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RIP Sir Christopher Lee: my recent interview with a giant among men

11 Jun
Christopher Lee in 2009, the year I interviewed him

Christopher Lee in 2009, the year I interviewed him

A few years ago, I interviewed Christopher Lee for The Times. We talked about the war (he was a spy and, after it ended, a Nazi hunter), about his many injuries (one caused by “a long lunch” – you’ll see why), and he threatened, after a fashion, to smash my face in with his stick when talking about immigration.

Lee’s death was announced today, making the start and ending to my interview retrospectively poignant, but I reprint it here unvarnished. Always elevating whatever film he was in, Lee was the most cultured of actors. He will be missed.

Christopher Lee is late. Not as in “the late Christopher Lee”, thankfully, not yet, though when you break a vertebra and undergo back surgery at 87 that’s always a worrying possibility. But still, half an hour late. Minders are on edge. Calls are made.

And finally here he is, unfolding his 6ft 5in frame from a black Merc with more than the usual difficulty. He walks haltingly, leaning on his cane. But with his raffish hat, white hair and patrician bearing, you would see that this was a man of distinction even if you didn’t recognise him from his films. Still, why wouldn’t you? He holds the record for the most screen credits, 250-plus, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes through to a remarkable late flowering in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

“So sorry I’m late,” he intones in the warm bass that nearly made him a professional opera singer. “It’s the Queen, you know.” The Queen’s Speech. Many London streets have closed. Having been knighted only two weeks ago, Sir Christopher can hardly complain.

We edge towards the National Portrait Gallery, where Lee later has a lunch date. He refuses painkillers because, he says, catch 22, they affect your balance. How did he bend down to be knighted if his back is so bad? “I couldn’t!” he reveals. “And also they have this platform for you to stand on, no bigger than a square tile. Well I had to tell Prince Charles’s equerry I didn’t think I could do it.”

At the restaurant entrance, while fumbling with his coat, he drops his stick. “The story of my life,” he deadpans. “Either my stick falls down or I do.”

‘A long lunch’

An athlete who does his own stunts, Lee has often injured himself for art. He was thrown from a chariot in Quo Vadis; cracked three ribs in The Mummy when breaking down a door that had accidentally been locked for real; crashed a car after filming Battle of the V-1. He stumbled around, still in his SS uniform, terrifying the residents of Hove. He holds the record for the most screen swordfights. He raises a crooked little finger. Broken by Errol Flynn, apparently. “After lunch.” He cocks a single bushy brow. “A long lunch.”

This latest back injury was less spectacular. He tripped over two small cables while working on a new Hammer horror picture in New Mexico. The company that made Lee’s name (or was it the other way around?) has been resurrected by John De Mol, the founder of the media giant behind Big Brother. The double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays the lead, which gives some idea of the stakes (sorry) this time round. How does it feel to come back full circle? “It is ironic, isn’t it?” says Lee. “And I am one of only a handful of actors from that period, 50 years ago, to survive.”

Descended from an aristocratic Italian family, Lee honed his elocution, deportment, breathing and fencing at the Rank Charm School. A literate and thoughtful actor, he invests even villains with a depth and a quiet dignity in what he refers to as their “loneliness of evil”. He researches parts meticulously, fighting with directors over authenticity: his SS officers wear grey, not black; his Dracula dresses all in black as Bram Stoker intended, with no flashy red.

But it’s a fight he can never win. Recently he filmed Season of the Witch in Budapest with Nicolas Cage. “I was a cardinal who had contracted the plague,” he explains, “so you can imagine what I looked like! But I got to spend the five days filming in bed, which was very nice.” He was glad to see they had a language expert on set to advise the film-makers, until he got his instructions: his Italian cardinal was to be played with an American accent.

