Woof woof, ding dong, hallooo

Leslie Phillips? Isn't he just a smarmy skirt-chaser in a Sixties sports car? Certainly not. Jasper Rees talks to the great man about his latest film, 'August', and sifts the evidence of a long career
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The Independent Culture
These days it's rare for Leslie Phillips to play anyone without a grand titular prefix. Lord Chief Justice this, Viscount that, Professor the other. Isn't it about time he had a K of his own? "Oh, I've not got anything like that," he says glumly, and somehow you suspect he never will. However much serious work he does in the theatre, he remains handcuffed to the smarmy skirt-chaser he gave us in sundry Carry Ons and Doctor films and London bus movies. The Queen doesn't usually pull her sword out of its scabbard to honour CVs like that.

Still, if Phillips is not a knight himself, at least he is courted by them. Sir Anthony Hopkins invited him to appear in the twin stage-and- screen productions of August, Julian Mitchell's relocation of Uncle Vanya to north Wales. In order to play the old scrounger Professor Blathwaite, he had to turn down Sir Peter Hall's offer of Polonius. Then this summer the call came from Sir Derek Jacobi, who wanted him to play Sir Sampson Legend in Love For Love at Chichester. Sir Derek fell ill before the first night, the critics were averted and they all went, "it's up to you, Leslie". "Like all these things, you get through it but I missed him terribly." In the star's absence, ticket sales were "amazingly good if you consider he's a knight and he's also co-director of the Festival theatre and he's a bloody good actor".

Phillips's conversation is peppered with such accolades for the "marvellous" and "lovely" and "super" actors he has worked with. It's as if he's keen to stress that he's done more with his life than get ticked off by his seven-times co-star James Robertson Justice. He tells several stories about times when so and so told him he was wonderful, or how he broke records with such and such a show. It's not that he is vain, but while the lothario years made him far more visible than most of his contemporaries, they seem to have punctured his professional self-esteem. Of course, there are fringe benefits. "If I have an altercation with somebody in a car, as I do occasionally, it ends up with them wanting my autograph," but that's nothing to the balm of a good review. You detect an undercurrent of hurt that Jacobi's indisposition deprived his co-star of some collectable notices.

In his fifties - he's 72 now - Phillips took the courageous decision to do no more broad comedy. There was a stomach-churning period of inactivity when he was widely presumed to have died, but the roles for nabobs, mandarins and stuffed shirts started to roll in, and they keep on coming. ("I've just been offered a film about sadomasochism. It was delivered by a very beautiful girl this afternoon. I don't know whether that was part of the deal.") Gradually, it emerged that there was more to Leslie Phillips than luring girls in mini-skirts into an open-top sports car.

Was there a trace of biographical truth in that caricature? "What, womanising, you mean? No, everybody thinks that. I like women. I've had a few long- standing girlfriends, but I think I've almost led a blameless life."

Disappointingly, the motor outside his large house in Maida Vale is a mere Renault saloon. But then to display a soft-top in his drive would pander to that image he's worked so hard to erase. Involuntarily, though, you case the joint for other evidence that the stereotype was not a complete fiction. For the prosecution, a discreet gold chain round his neck, and a raffish mat of white chest curls. For the defence, a riot of Victoriana hoarded in the drawing room. On the way out to the garden we pass a French 19th-century bronze statuette depicting some mythical damsel in distress. Proprietorially, almost absent-mindedly, he rubs her idealised breasts. And you can almost hear James Robertson Justice blowing a fuse.

It may not seem apparent from a casual glance, but there's a fierce compulsion driving Phillips's career. He was brought up in north London in a family paupered by his sick father's early death. He was pretty under blond curls, had a thespian way about him, and his mother got him into the Italia Conti stage school. He was acting with Anna Neagle before his voice had broken. Half a century separates his first appearance with John Gielgud, in a play called Dear Octopus, from their most recent co-billing in the BBC's Summer's Lease. "I worked with all the top greats from 10 right through to when I joined the army. So I had a marvellous eight years of education."

He made some even starrier contacts. Just before he took up his commission, which killed off those traces of Tottenham in his accent not eradicated by the stage, he was understudy in The Doctor's Dilemma starring Vivien Leigh - "a lovely lady, beautiful". Three years later, the war over, he got a small part in Anna Karenina and met her again. " 'Leslie?' she said. 'You're alive? What are you doing? We're going to Australia, Larry and I. Would you like to come?' She got me to audition with Olivier, and he said, 'Yup, we'll take you, but don't ask me to take your lady. If you don't come, some other time.' They were smashing. I didn't go. I stayed, I got married and my career blossomed here."

Many years, films and plays later, he played Gayev opposite the next Mrs Olivier, Joan Plowright, in The Cherry Orchard. His lordship "gave me a wonderful note: 'Positive! Even if you're bad, go on and do it. It becomes good.'" It was a productive tip. The same show was seen by Peter Nichols, who was swayed to offer him the lead in Passion Play, an autobiographical piece about adultery which remains "the best play I've ever been in". Hopkins was also emboldened by what he saw to think of Phillips when removing Chekhov to the Lleyn Peninsula.

Phillips's memories of August are not unremittingly fond. The climactic scene, airlifted directly out of Vanya, in which Hopkins's Ieuan shoots at the maddeningly pompous Professor, is given a farcical spin as he flees through a field comically blinded by a sheet. What makes it sillier is that the scene was done by a stand-in much lither than Phillips. "I felt it was a little over the top myself. But Tony wanted to get the lighter side of Chekhov."

Then with the film almost in the can, Phillips fell twice, breaking several ribs and a wrist. "Two days later I couldn't get out of bed, but we'd just finished the movie, and I discovered with this little doctor from Abersoch that I'd got a clot on my lung caused by something that comes from the wall of the vein. They assured me it was nothing to do with age." A good quarter of our conversation seems to be about health. That humming, slightly fussy Home Counties voice, so suited to ladelling out innuendo, is troubled by a respiratory infection, or "clergyman's clap", as he calls it. But Phillips is genetically built to last. His mother was going strong at 93 until she was mugged at a bus-stop (one of two disasters in his life; the other was the failure of his first marriage). "That was awful. She would have got the telegram, I'm sure." If he doesn't hear from the Palace earlier, perhaps her son will get the telegram instead.

Incidentally, the evidence linking Phillips with his caricature is secreted in the garage. We clamber down into the basement, and there she is, among rolled-up carpets and mountains of junk: a beautiful 1965 Mercedes 220 SE Cabriolet convertible. Verdict? Guilty as charged.

n 'August' is on release from Friday

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