‘A Hollywood tutti-frutti’: Escape to Victory
I was in Los Angeles, glamorous film country: the massive security gate, the entry phone answered by a servant, the rising driveway, the manicured hedges, the view over the valley. It was like being in a movie.
Freddie Fields, nudging 60, had made big money as a producer on the TV show Dallas. He had a script under his gold-braceleted arm: Escape to Victory, a big film about football in a prisoner of war camp, to be directed by John Huston. From the umbrella’d shade of a lounger, Freddie informed me languorously that the cast thus far was Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, Daniel Massey, Pelé, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Mike Summerbee and the Ipswich Town football team. “Has such a diversely talented group ever been assembled for a film before? Huh? Soccer is the coming thing in the States.”
The shoot would be in Hungary where the PoW camp was already being built. Although I had not been afforded the luxury of reading the script, it was accepted that I would be doing it – who would not want to be part of such a Hollywood tutti-frutti? It was unreal, not to say unbelievable. Next spring I found myself aboard a flight to Budapest, where a 10-week sojourn in a PoW camp awaited us. I love my job; Escape to Victory looked good on paper; I would be with mates; the family would be comfortably off that year; but leaving home for 10 weeks was ghastly, the worst yet.
Huston was a mighty impressive man: tall, rangy, thinly bearded, ruggedly handsome with massive craters beneath beady eyes, he had charisma in spades. He was, nevertheless, getting on, with a Vesuvian cough, a symptom of the emphysema that eventually took him, aged 81. Because of his health, we were working five-day weeks and, apart from the huge centrepiece of the film – the “Big match” – we were shooting sequentially. We Brits could have done our stuff in half the time, but this Huston-friendly schedule meant a lot of waiting, and two days off a week, kicking our heels in Budapest at a time when food was not on the menu. In 10 weeks I saw one banana. I queued for it, and the person in front of me bought it.
When Huston was fully engaged with a scene, he was a terrific director, but it often seemed the whole thing was a bit of a chore for him: one afternoon he dozed off during a take. I think he was less well than anyone realised. He had a short temper, and that kept people on their toes. The first shot we Brits were involved in required the camera to track, coming to rest looking through one of the hut windows at a car arriving at the main gate. Timing was of the essence. Huston set it up carefully, and then expected it to happen fast. It went wrong on the first take, and the second. He slammed his fist down, saying, “Goddam! We’ll have to go again!” On the third take, the driver made an error, and Huston uttered the chilling words, “If he gets it wrong again, he’s fired.”
There was some comedy. Sly Stallone was eager, but he had clearly not thought to ask – and nobody appeared to have informed him – of the difference between soccer and American football. You did not want to be tackled by Sly. He ended up in goal but did not know that when defending a penalty the keeper has to stand still until the ball is kicked. His antics, before he was informed of this rule – leaping about, shouting as if he were a college cheerleader – were … well … worth seeing.
When Huston staged a foul giving rise to a penalty on the halfway line, it became evident that our august director shared Sly’s ignorance of association football. When it was pointed out to him that the foul had to be committed in the penalty area, he was furious. “Goddam!” he expleted. “Stupid game!”
‘They hated Merrick so much’: The Jewel in the Crown
We went to India for The Jewel in the Crown in January 1982. The first scene I filmed was the last but one (of 13 episodes), a sequence in which my character, the policeman Ronald Merrick, is thrown from his horse. He blames his fall on a stone being thrown. True to form, the novel’s author, Paul Scott, does not tell you whether someone did actually throw a stone. So is Merrick lying?
In the days prior to filming this scene I had time to consider the implications because I was working daily with my horse. As riders go, I was an actor: as actors go, I was a rider. But this beast was something else – a magnificent Indian thoroughbred. As I mounted him the first time, the Indian groom said sweetly, “He is a prince. He will ride till you are off his back.” When I returned from my first outing I had learnt that if I held this fiery beast too firmly on the bit, he chafed and rankled. If I loosened my hold, he would be at full gallop within four paces – he did it once, and I just clung on. It was his way of testing me. If I got the tension on the bit right, he was good as gold, willing, obedient.
I grew to admire and love this highly sensitive, intelligent, proud creature. I do not say this lightly because it was unprecedented for me to entertain feelings of this nature for an animal. As a child we lived in flats and I was never allowed pets. I have always found people’s devotion to animals rather surprising – until I fell for this staggering creature. He was named Chetak, after a fabled Indian warrior horse which had sacrificed his life to save his master. The groom told me that a month before we arrived, they had lit a wall of fire and galloped all the horses in the stable straight at it. Chetak was the only one who went fearlessly though this blazing wall. This was why he was a prince.
