Tag Archives: The Times

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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Charlie’s Dark Angel: film noir meets theatre in James Christopher’s debut

9 Mar
The cast of Charlie's Dark Angel. Front: Ben Porter as Charlie and Joannah Tincey as Susan. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella,  Kieran Gough as un-reckless Eric

The cast of Charlie’s Dark Angel. Front:  Joannah Tincey as Susan and Kieran Gough as Eric. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella, Ben Porter as Charlie. Photo by Aimée Watts – HausOfLoud

One goes to see a play or film written by a friend with some trepidation. What do you say to them at the bar afterwards if you don’t like it? Thankfully there was no such problem with Charlie’s Dark Angel, a theatre noir written and directed by James Christopher, and playing at the Drayton Arms until March 28.

I’ve known and worked with James for 20-plus years: first when he was Deputy Theatre Editor on Time Out, then when he was Film Critic at The Times. He’s a terrific journalist, particularly known for his arresting metaphors. But although he has since taken an MA in theatre direction – an experience he describes as “humbling” – I had no idea if he could make that great escape under the barbed-wire fence separating critics from creators.

I needn’t have worried. The play is strong meat. When two old schoolfriends are reunited in a country house, each with a female partner in tow, a sinister, stalkerish obsession soon surfaces. The house is also built over a peculiar, disused well, perhaps haunted – the well is, as I said to James, his Chekhovian gun. (I knew he would know what I meant.) In other words, once it’s been introduced in Act One, you can be sure it will be used come Act Three. And how!

None of the plot devices and film noir tropes is startlingly original, something that has occasioned a couple of (to me) mysteriously negative reviews from online arts review sites. But it doesn’t matter; it’s not the point. As James said to me, “Film has borrowed from theatre for so long, I felt it was time for theatre to steal from film. The plot is just the McGuffin that keeps you along the linear narrative track, but really it’s about trust, and betrayal, and emotional crisis.”

James Christopher’s journalistic love of metaphor shines through in his stage writing. To take but one instance, the profession of the protagonist, Charlie, is picture framing. As he talks about the painstaking process of framing, with its multiple layers of varnish and gilding, he’s really talking about himself, about how his inner self has been varnished and gilded and eventually obscured, until he is all frame and no substance.

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce)

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce). Photo: Aimée Watts

But though Charlie’s Dark Angel is similarly multi-layered (James says it took five months of “agony” to write), it is also splendidly pacey, particularly in the shorter, post-interval final act, with ping-pong dialogue pricked by the odd flight of fancy. Plaudits also go to the four fine actors who bring the production to life. The one theatre neophyte, Phoebe Pryce, maintained such a consistent accent as a young Ukrainian artist/Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I asked James if she were actually foreign. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“That’s Jonathan Pryce’s daughter,” he said. “We were lucky to catch her just in time. After this she is acting with her father in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

To tell you more about the production would be to spoil it. I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. (And not just because the benches are rather small.) Two days later, I am still reliving and savouring moments. It’s sexy, and edgy, and there’s a lurking menace bubbling constantly under its characters’ urbane surface, as in the aforementioned well. I’ve been to a lot of West End theatre in the last couple of years, and this was one of my favourite nights out: quite a surprise from a first-time writer/director in a small pub theatre.

For info about Charlie’s Dark Angel and to book tickets, click here.

Young Gunn: how I “discovered” the director of Guardians of the Galaxy

7 Aug
Director/writer James Gunn on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Director/writer James Gunn, now 44, on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Giving a $150 million movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy to a relatively unknown writer/director was a huge gamble, as I wrote here. James Gunn is a graduate of the Troma school of schlock (see here for my meeting last year with Troma head Lloyd Kaufman), and his chief writing credits previously were on Scooby-Doo. But I’d like to think Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, somehow read my review in The Times a decade ago.

Scooby-Doo 2 did not find favour with most mainstream critics in 2004. It languishes in the IMDB with a pitiful 4.9 rating. But to me, James Gunn’s script fizzed with energy. Here’s an extract from my Times review:

“On the way, something unexpected happens. The film acquires a life beyond the formula. ‘Oh no!’ cries Shaggy, as the monsters begin taking over the town. ‘They’re turning Coolsville into Ghoulsville!’ And, excusing himself from Velma’s potentially criminal boyfriend: ‘We’ve got to make like your personality — and split!’

“In fact, the film is almost too good, piling sensation on to sensation and chase on to chase, until the overall effect is deadening. But all credit to James Gunn, a young veteran of the low-budget Troma studio who also wrote the fine Dawn of the Dead remake, for creating that rare beast — a sequel that improves upon the original. And all credit to the audience for demanding better. Because they might have just remade it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”

 

Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-Art1

Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn

LSF #1: Starting a daily series of reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival

28 Oct
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Dominic Wells (me) with Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct and usually no friend of critics. “They want to kill you, rape your wife and eat your children” is the typically understated chapter heading in his book.

