How We Met: Claire Bloom and Nicholas Snowman

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The Independent Culture
Claire Bloom, 63, is one of Britain's leading actresses. She has appeared at the Old Vic and Stratford, and starred in many films, including Limelight with Charlie Chaplin. She has married three times, to Rod Steiger, producer Howard Elkins and writer Philip Roth, from whom she is separated.

Nicholas Snowman, 49, is chief executive of the South Bank Centre. He created the London Sinfonietta with David Atherton, and worked in Paris as artistic director of Boulez's music research centre from 1972 to 1986. He now lives in London with his French-born wife and their eight-year-old son.

CLAIRE BLOOM: I had met Nicholas's father, Kenneth, at family occasions when I was a girl - probably funerals. And so I knew that we were distantly related. But nobody seems to be able to tell in exactly what way.

My grandfather on my mother's side came from Russia, and my grandmother from Germany. The other side was Russian and Latvian. Actually, I'm not sure that all Jewish families aren't related in some way, because there has been so much intermarriage through the generations. I suppose it was inevitable that we would meet one day, and we did.

I was at the Barbican and a mutual friend said to me: 'Oh, here is this nice young man who is going to take over the directorship of the Festival Hall.' Nicholas and I said in chorus: 'I think we are distant cousins.'

I thought immediately that he was a lovely man, quite charming, and of course I still do. It was lovely to meet someone who one has some kind of blood-tie with, however distant, but I don't think either of us felt that anything more would come of it.

We met again at a dinner party, I believe, but the next time I really recall was when I was working in Paris. I'm not sure what I was doing, but I decided to look him up. We went to dinner at his apartment in a beautiful 17th-century building on the Rue de Parc Royal, which apparently had been a bit of a wreck. But his wife, Margo, had been renovating it and she had done wonderful things to it.

Margo at that time was very pregnant with Hector, and we had dinner and talked late into the night. I think our friendship developing had a lot to do with Margo being pregnant. There is something very intimate and tender about somebody with child and I think that brought us all closer together.

The friendship really developed from there. Whenever I come to London I let Nicholas know, and we keep in touch by fax and telephone. I'm living in New York now, but London will always be home and I do love to go back. I would love to work in England again - I would love to be invited. I'm now separated from my husband so I am footloose and fancy-free, and it's rather exciting. I can come home to England much more freely than I could, so I hope I shall be seeing more of Nicholas.

We have a lot of common interests, the arts, of course, and particularly music. We have been to many concerts together, to Glyndebourne, and to venues all over the world. He is very alive, very enthusiastic about life and the things that interest him. He is full of energy and hugely talented.

It could have been very different. It could have been 'Oh, how do you do, how nice to meet you,' and we would never have seen each other again. I have met cousins I never want to see again. But with Nicholas we are in the same line of work and that certainly helps. He is a very easy man to talk to. His son, Hector, is a bright little boy with rosy cheeks who looks like Nicholas's father.

Nicholas has been to see me perform. I like to invite friends to previews because that's rather the point of them. I value their opinions. I would certainly trust Nicholas's views much more than a critic's.

I don't make friends easily. I do have a lot of friends in England and America whom I adore, but it is difficult to become close to people when you move about as much as I do. You meet someone, and then you are off somewhere else and it doesn't really come to what it should. Which is why it was such an unexpected pleasure to meet Nicholas later in life.

NICHOLAS SNOWMAN: I first met Claire in the autumn of 1985 - and I'm afraid to admit it was at the Barbican Centre and not the South Bank. But that was not the first time I had seen her in person.

I had always been told that Claire was some sort of distant cousin on my father's side. And the very first time I saw her was when I was taken by my maternal grandmother to see Hamlet at the Old Vic in about 1957 when I was 13. Claire was playing Ophelia to Richard Burton's Hamlet. I remember that performance quite vividly. I was sitting in the stalls near the front of the stage and I remember Burton doing his 'To be or not to be' speech since, like all schoolboys, at least at that time, I had been trying to learn it.

I also remember the moment Claire walked on stage. As a young boy, looking up on to the stage at the Old Vic, people seemed a lot bigger than they actually were. She was wonderful. I never dreamed of going backstage and saying 'I'm your long-lost distant cousin,' because that wasn't the sort of thing you did. But over the years, I often thought about her and whether we would meet.

Years later, when we finally did meet, my first impression was that she is unusually beautiful. She looks about 25 years younger than she has any right to look - but much smaller than I had imagined her; that's probably something to do with a 13-year-old looking up at the stage. I somehow expected somebody grander and more 'actressy'. We were introduced at the Barbican in 1985 by a mutual friend, Gaia Servadio. I was still working in Paris at that time, but I was thinking of returning to England.

We said a very friendly 'hello', but there was no real reason we should have become such good friends. I liked her right from that first meeting. We just clicked. Most of my closest friends date back to school or university, but Claire has become a close friend, someone I can confide in.

A few weeks later Gaia invited us both to a party and we chatted again. I told her that if ever she was in Paris to give me a call and I could arrange for her to see some exhibitions.

Months later I got a call from Claire saying she was in Paris. I arranged to take her to an exhibition at the Pompidou; we had dinner at our flat with Margo, my wife, and Philip, her husband, and we all got on very well. Every time Claire was in London or Paris she would call, we would see a concert or go to dinner together. I once went to stay with Claire and Philip in Connecticut, which I very much enjoyed.

I discovered that she is profoundly musical, and I think that has a lot to do with why we get on so well. Her daughter, Anna Steiger, is a very good opera singer.

When she is in London, I will often go out with her to a restaurant and meet some of her friends. She is very witty, and sometimes cutting in the way that witty people can be. But she can be quite nervous, and there is a vulnerability about her. If you watch The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the character she plays is strong and yet vulnerable at the same time, and that was perfect casting. These same qualities characterised her performance of Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, which I saw recently in Boston. It is not surprising that she is now enjoying a triumph in that part.

Claire hasn't any of the pomposity which performers so often have. She is very close to my wife, and I think that is something to do with them both being quite down to earth. She has had quite a tough life really, and certainly didn't grow up expecting to see caviare on the table. She is nobody's fool. She will speak her mind, something I like about her.

She has had an incredible career, but there are some pretty bad films in there as well, like Alexander the Great. One of the things I most enjoy about Claire is to listen to her talking about some of the preposterous things she has done. Even though she can sound quite scathing about them, she always seems to enjoy these experiences.

She is very considerate, kind and thoughtful. When Hector was born she made a point of finding time to see him in a busy schedule, and has continued to watch him grow. I know that we are only distantly related, but she feels much closer than that, indeed she now feels like family. I am very glad we found each other when we did.