The Prince of Order

Interview: Christopher Lee has `one foot in the grave, one on a banana skin'. But he's still alive and singing, he tells Janie Lawrence
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It's all a little alarming. I thought I was going to meet Christopher Lee. The Christopher Lee. But am I? I mention this to friends and begin to wonder. After the umpteenth, "Oh, is he still alive?", I feel I have to double-check with the publicist.

No, there is no mistake. Yes, it is he. Sunken cheekbones, penetrating eyes? Yes, yes. Count Dracula, Lord of the Undead? Absolutely.

Reassured that Mr Lee is still with us I discover that it's not only a puzzled public who have prematurely written him off. According to an American Encyclopedia of film, he popped his clogs three years ago.

"Oh yes, I've died - on the 31st of March, 1993," the man himself says unperturbed. "I heard about it when somebody wrote to me saying that I wasn't doing too badly - considering. I was told to sue them but I didn't want to get involved in American litigation."

We are in a drawing room in one of those small chi-chi hotels just off Sloane Square, a stone's throw from Mr Lee's own home. A towering figure with ramrod posture, this is a man very much alive. Mr Lee has what they call in the "biz", presence. Bucketfuls of it. When he speaks every word is made to count. Each inflection is delivered with military precision. Not a vowel wasted. Currently bearded, the actor looks a good 10 years younger than 74, is vastly more attractive than I've imagined and, happily to report, appears to be in fine fettle. Unfortunately, I'm not. Desperately sneezing and mid flu I have attempted to postpone the interview. He's understandably annoyed that the message hasn't reached him. "I would have said, `Keep away from me', " he booms. "Supposing I was Pavarotti." Feebly I venture that I'm probably no longer contagious. "You mean infectious," he corrects, as I attempt to splutter quietly and conceal the mounting pile of discarded tissues in my handbag. Mr Lee doesn't suffer fools gladly. He tells me so.

Thankfully I don't need to say much. Christopher Lee needs the minimum of encouragement to talk. About this I have been forewarned. There is the now legendary tale that one woman fainted at a table next to him in a Hollywood restaurant and, still talking, he never noticed. Almost definitely apocryphal, it's not hard to imagine how such a story came to pass.

An actor - note the stressed or - he has an opinion on almost anything and segues seamlessly from one topic to another. He is also delightfully unencumbered by anything approaching political correctness. Discipline, duty and responsibility are words that frequently arise. And, albeit I am in my mid-thirties, I am nevertheless "the girl who shouldn't have got out of bed".

The reason I have, is to hear about his new project - the BBC-six part adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (which begins on Sunday, 12 January) - in which he plays the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Lucas de Beaumanoir. He was already a big fan of the story before filming. "It's a great saga, a classic with everything in it. Honour, loyalty, bravery."

Co-starring Ciaran Hinds and Steven Waddington, he declares he was by far and away the oldest member of the cast. "They were all so young. So to them I must have seemed one foot in the grave, the other on a banana skin."

Did that make him at all nervous? "Nervous," he repeats in a tone reminiscent of the Wildean "Handbag". "Nervous, about what? I've tried in the last few years to work with up and coming young people. I think it's one's duty to do that if you can. And I was very impressed, which doesn't happen very often. You get a feeling when you get into some things - certainly after the length of time I've been involved - whether something's going to work."

Filming took place in Northumberland, where, he claims, the weather was colder than anywhere he's ever been, "including Alaska". Nevertheless, the role of Beaumanoir is one he relished playing. "All members of the Order are terrified of him because they are well aware that he can order their instant execution in minutes if they've stepped over the line. He has more power than any king or even the Pope. He orders one of the abbots to be lashed just like that." He demonstrates with an unexpected whistle.

And then repeats the line slowly, melodramatically. "Just-like-that."

"He's a religious fanatic. Probably a virgin, probably terribly repressed."

