Tag Archives: RIP

RIP Adam “Batman” West: my 1988 interview in full

11 Jun
Batman image

RIP Adam “Batman” West: do not go gentle into that Dark Knight. Art by Frank Miller, DC Comics.

Pressure of work means I have put this blog on the back burner, but I had to mark the death of Adam West. Batman was my first obsession, at the age of 4. It was surreal to meet the man himself for one of the first features I ever wrote for Time Out.

He was affable, courteous, funny, self-aware, but also with a strong hint of steel and a particularly nice take on how he would do a Dark Knight movie. I’d forgotten, till I re-read this, that I’d also taken him proofs of the forthcoming Alan Moore/Brian Bolland Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke to comment on. This was the feature as printed in 1988:

HAVING DEVOTED half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I describe to him the contents of Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when “Batman” folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, fuck it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood”!’

MODEST THOUGH he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on ‘Night Network’ and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, ‘Return of the Dark Knight’. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

AH, THE Batman movie. Ever since ‘Dark Knight’ appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to ‘Batman’, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of ‘Return of the Dark Knight’, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of ‘The Killing Joke’, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo “Wild Bunch”. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!

BUT WEST isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: ‘Doing Time On Planet Earth’, an off-the-wall comedy; ‘Mad About You’, a romantic comedy; and ‘Return Fire’, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called ‘Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run’. West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of ‘Dark Knight’ nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Man From UNCLE’. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the ‘Dark Knight’ era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

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Starman in the sky: Ziggy Stardust memories and David Bowie/Brian Eno interview

11 Jan
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From Gavin Evans’s Time Out cover shoot with David Bowie, 1995

The consummate showman, David Bowie even managed to make his death a surprise. When I sat down to work at the Guardian today, my colleague was staring at the homepage. “Iconic rock star David Bowie dies of cancer at 69,” it said.

“That’s a spoof, right?” was my first reaction.

“You mean you hadn’t heard?” She must have seen my face crumple. “I’m sorry,” she said, with the solicitousness reserved for deaths in the family. I headed off silently for a weep in the Gents. I haven’t cried for a rock star since Bob Marley died.

I don’t envy the task ahead of the newspaper obituarists. Bowie didn’t just pack a lot into his life, he lived several lives: young mod, would-be Anthony Newley, starry-eyed hippie, inventor of glam rock, godfather of punk, young soul rebel, big-trousered ‘80s dance colossus, washed-out corporate shill, and back to middle-aged experimentalist. More than 50 years after he began making music, he’s still pushing the frontiers with his new album Blackstar. And somehow he found time and energy for a long and successful film career, an early prescient embrace of the internet with Bowienet, floating himself on the stock market in the form of Bowie bonds, as well as painting (I bought one of his prints for my godson when he was born) and a position on the board of Modern Painters. Before he died, he was even working on a musical.

I wouldn’t know where to begin: all I can say is what he meant to me, to us. He’s the only rock star whose face I’ve hung on my wa-wa-wa-walls; the only one who’s visited me in my dreams (he picked me up in a limo; we discussed Japanese culture); for two years I played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars literally every single day, like a mantra, like an article of faith. He showed every sexually confused teenager, every outsider, that freaky can be good; that there was always a place for us with a Couple of Kooks.

Paul Burston, Time Out’s erstwhile Gay Editor, put on his Facebook page that Bowie saved his life. I believe he means this literally. The song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide often moved me to tears in my teens: “Oh no love, you’re not alone/You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair/You’ve got your head all tangled up/But if only I could make you care…” He ends with a repeated phrase sung with such raw emotion it’s almost a screech – “Just turn on with me and you’re not alone” – that culminates in a single note from a violin, the greatest ending to any album since the 40-second piano chord of Sergeant Pepper’s.

I did my best to return the favour, in my small way. I watched for my chance to put him on the cover of Time Out, back when Bowie’s cultural stock was low and he was considered creatively bankrupt, a laughing stock. It came with Outside, and I leaped at the chance to interview him and Brian Eno together about drugs, art and the roots of creativity. The interview was recently reprinted in a book, Bowie on Bowie. You can read it below.

