Christopher Lee

Sir Christopher Lee: ‘I’m softer than people think’

Upstairs at the Bafta building on Piccadilly there is a wall lined with black-and-white stills from David Lean films, mostly from the Forties and Fifties. As he walks past them, Sir Christopher Lee, the 88-year-old screen legend, takes them in with knowing nods and says, almost under his breath: “And here’s Charles and Trevor and John.” (Laughton, Howard and Mills, for the record).

He’s worked with them all; in fact the record books show that Lee has worked with more Hollywood greats and been in more films than any other actor alive, some 350. When people come up to him and say they have seen him in all his films, he likes to say: “No you haven’t.” Even he hasn’t seen all his films.

The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, indeed, would have worked just as well if it had been called Six Degrees of Christopher Lee (if Lee had rhymed with separation). He gets to Bacon in two, by the way, having starred in the 1977 film Starship Invasions, which also starred Sean McCann, who starred with Bacon in The Air Up There (1994). According to the online Oracle of Bacon, Lee is ranked second only to Rod Steiger as the centre of “the Hollywood galaxy”.

Lee is here at Bafta because his contribution to the film industry is about to be honoured with a Bafta Fellowship. “It means a lot to me,” he says, “because it is a pat on the back from the profession. I shall probably have tears on the night of the ceremony. I’m much softer than people think. I don’t present to the world an emotional face. I’m pretty good at self-control, but I am easily moved.”

He adds that when you have been through five years of war you tend to save tears for reality, rather than the make believe of the cinema. “That is real horror and blood. When the Second World War finished I was 23 and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime. I’d seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word. So seeing horror depicted on film doesn’t affect me much.”

Golden Gun 1974

Christopher Lee played Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun REX FEATURES

The only time you see tears from a soldier, he reckons, is at a military funeral. “Very difficult to keep them back. So many of my comrades from the war have died lately. And from the acting profession. Susannah York. John Barry. I turn to the Telegraph’s obituaries page with trepidation.” His best friend was the actor Peter Cushing and when he died in 1994, he felt there was no one left to have “remember when?” conversations with.

On the subject of his war record, Lee is like a man wrestling with a secret he longs to tell, metaphorically wincing in order to draw attention to an old war wound, only to say that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He will allude, for example, to his time with the Special Operations Executive, but when you ask him to expand he will look affronted.

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations.” Later he raises the subject again and says: “Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”

When I ask whether his Bafta Fellowship means more to him than his knighthood last year, he raises the cane playfully at me and says that the two honours are very different and that if I say otherwise “I shall unsheathe my sword stick!” Is it really a sword stick? “Wish it was. But I do know how to fight with a sword. I did all my own fight scenes and have the scars to prove it.”

Lee isn’t as tall as he once was, having, he thinks, lost about an inch from his full height of 6ft 5in, but he doesn’t stoop. Today he is wearing cords and a polo neck. He has a long, angular face, still piercing eyes and a white beard. As for his hair, let’s just say it fits.

His voice, meanwhile, is still deep and his recall is excellent. He never hesitates over a name. The keen intellect that enabled him to become multilingual – he is fluent in French, German, Spanish and Italian, and can also get by in Swedish, Greek and Russian – is still, it seems, in evidence.

Even at the grand age of 88 he has no intention of slowing down. He recently had a cameo in a yet-to-be-released sequel to his best film, The Wicker Man. He is also in negotiation to appear in The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, in which he also starred. That is the thing about Lee: he is the king of the franchise, the only common denominator between the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars series, the Hammer horrors and the Bond films (he played Scaramanga, Bond’s nemesis in The Man With The Golden Gun).

We shall come to those. For now I ask what he has against retirement. “It’s not for me. I hate being idle. As dear Boris used to say, when I die I want to die with my boots on. Which he did. As did Vincent. And Peter.” (He is referring to Karloff, Price and Cushing, of course.)

