He went on performing to the end; He's dead, but he hasn't gone. Now a new exhibition will celebrate the rumbustious Liverpudlian George Melly, who will always be with us. David Charters reports.
TOWARDS the close of his days, the brown-eyed man started growing a Biblical beard, so that he would look more like Christ returning to the Father.
It was a strange and bold image, which rose in passion and smiles from brain cells still capable of acrobatic twists and leaps, as his body slowly sank.
Even then, knowing for sure that he was going, his bravery that unsquashable humour, the vivid desire to entertain and the startling imagination, rubbed together well, and those who loved him still felt that the world was a brighter place, when he released a low, rumbling chuckle.
Anyway George Melly considered dementia a suitable disease for a surrealist, though it was harder to mock the cancer, which had become its cruel ally
And he died on July 5, 2007, leaving a cavernous hole in the lives of family, friends and admirers. But "Good Time" George or "Gorgeous" George-writer, wearer of hats, raconteur, jazz singer, boozer, gossip, promoter of surrealistic art, outrager, smoker and crusher of privet-hedge morality - kept some tricks to pluck from the pockets of another candy-striped jacket.
And he appears - larger than life, of course, and as porky and ebullient as ever - in the dreams of his old chum Maggi Hambling, the grand artist, with whom he drank large measures of Irish whiskey and exchanged stories of elastic ribaldry in Soho drinking establishments, such as the Colony, haunt of artists, poets and pickled Bohemians.
The portraits that Maggi painted of George, whom she had known since the early 1980s, are to be exhibited, many for the first time, next month at the Walker art gallery in his native Liverpool.
Appropriately, the show is being called George Always, suggesting that he is a ghost with the biggest girth to be found in what spiritualists call "the other side", an indestructible presence - then, now and tomorrow.
"If someone who is very close to me dies, I feel inhabited by the person," Maggi says. "George certainly appears in my dreams. I had one only the other night about him. A lot of these paintings, you know, begin from these dreams that I have about him. He is very jolly in the dreams, always laughing and very happy and plump again."
Where is George?
"Well, in one of the paintings, George's Surrealist Lecture, I had this dream that he was in the gardens of a stately home somewhere," she says. "Everybody in the art world was there. Suddenly, everybody began to run in a certain direction because George was about to give his lecture and there he was. Actually, in the dream, he was in a wheelchair, but I removed the wheelchair and had him standing up."
George had given her the nickname Maggi "Coffin" Hambling because she had painted people shortly before their deaths. She would do that for him, too.
"He went on performing right to the end," she recalls. "Even in that painting of him in bed, when he was really pretty ill, he was still performing, absolutely."
From the start, George was an entertainer, highly tuned to his own talent. He had been one of the babies in a procession of prams pushed by nannies in starched uniforms around Sefton Park, Liverpool. Peeping from under the hood, he could see the shining panes of the Palm House, wondering if it was Sleeping Beauty's Palace.
George was brought up in Ivanhoe Road and then Sandringham Drive, both on the fringes of the park. His father, Francis Heywood Melly, was a woolbroker and his mother, Edith Maud, an actress. Although they were not immensely rich by merchant standards, shipping money in the background enabled them to employ a gardener, cook, parlour-maid and a succession of nurse/nannies, among whom were Bella, Hilda, May and Norma.
Young George attended Stowe, an expensive public school, from which he joined the Royal Navy, serving as an able-seaman between 1944-47, gathering material from his early autobiography, Rum, Bum and Concertina.
By then, his passion for the blues, particularly the singing of Bessie Smith, was well advanced and he was singing himself-a rich trifle of a voice emerging from what was for a while a skinny frame, topped by his calf eyes and flopping hair.
Filthy lyrics appealed to him greatly and he had a prodigious appetite for sex, straddling both sides of the sofa, though later his heterosexual side was more in evidence. He married twice, having a daughter with his first wife, Victoria, and a son with Diana, his vivacious widow.
With cool timing, George left the Navy in time for the trad-jazz scene, which opened the way for skiffle and beat. He sang with numerous bands in clubs, pub, theatres and on the train home.
But, from 1973, he was the singer with John Chilton's Feetwarmers. He wrote Revolt into Style, an examination of the 1960s, and the scripts for the films, Smashing Time and A Girl Like You. At this time, he was also pop music and then TV critic on The Observer. From 1956 to 71, he had written the captions for the acclaimed strip cartoon, Flook, drawn by his friend Wally Fawkes (Trog).
Against all the odds, George stormed on, reaching 80, still singing, drinking, smoking, talking, and listening to the wit or tedium of others through a hearing-aid of quirky temperament.
"When somebody dies who you are very close to and love very much, they go on being alive inside you," says Maggie, 63. "I think that Liverpool still is very fond of George. This exhibition will be like bringing him home. He would be really thrilled that it is first being seen in Liverpool, before London."
What qualities did she see when painting George? For example, he had his eye-patch on in a number of the paintings. "Yes, lots of them," she says. "He loved that, but he didn't need it, you know. He just liked this rather piratical appearance. To begin with, he had to wear it for a condition to his eye, but then he rather fancied himself in the patch.
"I thought that his voice was still amazing and he had refused to give up smoking, which I admired very much. I don't know if that contributed to the sexy old voice going on, it probably did.
"I officially gave up four years ago. But I smoked lots at George's funeral.
I always smoke at funerals. I don't buy them any more, so whoever I am with has to provide them at funerals."
Has she got a cigarette holder?
"People get the most strange ideas, "she says. "Some journalist thought I smoked a pipe. I have never in my life smoked a pipe, I can't stand the things - and no cigarette-holder. I am not Noel Coward."
George had eased up on the booze towards the end, hadn't he? "I saw absolutely no sign of that," says Maggi. "The Irish whiskey still went down a treat, I can tell you! People are born with these livers the size of oxen. I am very jealous of them.
"The last afternoon I saw him, when he was at home and lying on top of the bed, he was describing his new role in the forthcoming film of Christ. It was complete fantasy, but I was being a bit slow, coming from Suffolk. I only realised about two months later that he knew he was going to die - so, of course, he was going to meet his Father. You know, God. That was where he was going. Anyway, he was a surrealist and near the end he said, 'as a surrealist, I enjoy having dementia'."
The exhibition will include her three portraits of George done for the National Gallery in 1996, twelve ink drawings, the last ones for which he posed, as well as other works from the memory and the imagination.
"There's a wonderful story of George," says Maggi. "Diana bought him a mobile phone to take on tour. Anyway he went away for three weeks and, when he came back, she asked him what the hell he had been doing. She had phoned him every day, but never had a reply He then pulled from his pocket the remote control for the television, which is what he had taken with him."
It is easier to contact him in dreams.
GEORGE Always: Portraits of George Melly, by Maggi Hambling, runs from February 27 to May 31 at The Walker art gallery, Liverpool.
MAGGI, from Suffolk, has often chosen gay subjects, including Derek Jarman, Stephen Fry and Quentin Crisp.
In the late 1990s, she had a deep friendship with Henrietta Moraes, a legendary figure in Soho circles, nearing the end of her life.
In 2003, Maggi was commissioned to commemorate Benjamin Britten with a sculpture.
The result was Scallop, a pair of 12 ft (3.7m) steel shells on Aldeburgh beach, described as "a conversation with the sea".
George enjoyed the surrealism that dementia brought: George loved vivid imagery: Maggi was given the nickname 'Coffin' by George, because she painted people shortly before death George Melly between songs