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From Bristol to Hollywood and Back - Cary Grant Comes Home for the Weekend

21/11/2014 23:50 | Updated 21 January 2015

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Recently I moved to Bristol, on England's South West coast. For a city built on a dubious bed of tobacco trading and slavery, it has harnessed its pioneering spirit latterly into a more positive outlook. Home to William Penn, founder of the Quakers movement, Concorde, the first supersonic plane and elected European Green Capital 2015, it is home each year to the Bristol Festival of Ideas and I am drawn to its Autumn 2014 season as I make sense of my new home.

Perhaps it is the harbouring of a subconscious guilt that drives the city into hosting such a positive and illuminating think tank. Its significant role in the slave trade is highlighted by a single statistic: in 1730, over half of the slave ships embarking from England for Africa left from Bristol.

As you walk through the city, you are surrounded by its slave trade past. Edward Colston made his fortune here and donated much of it to good works in Bristol; streets, schools and concert halls are named after him.

My eye is taken by a black and white image of a 20th century British screen icon, Cary Grant, advertising a Festival event of readings and screenings (www.carycomeshome.co.uk) devoted to the man. I lose myself at Bristol's Watershed arts centre in a rags-to-riches story of Archibald Alexander Leach, as was, who became Cary Grant.

Born on 18 January 1904, a working class boy from the Bristol suburbs; his father was mainly absent but around enough to commit Archie's mother, who suffered from depression, to the 'Fishponds Country Home for Mental Defectives'. Ten-year old Archie was told simply that his mother had 'gone away' and did not find out the truth for twenty years. At the age of fifteen, Archie Leach ran away from home and joined a circus troupe, and eventually found his way to New York, where he earned a crust as a 'knockabout comedian' and advertising stilt-walker. Then, after a lucky break, he moved to Hollywood. He became Cary Grant and consigned Archie to history or so he thought....

He went on to make numerous films including Hitchcock classics like Suspicion and North by North West. He married five times, including a Woolworths Heiress and was once perhaps cruelly tagged, 'Cash and Cary'. He was renowned for being a dapper dresser. The writer, Todd McEwan, immortalised this aspect of him in his short story, 'Cary Grant's Suit', that portrayed the eponymous suit as the real star of North by North West: sprayed with DDT by a chasing crop-duster plane in the middle of Chicago mid-west farmland; crushed, as Eva Marie Saint folds it and its wearer into the upper berth of a train compartment and slams it shut. The suit emerges, as does Cary, immaculate and resplendent.

Cary Grant returned to Bristol several times after he became aware that his mother was still alive. An English cousin contacted Grant's Hollywood studio after recognizing him in a film at the cinema. Grant secured her release from the asylum and spent the next 50 years trying to rekindle their relationship. She was the only person who would continue to call him Archie.

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Grant was often called 'James Bond without a gun' and was strongly tipped to become the first screen Bond until Sean Connery beat him to it. Grant, master of the 'double take', remained an enigma throughout his life and was the subject of many hoax stories about his elusive past.

I am sitting now in the Bristol Hippodrome, where he once worked backstage, watching Grant fleeing in North by North West across the American landscape. Rose, 94 years old in glamorous red, sits next to me. She had told me earlier that she used to watch Cary Grant films here as a child on Saturday mornings, whilst eating pomegranate seeds. She leans across conspiratorially, just as Eva Marie Saint is telling Grant that he's 'a big boy now,' and whispers to me that she once met Grant in Bristol and he was 'gorgeous.'

I leave the cinema and wonder what's next on the Festival of Ideas programme for me. Is it Sir Max Hastings on 'Catastrophe 1914: How Europe Went to War', billed as the Colston Research Society Annual Lecture - yes, that Edward Colston! Or Joan Smith, Executive Director of Hacked Off, talking on 24 November about the need to bring back ethics into the heart of the British Press. Bring back ethics? Well Bristol is trying.....

Yesterday I had also learnt how to walk and talk like Cary Grant, as well as how to mix the iconic Gibson cocktail. I was beginning to get a sense of what Archie Leach had meant when he said, 'Everybody wants to be Cary Grant, even I do.'

Bristol Festival of Ideas
www.ideasfestival.co.uk
Autumn Season Oct-Nov 2014
Includes Festival Series of Health; Politics; The Artist at War; Economics