BRITAIN WAS BURSTING INTO VERDANT spring last week, but its most famous visitor, O.J. Simpson, spent little time taking in the sights. Instead, he was busy playing the role of innocent abroad, explaining to unjaded ears that, contrary to what they might have heard, he had most definitely not killed his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman. His reward was something he has scarcely heard in nearly two years at home: applause, in this case from more than 900 students crowded into the historic Oxford Union Society's debating hall for a question-and-answer session.

Dressed like a groomsman and speaking with the polish of a Fortune 500 executive, Simpson, 48, was a man on a roll, joking with students, enjoying the occasional question about his acting ("All of a sudden I've become Laurence Olivier"), even mentioning Biblical passages—Job was a favorite—that inspired him. So pleased was he with his 72-minute performance that when told time was running out, he groused playfully, "I've got a lot more to say."

How much more the British public wanted to hear was an open question. While there was a hard core of devoted trial watchers in the U.K. last year, the vast majority of Britons were indifferent to the nine-month saga—though there were, inevitably, a few anti-O.J. episodes during his stay. When he arrived at Heathrow Airport, occasional shouts of "murderer" erupted from the 1,000-strong crowd. At Oxford, a mostly female band of protesters yelled "Break the silence, stop the violence" outside, while inside a woman was removed after berating him as a spouse abuser. Since Simpson, 48, is better known in England for the Naked Gun movies than as an athletic icon, the generally tepid public response is not hard to fathom. "People didn't have a personal level of affection for him, so we didn't have the same involvement," says Dr. Peter Lunt, a psychology professor at University College London.

Apparently hoping that the Brits' ignorance could be blissful for him, Simpson jumped at an invitation to appear on Granada Television's Tonight with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan talk show. "He just wants to be seen and heard for what he is and what he actually says," explained Max Clifford, a well-known British public relations guru who worked with Simpson during the five-day visit, "as opposed to how he's been painted." But there were other reasons for his visit as well. He was able to get in a game of golf (trailed by more than 100 reporters and photographers), and—the ultimate tourist incentive—the entire jaunt was all-expenses-paid. Granada picked up the $26,500 tab to fly him and a bodyguard first-class and install them at the plush Hyde Park Hotel. In exchange, Simpson gave a 15-minute interview with "telly's golden couple," Madeley and Finnigan.

During the interview, aided by his hosts' time constraints and occasional confusion (Madeley at one point referred to Ron Goldman as Ron Brown), O.J. sidestepped answers, rambled onto other topics and even chided, "Let me finish!" when they tried to cut him short. Not that he emerged unscathed from his venture into British television. A disapproving Bo Derek canceled her scheduled appearance on the same show. Neil Diamond also refused to be on the set with Simpson, agreeing only to a pretaped song and interview.

Clifford denied newspaper reports that Simpson was using his London sojourn to make $150,000 or so selling exclusive interviews to British and other international media. There also were reports in the States he was scouting England for endorsement markets. Whatever the case, it seems increasingly clear that Simpson could use the cash. Last week the IRS confirmed it had filed a tax lien against his Brentwood mansion and other property. According to the IRS, Simpson owes $685,248.69 in back taxes for income earned in 1994—presumably from his book, I Want to Tell You, and sports trading cards he signed in his jail cell. As happens wherever he travels, there were rumors that while in England Simpson was also looking for a place to live. Clifford denied that scenario, insisting that all his client ever uttered was a wistful-sounding "It must be nice to live here."

JANET CAWLEY
BRYAN ALEXANDER and ELIZABETH TERRY in London and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Elizabeth Terry,
  • Lyndon Stambler.