I also found that Bowie never scored highly in Time Out’s polls of the greatest albums of all time, and felt that this was because he’d done so damn many brilliant albums that they split the Bowie vote. Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Station to Station and Low would all vie for a place in my top ten. Others might include Aladdin Sane, Heroes or Scary Monsters. These days I would want to add Heathen. And so, for Time Out’s 30th anniversary issue, I initiated a poll of the greatest music artists of all time (solo or groups), rather than the greatest albums. In this poll, at last, Bowie rightly came out on top.

Sigh. So long, Dave. It’s been quite a ride. Thanks for letting us hang on to yourself. And now there really is a Starman waiting in the sky.

[PS: As I had typed these final words, my son Sam called to check I was okay, which was sweet. He told me all his friends at university had been saying for the last few days how brilliant Blackstar was. With all due respect to my profession, sod the critics’ five-star reviews – the fact that he can still energise a new generation young enough to be his grandchildren is the best epitaph Bowie could receive.]

s-l225My Time Out cover interview with David Bowie and Brian Eno, for the release of ‘Outside’ in 1995

David Bowie: Could I just ask you first, do you mind terribly if we also tape this? Just for our own usage.

Dominic Wells: So you can sample me and stick me on your next album?

DB: Actually, it is likely. I nearly sampled Camille Paglia on this album, but she never returned my calls! She kept sending messages through her assistant saying, ‘Is this really David Bowie, and if it is, is it important?’ (laughs), and I just gave up! So I replaced her line with me.

Brian Eno: Sounds pretty much like her.

So, how did this album come about?

DB: A pivotal moment for us was actually at the wedding.

BE: It’s absolutely true, that’s where we first talked about it.

DB: I was just starting the instrumental backings for the ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album and I had some of them, just as instrumental pieces at the wedding, because it was written half around the idea of the marriage ceremony. Brian at the time was working on ‘Nerve Net’, and we realised that we were suddenly on the same course again.

BE: That was quite interesting, because it was the wedding reception, right, everybody was there, and we started talking and Dave said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’ He went up to the DJ and said, ‘No, take that off, play this.’

DB: And then we both rushed off to our individual lives knowing it was almost inevitable we’d be working together again. Because we both felt excited about the fact that neither of us was excited about what was happening in popular music.

It seems strange that on your last album you went back to Nile Rodgers, with whom you had your greatest commercial succcess (‘Let’s Dance’), and now you’re going back to Brian…

BE: With whom you had your least commercial success!

…With whom you had some of your greatest critical successes.

DB: Funnily enough, the things I said to Nile were much the same things that Brian said to me: look, we’re not going to make a stereotypical follow-up to ‘Let’s Dance’. I’d just come out of the Tin Machine period, which was a real freeing exercise for me, and I wanted to experiment on ‘Black Tie’. I love doing a hybrid of Eurocentric Soul, but there were also pieces like ‘Pallas Athena’ and ‘You’ve Been Around’ which played more with ambience and funk. Then there was an interim album for me which was very important – ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.

BE: That was the one I got really excited about. In fact I wrote you a letter saying this record has been unfairly overlooked. I felt because it was a soundtrack, as usual people were saying, ‘Well it’s not real music then, is it?’ It’s so incredible to me that the critical community is so unbelievably restricted in its terms of reference.

I went to the ‘Warchild’ exhibition at Flowers East [where Eno persuaded dozens of rockstars to auction off their art works for Bosnia], and you made a very good little speech about that. And in fact my magazine was one which had printed a snide, snipy little thing in Sidelines.

BE: Yes, I remember that. Do you, David?

DB: Which snide was this? Ha ha. I’ve had at least a couple in my life.

BE: It was, ‘If these people are so concerned why don’t they give their money over instead of just massaging their already enormous egos.’

DB: I remember that line! Yes, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s a very British thing, isn’t it? The same’s true in America, isn’t it?

BE: No. You’re allowed to take pleasure in, enjoy and actively even benefit from the act of helping somebody else. Here, if you want to help somebody else it’s got to be directly at your own cost.

DB: It’s got to have a halo attached.

But it’s not just the charity, is it? It’s an assumption that rock musicians shouldn’t be doing art shouldn’t be acting and shouldn’t be writing books.

DB: It’s like saying journalists shouldn’t be doing television shows – which in some cases is probably very true!

BE: In England, the greatest crime is to rise above your station.

DB: There are more and more people moving into areas they’re not trained for, especially in America. I’ve just been doing this film with Julian Schnabel [‘Basquiat’, in which Bowie plays Andy Warhol], and he’s making movies, having just made an album. . . I think that’s fantastic.