As we talk I notice he cannot bring himself to utter the D-word. Although he was very good as Dracula, it did cast a long shadow over his career. And now, for him, mentioning the count is almost a taboo, as mentioning Macbeth is for other actors. The most he will do is allude to him, when pushed. And he recalls with a shudder that when he was knighted last year the tabloids ran punning headlines such as “Fangs for the honour”.


Dracula cast a shadow over Christopher Lee’s career

“Pathetic,” he says with a solemn shake of his head. “Pathetic.” He suits his knighthood because he is a man who carries himself with great dignity. And he not only votes Conservative but believes in the sanctity of marriage. He and his wife Gitte, a one-time Chanel model, married in 1961. They have one daughter. “The secret to a long marriage in the film industry? Marry someone wonderful, as I did. And always have her come along on location.”

His knighthood, also suits him and it is in keeping with the gentility of his upbringing. He attended Wellington College, his father was a colonel in the King’s Royal Rifles, his cousin was Ian Fleming, his mother was a Contessa. When he told her he wanted to be an actor she was mortified. “She did a real Bernhardt, saying: ‘The shame of it! Think of the shame you are bringing to the family!’ Then she said something which to this day I cannot argue with. ‘Think of all the frightful people you will meet!’”

The 1958 film Dracula Has Risen From The Grave made him a star. Van Helsing was played by Peter Cushing and it had a huge international impact, in part because colour was still a novelty and there was so much blood in it. It was also partly because Lee brought out the dark, brooding sexuality of Dracula, something that his predecessor Bela Lugosi had never managed.

Three more Dracula films at the end of the Sixties consolidated his success. And all are considered classics of the genre to this day. Was it a problem that he was simply too good as Dracula? “I think there is a lot…” Long pause. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about me in that role. It had never been played properly before that. With me it was all about the power of suggestion to make the unbelievable believable.”

We have come to the other word that makes him shudder, typecasting. “The same happened to Peter and Vincent. They made some wonderful serious movies but are only known for horror. That was why I went to America. I couldn’t see anything happening here except a continuation of what had gone before. A couple of friends, Dick Widmark and Billy Wilder, told me I had to get away from London otherwise I would always be typecast.”

Christopher Lee in The Mummy, 1959 REX FEATURES

His first film upon arriving in Hollywood was Airplane 77 and he came close to actual death in that, having to act dead under water without breathing apparatus. “The stunt men made me an honorary member of their guild after that. I did all sorts of genres in America, some of which I don’t care to remember.”

Is he referring to the soft porn film, or is that an urban myth? “No that was long before, in 1970. But it is true I was in a soft porn film, though I had no idea that was what it was when I agreed to the role. I was told it was about the Marquis de Sade. I flew out to Spain for one day’s work playing the part of a narrator. I had to wear a crimson dinner jacket. There were lots of people behind me. They all had their clothes on. There didn’t seem to be anything peculiar or strange.”

He forgot about the film then one day, well, he tells it better. “A friend said: ‘Do you know you are in a film in Old Compton Street?’ In those days that was where the mackintosh brigade watched their films. ‘Very funny,’ I said. So I crept along there heavily disguised in dark glasses and scarf, and found the cinema and there was my name. I was furious! There was a huge row. When I had left Spain that day everyone behind me had taken their clothes off!”

Lee remained in Hollywood for a decade, playing in many genres including westerns. Anything, in fact, but horror. When he felt it was safe to return to Britain he was invited to appear on Wogan. Much to his chagrin, the producers thought it would be a good idea to open the show with Terry coming out of a coffin wrapped in a cape.

Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy 2002-2005

Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy 2002-2005

When I watched that clip on YouTube as part of my research, I did feel sorry for Sir Christopher. The trouble is, combined with the sheer quantity of horror films that Lee made, there is also the inconvenient fact that he is obsessed with the occult in real life. He has a library of 12,000 books on the subject.

“Yes, it’s true,” he says, “ever since I read Aleister Crowley. It was my friend Dennis Wheatley who got me interested in the occult.” Wheatley also wrote the novel upon which one of Christopher Lee’s best films was based, The Devil Rides Out.

