freud…A right wing Liberal.

  • Jason

    “To the living one owes respect, to the dead one owes only the truth.” – Voltaire

    However, anticant, if you would exercise a modium of decorum before opining on the newly deceased, it would not diminish the merit of what you might have to say, and it might just reflect a little better on your own character.

  • Amark

    Funny how nobody is mentioning his support of hare coursing or his generally unpleasant views on animal welfare.

  • eddie

    Craig – a sad loss. He was hilarious on Just a Minute. I don’t agree with him on seat belts – they have saved thousands of lives and sometimes we need to be saved from ourselves.

    Well done on the red card. What has his Jewishness got to do with anything? (Apart from the fact that he left Germany at the age of 10 to flee Nazism?) He had a forty year feud with his brother Lucian, during which they never spoke to each other. I wonder if they made amends at the end? Probably not if the death was sudden.

  • anticant

    Jason, I don’t know what I said that was lacking in decorum – I had decided not to say anything on this thread until I felt obliged to respond to Anas’s racism. If Craig had not rebuked me I would have left it there.

    However, I agree it is a matter of taste. As for my character, you know nothing about it except my blogging name, which please note. Nor do I know anything about yours. So let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, shall we?

    As for Clement Freud, if I had agreed to make a charitable appeal I would have used the time to boost the charity and not myself. I agree with Craig, though, that Clement was clever, witty, gave many people much enjoyment, and was a much more creditable type of politician than many of those now infesting Westminster.

  • Craig


    I didn’t mean it as a serious rebuke and realise it was provoked by a creditable desire to respond Anas.

    My own view is that you can speak ill of the dead, but not for a day or two, unless they are really horrible. I don’t claim particular logic to it, it just feels right.

  • anticant

    Craig, Clement certainly wasn’t horrible but he did have a love affair with himself and sometimes what one knew and heard about him privately was at variance with his carefully cultivated public image.

    But personally and politically he was an angel compared with today’s horrid mob.

    Btw, did you see Brown on the lunchtime BBC news “apologising” through clenched teeth? I’ve never seen him looking so thoroughly miserable – like a whipped dog, in fact.

    All this current brouhaha will lend added force to your forthcoming JC testimony, so make the most of it. Thinking back to the sticky ends of other governments – Macmillan, Callaghan, Thatcher – I sniff a general election much sooner than next year.

  • Anonymous


    Decorum re: “Sorry. Craig, but I don’t subscribe to the “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” hypocrisy. When I say that Freud behaved “insufferably”, I mean just that.”

    As for this:

    “As for my character, you know nothing about it except my blogging name, which please note.”

    And your comments? It was precisely my point, that with the limited scope to display your character via this format, you may wish to take more care over just what you show. Your comment makes you appear, to me, insensitive, and that may not at all be the case, and the tone of your response to me suggests this is so.

  • anticant

    We are none of us all of a piece, and like the sea bed our levels of sensitivity vary in different spots.

    As I said earlier, I had decided not to comment about C Freud, especially as Craig obviously had a very different impression of him to mine. But in pointing out Anas’s racist solecism I think it was reasonable to observe that my experience of CF was less rosy, and then when Craig responded to explain why.

    Insensitive? Maybe, but I and many others had worked our guts out for months to make that occasion a success, and CF’s performance didn’t help. Such things do rankle, however charitable one endeavours to be.

    Hope we can let it – and Clement – rest in peace now.

  • Jon

    @anticant – I could understand it too. But I recall a great article by John Pilger, in which he visits Iraq post-invasion. He recounts an anecdote in which an angry local man shouts abuse at him, equating him with the occupiers. But a second local man remonstrates with the local, and a third apologises to Pilger, saying: “We do not connect the actions of Western governments to their citizens. You are welcome here”.

    True, I would not at all demand that those who our government have bereaved or injured be so reasonable towards British civilians – to do so would be disgraceful. But on the other hand it would be unfair to assume that Iraqis (or any other party with a legitimate grievance against our government) would be unable to make this distinction. Just as we expect everyone here to be fair about Jewish people ;o)

  • Gerard Mulholland

    Like you, Craig, I was a member of the old Liberal Party and I worked with Clement Freud on several committees in the 1970s.

    Of course we knew his humour and his steadfast political commitment (he was our Northern Ireland spokesman at the time).

    I have three abiding memories which, I think, reflect his strange character.

    In fact I think he would have been quite an interesting case for his granddad the father of psychoanalysis to have analysed.

    My very first memory of him is of him being outrageously and unforgivably rude to a Steward at an annual Liberal Party Assembly (Conference) who had stopped him on entering the Hall and said “Of course I know you, Clement, but I must ask you to show me your delegates card like everybody else”. Clay replied “You know me? I certainly don’t know you!” and just pushed past him.

    My second memory is a twofold one.

    I had my first conversation with him at that same Assembly in which I endeavoured to convey to him the news of the very recent decease of an old lady whom I had known and who -I knew- he had known but under a different name than I had known.

    To me she had been Mrs C…, the grandmother of a friend of mine.To him, I knew she had been ‘Tante …..’ (Aunty ….’) and for the life of me I couldn’t recall that name.