Lee has nothing but warmth for Cage, bearing no grudges for his misguided remake of The Wicker Man, the 1973 chiller that until The Lord of the Rings was Lee’s favourite of his long career. In fact, Lee is also making a new film with the original Wicker Man director, Robin Hardy. It’s not actually a sequel, Lee reveals, despite being called The Wicker Tree. He is also logging his fifth collaboration with Tim Burton, as the voice of the Jabberwock in Alice in Wonderland.

‘Involved in “certain operations”‘

But the film closest to his heart is Glorious 39. Stephen Poliakoff’s latest historical thriller takes Lee back 70 years, to the start of the Second World War. It is set among the appeasers who believed that war would destroy England, and that striking a deal with Hitler was the only way to survive. Of the stellar cast, which includes Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant and Jenny Agutter, Lee is the only one who was actually there.

“See now,” he says, “I remember so well. I was 17, working as an office boy for £1 a week, and I could see what was happening. After the Munich Agreement in ’38, lots of people breathed a sigh of relief, but I was old enough to know what was going on, I’d seen the parades. I remember telling my mother and my sister: ‘I don’t know about this wonderful news about peace in our time, I don’t believe it’.”

He enlisted two years later. By the age of 21 he was working as an intelligence officer, daily holding the life of thousands in his hands. He left this period out of his autobiography, Lord of Misrule. “Just because one was involved in certain operations,” he says, with typical self-effacement, “it looks as though you are saying ‘I did it’. But really it’s ‘we’.” Much of his service in North Africa was, in a strange kind of way, fun. He was nicknamed Duke, or Spy. Senior Air Force officers were called things such as Oswald Gayford and had huge handlebar moustaches. You could end up on planes to places “just like hitching a ride”.

But the end of the war was anything but fun. Because he was fluent in French and German (among other languages), he was attached to the Central Registry of War Criminals. Along with representatives of other nations, he became a Nazi hunter.

“We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority. In view of the fact that there were Palestinians with us, which simply means Jews, because of course Israel was not its own country until 1948, you can imagine how they felt. We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.”

Lee looks away. He has no wish to project such visions on to the screen of memory, much less talk about them. But in an age when the BNP’s Nick Griffin, a man who once denied the Holocaust, can end up on Question Time, is it not important to bear witness?

“It’s not possible to deny it,” Lee says. “You can’t fake an entire camp with dying people. You can’t. Like when you see a film, even if it’s a good film, you can’t expect the camps to be accurate, for actors to look like they would really look, like they were dying. You can only go so far.”

The pain in his eyes is real, and you get a glimpse into what might animate the lonely tortured creatures he creates so effectively on screen. The doomy romanticism of his Dracula made it the surprise smash of 1958, the Twilight of its day. Five decades later, as the human face of evil in The Lord of the Rings, he proved himself the only actor on the planet able to out-thesp Ian McKellen.

‘Bursting at the seams’

Once, just once, he allows a flash of this fire to enter his otherwise unfailingly courteous conversation. We are discussing politics. Lee is staunchly Tory, a David Cameron fan. “It’s a question of ideas. And he has them. I like William Hague, too, he makes the best speeches.” He believes in stronger immigration controls. “This country is bursting at the seams. That’s not a racist position, simply that there are too many people in a small country, and that results in increased crime.”

But it’s on Europe that he feels strongest. “I’m not in favour, no. Each nation should have its own laws, its own government, its own culture. I don’t think you can create a vast melting pot. And for an unelected president to be able to tell everyone what to do, no matter who it is, is a complete disaster.

“To me, the worst thing about the European Parliament is the question of human rights. We should have our own bill of rights. I don’t want one man deciding whatever you can and can’t do. I mean if,” and here his eyes take on a peculiar intensity as if seriously contemplating such a course of action, “if I were to upend this table and smash your face with my stick and plead human rights — you see what I mean.”

Not entirely, but it would take a brave man to argue the point, bad back or no. Besides, Lee is late for his lunch guests. They are veterans, too, Special Forces, sitting tweed-jacketed in the panoramic Portrait Gallery restaurant, eye-to-eye with Nelson’s stone buttocks. Lee introduces himself, all smiles, his body language strangely deferential. Sixty years of achievement and awards melt away: it’s what you did in the war that counts.