Being frightening has been Mr Lee's career stock in trade. Does he consider himself similarly intimidating? I, for one, could never imagine him being the type of elderly gentleman who lends himself to having his hair ruffled by exuberant children. "A lot of people think I'm aloof but that's not the case. I give that impression because I don't fling my arms around someone within five minutes of meeting them. But people aren't scared of me." Evidently I look dubious. "No, they really aren't you know. Children have always looked at me as the wicked uncle."

With what he says are "over 250 credits" in films, it's widely reported that Mr Lee gets a bit miffed when people insist on harking back to his years in the Hammer Horror films. So I expect an unfavourable reaction when I allude to them. But more resigned rather than put out he asks, "How many do you think I've done?" It's a rhetorical question and he continues, "I'd say between 10 and 15, no more. You can't count Fu Manchu films as horror." As for the number of occasions he put in Dracula's fangs, he professes he really can't remember. "About six I think. But the last time was 25 years ago."

By that stage he says he'd "had enough" of the Prince of Darkness. "I made it very clear that the whole presentation of the character had gone completely to pot. So I said, never again. Not unless they made Stoker's book. Only then if someone did Stoker's book exactly, and I emphasise exactly, as he wrote it. It's never been done." It was to escape this typecasting that he packed his bags and spent 10 years in Los Angeles, returning to London in 1986. "Professionally, without doubt, it was the most important thing I ever did. And, without doubt, it had to be done. And, without doubt, I proved my point. People said to me, `If you stay in Britain you'll make a very good living but you'll never be asked to do anything else. You'll always be in roughly the same kind of film. And eventually you'll get bored and frustrated. And, of course, if you get bored you're going to bore the audience.'

"The Americans, on the other hand, will always give you one chance. Where the British are inclined to say, `You have got a, you have got b, but you haven't got c, the Americans say, `we're going to use what you have got'."

It is evidently a source of some pride to him that he was offered roles that proved he was capable of far more than sinking his teeth into young maidens' necks. "Half of what I did in 10 years was comedy. It's on the screen. I hosted Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. And how did it do? It was the third highest-rated show they ever had. I did westerns, I played Americans in American films, in one, Serial, I was a tough businessman in the week and at weekends the head of a band of gay Hell's Angels."

The briefest of pauses. "Do you think I'd have been offered that here?" he thunders. "Not in a millennium," his voice roars to a crescendo. "And, if you were to ask people here what I did for the 10 years I was in America I'm sure they'd look absolutely blank."

He sounds resentful. "No, not in the least," he denies. "I realise people's imaginations are limited. I was frustrated. I'm not particularly tolerant of stupidity or people who don't do their homework."

He returned to Britain satisfied that he had achieved what he set out to "and because I'm a European and I wanted to return to my roots". That said, he is very much a product of his generation and sees little about contemporary Britain to be proud of. "I didn't get married until I was nearly 40 because I couldn't afford it. If you can't support a wife and family you have no right to get married, in my opinion. Today people make an awful lot of fuss about their rights but what about their responsibilities?"

He's all for the return of National Service for the young, despairs of the way he believes justice is weighted towards the criminal rather than the victim, and cites the number of homeless as "deplorable".

"There's a lack of discipline, a lack of manners. A total decline in behaviour and morals. It's all gone downhill. Who opens a door for a woman? Who takes a hat off if they're wearing one? I've no objection to saying to someone, `I think you've dropped this [litter]', but then you get a stream of abuse. Abuse is the refuge of the incoherent. And you never get any support."

On many such occasions he says he has been tempted to "belt" someone. In fact, not so long ago he did. Not a wise move, I venture. "My hands still move very fast," he fires back. "And I learnt a lot of extremely unpleasant things during the war so I know what to do."

The son of an Italian countess - he can theoretically use the title Count Carandini - and a British soldier - his parents divorced when he was a child. When his stepfather ran out of money he had to leave school, Wellington, whereupon, at 16, he got his first job as a messenger boy for pounds 1 a week. Soon after he volunteered for duty and trained as a pilot for the RAF, but as he had some trouble with his eyesight he was drafted into Intelligence and the Special Forces. "About which I'm not really prepared to talk. It's an unwritten code that you don't discuss certain things."

