How We Met: David Sweetman and Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli (70) was born in Florence, the illegitimate son of a fashion designer. He fought as a partisan during the Second World War; he has directed operas and plays, but is best-known for films such as Romeo & Juliet, La Traviata and Otello. He lives in Rome and Positano, and is now filming The Little Sparrow in Sicily. He asked David Sweetman (49) to help him write his autobiography, published in 1986. Sweetman grew up in Northumberland, and was a producer for BBC television before leaving to write full-time in 1988. His biography of Mary Renault appears in April.

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: In every major city there's one special person; the first person I ring up for all the news and gossip. In London, it's David. I call him my English bitch.

He has always been around. I don't specifically remember where I met him, and why and when. For me, he was England. He was London. He was all the intelligent and bitchy things of London - the fun and games, the compassion, the intelligence and the knowledge of London. I was so impressed by him.

It happened gradually, I suppose. I was being 'blackmailed' by Lord Weidenfeld to write my autobiography, and I kept postponing it and postponing it, and finally I said to him: 'Look, there is only one person who can help me do this and that's David Sweetman.' I know he's a man I can count on in a moment of real need. He's nasty. He's bitchy. He would blow his brains out for a joke. But in the end, for all his cynicism and his fun and games, when you need David, he's there. In fact, right away he said: 'So, talk to me. Tell me your life. Together we'll relive it.'

He was very tough on me. But he really helped me. Because without that violence on yourself, you don't have the strength and the courage to bring back your past. You think it was all beautiful and charming, and you don't realise how much suffering, how much horror has gone beforehand.

David's greatest quality is his basic curiosity about people. Let's face it, he was given an opportunity to analyse an important man: me. I don't care about myself in that way, but to many people Zeffirelli is an important person. But David said to himself: 'I'm not interested just in writing about this important person. I want to know him.' He had this really authentic interest in me, not because I was Mr So-and-So, but because I was a person, a person who had known Callas, a person who had known Visconti, a person who had fought during the war, a person who had a childhood.

I felt flattered in a way. But also he helped me revisit things that were lost. And I was frightened in many ways, frightened of reviving things, emotions, tragedies, anguish.

But life is like that. Life is a mixture of tragedy and joy, and with this revisiting a lot came back, a lot of happy things that I'd forgotten, wonderful people who had done a lot for me. Because the worst thing you can do is to forget people who have done something for you.

Time lays a kind of layer over you, and you forget. That is terrible. But if you move the ground, as David helped me to do, you suddenly say: 'Oh yes, I remember. That lovely lady who lived upstairs. When I was locked in because I had misbehaved, she would send me a little cake through the window. What was her name? Gina. That's right. Gina. I wonder what became of her?'

In the process of getting to know me, he helped me remember so many things, and he made me talk about a lot of things I had never talked about before. The hardest thing of all was my mother, the tragedy of my conception, my mother's story and my father's story.

It was not a casual relationship, but a stormy love-affair that scandalised Florence. My father had a wife, another family. He was a famously selfish man. I slept in a huge bed with my mother, and some nights I would wake up and see them together. I still have an image of my father next to my mother in an unbuttoned shirt. I pretended to be asleep and, watched, fascinated, as they made love. My father would give me a big kiss before leaving to go back to his wife or his club.

I idealised my mother, and I told David all about that and the single white flower I was carrying behind the hearse at her funeral. He said it was bullshit. He made me dig out the truth, which was that she was terribly lonely. She died when I was six, in absolute despair because she knew she was leaving me alone in the world. David said: 'Franco, you are building up in your mind an image that is not real. I think you would do justice to your mother's memory if you realised, if you admitted how much she suffered. And how much she expected for you.' It wasn't easy. He really helped me realise something else too, the power of the spirits that love you, that have loved you. They are always with you. I know that my mother is always with me. David helped me realise that.

Like him I have always been attracted by Mary Renault, and there was a time, long before David started on his book, when I had a project to make a film of The Persian Boy. It is so pleasant to read about homosexuality described by intelligent women. And Mary Renault had a particular vision of the idealisation of beauty between man and man. She is so powerful. I'm so happy someone like David finally does a serious book about the vision of this woman, who was so extraordinary, so special, so enlightened. David is an extremely committed person to what he does. I have been surprised by him so many times.

