There’s something poetic about the sight of an old man chasing moths around a room cluttered with antique bronzes, glassware and sepia-coloured photographs. The man is Leslie Phillips, the room is on the ground floor of his Victorian house in Maida Vale, north London, the moths are… well, they’re just moths. Phillips claps his freckled hands together and opens them slowly to inspect. ‘Missed,’ he says gloomily. ‘This one’s a sod. I do hate moths.’
Even so, I can’t help feeling that the moths belong here among the rickety chairs, sooty paintings, and musty books stacked crookedly on shelves. They blend with the room’s faded brown-and-cream colour scheme, rather like the 76-year-old actor himself, in fact. It is often noted how pets come to resemble their owners; Leslie Phillips, with dust fairies swirling around him, has come to resemble this room. He’s at one with it. In harmony.
The cord shirt he wears is dark green, his hair is mousey, his smooth cheeks pink. But in the watery, mid-afternoon light, he looks quite frail and his hands shake a little, perhaps because he is just recovering from what he describes as ‘a week on the lav. Nasty tummy bug I picked up while doing a speech for the WI in Scarborough.’ The illness hasn’t affected that refined, warm English beer voice of his. It’s still unhurried, oaky and soothing. And it still makes his every utterance sound vaguely sarcastic. ‘It’s terribly distinctive,’ he says. ‘My voice is recognised as clearly as my face. When I phone, say, the electricity company, they always recognise my voice before I’ve said my name.’ He gets requests to record himself saying, ‘Hel-low,’ in that silky, suggestive way he has, for answering-machines. ‘For some reason it brings a smile to people’s faces,’ he says.
The voice does make it difficult to gauge when he is being serious. Take, for instance, the business of his obituary. He has, he tells me, been brooding on it a lot lately. Why? ‘A giant pie fell on my head a few weeks ago and it got me thinking. I mean, imagine the headlines. What an undignified way to go.’ Did he say pie? ‘Oh, it was a prop for a television programme. Left me with a stiff neck, but I didn’t make a fuss, much to the relief of the producers who clearly thought I was going to sue.’
What really bothers him is that, though he has made more than 100 films, the obituaries are bound to concentrate on the Carry Ons, those and the Doctors. And he only made three of each. He loathes talking about them; finds the way people associate him with them tedious; indeed, in the three hours I’m with him the closest he gets to mentioning the Carry On team is when he refers to ‘the group I was with’.
Frustrated at being typecast as the suave, Brylcreemed Lothario who arched his eyebrow and purred the words ‘ding-dong!’ whenever he saw a pretty nurse, Phillips took the decision at the beginning of the Eighties to accept no more broad comedy roles. ‘My friends, my agent, my bank manager all thought I was mad, because I was at the top of the tree in comedy, but I knew I wasn’t. There was an unnerving lull for a while, then I was offered a straight part in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play. That’s the role I’m most proud of playing. It changed everything for me. I wish the obituaries would lead on that.’ He stares out of the window. ‘But I don’t suppose they will.’
After Passion Play, Phillips was offered numerous stage roles in Shakespeare and Chekhov and, last year, he starred in his own one-man play, On the Whole Life’s Been Jolly Good, about the life and dalliances of a failed and ousted Tory MP (‘I was tremendous in that, a great success’). He says he has earned more from his theatre work than from film, but the change in direction also led to his being given roles in ‘serious’ films such as ‘Scandal’ (1988), ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987) and ‘Out of Africa’ (1985). ‘The past 25 years have been the most rewarding for me. What goes on the tombstone might be…’ He trails off.
When asked why he continues to work, long after the national retirement age, Phillips says: ‘Work stops me feeling old. I don’t normally think of retirement but the other day a black guy got up for me on the Tube and offered me his seat and I thought, “Oh shit! I must look old. It’s happened.” But my memory still works for learning lines. The fear of fucking it up helps, too.’
