The Performance of a lifetime

James Fox 'went haywire' after portraying an East End gangster in Performance. Now you're more likely to see him typecast as a toff. Don't blame me, guv, he tells Kevin Jackson

Before I can begin my interview with James Fox, there's something I need to clear up. Trying to do so tactfully, I remark that although we've never been introduced, I spent some time in the same room as him at the ICA not long ago, when I was called in at the last minute to chair a symposium about the Donald Cammell/Nicholas Roeg film Performance. Fox, looking every bit as imposing a presence in real life as any of the Sirs and Lords and assorted patricians he usually plays, regards me with what novelists used to call a quizzical expression. "Ah," he says, with the cautious air of one about to be confronted with a dangerous lunatic. "Ah. Are you... ah... something of a Performance addict?"

I confess, meekly, that I am. My misgivings about this interview are that (a) Fox must surely be sick to death of talking about a film he made more than 30 years ago, and may not even like all that much; that (b) his life must have been made a misery ever since by that ragged legion of sad nutters who breathe, eat and sleep Performance, and that (c) I am, all too obviously, one of the aforementioned nutters.

Let me expand a little. In the late Sixties, Fox was cast by Messrs Roeg and Cammell in the role of a psychopathic East End gangster, Chas. In the first half of Performance, we see Chas at work putting the frighteners on flash little twerps, until he gets out of hand, murders a fellow gangster and has to go on the run before his old pals can exterminate him. In the second half, Chas holes up in the Huysmansesque Notting Hill retreat of a failed rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger), and slowly has his identity broken down by a Molotov cocktail of psychedelic drugs, polymorphous sex, mind games and metaphysical oddity. Heavy, man.

Warner Brothers, who had stumped up money for the film in the hopes of getting a kind of jolly romp like Hard Day's Night or Help!, were understandably horrified by this diseased product and did their level best to bury it alive. Barely released, the film gradually developed a cult following. Unlike other cults, however, the Performance crowd soon came to include high-powered academics, artists, novelists and film-makers as well as drug fiends, and the film now enjoys a unique status somewhere between acknowledged classic and tribal fetish. At the last count, two scholarly books have been published on the subject and five more are in the pipeline.

The film's peculiar spell takes a lot of accounting for - hence the literary industry - but few would dispute that it owes a very great deal to Fox himself. Fox's Chas is, I would contend, simply one of the greatest roles in British cinema: frightening to the point of the demonic, but also full of witty malice and flashes of dangerous intelligence. It's also an astonishing piece of social metamorphosis.

When I first saw it, I took it for granted that Fox must have been dragged up as a slum kid in the Kray's manor. And I was disconcerted to find that the actor not only comes from a rather grand theatrical family, but was generally cast in the role of toff - from his screen breakthrough at the age of 23 in Joseph Losey's The Servant (another key firm of the Sixties) to his portrayal of Sir Anthony Blunt in Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution (my next favourite Fox performance) to his latest part as Sir Edgar Swift, the dry old stick who is diffidently courting Kristen Scott-Thomas in the Somerset Maugham adaptation Up at the Villa - the occasion for our meeting today.

So I await Mr Fox's response to my confessed Performance addiction with anxiety. Needless anxiety: "No, no... it's an equal passion for me... I think it was an exceptional film, with exceptionally diverse talent connected with it - you don't normally see that sort of talent brought together.

"It was a truly British film, wasn't it? Something about London culture at the end of the Sixties, as it turned bad, as it displayed its dark side. There was all this optimism and flakiness, but then you saw the reverse, and it was quite a brilliant examination of that underside."

Having watched The Servant again the night before, I'd been struck for the first time by unexpected similarities between Performance and Losey's film, in which Fox - as Tony, an arrogant young architect - is dragged into strange, personality-warping zones by his Satanic valet (Dirk Bogarde). "Yes, I think there is that similarity, and in both cases there was a great tension about how to resolve the characters in the last 15 minutes, so both films have that sense of uncertainty, as Losey and Cammell both began to depart from the original conception and go into whatever it was they thought had an energy of its own.

"It's an immense privilege to have done those two films in the Sixties - they both had a really special voice. Elia Kazan says somewhere that for a film to succeed, the quality of the cast has to be of the same nature as the quality of the writer, and I think that's true. In both cases, I felt an enormous affinity with Harold Pinter's interpretation of the Robin Maugham novel and with Donald Cammell's screenplay. I think I've done my best work when there has been that overlap of sympathy with the writer."

But for all the excitement and success of his early career, Fox suddenly renounced acting. His life "went haywire", and in the course of trying to put himself back together again, he underwent a conversion to Christianity. For 10 years, he lived and worked obscurely with an evangelical group in the North of England: he married, fathered four children, and severed almost every tie with the world of acting.

Eventually - still a Christian, but no longer an evangelical - he was coaxed back to the profession for another of the parts of which he is most proud, as a gay journalist in the Trevor Griffiths/Richard Eyre film Country. And, as he sums up: "I've been cast in Sir Edgar Swift roles pretty consistently since then. It's rather a shame because I think earlier on I must have been recognised as having some radical affinities, and they've been neglected - except I suppose you could say that my roles as Sir Edgar Swift types are subversive in a sense that they are usually depicted as negative characters." And, of course, in one case the character was literally an upper-class subversive. "Absolutely... Blunt's hauteur was tremendous, as was his intellectual arrogance. I looked at the newsreels when I was preparing the part - I start from those kind of impressions and they help me connect. You hope that it won't be a superficial recognition but that it will go into you, and that you'll stop imitating and start becoming.

"What helped a great deal was that the make-up people put a kind of bridge under my upper lip..." - and he demonstrates the rabbitty effect of elongation.

One of the things I most admire about the performance is that he resists the temptation to caricature Blunt, or play up his homosexuality. "There's just one moment of camp, when Blunt thinks that the Queen is being such a cow and rolls his eyes... two old queens together would have been too much."

There's a sense, I suggest, in which the career of Blunt offers a kind of parallel to Fox's career - the man who looks every inch an impeccable member of the ruling classes, but whose identity is more complex. Much as I always enjoy seeing him on screen, I do feel it's a matter for regret that some writer or director hasn't recognised that there's a lot more in him than a reliable aristo.

"Yes, I would have liked to have done more of the low-life roles like Chas; I feel I've been passed over in that way. Though a part like Blunt does bring out something else in me, a mischievousness, a satirical take, I think my true vocation is probably in another genre."

Screenwriters of Britain, the ball is in your court. In the meantime, let's be grateful for our memories of Blunt and Tony and Chas, and remind ourselves, if we still need reminding, that the pukka chap who routinely plays the walk-on Lords and Sirs and Right Honourables is also one of our great leading actors.

And if you don't believe me, I'll send Chas around to have a word with you, you flash little twerp.

'Up at the Villa' opens 14 April

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