Watching him, you are reminded of his story about playing Jinnah in 1998. Leaving aside ethnic origin, the founder of Pakistan looked remarkably like Lee. “But,” Lee says, “one person did complain to me: ‘Jinnah wasn’t as tall as you’. So I replied: ‘Maybe not, but he was a giant’.”

Once there were giants in British film, too. Sir Christopher Lee is one of the last of his kind. Long may he tower above us.

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Sir Richard Attenborough remembered: Time Out’s Chaplin interview

24 Aug

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What a sad fortnight for film. Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and now Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough has headed off to the great Green Room in the sky. Though young Americans may know him only as “that old bloke from Jurassic Park”, he was dark and brilliant in Brighton Rock way back in 1947, and became known as an actor’s director. Those who think of him only as a sentimental old “luvvie” are missing a trick.

In my third month as Time Out’s editor, in April 1992, I put Attenborough’s Charlie Chaplin biopic on the cover. This is an extract from the location piece and interview by our Senior Editor, Brian Case:

<<Attenborough is known for his tenacity. His manner – “Oh, you are so divine. Bless you, darling” – contrasts with the crimson vehemence of his face with its glaring nostrils. It had taken him 20 years to raise the money for Gandhi for which he deferred his own salary, and mortgaged his art collection to keep going. Chaplin’s widow, Oona, gave him total approval to film the autobiography, although she’d been turning down two offers a day since her husband’s death.

“It is not a hagiography, not sycophantic,” says Sir Dickie. “It is not a whitewash. The young girls? Yes. His ruthlessness? Yes. He was absolutely blinkered in his life in terms of his work. He was bound to be like that because, between the ages of five and six, he was in the workhouse and at 12 he had to commit his mother. For the first 14 years of his life he lived on the edge of starvation, digging up fish heads from the mudflats and taking them home for his mother to boil because she was so unbalanced that she could no longer take in sewing and earn any money.”

Financing Charlie had proved the usual endurance test. There was no British money, of course, and Universal suddenly put the project into turnaround. Over that weekend, Sir Dickie – a master of the pitch who once sang and danced his way through Oh! What A Lovely War to convince Paramount’s Charlie Bludhorn to invest – landed Carolco.

Sir Dickie’s other problem had been finding the right actor to play Chaplin from 19 to 83. Nijinsky described him as a great dancer and Olivier as the greatest actor of all time. “Anyone can do The Tramp,” says Sir Dickie. “We had to find that thing behind the eyes that gives the idea that there’s a tremendous amount going in the mind. Very difficult to convey. You think of the number of movies that have conveyed genius. Paul Muni once or twice, Charles Laughton once or twice – there’s not many. This boy has it.” [The “boy” in question, of course, was a then little-known young actor called Robert Downey Jr.]

In the background, Downey is practising tricks with his hat. Already, he gives the impression that objects have a life of their own, and a capacity for mischief. “Yes indeed,” agrees Sir Dickie, “and one of the great figures involved with that was Olivier. He fenced with the props in his particular sequence and then he would adopt some and thrust out others as if there was an antipathy, an aggressiveness towards them – an inkstand or something that he didn’t like.

“Props were absolutely vital to him. Robert [Downey Jr] is like Ben Kingsley when we went to India – for a year and a half he lived, breathed, talked, felt Gandhi, so that he was almost incapable of doing something which in character terms was incongruous.”>>

Even from this short extract, you get a glimpse of the determination and drive needed to shepherd a big-budget movie to completion, particularly in a country lacking any major studios; but also of the love and care and understanding with which he approached the craft of acting. Attenborough’s movie career spanned 65 years, from acting in In Which We Serve in 1942 (he has 78 acting credits to his name) to directing Closing The Ring in 2007. We may not see his like again.

