Forget 'The Avengers' - she's got some serious acting to do

With catsuits and karate left far behind, Honor Blackman is now preparing to take Anouilh over the top. She spoke to Heather Neill
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Honor Blackman joins me in the Twinkle Bar in the Holland Park Hilton. At 74,she still exudes the delicacy and steel that made her so memorable as Cathy Gale in The Avengers and the desirable pilot Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

Honor Blackman joins me in the Twinkle Bar in the Holland Park Hilton. At 74,she still exudes the delicacy and steel that made her so memorable as Cathy Gale in The Avengers and the desirable pilot Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

Since then she has sung in musicals and played serious stage roles. She's been in six series of the television comedy The Upper Hand and has a cameo role in the film of Bridget Jones's Diary. And she still performs Dishonourable Ladies, her one-woman show about femmes fatales through the ages.

But those Sixties characters are still with her. The original Avengers episodes have just been transferred to film for the first time and are being broadcast in America, and Goldfinger "seems to be repeated about every minute there".

Now, by contrast, she is rehearsing the part of the ageing actress, Mme Alexandra, in Jean Anouilh's comedy Mademoiselle Colombe, opening at the small Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street this week.

Obliging and unshowy, she has little in common with the melodramatic Mme Alexandra.But she says: "I don't have any difficulty understanding and sympathising with her. By this time of life you are liable to have had some sort of experience of almost everything except murder."

Alexandra appears cold and ungenerous to her son Julien and his young wife Colombe, but in time reveals an unexpected depth of feeling. "When you have children, your natural urge is to protect them and she is terrified Julien will do what his father did - commit suicide. She feels guilty."

Divorced twice, Blackman says she was never very good at marriage and has "enormous sympathy" for the way Alexandra "goes off" people.

"The greater difficulty for me is that I'm not an OTT actress." (The part requires some stagey exaggeration, some of it in the grand style of 18th-century theatre.) "I have to be 'big' and get bigger as we rehearse. I'm hoping to be reined in, then I'll know I've got there. It's a satire on Sarah Bernhardt - I even have a stick, although happily, I don't lose my leg."

Honor Blackman is now something of an institution. A curvaceous heroine in skin-tight leather who could floor men with elegant judo throws and the like, she was the epitome of Sixties feminism. "It was very threatening to a lot of men. I was called out to fight two or three times - I didn't oblige, of course".

More recently she has been the subject of articles about her youthful looks, her beauty regime and her diet. "I'm so bored with it. And it makes me cross. When they talk about Charlton Heston at 82 or whatever he is, nobody goes on about how good he looks."

So, from the wodges of cuttings, is there anything she'd like to correct? "Well, my father has grown into quite a monster over the years. He was pretty fierce. He had been in the First World War and anybody who survives four years in the trenches is not going to be ordinary. He came from a tough background and thought we [she and her three siblings] had it cushy." But she was grateful to him for sending her to elocution lessons to refashion her London vowels. "I wouldn't have got very far in the theatre in those days," she says.

Does she ever watch herself in her iconic roles? "I watched a bit of Goldfinger the other day. I wanted to see how I did that throw [with Sean Connery] without my top parting from my trousers. Actually they did part ... These things are important to an actress."

So no hint of regret from a bygone youth? In the early 1960s there was little exotic location work; for Goldfinger Blackman got no further than Northolt Airport. Conditions in television studios were even less glamorous. The Avengers was shot virtually as live, with the actors dashing from set to set. "In one scene you'd be fighting on a cement floor, getting all hot and puffy; in the next you had to be elegant and beautifully dressed ... ladies never sweat," she says.

By accident, she once kicked Jackie Pallo unconscious in a fight scene with the well-known wrestler. "It split his nose; he was quite cross-eyed." Another time she noticed the prop man had a grim expression as she raced from set to set. "It was only afterwards they told us that Kennedy had been shot."

One emphatic correction: "I was never in the Rank Charm School." But she was a Rank starlet and had just signed to do a film when Peter Brook offered her Juliet. Still, she was bound by the contract: "I thought they'd realise I'd prefer to play Juliet. Who knows what might have happened?" But she has no regrets. She describes with pleasure a recent birthday gift: "There used to be Kirbigrip cards with pictures of starlets. Somebody found one of me in a boot sale and had it framed."

She speaks like someone in mid-career and there are plenty of plays she'd still like to appear in: Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession, she says. Or there's also Strindberg's Dance of Death, which would make for some spectacular karate chops - verbal ones, at the very least.

* 'Mademoiselle Colombe': Bridewell Theatre, EC4 (020 7936 3456), Wednesday to 5 November