Friday 24 April 2009 16.17 | Last updated Friday 6 May 2016 09.29
If there is such a thing as a celebrity funeral, Sir Clement Freud received it today. He would surely have been gratified to tick off the famous faces crowding the pews of St Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street. The prime minister, Gordon Brown, sat in the front row, next to Bono and just up from Stephen Fry, Paul Merton and Graham Norton: an eclectic mix to go with Freud’s eclectic life as writer, broadcaster, chef, sometime Liberal MP, race-goer, betting man, wit and gourmet.
For a man who his son Matthew said went out of his way “to find fools not to suffer”, there was no shortage of friends and admirers to pay him tribute on what would have been his 85th birthday. Elsewhere in the congregation were two national newspaper editors: Rebekah Wade/Brooks of the Sun and James Harding of the Times, Richard Curtis, the film director and Peter O’Sullevan, the former racing commentator, along with several hundred others.
His widow Jill told them: “He had spent a very long time meticulously arranging a gathering for today of 15 of his oldest friends. I think he would have been amazed how many have turned up – and you are all welcome.”
As it was, he died at home at his desk nine days ago while writing his latest column for the Racing Post, the previous day’s winnings from Epsom still, apparently, in the pocket of his suit – at any rate Matthew Freud thanked the undertakers for returning the £2,000 they found there.
The prime minister, who spent time murmuring earnestly with Bono but appeared to ignore Lord Steel, who led the Liberals when Freud was an MP, and George Osborne, representing the Conservatives, just along the pew, read the first lesson and broke off to claim Freud not only as an old friend, but as a national treasure and an institution.
He went further, to praise the entire Freud family – Matthew, the PR tycoon, married to Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, and Emma the television personality, among them – “who have done so much for our national life”.
Brown then read the lesson from St John’s Gospel, about the wedding at Cana where Christ performed the miracle of changing water into wine, which the prime minister said was appropriate given Freud’s reputation as a gourmet, but which may more immediately just be the sort of feat he himself hopes to accomplish with the economy.
In keeping with his status as a national institution, Freud was accordingly seen out with the due ceremony that might be expected: Elgar’s Nimrod then, during the service, I Vow To Thee My Country, Amazing Grace and He Who Would Valiant Be; but with a twist, O What A Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma and I’ve Got a Horse Right Here from Guys and Dolls, sung demurely by the church choir.
It was explained that Freud had never practised his family’s Jewish faith. Another Freud son, Damian, said the venue was appropriate because his father had enjoyed a 55-year journalistic career, writing for many national newspapers and boasting – with maybe a little hyperbole – of being the highest-paid journalist in Britain. He could certainly credibly claim that he was the only octogenarian to have bylines in three national newspapers on the same day.
There was only one tune played as the coffin – topped with spring flowers and, incongruously, a small teddy bear – was carried out of the church to a private cremation. It was, of course, the Minute Waltz, signature tune for 42 years of Just a Minute, the quiz in which Freud starred.
Outside, Nicholas Parsons, the show’s chairman, beamed with pleasure at how well it had all gone: “It was the most brilliant funeral service I have ever been to. Clement would have approved. He would have found something sardonic to say but he would have been very flattered and happy. He would have been extremely moved but he would not have wanted to admit it.”