Tag Archives: christopher lee

How to meet your hero (and keep your childhood intact…)

bros

Bros are back, Back BACK!! and the world unites in celebration. A whole generation of 80s children (well, maybe a small sliver of a tiny British slice of one) will have been propelled back into their teenage selves at the news, and that tidal wave of nostalgic feelings will lift them up and carry them, purses open, all the way to the Ticketmaster website.

Most of us idolise performers as we grow up. We can all remember covering the walls of our childhood bedrooms with posters of our favourite singers and actors, and we’ve all fantasised about meeting them, and becoming their friends. I used to dream about meeting the Beatles (all four of them; how on earth this could have happened in 1987, I don’t know) and being asked if I’d like to join the group. Who knows what they could have achieved if I’d been there too… Of course, sometimes this strays into rather less healthy stalker territory, but for most of us, it stays within the normal bounds and is just another part of childhood. And as much as we cling to the hope that our longed-for meeting will happen and we will be whisked off to a glamorous and exciting new life, deep down we know how unlikely this is. The years roll on, and those crushes and fantasies fade away, the posters are taken down and put away with the gonks and Smurfs. Outside attending an enormo-gig at the O2 or Wembley, most of us will never share the same air as our heroes.

There will be the odd exception to this rule, of course – there’s always an outside chance you will stumble across one in the real world. I remember being in the menswear department of House of Fraser and seeing none other than Jimmy Page – Jimmy Actual Page – presumably shopping for something a bit more day-to-day than his dragon-embroidered trousers or rune-covered jerkins of yore.

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In that situation, there is a quick decision to be made. Do I allow the all-conquering rock God to track down that pair of comfy elasticated Gant slacks in peace, or do I barrel over there and invade his personal space, biro and crumpled Sainsbury’s receipt thrust forward ready to be signed? In this case, I left Mr Zeppelin alone, and it was probably for the best. These things can go one of two ways, after all… There can be nothing worse than launching yourself at the hero of your youth and being told to bugger off. In that brief moment, your happy childhood dreams are blown to smithereens.

However, for some of us, things are a bit different. If you somehow scrabble your way into the same profession as your childhood heroes, your chances of meeting them, and, indeed, working with them, increase massively (or dramatically, if you’ll forgive the pun). This is where things can get dangerous, as they suddenly stop being superhuman. You can even find yourself sharing a dressing room with them, and as we all know, there’s nothing more effective than that for finding out what someone’s really like. As you progress through an acting career, more and more of what you hear – or discover for yourself – shows you that all those towering  idols of your youth are just as depressingly human and normal as you are. Feet of clay, every one.

There is also the sobering thought that, even if you did want to work with those people, the chances to do so are diminishing with every passing year. I’ll never work with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing now, will I?

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

But recently, the chance to meet and work with my ultimate childhood hero fell squarely in my lap…

Allow me to take you back in time. If you had happened to stumble across me in 1977, you would have met a small boy obsessed with ‘Dr Who’. Saturday evenings at 6.15pm would invariably find me transfixed on (or frequently, behind) the sofa, as that iconic title sequence unfolded on BBC1:

The succeeding 30 minutes were probably the most important of the week for me. I had been watching the programme for a couple of years by this point, and now, at the age of five, my devotion to the show was absolute. I loved it all: the monsters, the sets and props, the music – but at the centre of it all was the Doctor himself, as played by Tom Baker:

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The idea of travelling through time and space with this extraordinary alien – someone funny and eccentric and brave, who could face down the most terrifying monsters with nothing more dangerous than a jelly baby, seemed the perfect life to me. Like all superfans, I had the posters on my wall, the novelisations and annuals, the long scarf (albeit brown rather than multi-coloured and stripey), and the TARDIS pencil case. I even went to our Silver Jubilee street party dressed as a Dalek:

Self as Dalek c 1977

My best-ever Christmas present came in 1979 – a signed photograph from Mr Baker himself. ‘Happy Christmas, Christopher’.
What I wanted most of all, of course, was to meet the great man. I suppose I must have thought that it was a possibility; ideally, he would enlist me to help him defeat some horrible alien creature – a Rutan, perhaps:

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or a Krynoid:

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– but I would have been happy enough if he had simply landed his TARDIS in my back garden, offered me a jelly baby and dematerialised again. However, it was also the beginning of an awareness that, as well as day—dreaming of being a real Time Lord’s assistant, I could conceivably appear in the television programme ‘Dr Who’ as an actor. Around the same time, I saw ‘Star Wars’ and started to think about what it might be like on a film set, and to pretend to be someone else. So it was a pretty significant time as far as determining my future career was concerned. Later on, James Bond joined in, and Sherlock Holmes, and then Shakespeare popped up – and on and on…

But Dr Who was where it all started – and, for me, that always meant Tom Baker. This wonderful actor personified the character in a way that, in my opinion, no other incarnation before or since has managed to do.