What’s the album like?

DB: It’s Leonard Cohen meets Lou Reed. Lyrically, I think it’s really good.

A good dance record then?

DB: Ha ha. I think it’s as good as a lot of other records that came out that week. Not as good as others that came out that week.

BE: One of the reasons it’s possible now is that for various technical reasons, anybody can do anything, pretty much. I can, sitting in my studio, put together records with basses and drums and choirs, or I can put together a video in a similar way. So the question then becomes not, ‘Do I have the skill?’ It’s not an issue.

DB: The skill hasn’t been an issue in art for 50 years. It’s really the idea.

Damien Hirst once said something to the effect that if a child could do what I do, that means I’ve done it very well.

DB: Picasso said, I think, when someone said to him a child of three could do what you’re doing he replied, ‘Yes, you’re right but very few adults.’

BE: Einstein said, ‘Any intelligent nine-year-old could understand anything I’ve done; the thing is, he probably wouldn’t understand why it was important.’ That’s the other side of that coin: to be free and simple and child-like, but to be able to understand the implications of that at the same time. To be Picasso is not suddenly to become a three-year-old child again, it’s to become someone who understands what’s important about what the three-year-old child does.

It says in the blurb about your album that much of it was improvised, and that Brian would hand out cards to different musicians saying things like: ‘You are the last survivor of a catastrophic event and you will endeavour to play in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself; or: ‘You are a disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes they won’t allow.’ Is that to strip everything down, remove everyone’s preconceptions and start again from scratch?

BE: There are certain immediate dangers to improvisation, and one of them is that everybody coalesces immediately. Everyone starts playing the blues, basically, because it’s the one place where everyone can agree and knows the rules. So in part they were strategies designed to stop the thing becoming over-coherent. The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.

The rhythm is very strong throughout the album. That’s what holds things together…

DB: Something we really got into on the late-’70s albums was what you could do with a drum kit. The heartbeat of popular music was something we really messed about with. And very few people had done. It was, ‘Right, bass and drums, get them down, then do all the weird stuff on top.’ To invert that was a new idea.

I did a lot of walking around with the album playing on my headphones, and often you would get noises from the street – a bicycle bell, beeps from bus doors – and wherever they came in the songs, whatever noise it was, it fitted right in, you could absorb it into the song and it would work because the layers were so strong you could add anything on top.

DB: The great thing about what Brian was doing through much of the improvisation is we’d have clocks and radios and things near his sampler, and he’d say find a phrase on the French radio and keep throwing it in rhythmically so it became part of the texture. And people would react to that, they’d play in a different way because these strange sounds kept coming back at them.

BE: Yeah, and he was doing the same thing lyrically. We had a thing going where David was improvising lyrics as well; he had books and magazines and bits of newspaper around, and he was just pulling phrases out and putting them together.

DB: If I read some off to you, some of them you’d find completely incomprehensible.

I did try that, in fact. I read the lyrics sheet out loud and thought, ‘He’s gone off his rocker.’ Then when I heard it with the music, it made sense.

DB: Exactly. There’s an emotional engine created by the juxtaposition of the musical texture and the lyrics. But that’s probably what art does best: it manifests that which is impossible to articulate.

If an English student, on a poetry course or whatever, sat down and tried to analyse your lyrics, would they be wasting their time?

DB: No, because I think these days there are so many references for them in terms of late twentieth-century writing, from James Joyce to William Burroughs. I come from almost a traditional school now of deconstructing phrases and constructing them again in what is considered a random way. But in that randomness there’s something that we perceive as a reality – that in fact our lives aren’t tidy, that we don’t have tidy beginnings and endings.

So you’d be very happy if I and another journalist had different ideas of what the songs were about?

DB: Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid ’60s, that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.

In rock music, the lyrics you hear are sometimes better than they turn out to be. In one of your early songs, ‘Stone Love’, a line I adored was ‘in the bleeding hours of morning’; I finally got the lyrics sheet and discovered it was ‘fleeting hours of morning’, which is much more prosaic.

DB: That’s right. For me the most fascinating thing was finding out after years that what Fats Domino was singing was nothing like… I’d gained so much from those songs by my interpretation of them. Frankly, sometimes it’s a let-down to discover what the artist’s actual intent was.

You’ve now got a computer program, apparently, to randomise your writing. But you’ve been doing cut-ups since the ’70s, inspired by Burroughs.