A cat wanders into the room and he begins stroking it. Her name is Pushy, he says, and she is a 16-year-old feral, the only one left of nine he brought back from Spain. He has a 200-year-old farmhouse there which he has been restoring for years. At one point his neighbours in Spain were his friends Terry-Thomas and Denholm Elliot. Both dead now, of course, like most of his generation of comedy actors. Of his friends from that group, Ronnie Barker is the only one he still sees regularly. Smashing bloke. ‘I don’t fear death,’ he adds, ‘just illness and senility. But I do sometimes forget I’ve grown older. When I did Lord Lane [in the docu-drama The Birmingham Six] I went in for make-up and they said I didn’t need any, and I said, “But Lane was an old man!” I persuaded them to give me some eyebrows.’
The famous Leslie Phillips’s moustache is white now – distinguished, as the euphemism goes. One of his catchphrases, from a scene in which he looked at himself in a mirror as he put on aftershave, was ‘Oh, you gorgeous beast!’ Perhaps dishonestly, he says he never thought of himself as handsome. ‘I was never pretty. Pleasant-looking, that’s all. As I got older my face looked fuller and more secure-looking. I looked like I had more savoir-faire. I know some actors who can’t accept that when they grow old they have to give up the romantic leads. I often advise them not to reach for the toupee.’
There is another reason why Phillips won’t give up work. ‘I’m an actor who wants to earn a living. All my money went on educating my children, sending them to very good schools.’ He has four from his first marriage, a stepson from his second and 15 grandchildren. ‘Both my sons went to university, something I wish I could have done. One is a lawyer, the other a housemaster, they are both very successful, both lovely people. I was certainly marvellous with my children. Terrific.’
His being driven by a need to make money is understandable, given his background. Phillips was born in Tottenham, north London, in 1924. His father, Fred, worked for Main Gas Cookers and suffered from rheumatic fever, eventually dying from it, aged 41, when Leslie was nine. ‘That had a great impact. My father was a lovely man but he always seemed close to death. My mother was always having to look after him. She was my real role model.’
As there was no Social Security at the time, his mother, Cecilia, found it a struggle to bring up three children in the family home in Chingford, Essex, where the family moved. She took in sewing and, inspired by Leslie’s victory in a beautiful baby competition, decided to put her son on the stage to bring in extra money. She answered a small ad for child actors, which led to Leslie appearing, aged ten, in a touring production of Peter Pan with Anna Neagle. From the age of 14, he was on tour more or less permanently. Actors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison became his surrogate uncles. ‘They were my family. Very kind. They encouraged me to read books and educate myself.’
As most West End actors were called up when war broke out, the 15-year-old Leslie found himself in demand, and at 17 was appearing in two plays simultaneously. The following year it was his turn to be called up and, partly because he had lost his cockney accent and had learned, through elocution lessons, to talk with an upper-class voice, he was commissioned as an officer.
As part of his training he was shot at with live ammunition, an experience which left his nerves shattered. He was declared medically unfit for battle and put in charge of a base camp in Suffolk. ‘The Army was an education for me,’ he says. ‘It toughened me up.’ Not that the life of an actor in those days was soft, he adds rather defensively. ‘You learned to cope with illness. You had to be dead nearly before you took time off. Nowadays actors stay in bed if they have a sniffle. The one occasion I took a break was when I had a stomach haemorrhage. My former Army MO discovered it. He’s dead now, bless his heart. I told him I felt weak and had awful diarrhoea, and he asked me what colour it was and when I said, “Black,” he said, “You’re bleeding,” and rushed me to hospital for a blood transfusion. I’d been taking too many aspirin, apparently, for my backache. I’ve never touched them since.’
Contrary to his screen image as a rake, there have been only four women in Phillips’s life. The first was when he was 19 and serving in the Army. The second was when he was 24. Her name was Penny and, in 1948, they married. Their first child was stillborn. ‘It was ghastly,’ he says. ‘Very difficult to get over.’ The couple had four more children and then, in 1965, divorced after Leslie had an affair with John Mortimer’s stepdaughter Caroline.
He never really wanted to get divorced, he says, Penny divorced him. ‘I don’t really know why it happened. There were lots of factors. I was very fond of her and remained so. The story of why things go wrong is complicated. But it wasn’t a lack of love or care. Love is a very big word, isn’t it?’ He believes the divorce knocked Penny off balance. She wouldn’t let him see the children and would ring his home and leave the phone off the hook so that no one else could get through.