Of course, Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor came to an end in 1981, and so did my fixation with the show. I moved on to new obsessions (the afore-mentioned martini-swilling super-spy being foremost amongst them). The Doctor always hovered somewhere in the background – he was even the subject of a recent painting of mine:

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(prints available here, print fans)… But once Tom left the show, it was never the same.

I did once actually meet the great man, on Chiswick High Road, and he patiently listened while I attempted to put into words what he had meant to me. It was just a brief encounter, but I was still thrilled by it, and I suppose I would have been happy if that had been that.

But, for once, the acting gods decided to smile upon on me, and one day not too long ago, to my amazement and joy, my agent called with an offer to appear in a new ‘Dr Who’ adventure – with none other than Tom Baker himself as the eponymous hero. I have had many calls from my agent – some of them happy, many of them not so happy – but this will probably always remain the happiest.

The offer had come from that estimable company, Big Finish, who specialise in producing wonderful new audio adventures featuring many of the best-loved genre characters and series of the past – ‘Blake’s 7’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ amongst many others. But they are best known for their original ‘Dr Who’ stories, featuring many of the surviving Doctors.

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For years, including the period when the Time Lord was off our TV screens, Big Finish has kept the ‘Dr Who’ torch alive, creating wonderful new adventures in Time and Space. Initially, Tom Baker resisted a return to the role that made him famous, but since 2012 he has enthusiastically donned the scarf once more.

When the first day of recording came, I was very nervous, more than normal. I think my nerves came partly from a fear that I would embarrass myself in front of the great man: give a bad performance, make a fool of myself by unleashing my inner fanboy – or worse, clam up and not be able to talk. Most of all, though, I think I was afraid that Tom Baker would let me down. What if he was a bully, a dreadful bigot or a monstrous egomaniac? My childhood memories would be stomped to pieces by the very man who made them: Dr Who himself.

Thankfully, none of the above came to pass. Tom was an utter delight. He was immediately welcoming to all the cast, an hilarious anecdote-teller in the green room (and generous in listening to others’ stories too), and best of all, when he was behind the microphone, he was still The Doctor. It was a strange and wonderful experience for me to hear that voice coming through my headphones – and for me to answer it. To call him ‘Doctor’ and have him respond! My five-year-old self could never have believed that one day, he would not only meet Dr Who, but actually act alongside him too…

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Tom Baker and Your Author, 2016

I met my hero – and he is still my hero. What a relief.

jelly-baby

Jelly baby, anyone?

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Portrait: #3 – Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee by Chris Naylor 2016
Christopher Lee was a giant of the cinema in more ways than one. Of course, his 6’5” stature put him very literally head and shoulders above most other actors, but he was also one of only a few in the profession to achieve international fame through association with a particular role.

Lee was one of my great childhood heroes. This was partly because I shared a first name with him, but also because he was the ultimate embodiment of one of my obsessions, namely Count Dracula. The very fact that I have chosen to paint him as he appeared in this role would probably have irritated him enormously, as he frequently expressed frustration at being associated with the vampire king, and could be scornful about the later Hammer films in particular.

Bur despite this, he will always be Dracula to me, and to millions of film-goers the world over. The image of Lee striding through his castle, his eyes glowing red and his cloak billowing behind him will always thrill me.

Dressing up as Dracula

 

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Dracula has died? Impossible.

Christopher Lee is immortal! His incarnation of Bram Stoker’s vampire will stay with us for as long as cinema exists. As Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘He was the shadow at the top of the stairs, the smiling predator beckoning you in, the flash of silver in the dark.’

The image of Lee as Count Dracula had a deep effect on me as a boy, and played a big part in teaching me how important dressing up could be to the fledgling actor.

Self as Dracula c 1982

Hallowe’en was always a great excuse for me to get the cape and teeth out (please note the high quality top hat). But generally speaking I didn’t need a reason. To start with, Saturday nights were the best dressing-up time, and specifically at about 6.10pm – or in other words, just after Doctor Who had ended. Out would come my long scarf (brown, tasselled) and into the wardrobe (or TARDIS) I would clamber, ready to emerge, transformed into a toothy Time Lord. Here you see me as a Dalek, for our 1977 Silver Jubilee street party. Yes, I am that old…

Self as Dalek c 1977

The King of the Vampires came later, and I arrived at my Christopher Lee obsession after first dabbling in a bit of Bela Lugosi. By the time I was 12, I had become determined to see all the Hammer Draculas, a complicated task in the early 80s. In those far-off days, video tapes were mostly available to rent and weren’t yet widely available to buy in the shops, certainly not Sixties and Seventies vampire films anyway, so I had to scour the TV listings and set my video recorder. Gradually my imagination (and my walls) filled up with a gallery of gruesome pictures from films such as ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’ and ‘Dracula, AD 1972’.

dracula has risen from the gravedraculaad1972

There was a definite connection between my absorption of all those wonderful, evocative images of Christopher Lee striding about in Gothic surroundings, and my growing interest in acting. I would seek out the most realistic fangs, the most convincing fake blood, the most suitably Draculine cloak, determined to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to feel what it was like to be Dracula. To feel my cloak flowing around me, to know what it was like to reveal my fangs. I wanted to inhabit a different personality.