Chetak and I rode past the location for the stone-throwing incident daily. I decided that in this scene, in this location, no stone could possibly have been thrown – the terrain was too flat; any attacker would have been seen. So … was Merrick fantasising, unhinged or both? I decided that he knew, deep down, that he had done wrong – that he could not deny to himself that he had twisted justice to nail Hari Kumar, and that years of being followed, harried, reminded of his culpability, was getting to him: the stone was a hallucination brought about by suppressed guilt. Merrick was temporarily unhinged – “mad Merrick” was how we sometimes jokingly referred to him. When Jewel was screened, old friends from school and university got back in touch. More than one of them told me that their partners hated Merrick so much they could not think of having me in the house. This kind of audience identification does not happen in any other medium. When you have seen The Last of the Mohicans, you do not expect Daniel Day-Lewis to be a Native American. When you have seen King Lear, you do not assume the actor playing Cornwall to be someone who habitually pulls people’s eyes out. In 1985, we were on holiday in Jávea in Spain. I was looking “summery” – leather sandals, shorts, T-shirt, sunglasses, large, floppy hat – when some passing locals pointed at us – at me. They waved enthusiastically. “Holà! holà!” they cried. And when we waved back, they smiled. “El Diablo!” they called happily. “El Diablo!”
‘The smell of a proper play’: King Charles III
The Almeida’s artistic director, Rupert Goold, brought me Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III with the slightly apologetic warning that it was in blank verse, but, of course, that appealed to me. I was more concerned, as I sat down to read it, that after 10 minutes of fun and pastiche at the expense of the royals there would be nothing worth getting your teeth into. There were certainly some funny lines early on. Charles’s first scene with the prime minister begins with the offer of tea, and the glorious line, “Shall I be mother?” But a couple of laughs do not a play make.
However, in that scene, about 15 minutes into the play, Charles voices his concerns over a Bill for which the PM seeks royal assent, and that Bill is an attack on the freedom of the press. This intriguing plot development does three things: it sets up the central issue of the play, it cleverly brings the audience on side with Charles – depicted as a man of principle, nobly defending freedom of speech – and crucially, it makes it clear that the author is taking the monarchy seriously. So … not just a few laughs, but the smell of a proper play.
The interval achieves a theatrical coup. Charles – in full regalia – uses the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament. The second half spins the country to the edge of civil war. I have only met Prince Charles once, when he was very charming and easy to chat to. I have always had a soft spot for him, and I admire our constitutional monarchy, but Charles often comes across as eccentric, and he has a mixed press. However, Mike had drawn a sympathetic and seemingly accurate portrait of a man betrayed by time, trapped within the confines of his principled, stubborn character. The play itself was so good, and it didn’t strike me as offensive, that in spite of a work overload I leapt at Rupert’s offer.
The writing is peppered with references to Shakespeare. You don’t need to recognise them, but they add to the fun. There are allusions to Lear, Macbeth, Prince Hal, and, centrally, Richard II – the man who is forced to give away his crown. Mike had achieved a plausible, modern, Shakespearean tragical-historical saga, in which the audience watch people they know well, if superficially, just as Elizabethan audiences must have watched Richard III. The blank verse confirmed the play’s place in this Shakespearean tradition; its heightened form validated the presence of the ghost of Princess Diana, and to me it offered the potential for raising the emotional power of the piece to a level that would simply not have been possible had the play been written in prose. Importantly, the play rephrased a growing question in people’s minds – what is the future of our monarchy, in the wake of the longest reign in our history?
Rupert was clear when he gave me the play that impersonation would kill it. Dead right. Nevertheless … playing real people is a responsibility, even people from the distant past, and these were people in the public eye. When I first read the play, I was working with Jon Glover, who was the voice of Michael Caine (and many others) in Spitting Image – a brilliant mimic. I asked him what characteristics he would use for Prince Charles. He immediately suggested the habit of holding his signet ring in one hand and twisting his little finger within it, and the way he pulls his lips down, and to one side, when speaking. I did not impersonate Charles, but I made use of these traits, adding another, for my own pleasure. Looking at a film clip, I noticed that his hands sometimes hover outside his jacket pockets, but rarely go in – giving him an air of indecisiveness.
I have been asked many times if Charles saw the play. He did not. However, when we were at the Almeida, a note arrived from Buckingham Palace pointing out that Charles did not wear a wedding ring. I must simply have forgotten at one performance, when palace spies were in, to remove my own wedding ring, and slip on Charles’s signet ring. But the palace could have said Charles parts his hair on the other side. So what does this mean? It suggests to me we were being informed that the palace knew exactly what was going on, but they were not concerned enough to take action. It was like a royal yellow card.
• Extracted from Do You Know Who I Am? A Memoir by Tim Pigott-Smith, published on 4 May by Bloomsbury Continuum at £18.99. King Charles III will be broadcast on BBC2 in May.