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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 January 2007, 12:18 GMT
When Prescott served Eden
By Naomi Grimley
Presenter, Prescott at Your Service

John Prescott in 1963
The young Mr Prescott thought Sir Anthony 'an old-fashioned gent'
It was on a dull, misty afternoon one day in January 1957, that a young John Prescott went to join the crew of the ocean liner the Rangitata at London's East End docks.

As soon as he arrived he knew something was up.

There was a commotion on the dockside because, at the very last minute, Sir Anthony Eden had booked himself and his wife on the ship which was preparing to sail to New Zealand for six weeks.

It was just nine days since Eden had resigned as prime minister on the grounds of ill health, and just two months since the disastrous Suez invasion.

Eden was exhausted and traumatised by those events and his doctors suggested a cruise was the best way to get over his resignation - away from the press.

'Good morning, sir'

Little did Eden know that the waiter who would serve him on board would eventually become a deputy prime minister himself.

Now 50 years on, as John Prescott sits in his large Whitehall office, a picture of the Rangitata hangs on his wall.

Sir Anthony Eden
Sir Anthony judged some on-board boxing contests

There was, by a stroke of luck, an oil painting of that liner in the government art collection.

"What were your first words to Sir Anthony when you met him?" I ask him innocently during the interview for BBC Radio 4.

"Good morning, sir" he replies, rolling his eyes at the stupidity of the question. "I was the waiter!"

He recalls how Sir Anthony came across as "an old-fashioned Tory gent" who wasn't above posing for a photo with the ship's engineers.

Nevertheless, Mr Prescott was well aware of the social distinctions on board: "He was top class. I was bottom class - on a ship you certainly feel that."

'Sorry, love'

As the Rangitata made its way across the ocean, John Prescott started boxing to entertain the passengers.

Sir Anthony ended up judging some of the fighting contests on board - and he even awarded the young Prescott a couple of bottles of beer and two hours' overtime as a prize.

The job of a waiter in the 1950s had its fair share of glamour - travelling to exotic destinations like America, Canada and Australia.

But there were less glamorous occasions too - like the time Mr Prescott accidentally spilt semolina in the lap of female passenger.

"What can you do," he says with a shrug, "except say 'Sorry, love'? You can hardly offer to wipe it up."

During another incident, he was trying to keep a flaming dish of bombe jubilee alight and inadvertently set fire to a passenger's eyebrows and burnt them off.

Nurses' parties

Finally after six weeks at sea, the Rangitata docked in Auckland on 4 March 1957.

The red carpet treatment awaited Sir Anthony Eden.

The New Zealand Prime Minister was there to greet him, together with a brass band and film crews.

"Do you remember that grand welcome as the ship arrived in Auckland?" I ask the deputy prime minister.

He strains to remember for a moment then says emphatically: "No. To be honest, I think we were just waiting for the call from the local hospitals so that the nurses could invite us to their parties."

Prescott at Your Service is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 31 January at 1100GMT and Sunday 4 Feb at 1330GMT.

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