What an exhilarating, exhausting, mind-altering three days the London Screenwriters’ Festival has been! There were 100 guest speakers to choose from, including a two-hour Q&A with Joe Eszterhas, the highest-paid, most successful and most belligerent screenwriter of his day, plus a surreal afternoon in which 300 people packed into the main hall to watch Basic Instinct with Eszterhas providing a live running commentary – and occasionally warning his 15-year-old son in the audience to shut his eyes…!

The 68-year-old living legend was good enough to give me a one-on-one interview, as well. Given that in his scabrous warts-and-all book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, Eszterhas headlined his chapter on critics “They want to kill you, rape your wife, and eat your children”, it’s an interview I approached with more than the usual trepidation. But in the event he talked candidly of the death of his father, the battles with drinking and smoking that almost killed him, and his wild first meeting with Gonzo journo Hunter S. Thompson, who got him his breakthrough job with Rolling Stone.

During the London Screenwriters’ Festival I also interviewed Doon Mackichan of Smack The Pony and Steve Pemberton of League of Gentlemen and Psychoville; attended a terrific seminar with Graham Linehan of Father Ted and The IT Crowd fame and a very candid talk by David Hare, plus “how-to” lectures by a Brit who’s made it as a sci-fi blockbuster writer in Hollywood and great ones on character, structure, and thriller writing.

I’ve written about it today in The Times (click here), but a single piece doesn’t begin to do justice to the event.

So I’m going to write a series of daily blogs until I’ve shared with you all the great stuff in my notebook. Do keep coming back, and pass the link www.londonhollywood.net to any filmy friends.

As Chris Jones, the inspirational founder of the festival likes to say… onward and upward!

Read the first of my daily LSF blogs here, featuring the inimitable Joe Eszterhas

Thatcher dead = Wizard of Oz or The Iron Lady?

8 Apr
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Ding dong the witch is dead. Thatcher, left; Britain, right

The Wizard of Oz has had yet another revival today, as people across the UK sing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. The rule is not to speak ill of the dead, especially the recently departed, but the usual niceties will clearly be waived in the case of Margaret Thatcher.

We’ve already had one such moment: November 22, 1990 was, to my generation, as the shooting of JFK was to my parents’. That was the day Thatcher was dumped by her own party and exited Downing Street in tears; the Iron Lady melted down for scrap. I was on the Tube at the time, and the platform indicators were wiped clean of train arrival information to carry the news to all passengers – the first and only time I have seen them do that.

Three men high-fived each other. A young woman broke into song: yes, it was “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. It was the happiest Tube carriage I’ve seen since I chanced upon a party on the Circle Line. Only a couple of old dears sat in near silence, tutting and scowling at the revellers, clearly Thatcher fans but not wanting to speak up about it too loudly.

My teenaged son has been studying Thatcher in History (!), and it’s hard for him to comprehend the sheer venom that so many have for the frail elder stateswoman. Especially after seeing the recent biopic, The Iron Lady. That employed, quite deliberately, the tactic of framing the historical action with present-day scenes of her as a dotty old dear in her lonely dotage. An unsympathetic lead character is the kiss of death for a film, and that was the only way they could think of to get the audience on side.

The film also tried to present her as some sort of feminist heroine. If she was, it was only by default, by the virtue merely of smashing the glass ceiling. She actually got on by being more macho than the men: lowering her voice an octave, leading the country into war, pronouncing “This Lady’s not for turning”, drinking whiskey, sleeping only four hours a night. As the film Made in Dagenham showed, Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle did far more for women’s rights when she ushered in the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Altogether, The Iron Lady was heavy on relationship drama, and light on politics. So what should Thatcher’s legacy be?

It’s more complex than her detractors will admit. Yes, she abolished the GLC in a magisterial fit of political pique at seeing Red Ken grinning across the Thames at her from his leftie enclave at County Hall, and that’s hard to forgive. Then again, look east as you cross Waterloo Bridge, and her legacy is clear to see (memorably enshrined in the peerless gangster pic The Long Good Friday).

As a jobbing journalist, I can only lament the NUJ’s toothlessness when it comes to implementing minimum pay scales for freelancers. (Many of the places I write for, when I’m lucky enough to write at all, now pay half what they used to. The others pay nothing at all.) Then again, I worked in Wapping for six years, and it’s striking when you read the history of The Times to find how utterly paralysed the paper once was by the print unions, who would halt production pretty much on a whim. They were also a notorious closed shop, passing jobs on from father to son (rarely was it from father to daughter).

And yes, Thatcher led the country into war. But at least it was a war with some justification (in a referendum this March, 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted to remain British), and far less damaging than the ‘phoney war’ recently perpetrated by a Labour Prime Minister.

And yet. I lived through that corrosive, divided era of miners’ strikes and Poll Tax riots and “there is no such thing as Society”. I was Editor of Time Out on that wild wild night when Tony Blair finally ended 18 years of Conservative rule, and we all watched it on the big telly on Time Out’s eighth floor with artist Tracey Emin, and cheered when Michael Portillo lost his seat, and dared for a short while to believe, as the campaign song had it, that things could only get better.

If I hear anyone singing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”, don’t blame me if I hum along.