And this, of course, is one of the great thrills of being an actor – dressing up as someone else. It is often sneered at as being too superficial a route into a character, as though it is somehow not as legitimate as a ‘Method’-based exploration, and while there’s a lot more to acting than simply putting on the right hat, I think ‘dressing up’ is a far more direct way to achieve a transformation.

I’m sure we have all felt that frisson of delight when standing in front of the mirror the first time we try on a new costume – seeing ourselves looking utterly different. If there’s a wig or a moustache involved, it can be even more startling. If you see yourself looking like someone else, it is easier to think yourself into a different mind-set. The old cliché of ‘starting with the shoes first’ carries a lot of truth, to me at least; it’s one of the reasons why I love technical rehearsals – you walk onto the set in your costume for the first time. I find that I stand and walk differently; I stop feeling like myself.

oresteia nt programmechristian darley

This sort of surface-in transformation is as old as theatre itself, of course – just think of the masks of classical Greek theatre. Any of us who have worked with masks will know what an immediate change they can bring about, and what that can teach us about developing a character. I remember a class at LAMDA with our much-missed Movement Theatre tutor Christian Darley (the finest teacher I have ever had) where we had made our own very simple masks from pictures cut out of magazines. Christian encouraged us to study and contemplate our masks alone to start with, then, once we had put them on, to look at our new faces in the mirror, and allow our physicality to be gradually influenced by what we saw. I can recall one member of our group, an otherwise mild and non-confrontational fellow, seeming to change entirely into a red-faced, furiously angry and scary character – very unexpected and shocking for us, and quite a breakthrough for him to discover that he could affect an audience in that way.

It is very easy to feel limited by the way we look as actors; sometimes it takes a physical change to show us what sort of a transformation we are capable of. I think a costume can be like armour – it can give us courage.

ruby as bayonetta by Mikael Buck REX Shutterstockblitz kids

And we see this all over the place in other areas of life, not just on stage. How differently we feel about ourselves with some new clothes or a radical new haircut. Look at the sci-fi and comic book aficionados at Comic Con in their astonishingly detailed, often home-made costumes; their absolute otherness giving them the fearlessness to march across the London Underground. It makes me think of the drag world and of those club kids of the 80s, who used androgynous clothes and make-up to play around with identity and gender roles; even of the bizarre world of English folk customs, such as the various Green Men and ‘Obby Osses that cut a caper across the countryside, and which are usually played by members of the local community who otherwise lead relatively ‘normal’ lives. Look at the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival, for example:

Straw Bear, Whittlesea Straw Bear festival

– played here by a student called Christian. But when he is being led through the town in that odd, other-worldly costume, a transformation has taken place: no one sees Christian the local student, they see the Straw Bear. The Bear dances for food and drink, and the next day is burned, to make way for another Bear the following year. Very odd, very English – a Christian, wrapped in straw and set on fire… Rather like ‘The Wicker Man’, really – which brings us back to…

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 604703d ) 'The Wicker Man' - Christopher Lee 'The Wicker Man' film - 1973

 

Requiescat in pace ultima…

A Privileged Position?

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Next Sunday there will be a big toff-shaped gap in the television schedules – ‘Downton Abbey’ has come to an end. But all those upper-class types released back into the wild should have no problem finding their next gig. It seems there is a healthy appetite at the moment for posh actors playing posh characters in posh stories.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this means that acting itself has become – well, posher too. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Commissioning, noted that ‘acting has become a very middle-class profession’, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, says that public school-educated actors are ‘out of all proportion’ to those from less privileged backgrounds.

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On the other hand, Edward Kemp, Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, disputes this, pointing out in The Independent recently that ’36 per cent of last year’s intake of students at RADA came from families earning less than £25,000.’ He makes the claim that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that people from poor backgrounds aren’t coming to drama school.’ This is despite RADA charging fees at the upper limit, i.e. £9,000 a year. Mr Kemp also notes that his school is receiving more applications from ‘working-class’ students than at the start of the century.