But the film of which Lee is most proud is Jinnah, about the founder of Pakistan, where he plays the title role. It was made in 1998 and James Fox plays opposite him as Mountbatten. He also has great affection for the four films he has made with Tim Burton. There is only one great director he would love to work with, and that is Clint Eastwood.

Lee has an old man’s tendency to dismiss whole generations with a sweep. “I’ve never looked on myself as a star,” he says. “Never. To me a star is a giant and where are the giants today? The Tracys, the Coopers, the Flynns?”

Who does he rate today, then? There must be someone. He thinks for a moment. “Leonardo DiCaprio. And my good friend Johnny Depp.”

As we part company, he has only one request. “Please don’t describe me in your article as a ‘horror legend’. I moved on from that.” Fair enough, Sir Christopher. Fair enough.


Ian McEwan

He would rather trash politicians than watch trashy TV. But how does our greatest living novelist unwind? Not easily…

As well as the hundreds of books on the shelves there are, on various other tables and surfaces in this high-ceilinged drawing room, further neat piles of books. It is as if Ian McEwan, the man who lives here, needs them to be within reach at all times, lifebuoys to a nervous swimmer.

But there are also hints of a life beyond books, a hinterland: the Bridget Riley paintings that frame the fireplace, the electric guitar on a stand and the drinks, a collection of bottles on a lacquered Chinese cabinet. One of them is Johnnie Walker Black Label, the favoured poison of his friend Christopher Hitchens. It is half empty, or half full, depending. “That? Yes, that’s his. No one else drinks it. I hope he will one day come back to finish it.”

The Hitch has cancer, a subject he has written about with great poignancy, wit and grace for Vanity Fair. “He still drinks, but more wine than Scotch. Because he’s so oxlike in his strength I don’t think he knew how to be ill. I’m going over to Washington to see him next week.”

You imagine that Martin Amis will also have a half full bottle of Black Label somewhere in his house, also keeping vigil. There are other members of this gang, such as Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins, but McEwan, Amis and the Hitch form the unholy trinity, as reflected in a photograph taken about five years ago in Uruguay. McEwan has a brotherly arm around Hitchens’ shoulder.

There must have been many philosophical discussions among these friends over the years about the nature of mortality, but now that one of them is having to confront his own, does that change the terms of the debate, from the abstract to the concrete?

“Well we’re all getting to that age, late fifties and early sixties, when people get ill. It all begins to feel horribly finite. But I don’t think it becomes harder to talk or write about. If anything it becomes harder to avoid. It becomes an inevitable subject, as it became for Roth and Bellow and Updike.”

At 62, Ian McEwan at least has the consolation of being described as our greatest living novelist, thanks to his having pulled off the unusual feat of writing literary novels that sell like commercial ones, by the million, most notably with Atonement in 2001.

He began as a writer of short stories, having his first collection, First Love, Last Rites, published in his mid twenties. It won the Somerset Maugham award in 1976 and, since then, his books have won just about every award going, including the Whitbread for The Child in Time (1987) and the Booker for Amsterdam (1998). His latest, Solar, is a little about global warming and a lot about a womanising Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.

More typical of his oeuvre is Saturday (2005), a meditation on the post-9/11 world, one that is far from comic. Its protagonist, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, lives in a large Georgian town house that is based on this one, overlooking the same square in central London. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

McEwan’s is an idiosyncratic literary voice, but if he can be compared to anyone it is the American novelist John Updike. They were friends and Updike’s death two years ago affected McEwan deeply.

“I did feel something really dropped out of my world. It was the death of an irreplaceable consciousness. He was such a great namer of things. From the time I read Rabbit Run at the age of 18, he had always been there. Always more essays, more poetry, more stories. I went to stay with him with my wife in 2008 and had a really nice time and we were making arrangements to go again.”

At least with Updike McEwan has three shelves of his books. “Yes, in that sense he is still a living presence for me. But like this idea of living on in the memories of others, that’s no real life for a fellow, is it?”

So it’s no consolation for him to think he might live on through his work? “Not really.”