DB: As a teenager I was fairly traditional in what I read: pompously Nietzsche, and not so pompously Jack Kerouac. And Burroughs. These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life, and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live…’

It’s a drugs thing as well, isn’t it? When I was a student and took lots of drugs, suddenly all kinds of things would make sense that otherwise wouldn’t; or rather, you’d see connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t.

BE: That’s what drugs are useful for. Drugs can show you that there are other ways of finding meanings to things. You don’t have to keep taking them, but having had that lesson, to know that you’re capable of doing that, is really worthwhile.

DB: But you know, I think the seeds of all that probably were planted a lot earlier. Think of the surrealists with things like their ‘exquisite corpses’, or James Joyce, who would take whole paragraphs and just with glue stick them in the middle of others, and make up a quilt of writing. It really is the character and the substance of twentieth-century perception, and it’s really starting to matter now.

BE: What I think is happening there is it removes from the artist the responsibility of being the ‘meaner’ – the person who means to say this and is trying to get it over to you – and puts him in the position of being the interpreter.

DB: It’s almost as if things have turned from the beginning of this century where the artist reveals a truth, to the artist revealing the complexity of a question, saying, ‘Here’s the bad news, the question is even more complicated than you thought.’ Often it happens on acid I suppose – if I remember! – you realise the absolute incomprehensible situation that we’re in… [Bowie, who has been gesturing with dangerous animation, knocks an ashtray full of chain-smoked Marlboros on to the carpet] … like this kind of chaos! [Eno kneels to sweep up the ash and butts from Bowie’s feet.] Why are you doing that, Brian? That’s immensely big of you.

BE: Just so you can finish your sentence.

DB: I didn’t need to. I illustrated it! [Hilarity] The randomness of the everyday event. If we realised how incredibly complex our situation was, we’d just die of shock.

There’s a lot in the short story that accompanies your album about artists who indulge in self-mutilation: Chris Burden, who had himself shot, tied up in a bag and thrown on to the highway and then crucified on top of a Volkswagen; Ron Athey, an HIV-positive former heroin addict who pushed a knitting needle repeatedly into his forehead until he wore a crown of blood, then carved patterns with a scalpel into the back of another man and suspended the bloody paper towels on a washing line over the audience. You seem to have this morbid fascination. It’s also the most literal expression of the old idea that art can only come out of suffering.

DB: Also it has something to do with the fact that the complexity of modern systems is so intense that a lot of artists are going back literally into themselves in a physical way, and it has produced a dialogue between the flesh and the mind.

BE: Yes, it’s shocking suddenly to say, in the middle of cyberculture and information networks, ‘I am a piece of meat.’

And is shock also a necessary part of a definition of art?

BE: At some level I think it is, yes. It doesn’t have to be only that kind of shock.

DB: The shock of recognition is actually more what it’s about, you know. I think that’s what it does to me, anyway. That, for me, is Damien [Hirst], of whom I am a very loyal supporter, it’s the shock of recognition with his work that really affects me, and I don’t think even he really knows what it is he’s doing. But what there is in the confrontation between myself and one of his works is a terrible poignancy. There’s a naive ignorance to the poor creatures he’s using. They’re cyphers for man himself. I find it very emotional, his work.

Have you been collaborating with him?

DB: We did some paintings together.We took a big round canvas, about 12-foot, and it’s on a machine that spins it around at about 20 miles an hour, and we stand on the top of step-ladders and throw paint at it.

BE: You should see his studio!

DB: It’s from a child’s game; you drop paint on and centrifugal force pushes the stuff out.

You’re on the editorial board of Modern Painters, along with the likes of Lord Gowrie, and actually they’re not so modern. You must be like the man in the HM Bateman cartoon, saying, ‘Actually, I think Damien Hirst is rather good.’

DB: The magazine is changing. But why write for, say, the Tate magazine, which is full of people already on one side of the argument? At least on Modern Painters there’s a chance of opening up the magazine a little bit. I love the idea of combining some ideas from the Renaissance with ideas that are working now; not to make some kind of . . . editorial point, but because of the pure. . . fun of creating those hybrid situations.

A lot of people were shocked by you doing a wallpaper.

DB: Well, it’s not very original. Robert Gober and a number of others, even Andy Warhol, did them. It’s just part of a tradition.