Alas Smith: on set with the late Mel Smith

21 Jul

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Sorry to hear of the death of Mel Smith, from a heart attack aged 60. His head-to-head dialogues with Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC’s Alas Smith And Jones (above) were must-see viewing when I was young, and the company they co-founded – Talkback – changed the face of TV comedy with series including I’m Alan Partridge, Da Ali G Show and Smack The Pony.

As a film director Mel Smith had mixed success. I went on set of The Tall Guy, his 1989 directorial debut, which was also Richard Curtis’s first produced screenplay, though in Mel’s hands it did not achieve quite the success that Four Weddings later would (“uninhibited by finesse”, was Time Out’s verdict of The Tall Guy). He seemed somewhat at sea.

Jeff Goldblum, uncontrollable and fizzing with nervous energy, gave a wildly different performance and line reading with every take, regardless of whether it was being redone for dramatic or purely technical reasons. And I could be wrong, but I thought I detected a hint of superciliousness towards Mel on the part of the crew, crowded into the sitting room of a north London house. When Mel asked for a shot to be set up just so, the cameraman said words to the effect of “Interesting idea. To have the mike visible in frame.” Instead of confessing to an error, Mel blustered that yes, he thought he would just try a take like that…

He went on to make several more comedy features, equally uninhibited by finesse but with some great moments: Radioland Murders, Bean, High Heels And Low Lifes, and Blackball. One of them at least was a huge box-office success.

Mel Smith was clearly much loved by his peers. As Griff Rhys Jones said yesterday, ““He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”

Wish you were here: interview with Storm Thorgerson

19 Apr

 

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The Cranberries: Wake Up and Smell The Coffee

Storm Thorgerson, the visionary behind some of the most striking album covers in rock, died yesterday. He originally wanted to be a film director, and in a way, his images all feel like found scenes from a wider movie. I conducted a fascinating interview with him in 2007, in the arts supplement I edited at the Saturday Times. This was the story:

If the future of music lies in downloads, one man will suffer more than most. After 39 years as Britain’s foremost designer of album covers, during which his canvas has already shrunk from 12 inches of vinyl to 5 inches of CD, Storm Thorgerson will be out of a job.

Storm who? Though more joints have been rolled on his artwork than George Michael could smoke in ten lifetimes, few know Thorgerson by name. That’s about to change with the publication of Taken by Storm, an extraordinary collection of his works, profusely annotated with barmy yarns about their genesis.

The Dark Side of the Moon prism? That was his. The burning businessman on the sleeve of Wish You Were Here? His too. The naked children scaling the Giants Causeway on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy; the tearful housewife on 10cc’s How Dare You; even, moving on to the present day, the four men playing cards in the desert on Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations. All his.

Before we meet in a café in Belsize Park, North London, I get the tour of Thorgerson’s next-door flat-cum-studio which he has owned since the 1970s. It’s as random as the man: bits of paper pinned up on the wall, with sketches of ideas and works-in-progress. Here are two gunfighters, one flinging fruit, the other with a coat made of balls – tennis balls, billiard balls, all kinds of balls. Turns out it’s for a project with Bob Dylan. It’s Thorgerson’s young colleague, Dan Abbott, who shows me around. Abbott is the draughtsman who fleshes out Thorgerson’s ideas, before a photographer shoots them. Similarly, many of the most striking covers of the early 1970s owe a considerable debt to the graphic designer George Hardie, among other contributors. Thorgerson himself mainly provides the concepts, and the drive to see them realised.

“That’s why I prefer to describe these shoots as ‘performances’,” Thorgerson explains airily, squeezing himself into the café bench and parking his walking stick. “I’m more like a choreographer; and the choreographer needs the dancer, doesn’t he?” He fell into designing sleeves quite by accident. Pink Floyd, whom he knew anyway from school, asked Thorgerson’s flatmate to do a record cover. When he declined, Thorgerson stuck up his hand. “I had no idea what I was doing! But we did make the most of it. Me and Po [Aubrey Powell, with whom he founded the design company Hipgnosis] worked bloody hard.”