What about through his genes, his two sons? “Yes, but you get watered down with each generation. Your grandchildren will have a quarter of your genes and their children an eighth. It’s a fade out.”

McEwan of course, like The Hitch and Dawkins, is an avowed atheist and when we talk about the Christian belief in an afterlife he says: “Do you think they really believe it? I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say that the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled.

“We can’t prove it’s not so, but the chances that it is are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”

There may be no immortality through books, but does he ever feel the urge to account for his life in a memoir, as several of his friends have done? “I would love to write a book as good as Experience, or Hitch-22, but I keep drifting into another novel. I’ve got notes.”

Is his “Ian McEwan shelf” an extended memoir, the story of his literary life in several volumes? “It’s a metafiction, I suppose. The row of books an author ends up with. It is not something you could have plotted, one leading to the other. Knowing that it’s finite, knowing that you might be two thirds of the way through, or even that you might be at the end now because you may run out of time and fall ill, or be knocked down by a bus, that’s a strange feeling.”

Like Hitchens and Amis, McEwan has had episodes in his life that have been stranger than fiction. In 2003, he discovered he had a long lost brother.

“Yes, and he wrote a book about it called Complete Surrender which was what the advert in the paper had said when he was put up for adoption. That had my father’s fingerprints all over it. ‘Complete surrender’ being a military term.” (His father, a domineering man, had been an army major who had been commissioned from the ranks.)

But would there also, I ask, be episodes in his life which he found too painful to write about? He is happily married now to the journalist Annalena McAfee, but there was an earlier marriage to Penny Allen which ended acrimoniously. The acrimony indeed made headlines in 1999 when Allen absconded with their youngest son to France, McEwan having been given sole custody of both their sons.

In the ensuing proceedings at the High Court in London, Allen was criticised by the judge for having conducted a “vitriolic campaign” against McEwan, and was barred from speaking publicly about their relationship. McEwan, for his part, was commended as “a model of courtesy and restraint”.

“Yeah well that would have to be dealt with if I were to write a memoir,” he says now. “I don’t think it would be too painful personally, it’s just I feel that since I’m the one who has access to all the channels of communication it would be unbalanced and unfair to use them. Also I don’t like reading people moaning on about their divorces. Funny how you always hear the version of the good person. Yet there are always two sides.”

One event I’d like to read about in his memoir, I say, is the fatwa; when it was issued Salman Rushdie took refuge in McEwan’s cottage in the Cotswolds. “Well it wasn’t my cottage. We were borrowing it from friends. I don’t think I ever admired a man more than him that night because it was so fresh and frightening as it was unfolding. We listened to the news together over breakfast the next morning and he was the lead item. Salman’s writing a memoir of the fatwa now.”

I guess for his generation that was when they were forced to face up to the meaning of Islamofascism. “Yes, that was why we fell out with parts of the Left. Salman’s experience was chapter one and 9/11 was chapter two.

“We had already seen the difficulties of reconciling freedom of expression with inclusivity and pluralism. The Left, or at least the SWP, were aligning themselves with Islamism because they saw them as the shock troops of anti-Americanism.”

Rattling the cage of the unreconstructed Left does seem to have become a hobby of McEwan’s. When I meet him he has just stepped off a plane from Israel where he has been accepting the Jerusalem Prize, much to the annoyance of the pro-Palestinian Left in this country.

As it turned out, he wanted to use the platform to have a go at his hosts, the Israelis. “I’m not a very political person actually. I found myself standing with this speech burning a hole in my pocket, talking to the mayor who I know is quite a tough guy and Shimon Peres. I thought how did I get myself into this? Not looking forward to this at all.”

When you go to a place like Israel though, he adds, it does affect your writing. “There’s only one subject in Israel. It’s a place fatally lacking in small talk, and I mean that as a compliment. I re-read the thing I am working on on the plane last night and it left me cold. Suddenly it didn’t look as interesting.”