You also had your first solo art exhibition recently. It must have been frightening to open up your work of 20 years to public scrutiny and to the critics.

DB: No, it wasn’t at all.

Why not?

DB: Because I know why I did it. Ha!

BE: The thing is when you show something, or you release a record, you open it up to all sorts of other interpretations which don’t belong to you any longer. I have millions of tapes at home I haven’t released. I feel quite differently about those than if I put them out on to the market and suddenly there they are, filed in the racks, after the Eagles. Suddenly I imagine someone who isn’t at all sympathetic, who’s actually looking for an Eagles record happening on mine, and I start to hear the thing through what I imagine are their ears as well. So by putting something out you actually enrich it, I think, and you enrich it for yourself. You get it reflected back in a lot of differently shaped mirrors.

DB: I was just a bit late. The reason I wasn’t afraid, either, is I’m an artist, a painter and a sculptor. Why should I be afraid? Seemingly the only other thing I’m supposed to be afraid of is whether other people thought it was any good or not, but I’ve lived that life ever since I began, publicly, of whether I’m any ‘good’ or not, for nearly 30 years, so that comes with the territory.

Does it hurt you if a lot of people are walking around London saying, ‘David Bowie, what a pretentious tosser’?

DB: I don’t know of a time when it was never said, though. What’s the difference? It’s just a different colour overcoat. Not at all.

BE: You know for sure that in England, if you do something different from anything that you did last time, there is going to be a band of people who’ll walk around saying you’re a pretentious tosser but after a while you just have to accept (Bowie is laughing too), both of us just have to accept that we’re good at what we do. The record proves it. We’ve both influenced a lot of things, and a lot of things that are going on can be traced back to what we did, as we would trace ourselves back to other people.

DB: The history of any art form is actually dictated by other artists and who they are influenced by, not by critics. So for me, my vanity is far more interested in what my contemporaries and peers have to say about my work. A lot of it just comes from pure pleasure, you know? I work because it’s such a great way to escape having to work in a shop – to be a songwriter, and a musician and a performer and a painter and a sculptor – it’s so cool to do all this stuff, I can’t tell you how exciting it is. It really is great.

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.

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.

The tears of a clown: RIP Robin Williams

12 Aug
Robin Williams' star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Robin Williams’ star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

 

I am shocked and devastated to read, just as I was going to bed, that Robin Williams has died, seemingly from suicide due to asphyxia. It’s common now for sit-com stars to move on to film –  Woody Harrelson, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston – but Williams, along with John Travolta, paved the way.

Mork and Mindy was one of the sweetest programmes of my youth. Williams’s innocent alien, Mork from Ork, first appeared in Happy Days (Williams got the part before the audition even began, when the director asked him to take a chair and he sat on it on his head), and was so popular he got his own show, and catchphrase, “Nanu Nanu” (you had to have been there).

As a film actor he always risked overpowering his co-stars, being a barely contained tornado of irrepressible energy. He was a coke addict until 1982, though he claimed it was “a place to hide”, and that whereas it sped most people up, it slowed him down. He was at his best in roles which allowed his astonishing improvisational genius full rein, such as the army DJ in his breakthrough film, Good Morning, Vietnam, or the Genie in Aladdin, both of which we featured on the cover of Time Out. I put him on the cover again for his Golden Globe-winning turn as Mrs Doubtfire, headlined “How Hollywood’s funniest man became Hollywood’s funniest woman.”

As a dramatic actor, in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Dead Poets Society (1993) or even Good Will Hunting (1997), he could seem schmaltzy to European sensibilities. But whenever he issued some Hallmark homily, he seemed at the same time utterly sincere: eyes narrowed and glistening, face creased, smiling in pain and sorrow and empathy. You sensed a real inner grief at and understanding of the follies of human nature.

In 2002 he was given a chance at darker fare, as the lonely photo technician in One Hour Photo, and a killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He was excellent in both, but it wasn’t the Robin Williams the public wanted to pay to see. He hasn’t had a bona fide hit since, aside from supporting roles in the Night In the Museum series, and his return to sit-com last autumn, The Crazy Ones, was not given a second season. He had recently signed on for Mrs Doubtfire 2, which, two decades on, might have seemed like a last resort.

