The Guinness Book of Records was designed as authoritative compendium of extraordinary human achievements and superlative natural facts, from the grotesque (“Fattest Person Ever”) and downright wacky – like the man who balanced a 10 stone refrigerator on his teeth – to the truly breathtaking (the exquisitely, minutely carved tree trunk which holds the record for the world’s longest wooden sculpture).
The theme tune for the BBC TV show Record Breakers, written and performed by my good friend Roy Castle sums up the Guinness mentality perfectly: “If you want to be the best, if you want to beat the rest, dedication’s what you need”.
Roy presented Record Breakers for decades and also broke numerous records himself; combining daredevil exploits with terpsichorean brilliance. He once strapped himself onto an aeroplane and wing-walked across the Channel. An accomplished dancer, he set three tap dancing records – the fastest (24 taps a second); the longest (a million taps in 24 hours) – and even led a Busby Berkeley-inspired mass performance outside the BBC TV Centre’s iconic “doughnut” in White City. Another friend, Norris McWhirter co-founded the Guinness Book of Records with his brother Ross and later campaigned dauntlessly for individual liberty.
How sad that the current organisers seem to have abandoned this glorious legacy. Many accuse them of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses – honouring regimes like Turkmenistan for “achievements” such as “most fountain pools in a public place” and “largest roof in the shape of a star”. Roy and Norris would have loathed seeing the organisation rewarding not perseverance, but cruel authoritarian dictatorships, perhaps employing forced labour. Why shouldn’t Saudi Arabia now go for the largest roof in the shape of a crescent moon? Guinness rules stipulate that entries must be interesting, but it’s sadly predictable that billionaires with subjugated populations can enter the record books with ease.
The true charm of the awards, however, lies not in the pompous and grandiose but in the creative and esoteric – and I would know. During a family holiday, Roy issued me with a challenge which I accepted –and now hold the record for performing the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a non-stop “Bardathon” on the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1987. Sam Wanamaker got wind of it. Prince Philip even started me off by presenting a scroll of the Prologue to Henry V.
It was hellish at times – five days and four nights of constant performance – not just reading the script aloud, but declaiming in full Shakespearean garb, playing every character in turn. By the third day, I was hallucinating. I was trying to read Twelfth Night, but Macbeth lines kept coming out.
A friend from NASA advised me on handling sleep deprivation, and recommended a vile nutritional concoction called “Complan”. What he didn’t tell me was that astronauts spend years getting used to this kind of liquid food. Soon I was retching and vomiting. The ordeal was undoubtedly a form of self-torture but somehow I survived, my love of Shakespeare intact. Ironically, I didn’t receive my certificate until 2005 for ‘health and safety’ reasons – organisers warned of encouraging “dangerous” copycat behaviour. So why award prizes to dictatorial regimes?
Before my performance, I asked Roy, “What if I fail?” He responded with a single look that said “don’t even entertain the thought”. There was no question of not doing it. You just needed utter conviction that you’d succeed – and you would. Roy and Norris are sadly no longer with us, but perhaps somewhere they are breaking the grave-spinning record.