Can he say what it’s about? “It’s too fragile to talk about. I might talk it out of existence. But it’s historical. Set in the Seventies.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if, before he gets to work properly on that, he feels the urge to write about the Arab Spring. His fiction, after all, often inhabits the space where public events overlap with private lives. And he is gripped by the rolling news coverage at the moment, not least because part of his childhood was spent in Libya.

“My expertise on Libya is limited by the fact that I haven’t been there since 1960,” he says. “But what a brute. I always thought Gaddafi was a vicious, crazy person. That footage of him making his long, rambling speech as he stands by the ruins left from the American bombing, that’s my old primary school. That’s where I went to school from six to 11 and he’s made it his headquarters.”

It is understandable that he doesn’t like talking about a book that is in its embryonic stages, but what about books that are finished? In his preface to A Move Abroad (1983) he wrote about the sense of betrayal he felt towards his books when he talked about them on publicity tours, becoming “practised at a certain kind of wind storm of words, a self-protecting blather”.

Does he still resent talking about his books? “I don’t resent it at all and for the first few months after publication I am a sincere double glazing salesman. I’m engaged, but inevitably repetition dulls that. On the positive side it does let you let go of a book, somewhere among all those explanations lies a useful death.”

In the film A Ploughman’s Lunch, written by McEwan, there is a scene in which two characters at a poetry reading mock a member of the audience for asking the poet where he gets his ideas. I tell McEwan I remember him giving a reading in 1986 and the first question afterwards was… where do you get your ideas? He answered politely on that occasion, but does he feel vague contempt for such questions?

“No, I feel very protective of anyone who asks a stupid question. I can’t bear it when other people laugh at them. We were in Dublin about five years ago and a girl stood up and said ‘What’s it like to be you?’ Everyone laughed at her and she blushed. I said it’s a very good question for a novelist because what it’s like to be someone is at the heart of what we do. Actually I don’t remember this happening, but Annalena does and now the memory has been planted as if it is my own.”

He says that when you agree to do a book tour you enter an agreement. “You have to give yourself to it and it is a self-selected group. You are animated by the good will. The people who loathe you aren’t there.”

Speaking of which, there was a rather bitchy piece about him in the Evening Standard last year, about there being a McEwan backlash. “Yes I saw that.”

Was it motivated by jealousy, does he suppose? “I think they were getting people to say what were the books of the decade. So inevitably someone said the worst book was Atonement and then they found some other examples of people saying that online and ran them all together, very kindly. An example of the road rage you get on the internet. Do you ever read the comment threads under your articles on the web?”

“God no! Never go below.”

Zadie Smith, among others, has referred to a certain writing style as being McEwanesque. What does he take that to mean? “I suppose it once would have meant weird, psychotic violence and the macabre. What do you think it means?”

An accumulation of detail. A certain realism. A belief that anything has the potential to become interesting if you examine it closely enough.

And there’s often a random event that acts as a pivotal moment for the characters, and they have to live with its consequences.

“But doesn’t all fiction have that? If you inhabit your own mind you feel free to do anything. We know what we mean by Pinteresque and Kafkaesque but I don’t really know what McEwanesque means. Perhaps it just means I have a name ending in an open vowel sound.”

He heads off to make us both mugs of tea and when he comes back he is holding something he has just opened in the post. It is a card with a black-and-white photograph on it of a child pushing a pram. Beside the child is a man in African dress. “Your starter for 10. Who’s that?”

I examine it. “You? As a child in Libya?”

“Richard Dawkins. It’s him as a child in Kenya. It’s an invitation to his 70th birthday party. Such a strange picture.”

It occurs to me that the term McEwanesque might apply to his life as much as to his work. He seems to regard the world with a mixture of wry amusement and bird-like curiosity. He also seems to be a methodical man, deliberate and unhurried. Indeed he tells me, rather surprisingly, that he is a slow reader, 30 pages an hour.

One imagines he’s not much given to frivolity. In fact, I say, I have an image of him gliding from one Hampstead dinner party to another, all fine wine and cerebral conversation.

