Magazine

Been and gone: Dick King-Smith and others

Mick Karn
Image caption Mick Karn, a notable bass player, formed the rock band Japan

Our regular column covering the passing of significant - but lesser-reported - people of the past month.

But for the theft of a bassoon, Mick Karn might have been a noted classical musician rather than a founder member of one of the most eclectic of rock bands. Born Andonis Michaelides in Cyprus, his family moved to London when he was three and he began playing the violin before switching to the bassoon. He was talented enough to become a member of the London School Symphony Orchestra but his school refused to replace his stolen instrument. Instead he took up playing bass and, at the age of 15, formed the band Japan with David Sylvian. They started off playing glam rock but soon switched to a sound loosely described as art rock, strongly influenced by Eastern music and the German band, Kraftwerk. They failed to make much impact in the UK until the release of their albums Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, the latter spawning their Top 10 hit, Ghosts. After the band split up, Karn's proficiency led to him playing with the likes of Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend. He was also a noted sculptor whose work was featured in a number of exhibitions.

Music also lost Gladys Horton, one of the stars of the Tamla Motown girl-group era. Born in Florida, Horton began singing in high school where, at 14, she formed a group with five friends. After winning a talent contest they were auditioned by Motown and changed the name of the group to The Marvelettes. The departure of the group's first vocalist meant Horton was thrust unwillingly into the spotlight as lead singer. The group's first recording, Please Mr Postman, shot to the top of the Billboard chart in 1961, giving Motown its first pop hit. Horton went on to sing on other Marvelettes hits such as Too Many Fish in the Sea and Playboy. She was replaced as lead vocalist in 1965 and quit the Marvelettes two years later. She left the music business to devote her time to her severely handicapped son but returned in the 1980s to record a Marvelettes revival album which saw the group go back on the road for a short time.

Image caption Dick King-Smith wrote The Sheep Pig, which became the film Babe

The story that became the all-American film, Babe, was actually penned by the British author Dick King-Smith. He was 56 when his first volume, The Fox Busters, was published in 1978, and he went on to write more than 100 children's books, selling more than five million copies. His fifth book, The Sheep Pig, told the story of a piglet which escaped becoming pork chops by revealing an ability to act like a sheep dog and round up the flock. The book was published in the US as Babe the Gallant Pig and was eventually turned into the movie, although it took 10 years to get it to the screen. The son of a businessman, King-Smith spent 20 years as a farmer, much of that experience finding its way into his books. He later became president of the Avon Wildlife Trust, campaigning to preserve the flora and fauna around Bristol. Unlike Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, he did not see the need to dress his animal characters up in clothes. "They behave as animals should behave, with the exception that they open their mouths and speak the Queen's English.''

A similar love of animals saw Tom Parnell take part in one of the strangest rescue missions of World War II. A former cavalryman, he was sent to collect four Lippizaners, part of the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna that had been sent to secret locations at the start of the war. There were fears that the horses might be taken by the advancing Red Army and end up on a Russian dinner table. After a tortuous drive through the Austrian mountains, the horses were located in a cave and, not without some difficulty, loaded on to two army trucks. After a journey along roads packed with refugees, the horses were returned to Vienna. Parnell had a fascination with horses as a child and was able to indulge his love for the animals when he served as a lancer in India during the 1930s, seeing action on the North West Frontier. As a Chelsea Pensioner, he was guest of honour at a performance of the Spanish Riding School in London in 2001 in appreciation of his wartime exploit.

Audrey Warren Pearl was the last known survivor of one of the most controversial episodes of World War I. She was a three-month-old passenger on board the RMS Lusitania, when the ship was hit by a German torpedo on 7 May 1915. She had been travelling with her family from New York to a new life in England, when the submarine struck off the coast of Ireland. The ship went down in just 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 people aboard, only 761 survived, including Audrey's parents and her brother Stuart, although both her sisters were drowned. The sinking of the Lusitania caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. The German U-boat commander was branded a war criminal and, more importantly, the loss of American lives helped persuade the United States to eventually enter the war on the side of the Allies. Audrey eventually married Hugh Lawson-Johnston and settled in Buckinghamshire.

Image caption The menacing face of Bruce Gordon

Some actors end up being typecast purely because of their looks, a fate that befell the US actor, Bruce Gordon. With his granite face and drawling, gravel voice, he was a natural heavy, a role he played with great success in the TV series, The Untouchables, which was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Gordon played the gang boss, Frank Nitti, who became the thorn in the side of Eliot Ness, played by Robert Stack. Throughout the programme's four-year run his menacing features coupled with his warning to transgressors, "You're dead" saw him dominating every scene in which he appeared. Gordon was a Broadway veteran before he joined the cast of The Untouchables, and also appeared in a number of films. He went on to appear in a string of television series including Bonanza, Perry Mason and Police Woman, invariably playing the heavy. His Nitti character reappeared in the Kevin Costner film of The Untouchables, plunging to his death from a rooftop on to a parked car.

Among others who died in January were versatile actor Pete Postlethwaite; Baker Street musician Gerry Rafferty; Bullitt director Peter Yates and the fragrant actress who played Superman's mother, Susannah York.