The decaf coffee that Honor Blackman orders when she arrives at the café near her home in Notting Hill is not, apparently, one of the secrets of her eternal youth, secrets that people always ask her about. “No,” she says.
“It’s just I don’t sleep properly at night if I have any caffeine at all during the day.” For the record, her tips are eating sensibly, cleansing your face, and daily exercise, in her case Pilates and sit-ups.
But having plunged straight into her appearance, we may as well continue with it. Blackman is 86, the same age as the Queen, but my goodness she doesn’t look it. Her thick, shoulder-length hair is still set in the same way as it was when she became a screen icon as Pussy Galore in the 1964 Bond film Goldfinger, only now it is white not blonde.
Apart from that, the clear skin, the icy blue eyes, the bone structure, all are pretty much the same. And what is remarkable when you look at photographs of her down the ages is that she has never really changed.
There was never a moment when she disappeared and reappeared in a surgically enhanced state. Even her figure hasn’t altered much. The most weight she has gained since her teens is 2lb.
Her fellow 86 year-olds must hate her, I say. “I don’t think in those terms,” she says with a short laugh. “I’m used to people saying ‘I hope I look as good as you at your age’ and I don’t make any comment.” She leans forward and gives a sideways glance before adding mischievously. “Some people don’t have as good a start.” Yes, having the right genes must help, especially with skin. “My mother, bless her, I remember putting her in the shower when she was 91 – and she hated to be stripped off in front of anyone, almost worse when it was her children – and her skin, because she never sunbathed, was pure and white, and her face was pretty good, too.”
I suppose a lot of Blackman’s generation, the first true sun worshippers, sunbathing in bikinis without sun cream for protection, have now paid the price. Brigitte Bardot, with whom she starred in the 1968 film Shalako, is an obvious example. “Isn’t it strange how people go? She had – what is that word that people use these days? Drives me mad – issues. She had issues, by which is meant problems. Bardot seems to have done a volte-face from being a great sex symbol to someone who doesn’t care about her appearance, only her animals.” I’m sensing they didn’t get on. “Bardot didn’t really get to know anyone on the set because she was surrounded by people to look after her. She couldn’t be left alone, you see, because she had recently attempted suicide. I think she was frightened because it was her first film outside France. It was a nightmare really.”
Like Bardot, Blackman was a pin up, especially after The Avengers in which, from 1962-64, she played the smart and sexy, leather-wearing, judo-throwing Cathy Gale. She was always being told she was beautiful, did she believe it? “Looking back, I suppose some of it must have been true. But I couldn’t relate to it at the time. I didn’t think it was true, brought up as I was. British families then, in complete contrast with today, were always afraid that someone would be prideful and arrogant, so my mother made sure I kept my feet on the ground. I remember once as a 17 year-old I was all dolled up to go out and thought I looked rather splendid, for me, and I asked my mother, ‘Do I look all right?’ and she said, ‘You’ll pass in a crowd’. It hurt awfully. All these years later it still rankles, isn’t that pathetic?”
On a hunch, I ask if her parents had a happy marriage. “I think they loved one another but he was such a disciplinarian and so demanding that there was a fair amount of fear in the house. He was a very randy individual. It didn’t matter what she was doing or how she felt, there was no foreplay. He didn’t even come down and help with the washing up and then say ‘how about it?’”
I ask if, after all the sexism and boorish behaviour she herself encountered in the Sixties, the feminism of the Seventies came as a relief to her? “I think I contributed some of it with The Avengers. Because a lot of the fan mail I got was from women. It was enlightening. They liked the idea of a strong woman and then that character was followed by another strong woman, Pussy Galore.” Ah yes. That name. Not exactly a great leap forward for feminism, was it? “I know. The problems I had in America. They couldn’t even bring themselves to say it.”
What about the Bond scene with the Queen in the Olympics opening ceremony? Did she approve? “Wasn’t that ridiculous? But everyone seemed to love it. The Queen did play ball, but she surely didn’t enjoy the opening ceremony. I do think you should look up when your team goes by. She was bored to tears by that point because there were no horses.” Again, I’m sensing she’s not a fan. “No, I’m a republican. I think the Queen has done her duty pretty well, but it has taken her a long time to be a human being, a mother. I have to say, I found it odd that she had to read her speech to her own son on his 60th birthday. I know she has been trained not to make mistakes but surely you can talk to your son and make a mistake, if it’s someone you love. But she’s doing very well considering her age.”
They are the same age! She laughs. “Yes, you needn’t have said that. I still do my job and I stand at bus stops and drive my own car and take the Tube. If I was taken to an engagement and my time was strictly limited to an hour and a half and anyone who was a nuisance was kept from me, I think I could manage life pretty well, too.” Well, she can’t be accused of hypocrisy, given that she declined a CBE. But what is her real problem with the monarchy?
