Any chance of a chat, Raquel?

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Her reviews have been lukewarm, but Raquel Welch is intent on succeeding on a West End stage. Peter Guttridge pays his respects to a movie queen

Raquel Welch, retired sex goddess and would-be serious actress, beams a megawatt smile vaguely in my direction, gives a little wave, slips into her waiting limo and disappears into the nippy Birmingham night leaving only a hint of her perfume behind. "Perhaps she didn't hear your little joke," the man standing beside me in the Terylene bomber jacket says. But I wasn't joking, Raquel.

To men of a certain generation - my generation - Raquel Welch in the Sixties was the stuff of adolescent fantasies. Although she never did nude or even topless scenes, her statuesque figure was her fortune. Her appearances in the likes of One Million Years BC, wearing a fur bikini, and Fathom, in which she was "the world's most uncovered undercover agent" were strictly form - her form - over content.

But she always wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. And she did develop quite a flair for comedy, gamely in Myra Breckinridge and more easily in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and its sequel. Before Helena Bonham Carter cornered the market, she even played the female lead in a James Ivory film, The Wild Party, as Fatty Arbuckle's mistress.

She got her chance to get serious only through her own persistence, developing a very personal film project, The Legend of Walks Far Woman in the mid- Seventies. In it she played a long-suffering Indian with perfect teeth kitted out in demurely fetching buckskin and plaits - a kind of Dances with Timotei. The studios wouldn't release it for three years.

Not much movie-making since then, although she popped up in 1988 in Right to Die, a disease-of-the-week TV film, as a wife and mother struck down with something horrible. There have been the obligatory fitness videos and a little hoopla when she upstaged the bride at the wedding of her son to Freddy Trueman's daughter (a real enough event in itself, you would think).

But now, not only does she want to be taken seriously as an actress, she wants to do it in the theatre, graveyard of many a movie actor's career. The vehicle for her West End debut is The Millionairess, the George Bernard Shaw play unmemorably filmed with Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers in the leads back in 1960. Her character is described by Shaw as "a tornado, an earthquake, an avalanche, a millionairess who for love agrees to live on a pittance for six months but everything she touches turns to gold".

This week she has been in Birmingham, where she told the Birmingham Evening News, "I can almost hear the knives being sharpened for me when I get to London". Some people aren't waiting that long. No sooner does the production go on the road for its pre-West End run than the London Evening Standard reports the rumour that there is no theatre in the West End to take it, also remarking that notices from Guildford and Richmond aren't great.

In consequence, on the first night in Birmingham Miss Welch wouldn't do interviews with journalists. Which is a shame, because that's exactly why I'm in Birmingham on the second night.

I've tried to go through channels. The Millionairess is on at the Alexandra Theatre. The woman in the press office there can't help. "I haven't even seen her yet," she says. "Is she being difficult then?" I ask, sifting through my selection of movie star clichs. "Not at all. I'm told she's being very nice." I try theatre PR Peter Thompson Associates. No joy there either.

So I go to the play intending to use my journalistic deviousness to get backstage after the show and persuade her to talk. Failing that, I'll resort to that old journalistic standby, the technical term for which is doorstepping. Not so technically, that means hanging around until she comes out of the door, and then aiming a tape recorder in her face.

I'm not here to review the play, which is just as well since I arrive after it has started. However, I'm intrigued to have my first sight of Welch on stage. Some years ago she replaced Lauren Bacall in the Broadway production of Applause and scored a notable success, so she obviously knows her way around. But Shaw, with hisliking for long monologues, requires careful handling.

Miss Welch is confident on stage, though the costume she wears after the interval seems to hobble her movements: it's heavy on the hips and tight around the thighs. On her high shoes she appears to be tottering forward all the time. She projects her voice well and delivers some of the less obviously amusing lines with a real kick. But this is still a try-out, and other lines don't work yet.

Much of that is the play's fault - this is not one of Shaw's finest. But there's a huge difference between the charisma that movie stars convey on camera and the kind of stage presence that can command an audience. Miss Welch, with her striking looks, has the former. In this play, she hasn't really got the latter. She looks great but she seems, if anything, inhibited. Constricted in movement, perhaps by that costume, not quite there yet with the delivery of the lines.

Of course, the audience don't necessarily help. A mixed-bag, mixed-age group of people, they are indulgent with the performers and with the play. But it is long and attentions wander. A woman in my row sleeps through much of the second half. On the way out she is greeted by a friend. "I would have loved to see it with a lead who was more ..." the friend says, trailing off before we know more what. "Well, I know," the other one says, "I usually manage to stay awake during productions here."

There are maybe eight men in various states of sartorial disrepair clutching programmes outside the stage door. I breeze down the steps to the security guard. "For Miss Welch," I say. "Is she expecting you?" he says. I catch sight of myself in the glass of his cubicle. Am I one of those journalists that Jonathan Aitken has warned us about? "Er, no."

OK then, I'll wait outside with the sad bastards, excuse me, autograph seekers. Actually they're not a bad bunch. On the whole.A chunky thirtysomething guy in a baseball cap with a camera concealed inside his windcheater is saying to one of the others, "I've had her a few times. I had her at the Savoy down in London. She came to launch a book in Birmingham about six years ago." Is he a big fan of Miss Welch then? "Not particularly, I just want to get her autograph."

Suddenly six of them rush off towards the front of the theatre."I'm staying here," the guy in the baseball cap says. "The car's due any minute."

And indeed, a moment later a long black limo pulls up. An assistant loads up the boot with carrier bags and a cloth bag and hands over Miss Welch's long brown coat. "She won't be leaving by this door tonight. To save you waiting around. She's gone to a function." In the theatre? "Possibly."

A jobsworth in a silly uniform throws us out of the lobby. It's cold outside and before long the pubs are chucking out, too. Youngsters go by looking with curiosity at these blokes loitering in the street. As people come down from the theatre bar, where Miss Welch is rumoured to be,I ask if anyone has met her.A middle-aged gent with a cardigan on under his sports jacket observes that she's very very pretty. What did he think of the play? "We came from Solihull," he says, as if that explains everything.

An intense girl reappears clutching a signed flyer for the play. Unable to get near Miss Welch, she had asked a member of the cast to pass it to her. A few minutes later Miss Welch herself appears in the foyer. She's surrounded by heavies and not-so-heavies. She keeps her head down so that she can't be photographed, although the guy in the baseball cap manages it before one of the theatrepeople blocks him. We form an orderly queue on one side of her. The others hold out their programmes and she signs each in turn, smiling but not looking up at any of them. I loiter, my notebook in my hand.

"Miss Welch, I wonder if you've time for a chat ..." I say, feeling a prat. She beams that smile vaguely in my direction, totally ignores my remark, gives a little wave, slips into her waiting limo and disappears into the nippy Birmingham night. Leaving only a hint of her perfume behind.

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