Six degrees of separation; my path to Roman Polanski


There is a theory, quite a well known theory, that all 6 billion or so humans on the planet are distanced from each other by no more than 6 hops, or connections. This theory originated in a book, has been made into both a play and a movie and in certain circles is regarded as one of nature’s laws.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi provides an interesting history of this theory in his book “Linked”, worth a read if you’re even vaguely interested in how networks work. According to Barabasi, Frigyes Karinthy, a genius of Hungarian literature, published a book of short stories that has subsequently sunk without trace; his readership was expecting an epoc-defining novel and were not satisfied at all with this work.

However, within the not-much-lamented tome was a short story called “Chains” which should be very much lamented. In this story, a bet is placed that any person within the (then) one and a half billion people could be named by anyone else within at most five acquaintances. Although the number used in this story is five and not six, this is the first recorded appearance of the “six degrees” theory.

Much later, during the 1960’s, Stanley Milgram did experimental work to find the “distance” between any two people in the United States. The result of his experiment concluded that the median number of intermediate persons to connect two people was 5.5; very close to Karinthy’s fictional five and, if rounded up to six, produces a much snappier title. 5.5 degrees of separation really doesn’t do it.

On a recent bitterly cold night, I visited the Young Enterprise team I’m working with as they had a stall at the Beaconsfield Festival of Light; an annual winter fair, complete with roasted chestnuts, traveling fairs and other traditional seasonal offerings. Samoire, the Young Enterprise company, had managed to procure 100 loaves of fresh baked bread from a pre-start up artisan bakery, and jolly nice the bread was too, especially toasted and dripping with butter.

On my way home from the studio today, a tad earlier than usual, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s The Last Word, an obituary program. As I was trundling along, with a lot on my mind, a name pierced through my brown study and made me sit up. That name was Tony Tenser.

Tony Tenser is described by the Times as “Colourful British film producer and distributor renowned for the brazen ingenuity of his titillating promotional stunts”, and was headlined as the Director who coined the phrase “sex kitten” to describe Raquel Welch.

And he certainly seems to have lead a colourful life, eventually leaving the movie business and marrying his third wife some 27 years his junior, and beginning a new business of selling wicker chairs.

Not all of Tenser’s films were titillating affairs however. Tenser was approached by Polanski to produce a film, starring Catherine Deneuve, which became known as Repulsion and one that is regarded by many as one of Polanski’s finest films.

Back to the Beaconsfield Festival of Lights and discussing bread and the infamous Chorleywood process which has, in many people's eyes, largely destroyed the quality bread market in the UK with the erstwhile baker Ian, Ian mentioned that (I’m a little hazy about exactly which relation - it was an exceedingly cold night, not one for promoting great powers of concentration) his father’s uncle was none other than Tony Tenser!

So there you have it: from me to Roman Polanski in 4 steps. Proof of the theory? Not really, but it’s kind of a nice story. Don’t you think?