To this I say: Fine – students from varied backgrounds may somehow find the money to pay their way through three years at drama school, but what happens next? I would be surprised, to put it mildly, if those students from low-earning families were able to cope on an actor’s salary.

Obviously actors need to be supported when they start out, and many colleges offer generous bursaries to help less well-off students, but the real problems can begin when those students are thrust out into a harsh profession. I would suggest that this is when actors really need help.

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It is increasingly expensive to embark on a career in the theatre. Many drama schools are based in London, the most expensive city in the UK, and we are told that we must stay here once we graduate in order to develop our careers. But the reality of attempting to survive on an actor’s wage can be absolutely prohibitive to many people contemplating a life in the theatre. I graduated from LAMDA in 1998, in a class of 29 people. Sixteen years later, probably less than a third of us are still pursuing acting in earnest. This is no great surprise; I’m sure the story is the same with every graduating year from every drama school. And things weren’t so pricey in my day, sonny.

The average monthly rent (note I don’t say mortgage repayment) for a one-bed flat in London is £1211 (January 20114 figures), whereas, according to the most recent Equity survey from December 2013, more than 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 a year. This is officially classed as below the poverty line. Once you factor in utility bills, council tax, food, travel – it isn’t very surprising that many actors are forced to give up after just a few years. Faced with these obstacles, acting can start to look like an expensive hobby.

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So who can afford to act? While I’m sure there are some actors lucky enough to go from job to job, peppering meaty stage roles with a bit of lucrative film and TV work, and paying their way from acting alone, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the norm. Most actors have gaps between roles which have to be filled with ‘day jobs’, and unfortunately the temptation to start relying on those jobs and say goodbye to acting can be all too powerful, especially if you want to start a family, save to buy a house, or just go on holiday once in a while – you know, normal stuff.

Some might say this is theatrical Darwinism at work, and that those who choose to step aside don’t have the necessary resilience, commitment or, dare I say, talent to succeed. But I’m not sure this is the whole truth. Far too many seriously talented people are lost to the profession because they simply can’t afford to support themselves.

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In recent years, however, I have noticed that many of the younger actors I have worked with seem not to be struggling that much. Indeed many own flats and cars. These are actors in their early twenties who can afford to buy property in London and, at the same time, are somehow able to take low-paid jobs in one of the lowest paid professions there is. And afford to buy lunch every day from Pret or Whole Foods – if I’m working in the theatre I survive on a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, a yoghurt and – my one concession to fine dining – one of those lovely Bonne Maman madeleines. Well, it can’t all be self-denial, can it?

On one recent theatre job I was thrilled to find that I could walk to work (40 minutes each way) thus saving myself nearly £30 a week in bus fares. But I still struggled to find any spare cash after paying the rent and bills. I have generally attempted to be pure in my approach to acting, never signing on the dotted line for a permanent ‘proper’ job, always ready to drop any other work as soon as acting comes up, always ready to say yes to anything, even in the face of red bills and a burgeoning overdraft. The result of this is that whenever I get an acting job, the over-riding emotion I often feel is not joy, but relief, much like the drowning man who manages at last to haul himself onto the life raft. But I wonder if it’s different for those Pret-munching young actors. Many of them are privately-educated and come from well-off middle-class backgrounds, so just don’t feel the same petty money worries.

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Now this is not a class war; I am not saying that working-class actors are better than upper-class ones. John Gielgud is my hero, and you couldn’t get posher than him. And anyway, I sit squarely in the very middle of the middle-class. No, this is about money, as it always is. It’s a simple fact that those who are able to afford an actor’s life are the ones whose careers will last longest. This could be because they work a lot, or perhaps they just don’t mind sacrificing everything else for their art. But more and more these days, it seems to be because they either have money already, or they are subsidised by their families. Lucky for them, but not so lucky for an art form that is meant to be about representing all facets of society.

Of course, the acting profession has never had enough work to sustain the number of people who want to be part of it; it’s always a minority of each graduating year that is able to maintain a career for life. But now that we have a higher number of drama graduates joining the profession than ever before, it does beg the question – do drama schools and the wider industry bear some greater responsibility to the acting community? Shouldn’t there be a more established mid-career support structure in place?

Of course we mustn’t go blindly into the profession, expecting money and fame to be drawn to us by the inexorable magnetic tractor beam of our talent. Just to be able to act for a living, even some of the time, is a privilege in itself. But after three years of very expensive training it sometimes seems as though the business is happy to leave us to the vagaries of fate. There is often so much clamour to identify the hot young talents, to be known as the school that produced the big new stars or the casting director that discovered them, that if you are an actor who doesn’t fit into that category, as most of us don’t, you are left to fend for yourself.

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Actors are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Surely those parts of the business which feed off that blood supply should feel obligated to do what they can to keep it flowing.