    When I -in frustration- excalimed “But she knew your grandfather!” he responded very coldly “Which grandfather?”

    He than sort of apologised by saying “I’m sorry. The news of the death of somebody I cannot identify does not affect me very deeply”.

    Several years -and a lot of committee meetings- later, I found myself at a table where he was in the Chair and we were discussing a forthcoming By-election.

    He said “I’m afraid that I shan’t be any use because there is a large jewish population in this constituency of whom a very large number think that my grandfather invented atheism.

    I would be no help at all.

    Quite the opposite.”

    In the silence that followed I said “Which grandfather?”

    There was an even more stunned silence while he turned towards me and very slowly and very deliberately said “My paternal grandfather”.

    We then continued with the meeting but at the end he came up to me and for the first time initiated a conversation with me.

    Without referring to my interjection he offered some very interesting -and as it turned out- useful tips on approaching the jewish electors in that constituency.

    Ever after, whenever I found myself in the same room as him he would single me out for a brief and friendly conversation.

    I formed the view that that was one hell of a way to get on the right side of a temperamental character.

    My third memory is of his arriving just before a meeting and -without the usual pleasanteries- blurting out to me “Hello, Gerard. I’ve just spent a fact-finding day at the Maze Prison and I’m in a state of complete shock.

    It’s absolutely horrific.

    The prisoners -both Loyalist and Republican- are all sane.

    It’s the guards who are mad.”

    He was a crazy, mixed up character who got on the wrong side of so many people who wanted to be his friends but who could melt an audience at the drop of a hat and who had profound principles about personal liberty of action, conscience, movement and thought.

    I’m glad his end was swift and sudden.

    Would that we could all be so lucky.

  • Fred

    He was a notorious old goat and his pursuit of young women could verge on the sinister. I met one of his young ‘victims’who told me about a job interview with him turning into a very traumatic experience.

  • AnasT

    I apologise for offending people who thought I was being racist about Clement Freud, and to his family, friends and admirers and for breaking the code of civility respecting the dead. God alone knows our invividual destiny.

    If anyone’s interested, the point I was trying to make , unsuccesfully, follows revelations I found in Aangirfan’s blog about the BBC. ‘The Israeli controlled BBC’. After the Gaza appeal mystery, the BBC is in the dock for trying both to manipulate, and in my opinion, trivialise public opinion. I was trying to point out the difference between trivia and the rugged and targetted polemic I see coming from Craig. For which I thank him heartily.

    As to the red card, Allah’s religion of Islam is infinitely more merciful than your rules, Craig. In shari’ah law. Attalaqu marratain. Which means that you get two red cards, and unlimited yellow ones in the matter of divorce.

    But however nuch I admire Craig’s politics, Craig and me are one million miles apart about religion and I don’t think that’s going to change soon. If in the course of seeking election in a Muslim constituency you become more sympathetic to the Muslim view, or indeed if you accept the Truth of God’s religion, I will be the first to welcome you.

  • dee

    Clement was the funniest man I ever met,

    and I am grateful, as I am to anyone who can

    make me laugh in this unlaughable world.

    He will be sorely missed by his fans, of whom

    I am one. Yaboo to all you miseryguts.

  • Phil Connor

    I just learnt of Sir Clement’s death and it definitely saddens me. I live in Detroit, USA now but back in 1972 I used to live on the Isle of Wight. It was the first week of August in Cowes and therefore, “Cowes Week”. For those of you that don’t know, this meant that the pubs were open almost 24 hours a day. This is long before the advent of our current licensing laws. After having imbibed for several hours I was in a state of “suitable refreshment.” I staggered out into the street by the Fountain Hotel in Cowes and narrowly missed being run over by a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce. As I swayed in front of the vehicle, the rear window went down gradually. Sir Clement’s head imerged as he uttered the single word, “C**T.” The window went back up with an electric swoosh as the Rolls Royce gently drew away in silent grace. Leaving me to ponder the error of my ways. What is even stranger was I was just telling a friend of mine this very story last Saturday evening. I must have felt a disturbance in the force.

  • les massingham

    i worked for clem he was a very nice person to work for he was the best the fun you would have with him .at rest ,,i fell sorry for his family jill and family

  • Sofitel

    Dear Gerard Mulholland – good for you.

    Writing as one of his 1000s of sexual ‘victims’,

    still surviving, terrified as I write for fear he is not yet quite yet dead – the man was an evil, conniving,

    ruthless user for his own bottomless ego of all he came into contact with.

    Our children – boys and girls are all that much safer for his demise.

    And that is just the tip of an iceberg of political and media dirty dealings that reaches into the heart of the broken Britain he has left behind him.

    His family will now, unfortunately, reap the rage and revenge of those he destroyed and their much needed justice for his many heinous – still untold – actions.

  • David

    Craig, I think you’re wrong that students of today wouldn’t have known much of Freud. As a final year student I can certainly testify that he was widely known and spoken of at the university following his unfortunate death.

    Mostly due, I suspect, to his Have I Got News For You appearances.

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