The Incredible real life of Barry Fantoni

The Incredible real life of Barry Fantoni

An interesting man is Barry Fantoni, not just one who has done interesting things (and there are plenty of those in his CV), but interesting in his own right.

The lad from South London, whose father was a professional painter, attended Archbishop Temple School in the grounds of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, "run by sadists and miserable Christians". He established himself as an artist as a 14-year-old with the help of a red-bearded, socialist teacher, Lyle Watson, who "rolled his own sweaters and knitted his own fags’’ and who took Fantoni under his wing, helping him gain a Wedgwood Scholarship to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts.

In true artistic fashion, expulsion soon followed, though it remains unclear whether for painting the faculty naked in the style of Toulouse Lautrec (but with erections) or, according to the school, "for your drunken behaviour, lack of respect for property, theft of student union funds, wrecking the home of one of the teachers in a state of drunken madness…" Fantoni’s defence on the former is a 'hands open’. "How was I to know that the school inspectors were coming to the exhibition?" For the latter, that he was merely holding a radio that a drunken squaddie who’d crashed the party had buried in the garden because it was funny. "I was guilty of all but one of those. I didn’t wreck the teacher’s home. I’d rescued the radio and was holding it, standing by a hole in the garden, next to a spade, covered in earth. What were they going to think? But it really wasn’t my fault."

Barry Fantoni’s place in the pantheon of 1960s cool was assured early on when the Daily Mirror wrote of him in 1967, "Barry doesn’t so much know what is in - he decides it." He worked as a clarinettist, saxophonist, trumpeter and drummer - "I wasn’t any good, I just had the kit," he says - to keep the money coming in, and started what would become lifelong friendships with Michael Horowitz, Ray Davies and Chris Gosden. Fantoni’s love of jazz bloomed. He knew Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the ‘Jazz Baroness’ patron of Thelonious Monk in whose New York Stanhope Rooms home Charlie Parker had died in 1955. He played with Ray Davies, the "greatest songwriter of the modern generation. A true poet," and remembers well the call from Ray telling him of the birth of the Kinks. He was a midwife at the birth of Pop Art, teaching at the Croydon College of Art alongside Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin.

Sleeping rough in Paris - "never a good idea" - after expulsion from Camberwell alternated with stays at the local US Army camp while he sought gigs playing clarinet for cash. The money bought copies of The Olympia Press editions of The Naked Lunch and other works banned in the UK, that he brought back to sell in Soho. "Being a student, no one ever bothered to look in your bag." But in 1961, street life brought on TB, a return to London and a period of convalescence that saw Fantoni become a lifeguard at Brockwell Park Lido before returning to Camberwell and restarting his art education with renewed and serious intent, even becoming the president of the Student’s Union and starting the cinema club and theatre group.

It was writing scripts for That Was the Week that Was in 1962 and cartooning for Private Eye in 1963 when what might be termed a career took off. Soon Fantoni had his television break, being asked to design a pop art backdrop for Ready, Steady, Go. "When the BBC decided to do a magazine show they wanted to interview the ‘man who designed Ready, Steady, Go. There was me with loads of hair being interviewed by a Brylcreemed wearer of ties and, with some gentle steering by Ned Sherrin, they said ‘Here’s the future!’" The result was A Whole Scene Going On, named after the Bob Dylan track, which went out live, gained 16 million viewers and made Fantoni TV personality of the year ahead of Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and Mick Jagger. "It was a success because all I did was call my mates and get them on. It let me show the people that had cared for me and seen my promise, my Mum, the art teacher and few others, that I’d done alright."

Now living with his long-term partner Katy in a splendidly grand Calais town house and with freshly planted herbs bought from the local market, Fantoni is as passionate and energetic when talking about his fictional detective as he is with his new art movement, Dépêchism, which has haste as its underlying philosophy. Currently the only member of the movement, he is hopeful that it will take off, while of course not really caring whether it does.

On Harry Lipkin, his detective protagonist, he is clear. "Harry isn’t me, but he’s seen what I’ve seen, he knows what I know."

His detective is an unusual invention in an age of youthful semi-superhero detectives with highly developed forensic skills and every technological aid at their disposal. Eighty-seven, going on 88, the former cop turned gumshoe eschews convenience for the old-fashioned character analysis method, what today might be considered profiling. A 40-year-old Chevrolet Impala, worthy of Columbo, moves him from scene to scene, sitting down becomes a priority during questioning and lemon tea and good kosher food punctuate the day’s work. But Harry gets the job done, as does Fantoni, with great Jewish humour and astutely detailed observation creating a nicely driven tale that rips along at a pace that Lipkin’s hips can only remember with fondness.

As Fantoni says, "When I invite my friends to an exhibition they ask ‘what’s the lighting like and will there be a lavatory?" Harry’s would ask "Are there any stairs, is there a lift?’"

Harry Lipkin, P.I. by Barry Fantoni is out now, published by Polygon