Not the lashless Stuart beauties
On the wall at Hampton Court,
Pouting pearly bosomed cuties,
Opaque of feeling, will and thought,
Neither do I dwell on status
Of the man, however regal
Or finely wrought his apparatus,
No; I speak of Anna Neagle.
Herbert Wilcox was director,
A film of nineteen thirty-four
Cedric Hardwicke Nell’s protector –
The king – and Nell of course his whore.
Well this got screened on BBC
When I was young, I’m guessing eight,
Or possibly on ITV:
Some latter nineteen-fifties date,
And I was quite captivated
By Nell Gwyn’s lively wit and charm,
By something emancipated:
The use of humour to disarm,
More usually a male gambit,
A bel esprit would be a bloke,
At least, such was my own ambit,
Women less prone to crack a joke.
‘I Love Lucy’, ‘I married Joan,’
These comic, fluffy, giddy wives
Or ‘My Wife’s Sister’ – Brit, homegrown –
Showed dizzy, silly, shallow lives.
But Nell’s modus operandi,
Merry, bawdy, liked a rumpus,
Eating jellied eels with brandy,
Did not lack a moral compass.
The Chelsea Pensioners owe her:
Veterans who, unsupported,
Penniless, were sinking lower,
Nell prevailed, so it’s reported,
Counselled Charles to make provision,
At least, this happens on the screen,
Nell is graced with social vision
And confidence to intervene.
Unlike his other concubines
She wasn’t always out for tin
Or title, which, sans doute, refines.
Affection was her mortal sin.
Neagle, then thirty, played eighteen
With youthful vigour, bounce and zest
Though typecast later as a queen
Or stylish ladies from up west.
And maybe I exaggerate
When I call it influential
And possibly I overstate
This minor film’s potential,
It held me, as a child engrossed
This is clear to me as a bell
I guess that what I wanted most
Was to be a woman like Nell,
Repartee coming thick and fast,
Not mean or spiteful but pleasant
That notion from my distant past
Has echoes still, in the present,
I count joie-de-vivre as a merit;
My style is more the minor key –
Maybe the genes I inherit –
But I so esteem vitality.