By Revel Barker
We were travelling first class – don’t know what it’s like today, but in those days it was an entitlement for all inter-continental travel – on the London to Singapore leg of a flight to Sydney. And like all journalists, anywhere, were swapping yarns about our colleagues. I stretched my limbs (the next row of seats was so far ahead that my feet didn’t touch it) and asked Molloy, the editor in chief, whether he remembered the story of Penrose and Anton Karas.
He said he didn’t think he did. But if I’d care to hum the first few bars…
It was the time, I said, when the Mirror was trying to persuade its readers to vote in favour of joining Europe, and constantly thinking of story ideas that might suggest to xenophobic Englanders that the Continent could be an interesting place. It produced features on the romance of Paris – lovers walking along the banks of the Seine – on la dolce vita that was Rome, on saunas and free love in Scandinavia… but by the time they got to Austria they had run out of ideas. Never mind that Austria wasn’t actually a member of the European Community: it was in Europe.
It had been Molloy himself, a dedicated film buff, who had suggested an interview with Karas, the man who wrote The Third Man theme – ‘the most romantic piece ever written for the zither, which is itself the most romantic of instruments.’
John Penrose (now better known as Mr Annie Robinson, but then a person in his own right), newly detached from the newsroom to features, was given the job.
[Molloy said that he did not remember the story, but admitted that it all sounded likely enough, so I continued.]
Penrose couldn’t find Karas in the phone book, but eventually discovered an address, and set off to Austria, by plane to Vienna, then to Innsbruck, then in a taxi – but sod the expenses, this was Mirror features – high up into the Tyrol.
Karas invited Penrose in to his home and asked why he had come all the way from London to see him.
‘To interview you. Because you wrote the theme music for The Third Man, which is the most romantic piece ever written for the zither, which is itself the most romantic of musical instruments.’
‘But why did you come… here?’
‘To interview you, of course.’
‘But why,’ the old zither-plucker persisted – ‘… why come here?’
Penrose asked how else could he have done the interview.
‘Well,’ explained Herr Karas, ‘every Thursday afternoon I play my zither for afternoon tea in the restaurant at Bentall’s store in Kingston on Thames…’
No, said Molloy: he had not heard the story, even though he had been in charge of features at the time. Interestingly, I told him, nor had Penrose heard it – but he had liked it when I’d told it to him, and said that he was perfectly happy for the story to be ascribed to him.
I couldn’t remember who had told the tale to me.