Leslie and Caroline were together for nine years, but, partly because she wanted a baby and he didn’t, they separated, and Leslie began seeing Angela, an actress 23 years his junior. (‘The image of me as a womaniser was misleading,’ he says distractedly, swiping after another passing moth. ‘I always got on with women but I didn’t really have them throwing themselves at me.’ He grins. ‘I much prefer being at home than in a nightclub. I do like my slippers.’)
In 1981 Penny had a stroke. She died 18 months later, in a fire at her nursing home. Phillips married Angela in 1982 and, for six difficult years, had to nurse her through clinical depression. Medication eventually worked and she is much better now. ‘I became withdrawn when Angela was ill because of the stress,’ he says. ‘But our sense of humour held us together.’
In whom did he confide about his various marital problems? ‘I didn’t really confide in my mother. We were close, she kept cuttings about me, but never really understood my business. I sometimes thought this was a pity. None of my family have ever come into the inner part of my life. They wouldn’t have been at ease there.’ And perhaps he wouldn’t have been at ease with them being there. Might he even have felt a twinge of embarrassment about them, having lost his cockney accent and reinvented himself as a toff? ‘I don’t think they felt betrayed. Distanced maybe. They realised it would be virtually impossible to make a career without “talking proper”. They admired me for it.’
In 1984 his mother, then aged 92, was mugged by three boys at a bus stop outside her home in Chingford. When she clung on to her handbag, they battered her with their fists. She was taken to hospital, never fully recovered and died nine months later. For months afterwards he scoured the streets of Chingford looking for the youths, going on the only description police had, that they were black and one of them had been wearing a yellow sweatshirt. ‘I still have strong feelings about that incident,’ he says with a slow blink of his pale blue eyes. ‘You can’t suppress things like that. But equally you have to carry on, you can’t dry up or commit suicide. My sister was closest to her. It ruined her life and she died of grief soon afterwards. They are buried near each other.’ Phillips claps his hands at another passing moth. ‘Oh bugger! Missed.’ The movement makes a strand of his hair flap out of place, over his ear. He smoothes it back.
Leslie Phillips is not an easy man to figure out. There is ennui behind the bonhomie. He describes himself as bossy, though more tolerant now than he was as a young man. His immodesty is Olympian, but self-aggrandisement is often a device people use to counter low self-esteem. When he tells me how good he has been as a father, it is really himself he is trying to convince, I suspect, as if he is still judging himself for the break-up with his first wife. ‘I don’t go to church very often,’ he says at one point, ‘but I’m very good. I’m a good person. I’m not horrible to people.’
Similarly, what comes across as boasting about his career as a serious actor is probably just anxiety that his early comedy work will overshadow it. The role he really wants to play, he says, is King Lear – Sir Antony Hopkins once promised to direct. ‘I don’t know whether I will get the chance now. I doubt it.’
He thinks his early comic roles were vulgar and undignified. He tells me he wanted to do more ‘classy’ roles. The word classy is revealing, especially as he goes on to say that he can’t stand it when people don’t speak clearly, with good diction. ‘Everyone I’ve been associated with romantically has been middle-class. They have been well-spoken.’
He reinvented himself, but he can’t escape the past. How cruel that, instead of being buried and forgotten, all those Carry On films are still being repeated, constantly, all around the world. And one thinks of all those terrible, scarring events from which Phillips can’t escape: the deaths of his father, his mother, his first wife, his first child.
The extent to which he still lives in the shadow of the past is illustrated most clearly, and touchingly, in his attitude to children. ‘I worry about seeing children at risk,’ he tells me. ‘Mothers not holding their children’s hands in traffic, or near the edge of a platform when the train is coming. I can’t stand it and have to intervene sometimes. I have to take the child’s hand myself because I get so terribly anxious.’
Here is a man, then, who can demonstrate a deep understanding of the fragility of life and yet, the next moment, be chuckling to himself as he swipes at another moth. Which is what he does now. It escapes him and flutters in my direction. I grab for it. Success. ‘Well done!’ he says, with the same intonation he used for the words ‘ding-dong!’ all those years ago.