He had previously intended to be a film director, inspired by seeing Fellini’s and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and he studied cinema at the Royal College of Art. But if there is a director he most resembles, it’s Werner Herzog, pulling a real steamboat over a real mountain in the Peruvian jungle for his famously gruelling and epically insane film Fitzcarraldo. Thorgerson insists on doing almost all his shoots for real, long after digital trickery should have made most of his surreal, dream-like images simple to create.

It’s an admirable folly that may or may not produce better results, as he claims, but which certainly makes for an entertaining anecdote. One cover concept called for a row of 20ft telegraph poles stretching into the distance, each topped with a seated hermit. The ground was muddy and the huge poles kept slipping; Thorgerson had to climb up one himself to show his volunteers they would be safe. The cover for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason showed 700 heavy iron hospital beds arrayed on the beach, something that took four tractors and 30 helpers six hours to accomplish. England being England, it rained, so they had to take them all away again . . . and repeat this lapse of reason in its entirety two weeks later.

Thorgerson’s upbringing, you won’t be surprised to hear, was unconventional. If you think his name is unusual (it comes from his uncle, and is not uncommon in Norway), consider that his mother called him Geraldine for his first nine months – in what he calls, unable to resist verbal as well as visual puns, the “dark side of the womb”.

He was packed off to boarding school at just 4½ – “If you want to know why I’m mad, there you are” – and because of its progressive views about not forcing education, he didn’t learn to read until he was 9. It was at grammar school in Cambridge that he met Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, who later would form Pink Floyd. “I was friends with Roger indirectly because our mothers were friends, and still are, at 88 and 94 respectively.

“It was a very interesting place, Cambridge; student towns can be great fun, even if you’re not studying there. There’s a lot of culture . . . and a lot of girls. Most of whom actually seemed to end up with Syd. I still know all these guys; I would have known Syd still, too, till he died, if he hadn’t gone off the rails.” But didn’t he once say that he had not spoken to Waters in 30 years? “Twenty-five,” Thorgerson corrects. “But he’s friendly now. Roger had a particular way of dealing with things, which requires him to be more definite than he needs. He was very rigid about who was what in the Pink Floyd hierarchy, and I got put into a box, and he’s only opened the lid recently.”

In fact, during our meeting, he receives a cryptic message by mobile: “Roger has no objection.” This turns out to concern Thorgerson and Abbott’s suggestion of a 40th anniversary rerelease of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and the publication of a book of Syd Barrett’s sketches, in tribute to that crazy diamond.

And is Barrett still missed? Did Thorgerson see him again before he died? He shakes his head. “His death was more or less so sad there’s nothing one can think to say. The band have always felt very strongly about Syd, so tabs were kept, as it were, money was paid; as best they could, they looked after him.”

It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from a self-confessed egomaniac, a man with the chutzpah to persuade a doubtful record company to release Wish You Were Here wrapped in black plastic (to symbolise absence, professor), or to release Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door with six alternative sleeve designs – and then cover it in a brown paper bag.

“Pictures of a band, like the Beatles, or Take That, what do they tell you? They tell you what they look like, but nothing about what’s in their hearts, or in their music. If you were trying to present an emotion, or a feeling, or an idea, or a theme, or an obsession, or a perversion, or a preoccupation, when would it have four guys in it? In the huge world of things to choose to represent it, why choose four guys?”

Particularly when, as with Thorgerson’s early run of covers for Pink Floyd, you can have a cow, then an ear under water, then a prism, then a man on fire, then a giant inflatable pig (Roger Waters’s idea) which infamously escaped from its moorings, floated to 18,000 ft and nearly gave the jet pilot who radioed in the sighting a heart attack. Music downloads may be the future, but they will never be this much fun.