Oh yesh, he's the Great Pretender
Today the Scots go to the polls. But what will become of their most famous son once his SNP job is done?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 06 May 1999
Watching Sean Connery's recent flirtations with Scotland, the SNP, the Scottish newspapers and his own amour propre, you wonder how much he buys his own triumphal image, both in his native land and beyond it. For if ever a man approached the condition of royalty without benefit of aquamarine haemoglobin, it is he. "His status is now more than that of megastar. Somewhere along the line he has become an icon," wrote Magnus Linklater in The Times. The Press alternate between calling him "The World's Most Famous Scotsman" and "The Greatest Living Scotsman" as if the terms were interchangeable.
As an actor, he long ago transcended acting; once he stopped being James Bond, he became simply Sean Connery being virile at a screen near you. Advertisements for the 1974 film Ransom carried the legend "Connery Won't Pay...". As I write, his new movie Entrapment, partly filmed in Scotland with Catherine Zeta Jones, is at the top of the US box office, despite poor reviews. He has become unassailable, critic-proof.
Courtliness and violence strive for the upper hand in all his performances. In The Untouchables (for which he won his only Oscar), he played a seen- it-all Irish cop, upstaging Kevin Costner and his besuited enforcers with genial charm. Playing Harrison Ford's father in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he made you believe he might have taught the Great Action Hero everything he knew. He radiates intelligent truculence, two-fisted wisdom, flashing-eyed combativeness, old-sea-dog bloody-mindedness (as in The Hunt for Red October when, playing a Russian submarine commander, he delivered the much-imitated line, "Gentlemen, we shail into hishtory"). He was the perfect knight in First Knight and Highlander, the perfect monk in The Name of the Rose. No matter how lousy his material, Connery strode through it demanding attention and respect - a modern-day, Scottish John Wayne.
And his private life seemed to mirror this natural authority. He was straight-talking, given to punching members of the press and ticking off obstreperous youth. His manliness shaded into full-on sexism when he suggested that there was nothing wrong with slapping women; but his audience even forgave him that.
And though he's been a tax exile for 20 years, in Marbella and later the Bahamas, Scottish people, by and large, forgave him for being an absentee patriot. He was their guy, their ex-milkman, their "Big Tam" from Fountainbridge, a global success story whose vast income was once threatened by a 98 per cent tax bill - and which money-wise Scot would not leg it to the Spanish coast or the Caribbean to conserve his money?
He seemed to love his home. Connery supported the Scottish Nationalists 20 years ago, giving rousing, a-nation-once-again speeches when the notion of an independent Scottish assembly seemed like dreamland. He spent a million quid from his Diamonds Are Forever fee to set up the Scottish International Education Trust in 1971, to help young go-getters from poor backgrounds like himself - he grew up in an Edinburgh tenement, the son of a lorry driver and charlady, and left school at 13.
In 1993, the Usher Hall in Edinburgh was packed out when he was given the freedom of the City. He made a short, gracious speech, and essayed a little dance on the stage. "Good on you, Tam!," yelled a voice from the gallery and the noble hall exploded in delight.
You could forgive him, therefore, for believing that he could be king. When he arrived in Edinburgh last week to lend his support to Alex Salmond and the struggling SNP, more than a few Scots wondered: might he stop being the actor-as-politician and become a real politician? The Scottish Tourist Board report that Connery is the only human being whom all visitors can instantly identify as a Scot. Was it time the Scots identified him as their natural statesman, their new Braveheart, their leader, just as Ronald Reagan graduated from the silver screen to the presidential office?
Sadly, he displays no desire to shail into Scottish political hishtory. Connery insists he is no politician, "and I have no intention of being one", he said last week. Commentators agree this is probably just as well. "I was watching him before the speech," one journalist told me, "and he was as nervous as a kitten." The SNP bosses were irked by his chronic failure to say the words "Vote Scottish Nationalist", rather than just "Vote". He seemed determined to stay aloof from party politics, recommending simple nationalism, hoping the winner of the election would be Scotland. In his testy response to his "abuse" at the hands of the Scottish papers, he sounded more like a man defending his image than sketching a political future.
So what will happen now between Scotland and her favourite son? Connery promises that he is now looking for a house in Scotland, where he will live for three months of the year. He will play more rounds of golf at Royal St Andrews. But his work for the nation will be as an unconscious figurehead, embodying certain Caledonian characteristics: hard work, financial shrewdness, quickness of temper, ingrained chauvinism, gruff patriotism, distrust of the media, an occasional clip round the ear of the young, a balled-fisted directness, a refusal to get too big for his Hollywood boots.
In a career lasting over four decades, when the image of the Scot has shifted from the White Heather Club to John ("We're all dooomed") Laurie in Dad's Army to the Bay City Rollers, right up to the supine junkies of Trainspotting, Connery has remained true to an alternative Scottishness - uncompromising, unsentimental and never forgetful of the past. To a people in need of a passionate rallying-call to independence, his very existence is worth a hundred Bravehearts.
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