Does he ever slum it intellectually? Watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on telly while eating a Big Mac? “Er, I don’t eat Big Macs. Where do I let my hair down? Walking in the country with friends is where I feel completely free. I’ve never had a great taste, as Martin and Hitch have, for seeking out low culture. Violent films and so on.”

Or trying out a brothel in the name of research? “Yes, but they did that a long time ago. I occasionally watch a football match on television, but I cannot bear the commercials. I watch The Wire but I suppose that is considered high culture. I can never knuckle down to reading all the way through The Sun, as Martin can. That for me would be such an effort.”

He stares unseeingly out of the window. “I like the picture you paint of my life of cerebral conversation and fine wine but it’s not quite like that. I do like to go to a bar and listen to bands play the blues. That is an intense pleasure for me. I like to be 12 feet from the band, not in a seat, near the bar, beer in hand.”

So that’s what the electric guitar is for, the one in the corner of this room? “Actually it was a 50th birthday present from my wife. I had every intention of learning how to play it but I never seem to have had the time.”

Ah yes, time. In his early novels, it was often presented as something elusive and protean, a McEwanesque conceit. As he gets older he seems to be more accepting of the idea that time is also linear, that it can “wind polish” your life, and that, for your friends as well as for yourself, it can, and must, run out.


Brian Cox

The greatness of the Foo Fighters and the runaway success of astronomy with a Northern accent – it’s all part of a bigger picture, says Nigel Farndale

The man from Barnes has a lot to answer for. According to Home Office files, declassified last week, he fell asleep one night and woke up to find that, due to a rip in the fabric of the time-space continuum, he had lost an hour. The only explanation, he reckoned, was that he had been abducted by aliens. When the man from Barnes reported this to the MoD, they wrote back to explain that the clocks had gone forward that night. That was in 1998, though most of the newly declassified UFO “sightings” were in the 1970s – a busy time for intergalactic travel, it seems.

The shame of it is that the emotionally fragile people who make these claims give a bad name to those of us who are open to the possibility that, with an estimated 100 billion Earth-like planets in the universe, there may be other life out there. Ours cannot be the only “Goldilocks” planet with conditions that are “just right”.

The difference between us and them — the loons — is that we know that the likelihood of any aliens ever making contact with us is pretty much zero, thanks to the distances between galaxies being so unimaginably vast.

Besides, we have Prof Brian Cox on our side. With his telegenic looks, soft Northern vowels, and gift for making cosmology accessible to non-physicists, Cox is the man of the moment. His image is on mugs and T-shirts. And thanks to him, applications to study physics at university have soared in the past year, as have sales of telescopes (I bought one myself). His new series, Wonders of the Universe, starts on BBC Two tonight. I’ve seen a preview of it and it is beautiful and thought-provoking.

But it isn’t really his new series that’s preoccupying me, or his belief in aliens. It’s his age. Though he doesn’t look it, Brian Cox is 42. And the other night, as I was watching the Foo Fighters in concert at Wembley, I realised with surprise that the youthful-looking Dave Grohl, the band’s very cool, very talented and very hairy lead singer and guitarist, is also 42.

Though he started out as the drummer of Nirvana years ago, Grohl has only now, at 42, reached the peak of his powers. Only now has he become a true stadium-filling rock god. And his star can only wane from here. This time next year he will be 43, and over-familiarity with his music will be breeding contempt. The same will be true of Brian Cox. Not him again, we will think. Isn’t that smiley bloke ever off our screens?

So what is it about the age of 42? Well, as a number, it has great potency, and not only in fiction (according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything). In biology, geography, theology, history and, oh, everything else, it is all about 42. Mathematicians at Princeton believe that 42 provides the connection between prime numbers and quantum physics. Astronomers at Cambridge have found that 42 is the value of an essential scientific constant – one which determines the age of the universe. And guess what the ideal age for an astronaut is, according to Nasa?

But I suppose there might be a two- or three-year margin of error. When I interviewed Ian McEwan for today’s edition of Seven, he told me that his mother, in her old age, used to say that she wished she was 45 again, that being her prime. Things had gone downhill for her after that.

“And how old are you?” he asked me.