Prince of darkness: A rare audience with Sir Christopher Lee
I sometimes think the saddest thing in my life is that there is nobody alive today with whom I can have a 'remember when?' conversation
Saturday 04 July 2009
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee CBE; it was a mouthful even before the announcement of his knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours List last month, shortly before his 87th birthday, for services to the dramatic arts. Unofficially, Christopher Lee remains the king of the franchises, the only common denominator between the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars series, the Bond films and the Hammer horrors.
By the estimation of most movie buffs Lee is the most prolific actor alive, possibly in cinematic history, with more than 350 big-screen credits to his name. Nor is there any sign of him slowing down. He plays a Spanish psychiatrist in the forthcoming Triage, one of four 2009 releases graced by his distinctive basso-profundo tones, if not always his aristocratic features (one of them is the animation Monster Mania, which he gleefully describes as "extremely funny"). And he has already signed up to do two more films next year. He hardly needs the tap of cold steel on his shoulder to compound his stature as – dread phrase but undoubtedly fitting – a national treasure.
He lives with his wife of nearly 50 years, the Danish former model Birgit Kroencke, in Chelsea. But to interview him I have been asked to travel to Morocco – oh, go on then – by the organisers of the Marrakech Film Festival. The festival is honouring British cinema, and Lee is among the luminaries invited to take a bow at the gala screening of The Duchess, before a predominantly Arabic- and French-speaking audience, in the vast Palais des Congres. Among those alongside him on the stage, also taking the plaudits for all the manifold achievements of British cinema, are John Hurt, Charles Dance, Brian Cox and, bizarrely, Nicholas Parsons. Some of them venture a few words of thanks. Cox prefaces his not with the Arabic "salaam" but "shalom", unwittingly addressing the audience in Hebrew. But Lee, his effortless French ringing round the auditorium, is word-perfect. Even Nicholas Parsons looks impressed.
My audience with him takes place earlier in his hotel suite. His 6ft 5in frame is stooped these days, but otherwise he bears his age with ease. And a conversation with him is no less fascinating for being utterly formless. There is no interviewing Christopher Lee. You pose your next question according to his last answer and hope for the best.
I start by asking him if he agrees that he is probably the world's most prolific screen actor. He says: "I don't know where people find these things out. On the internet, I suppose. Yes, I have been told that I have made more films than anyone alive today, and that might very well be true."
Can he remember the first? "Oh yes. Corridor of Mirrors, directed by Terence Young. We made it in Paris. But the first thing I did in front of a camera was television, at the end of 1946, and that was a disaster. I'd only been demobbed a few months. I spent five years in the war, and managed to stay on my feet most of the time. I was in the North African desert, then Malta, then Sicily, then Italy."
I have heard it rumoured, I say, that he was in the Special Operations Executive, part of an elite "secret army" charged with encouraging sabotage behind enemy lines.
Lee raises one rather beetling eyebrow. "I don't go into that. If I had any deadly secrets I wouldn't still be alive. I remember being on Terry Wogan's programme once, with John Gardner, who was the first man to get permission to write new Bond novels. Ian Fleming was my cousin, you know. He was in naval intelligence. And my sister worked for Ultra [the top secret code-breaking enterprise based at Bletchley Park] in the war. I didn't know until years later. Anyway, Terry Wogan said, 'Of course, you were a spy, weren't you?' I said, 'Terry, do you mind if I stand up?' I stood up. And I said, 'Do you consider that I would blend inconspicuously into a crowd?' A spy?" (Lee makes the word "spy" last several seconds, using all his actorly prowess to convey the absurdity of the suggestion.) "I wasn't a spy. I'd have been spotted in five seconds. Yes, I was in intelligence, but that covered a multitude of things."
We have strayed somewhat, I remind him, from Corridor of Mirrors, the 1948 thriller with Eric Portman that marked his film debut. "Yes, we have," he says, then flies off on another tangent. "The Italian ambassador after the war was my cousin, and he invited me for lunch in the embassy. He said, 'What are you hoping to do now?' Well, I wasn't going back to being an office boy in the City for £1 a week as had been the case in '38. He said, 'Have you ever thought of being an actor?' I hadn't really. I'd done some plays at school with Patrick Macnee, who's still with us."
His own ancestry was cited by his cousin as a reason for him to go into the dramatic arts. "He said to me, 'Your great-grandparents founded the first opera company in Australia, in the 1850s.' There had been seven children of that marriage, five girls and two boys, and one of the boys was my mother's father, my grandfather. My great-grandmother was born in London, the daughter of a Brixton coachman, and became the most famous singer in Australia. Her name was Marie Carandini, Madame Carandini."