“It does seem to me, for a democracy, that it is absolutely weird that we have a privileged family as our representatives. Surely you should earn it, not inherit it through some extraordinary blood. Not very British that. The Americans think it’s wonderful, but they must also think we are all idiots.” She is keen to point out that she admires the Princess Royal. And she does leaven her comments with this little aside: “My father always made me stand for the national anthem, perhaps that was why I rebelled!”
The thing you notice about Blackman, after her appearance, is how refreshingly blunt she is. Feisty too. She doesn’t temper her opinions for the sake of propriety, and she is pleasingly unconcerned about promoting the film she has ostensibly come here today to promote. Indeed when I mention it she says: “Oh that, yes. I haven’t seen it.” It’s called Cockneys vs Zombies and it looks pretty funny, part of a new genre called zomedie, in which the traditional zombie horror movie is subverted (think Sean of the Dead). In this one it is old age (cockney) pensioners who do battle with the undead, and the running joke is that they both move at the same speed. There is one scene in which an aged Richard Briers uses his Zimmer frame to try and outrun an equally slow moving zombie.
Blackman – herself a genuine East Ender, by the way, though she doesn’t sound like one thanks to elocution lessons she had as a 16 year-old – says: “Oh yes, Richard was very funny. It was a good script but it’s the kind of film I never go to see because I’m horrified by these awful looking creatures. Was any of the language left in? Because there were so many fs and blinds.” It sure was. “Well my parents would have been horrified. I’m horrified. When I started in film there was no swearing. You couldn’t even say ‘bloody’ when I started.”
And don’t get her started on sex scenes. Oh, go on then. “It’s like sex scenes,” she says, “they were more powerful in the Sixties because they were all about suggestion. Now nothing is left to the imagination, everyone humps everyone else, all over the place. I find that boring, frankly.”
The directors were all sexist in her day, women were treated as objects. Did she go along with it? “It was accepted. You were expected to do ‘wobble shots’ [where an actress jiggles her top half].”
Her first husband was a businessman called Bill Sankey, who reminded her of her father. This was surprising given that her father, a First World War veteran and statistician for the Civil Service, would beat her with a leather strap when he was angry.
“Bill was 13 years older than me and those were the days when your husband was always right. It took me a long time to realise I was more capable than some of the men I knew. It was maddening it took so long. We were supposed to emigrate to Canada where the plan was that I would ditch my whole career, but then I made a last film in Spain and I found it lovely being away on location, not haunted by his jealousy all the time.” Did she…?
“I behaved like a very good wife all the time we were apart.
I must have been mad. I posted money to Toronto to help him get established. It all disappeared.”
Did he feel threatened by her having a successful career? “He loved the money I earned but he was jealous beyond belief. He was always looking for people to bash and it was dreadful. I suppose when you see two actors snogging on stage or screen you think they must be enjoying it, and sometimes you do, but it’s just a job. Even if it could be quite a pleasurable job when it was Sean Connery.” Did she fancy him? A roll of the eyes. “Yeees.” There was a sexual frisson on the set? “Of course.” Did anything become of it? “No, because I was married. But it was very tempting. He was so sexy. I disapprove of him strongly now.” Why? “Because I don’t think you should accept a title from a country and then pay absolutely no tax towards it. He wants it both ways. I don’t think his principles are very high.”
Blackman lives alone these days, but sees her two children (both adopted with her second husband, the late actor Maurice Kaufmann) and grandchildren regularly. She insists that she only takes work if it sounds interesting, but you suspect her still working has something to do with her Equitable Life pension, or rather her lack of one. The fund went bust in 2000 and Blackman has been campaigning for its members to be compensated ever since. She narrows her eyes jokily. “I just want justice. I was sold mine when they knew they had no money. It was fraud. I have been able to work on in this profession after 60, but others weren’t able to, and they are left so bitter. It makes me so angry. The people in Equitable Life should be in prison.”
I find myself reminded of Blackman’s reputation as a scrapper. She has, she says, “a terribly good uppercut. When I was 10 or 11 I knocked out two boys who were bullying my younger brother. I can’t stand bullies. My mother was horrified but they had to learn.”
Does she still have a quick temper? “I don’t think so, but maybe I take after my father. It’s more that I just couldn’t bear seeing injustice. I once got out of my car to intervene in a fight between a couple of boys, because it was so unfair.” And she knocked out a couple of her fellow actors during her acting career, Tony Booth being one of them. “Yes, I left one dizzy for a few minutes after giving them a karate chop on the neck. I don’t think I could do that stuff any more.”