Various attempts to ferret out something more specific are fruitless. "If you work in Special Forces that inevitably means you're involved in secret operations. It doesn't mean to say that I was a spy with the French Resistance in Paris. Can you see me at 6ft 4ins being inconspicuous?"

But wasn't he decorated? He makes a dismissive sound. "I was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service, I think it's for one particular thing in Sicily, but that's why I won't say, because I'm not sure." After the war he began his career in films. "I lived in a bedsit off Sloane Square until 1955. Every day I'd take the Tube to Uxbridge and then the bus to Pinewood. I went to bed at 9pm on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. I've never missed a day in 50 years."

There are few big names that Lee hasn't worked with. He rates Billy Wilder, director of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, as "one of the greatest ever". And, among actresses, he won't hear a word said against Joan Collins with whom he starred in Dark Places. "Joan is a jolly good actress. It's not just hot air like it is with a lot of others. She works and she knows what she's doing."

So what modern films might he call fantastic? He looks bemused. "Is that too strong a word?" I ask, feeling like a schoolgirl who's just used some inappropriately hip slang. "Good, I would think, is the word," he replies steadily. "I don't go to the cinema very often because there's hardly anything, in my opinion, worth seeing."

What about Four Weddings and a Funeral? No, he hasn't seen it. Or, the Woody Allen films? He hasn't seen any. He is most likely to go to a film if it features the work of a specific actor. He has huge respect for Gene Hackman and has been impressed by Tom Cruise in Rainman and Chris O'Donnell.

And women? He ponders. "Katharine Hepburn is a real star. Magic. Magic. Anne Bancroft. The young? - two really. Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer." As for British actresses - "I've seen Emma Thompson only once" - he can't think of any.

"Now it's all, I want to be rich and famous in five minutes. I'm going to walk in front of the camera when I feel like it. I might say a line or two. Hey, didn't you read in the paper that I was next week's superstar. Well, I've seen them all come, I've seen them all go. I can tell you exactly how long a shelf-life an actor or actress has. I've been proved right practically every single time. They can fool the public but they can't fool us."

Looking back over his own career, he admits that he does have one great regret. "That I didn't have a musical career. As a conductor or soloist but mainly as a singer. I was given this talent and I never really used it." That said, he has just made a record. An eclectic mix of jazz, opera and western cowboy songs, he sings in German, French, Italian and English. "I know it sounds terribly immodest but I have actually created music history. Because nobody of 74 who can't read music and isn't a trained opera singer has made a record of these songs. And every single one of the voices I use on these songs is different." He shrugs at the inevitability of the album title - Christopher Lee sings Rogues, Demons and Villains.

All in all, he reckons he's "damned lucky to still be here". Eleven years ago he had heart surgery to mend a faulty valve. Consequently, he no longer eats all the sweet things he loved and has finally given up smoking his pipe.

Meanwhile, old friends of his now have legitimate posthumous entries in film encyclopedias. "God, yes, I hardly dare open the paper now. Apart from people in the same profession, there's all the people I knew in the war. Most of them are dead."

Of course, this includes both his Hammer co-stars, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. It's the only time in two hours his shoulders visibly droop. "They were both very dear friends and I miss them both very much. Especially Peter. He was a wonderful man and I was devoted to him. I miss all the conversations I used to have with him on the telephone that were very special to us. There were certain things we used to laugh about that would have meant nothing to anyone else. And now there's nobody in the world with whom I can have those conversations.

"He fought the cancer for 10 years - he was immensely brave. A few months before he died we did some work together for a voiceover. The last thing I remember was him waving out of a car after we'd finished."

This year he will have been married to his Danish wife, Gitte, for 35 years and he reckons his 33-year-old daughter, Christina will probably get married. "Perhaps I'll be a grandfather one day although it's a bit late actually to be a grandfather."

As for himself, he categorically states he has no intention whatsoever of taking it easy and spending more time on the golf course, his great passion. Fluent in three languages - French, Italian and German - and passable in another two, he often works abroad and is generally recognised and pursued by autograph-hunters wherever he goes.

"It's very simple. I'm a working actor and I'll never retire."

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