He also inherited the ability to hold a tune, he adds, before there's any chance of my getting back to Corridor of Mirrors, let alone moving on to Lord of the Rings. "In Stockholm in '51 someone heard me singing, and said, 'You have a voice, what are you doing with it?' I said that I was learning to be an actor. He said, 'That's a waste of time. You must use the instrument you were given. Come to the Opera House tomorrow at 11am.' The man who said all this was the greatest tenor of the day, the Caruso of Sweden, a man called Jussi Bjorling. But if I'd been a singer I wouldn't still be singing now, whereas, thank God, touch wood, I've got four films out soon."
While he is looking around for a piece of wood to touch, I seize my chance to get a word in edgeways, asking Lee to tell me more about his parents. His mother was Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano, a celebrated Edwardian beauty. His father was Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee. They separated when he was four years old, but it is perhaps no wonder that their only son should have had a life of distinction.
"On the Italian side we can trace the family back 2,000 years," he says. "I have a cousin in Rome, a famous archaeologist, Count Andrea Carandini, who was in Lombardy and came across some pottery with the original name of the family, Carandinus, painted on it. Andrea has found many of our ancestors, who were cardinals and heaven only knows what else, but 2,000 years ago they made chariots for the Roman army."
And what of his father's side?
"My father's family can we traced back to 1400. I've been told by gypsies that there is unmistakeably gypsy blood in me. Lee is a gypsy name, you know."
"Gypsy Rose Lee," I venture, witlessly.
"Well, that wasn't her name. I did a film with her and Paulette Goddard. Babes in Baghdad . A terrible picture. No, my father was in the 60th King's Own Rifles. He fought in the Boer War, where he was recommended for a Victoria Cross. In the First World War he was the first British officer to be put in charge of Australian troops, and he took them to the Somme, where they seized a village, Posieres, that nobody else had taken. My father was decorated with a Croix de Guerre by Marshal Foch, and later he got the Order of the Nile from the Egyptians. I never found out how. He said he got it for playing chess with King Fuad. But he died very young, at 62 years of age, of double pneumonia and pleurisy. It was 1941, and they didn't have the drugs."
His sister, the wartime code-breaker, was five years older than him. "Sadly she is gone now. I sometimes think the saddest thing in my life is that there is nobody alive today with whom I can have a 'remember when?' conversation. The last one died with Peter Cushing. We used to meet up and talk like characters out of a cartoon strip. I was Sylvester the cat and he was Spike the bulldog. We used to dissolve into gales of laughter. He was a wonderful man and a dear friend. I loved him very much."
Lee's first film for Hammer was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, in which he played the monster to Cushing's baron. The following year he took the title role in Dracula, and many more horror films followed, although he was always aware of the dangers of typecasting, and it is testament to his professional judgment that different generations know him as different characters, albeit mostly villainous. For some he is synonymous above all with Saruman, the malevolent wizard in the Lord of the Rings series; for others, with the similarly nasty Count Dooku in the Star Wars films. But for older film lovers he will for ever be Dracula, or Fu Manchu from yet another series of films, or Scaramanga, James Bond's nemesis in The Man With The Golden Gun and one of the best Bond baddies. Evil, he points out, is much more interesting to play than good.
As for the family ties with Ian Fleming, they weren't exactly cousins. After his parents' divorce, his mother, the Contessa, married a banker, Harcourt Rose, whose sister was Fleming's mother. He and Fleming became friends. "I used to play golf with him, and I remember him asking me on the links if I wanted to play Dr No, which was about to go into production. But by the time he got round to mentioning it to [Bond producers] Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, they'd cast another actor."
Fleming, alas, was long dead by the time Lee played Scaramanga. But he feels he did the character's creator proud. "Scaramanga was a real name, he didn't make it up. It was a boy at Eton he disliked intensely." Roger Moore played Bond in that film, and I wonder whether Moore might have hit it off with Fleming better than the original Bond, Sean Connery, did. Connery, I tell Lee, was recently quoted as saying that Fleming was a dreadful snob.
An arched eyebrow again. "Ian could be very acid, certainly. But I'm guessing Ian wasn't enamoured of Sean, either. I do remember a quote to the effect that he didn't think of James Bond as a former bodybuilder and coffin polisher. But I don't know whether he disliked Sean's performance, and even if I did know, I would never say so. Please don't say that I said so. You raised it. I'm not making any further comment."
Lee glares at me, Saruman, Dooku, Dracula, Fu Manchu and Scaramanga suddenly rolled into one. Then he rises slowly from his chair and, with a gracious smile, extends a large, mottled hand. "How nice to meet you," he says. Likewise.
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