Obituary: Innokenti Smoktunovsky

I FIRST met Innokenti Smoktunovsky in the early Sixties in London, when he was acting in the World Theatre season, writes Gordon Clough. Although already a People's Artist of the Soviet Union, approaching the equivalent of a theatrical knight, he was almost totally unknown and unrecognised in Britain until his stunning Hamlet.

I took him to lunch as the guest of the BBC Russian Service in a restaurant which insisted on his wearing a tie over an entirely unsuitable shirt. He thought that was very funny, and was still giggling about it a quarter of a century later. But he wasn't at all amused a few months afterwards when Intourist refused me permission to travel from Moscow to visit him in Leningrad on the grounds that there were no vacant hotel rooms.

'What's wrong with them?' he demanded over the phone. 'I've got a perfectly good flat. You will stay there of course.'

That still wasn't good enough for Intourist. 'It is forbidden to stay with private citizens.' In that case, I said, I shall have to tell People's Artist Smoktunovsky that I am unable to bring him the photographs taken of him in London by the brother-in-law of our Queen. That worked, and I handed over the Snowdon pictures in the ward of the Leningrad hospital where he was being treated for tuberculosis of the eye. In his modest flat the radio was touchingly tuned to the BBC Russian Service.

A year or two later he was back in London for a few days. I invited him home for supper on the last night of his stay. He was delighted, but simply did not turn up. For the next 20 years I was refused visas to visit the Soviet Union. When I did finally return to make some radio documentaries about the collapse of the old regime, I tracked him down to his new but still modest flat near the Moscow Arts Theatre. He insisted on meeting me in the street outside although he was already quite ill and the weather was foul. I barely recognised him in his English country-gent tweed coat and hat, but he spotted me straightaway and gripped me in a bear hug.

'Can you ever forgive me?' he said.

'Whatever for?'

'For not coming to your house. I was so ashamed. At the last minute they forbade me to go, even to telephone. The KGB never left my side till we were back in Moscow.'

It was typical of 'Kesha' that he was still genuinely distressed by this forced discourtesy of 20 years ago and thrilled that the changed times, whatever their other pains, had made it possible to set things straight.