A fascinating phone call came through to the obituaries desk at the Telegraph last week. It was from an actress who had spent time with Elvis Presley in the 1960s, and after several in-depth conversations with him had gained a remarkable insight into how his strong Christian upbringing had left its mark.
Barbara Whatley, as she was when she met Elvis, was the widow of a top cricketer called Rupert Webb, who died aged 96 and whose obituary we had run, and she was ringing to pass on thanks to the obituarist.
Webb was an unusual figure, in that not only had he played first-class cricket as wicketkeeper for Sussex throughout the 1950s, he had also enjoyed a late-life career as an actor and model. He appeared, for example, as a customer in a Specsavers advert, as an angry farmer on a tractor in a Conservative Party political broadcast – and he turned up in Four Weddings and a Funeral as the father of Anna Chancellor’s character, the spurned bride “Duckface”.
Barbara Whatley was his second wife, his first wife having died, and it was after marrying Barbara in 1983 that Webb, in his 60s, had moved into the fringes of show business. In the obit we mentioned in passing that Barbara had known Elvis Presley, so when she rang I couldn’t resist asking her about this. With great generosity and charm she explained how she had met “the King” – and what they talked about.
It was 1966 and she was appearing on the London stage in the comedy Son of Oblomov with Spike Milligan. One night the veteran Hollywood director Norman Taurog (who won the Best Director Oscar for Skippy in 1931) was in the audience. By the 1960s he had become a highly efficient director of Elvis’s brightest and breeziest musical comedies – nine in all, starting with GI Blues in 1960 and including Blue Hawaii (1961) and Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962).
Taurog went backstage to see Milligan, and at the same time invited Barbara, who was 21, to Los Angeles for a screen test. She remembers seeing Elvis walking towards her in a Hollywood studio corridor and asking: “How ya doin’?” She replied cheerily: “Trying to survive.” Later a message arrived from Elvis, saying: “Let me try and help you.”
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