John Bailey Meets…

Geoffrey and I both worked on the BBC fishing series ‘Tales From The Riverbank’ many years ago but we only actually met face to face filming afloat on the Wensum a couple of years back. It was a delightful day as I remember: late summer and all sunlit browns. “It looked very pretty,” he says, “all backlit and golden. That’s good at my age.”

We enjoy a ‘thousand’ things in common, Geoffrey and I, and we both have a liking for white wine so there’s not another job I’d rather be doing today. As the barman produces a bottle, I ask Geoffrey if it’s the sound of a popping cork or a screaming reel that turns him on these days. “The reel, of course,” he says looking bewildered that I’ve asked the question. “You can get a glass of wine any day but it’s the glorious uncertainty of fishing that makes it so compelling. My wife, Sally (who paints rather well while Geoffrey fishes), got me fishing again to provide a bit of relief from a stressful life, but it’s really taken over. Fly fishing is the thing I love most in life, apart from my wife and my family. I don’t fish in the winter anymore because it’s good to be away from the ‘sweeties’ for a while but then I pack in as much as I possibly can. It really doesn’t matter what I catch. If I’m rained off or there’s no water then, so be it. These are often the trips that I remember the most. It’s being there that’s the whole point of it all.”

We compare our diaries for the year. Geoffrey’s is packed – the Tweed (the Junction Pool, damn him), the Helmsdale, the Oykel, the Exe and so on. It’s evidently salmon that he concentrates on now. “I suppose,” he muses, “that I have absolutely no ambitions left in acting anymore. But salmon fishing is expensive and, in truth, these days I act to fish to a very large extent. And the fishing comes first. I was offered a part I wanted in a film recently but it clashed with my time on the Oykel. My son told me not to be daft, that I’d been acting ‘forever’ but fishing for only a comparatively few years and to get the rod out. It was sound advice that I took.”

By now we’re in the dining room – grand would be the understatement of the year – and I find myself sitting next to Geoffrey’s pal of 40 years, Peter Sallis from Last Of The Summer Wine. You can tell at once that there’s a huge friendship here even though Peter obviously thinks fishing is quite mad. When he leaves, he wishes me well and hopes that I “keep my feet dry.” Hmmm… whatever he means, I’ll remember it.

I’m eating sole, Geoffrey’s having shrimps. Catch and release I ask? “A lot of rivers impose rules now so it’s not a question of choice totally. But then, on one of the rivers I fish you’re given a side of farmed salmon if you put back a rod-caught wild one. There’s something that doesn’t quite weigh up there…and the concept of a chap catching a fish and taking it for the family and the pot is probably one of the best defences against the antis that we have got. The trouble is, as you get older, you get less sure rather than more sure about anything. Nothing’s really black and white but more a shade of grey. So I’d hate to lay the law down on anything.”

We discuss the question of global warming for a while… it couldn’t really be a Government-inspired panic to excuse the raising of ‘green’ taxes, could it? “No, but then of course Bush is now on board with the green lobby so that makes me instantly suspicious.” Geoffrey considers.

Geoffrey’s passion for fly fishing is around 18 years old, his second incarnation in the sport. “Back in the war I’d fish the Norfolk Broads for roach and perch and it was then that my mother bought me a copy of Negley Farson’s Going Fishing – the best fishing book ever. First off, I loved the Tunnicliffe woodcuts but then, as I got older, I got into the stories. They are total romantic fantasies, a sort of Treasure Island and Kidnapped for fishing-mad kids. The fire that Farson lit smouldered for more than 40 years and then burst into life.”

Fishing alone or with a friend, I ask over coffee, in yet a further, beautiful, portrait-hung room? “Oh, alone, of course,” Geoffrey says. “You need the space and the silence to nourish the soul. But I see where you’re coming from. I do like to be in hailing distance of a pal, you know, to share the moment at times.”

I ask about ambitions and Geoffrey looks surprised at the question. “I’ve already said I’ve got none left in acting apart from being able to continue to work so I can continue to fish the waters I want. In fishing? Quite a lot, certainly to be spared to do a whole lot more of it. And I’m quite tempted by a trip to India with John Bailey after mahseer, as long as you don’t think I’m too old to try something so radically new.”

How I’d love that. The idea of Geoffrey’s eternally mobile face lamplit is thrilling. The stories we’d swap. And the guides would love him; who couldn’t? I take a couple of quick photographs in a book-lined room and think of my mother, long passed away. I hope she’s watching from a cloud. Back in the days of ‘Butterflies’ she yearned for Geoffrey Palmer and thought he was the most gorgeous man on TV. How excited she’d be to see her son now. “That’s nice,” he says when I tell him. And what a thoroughly nice day this has been with a celebrity who would deny the tag, with a man who oozes warmth and eagerness to explore life. Geoffrey might not want to go much further with his acting but he’s certainly not standing still as an angler. It’s pretty evident that there’s a lot left he wants to cast for.

Geoffrey Palmer has donated his fee to the Anglers’ Conservation Association.

Total Fly Fisher