DAVID SWEETMAN: I remember exactly when we met. I was a producer on Omnibus and I went to an early press show of La Traviata in 1983, which completely bowled me over. I immediately wanted to make a film about him, so after securing the BBC's agreement, I flew out to Italy. He has this wonderful villa - La Villa Treville - on a mountainside overlooking Positano and the Bay of Naples. Diaghilev used to stay there. In fact there are three villas there. One is 18th century, and one dates back to Roman times. The main one, where he stays, has a huge main room with a palm tree in it, and enormous mirrors he brought back from Tunisia when he was filming Jesus of Nazareth; huge sofas along the walls, and everything's white, white, white, with little bits of mirror set into it. I flew to Naples, and rang him to say I was coming the next day. And so I set off. Of course, I had no idea how far it was. I had to take the train, past Vesuvius, Pompeii and all that, and get off at some remote train station, and take a taxi over the mountain. It took hours. The taxi bill was unreal, and I thought I would be fired from the BBC. But eventually we arrived at the top of this little winding road. And there was just a gate, and I had to go down all these bloody stairs to the the villa, where I rang the bell. Eventually some ancient servant let me in, and I was shown on to this opera set. I've never seen anything like it. It seemed, just possibly, the most beautiful place on earth. And then there he was suddenly, in the middle of all this, in his kaftan.

Months later, he invited me to the premiere of La Traviata in London. The next morning he rang up and said: 'I would like you to do my autobiography. George Weidenfeld will ring you up.' Which he did in half an hour. I went round to see him at his house in Chelsea. We talked. A deal was drawn up. Very nice, extremely generous. The idea was that I would go wherever Franco was, all expenses paid, whenever he was willing to do it.

So I spent the most extraordinary period, because a lot of the time he just liked me to come over to talk. But he wasn't especially fussy about the autobiography. It stretched on for years, with George Weidenfeld getting more and more irritated, and the bills going up and up. I would go wherever he was - to New York, or a health farm in Brittany. Simone Signoret was there; it was just before she died. Or I'd go to Positano. And all sorts of people would drop in. Barbra Streisand. Lorin Maazel. Placido Domingo. You'd go to sleep in a deck chair, and wake up and there was Richard Gere in the next chair.

We would fight like mad. Mostly about work. He'd send for me, and then say he was seeing Placido Domingo later in the afternoon and was too busy to work. 'You just enjoy yourself.' And I'd say: 'No.' And I'd turn on the tape recorder, and follow him around, and drive him mad.

You cannot be indifferent to someone like Franco Zeffirelli. I never fell in love with him, but there is love. And hate. It was intense. There's nothing in between. He won't let you be indifferent. He'll cast you aside. You've got to be tough back. He wants you to be. He wants to know that at the end of the day he can trust you to do what you're meant to do. That you're not going to break under fire. It makes you very, very strong.

He's had an extraordinary life. It's not just his beginnings. He's really the last of the great dinosaur directors. When he did his first operas in London - when he was making Joan Sutherland into a star - they were fabulous in that great Italian tradition. Now the world has turned against that. He is considered too flamboyant, too 19th-century. Nowadays every-one wants kitchen-sink-and-meaning. And new, gritty interpretations. Franco does what the writer wanted. If Verdi wanted it like that, he gives it to you like that; in the style of the time.

He loves England. Loves working here. He uses British actors, British make-up people, British costume people. He's virtually the last person to be using the British cinema industry. And we've never so much as given him a medal. Nothing. We're about the only country in Europe that hasn't given him anything. I think it's an absolute outrage. A scandal. He's been bypassed. And it's very, very sad.

He taught me to be brave. It was after his book that I decided to leave the BBC and become a writer. There was a man who had always lived off his wits. He'd always been his own man. He'll walk out of anything if he isn't getting his own way, throw wobblies like you couldn't believe. After it I felt: if I can deal with him I can deal with anything.-

(Photograph omitted)

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