Williams’s agent said he had recently been battling depression. No one but those closest to him can really know why. But it’s a trope that comedians are often not themselves happy people: it is, after all, their job to point out the absurdity of the human condition. Not for nothing did Beckett, in his original stage directions, have the protagonists of Waiting for Godot as clowns rather than tramps.

There’s an old joke about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist, complaining of depression. “Laughter is the best medicine,” says the doctor, much as Robin Williams did as Patch Adams (1998). “The Great Gandini is performing in town tonight: I’ll prescribe you a ticket to see his show, he’s hilarious.” The man looks mournfully at the psychiatrist, and says, “But that doesn’t help me. I am the Great Gandini.”

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.”

History men: in memoriam Eric Hobsbawm (and my own father)

25 Apr

hobsbawm_interestingThis post hasn’t, I confess, much to do with film; though you can imagine an elderly remake of The Big Chill (1983), Lawrence Kasdan’s warm and witty film about a group of friends who reunite after a funeral, if you will. I simply wanted to do my small bit in remembrance of a giant of letters, the unapologetically Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October aged 95 and whose memorial service was held yesterday in London University’s Senate House (used as a location in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, if you want another film reference).

His family and mine stayed, for a few halcyon summers in my youth, in adjoining houses in Snowdonia. I studied History at A-Level and at Oxford, so I had read a couple of Eric’s many works, but I was more over-awed by the fact that Mick Jagger had once sat around the campfire here; besides, my father was also a distinguished historian.

Eric was a sweet man, ravenously intellectually curious, who also loved the countryside and had a peculiar habit, affectionately mocked by the younger generation I am ashamed to say, of expressing his greeting twice – “Hello, hi!” – as though the first utterance was not emphasis enough for the splendour of the day. I have kept in touch with his son and daughter and niece ever since.

The memorial service was a parade of the great and the good. The President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, sent a video tribute praising his “great courage, consistency and sense of resolve”. The author and journalist Claire Tomalin recalls asking Eric how living in a comfortable house in Hampstead squared with his socialist ideals. The wry response: “If you’ve living in a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class.” His views on the rottenness of the capitalist system certainly seem more prescient and urgent than ever.

Professor Donald Sassoon, on a panel with the journalist and writer Neil Ascherson, recalled Eric making some sweeping generalisation about some supposedly universal truth which Sassoon was about to dismiss as hot air, until Eric capped it with the devastating codicil, “Except of course in Tasmania.” The clear implication was that the state of affairs had indeed been considered in every country of the world, and found wanting only in one. The device is to be recommended to anyone wishing to add weight to an argument.

The BBC’s favourite historian Simon Schama was a verbal Catherine Wheel; almost to a fault. He recalled his first encounter, “bug-eyed with illumination”, with one of Eric’s works as a student; and how, when he years later got to discuss matters historical with the great man in the BBC canteen, he found himself outclassed by the breadth and specificity of his learning; he likened Eric to “a truffle-hunter digging delicious pungent nuggets of analytical [something] from the undergrowth”, and suggested “his mind was in itself an enacted dialectic”.

But just when you started to feel the speech was more about Schama’s own gift for words than Eric’s, he began to break down. The final lines were almost lost for tears. Eric was “someone who could not get enough of the exhilarating peculiarity of the human condition”, he managed to say, counselling his fellow professors at the memorial event, which had been organised by Birkbeck College along with Eric’s family, to “tell your students to read Hobsbawm if you want to know what history can do – what a great historian is.”

Eric’s widow Marlene and daughter Julia also gave touching tributes, though you might be even better served by reading Julia’s wonderful encomium in the Financial Times, here. Overall the strong sense was not merely that Eric’s work had touched a chord with the distinguished company here assembled, as well as generations of students all round the world, but that Eric the man had, as well.

It is never easy to lose a father, but easier when you know that they have lived well and long, and that the ripples from their life will continue to spread long after the stone has sunk to the bottom.

Colin_WellsMy own father (right), the Ancient Historian Professor Colin M Wells, received a page obituary in The Times, which I dearly wish that, impossibly, he could have lived to see, and a library in his name at Wolfson College. I also exorcised the extraordinary pain (to us, I’m not sure he was aware of it) of his final five days in a coma by writing a radio play inspired by the subject – which was cathartic though I have not submitted it anywhere and perhaps never will. Three years on, the sucking, surprisingly brutal grief has dissipated, and my father’s visits to me in the dreamworld are less frequent and more genial.

I heartily wish Andy and Julia the same.