Sir Christopher Lee talks with Laurie Dale about his roles in screen versions of three literary classics: Gormenghast, Lord of the Rings as well as acting opposite Johnny Depp in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow...
Christopher Lee is a British film institution! His prolific career began in the late 1940s and includes many memorable roles that are now of iconic proportions, among them the heroic Sherlock Holmes as well as the villainous Fu Manchu and Count Dracula… More recently, his career seems to have entered a renaissance, with a clutch of new film and television roles.
He is now known to a whole new generation of cinema-goers for his portrayal of Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the two Hobbit films so far… and before that had made a big splash ‘comeback’ to UK TV screens in the acclaimed BBC version of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for which Lee was forthcoming with his praise, “I think the BBC created television history - because nobody had ever seen anything like it!
“Twenty years ago, maybe more - when Sting was thinking of doing it - somebody told me that they decided it couldn’t be done. And it’s been done!
“It’s an incredible achievement on everybody’s part. First of all the fact that Malcolm McKay was able to take Peake’s book and transfer it to the screen in such a way and that the characters are believable people. They’re certainly bizarre, and they’re certainly strange, but they are still people.
“As a member of the cast, I cannot conceive of any of those parts being played by anyone else. The casting to me is absolutely faultless, which is of course enormously important. You don’t always see it in this day and age.”
Lee was evidently delighted with the finished production, “It looks absolutely superb. Not just the photography and the clothes but what the art director’s done - and the designer - is quite incredible! It’s Cyclopean. In a sense, it’s like being in ancient Troy with these vast walls, crumbling areas. You get the feeling that the actual place itself is colossal. The thing is on such a colossal scale and yet so intimate at the same time.”
Having known, Mervyn Peake, Lee was confident that the author would have approved of the television treatment and reminisced about meeting him...
“I knew him - not very well. I used to meet him in Harrods library, when there was one. I knew that he knew my sister, so I introduced myself. He was an absolutely delightful man.
“We used to meet quite often. He seemed quiet. So charming and humble, and he had these extraordinary blue eyes which were rather hooded... I’d never really seen anybody quite like that. He spoke very softly and very quietly. You wouldn’t have thought he’d ever done anything in his life - which is always the case if you really have. He was also a wonderful artist and of course he illustrated these stories and many others. In fact, you ought to try and get hold of his widow’s book about him and their life together.”
Lee plays the role of Flay, the ‘steward’ to the Groan family, with an oddly distinctive speech pattern and a huge yet subtle influence on the events within the tale. Lee said of the character, “He’s not what he seems. When you see him for the first time, you sense a certain brutality, a savagery in him.
“Basically it’s directed against two people, one of whom is of course Swelter, and this is something that has obviously been going on for years and years, they despise and loathe each other. Flay is disgusted by Swelter and all his little kitchen boys. And Swelter is, I think, terribly jealous of the fact that Flay is so close to the Earl…
“That’s one relationship… He is the only person who can see through Steerpike. At the very beginning he realises that Steerpike is the Prince of conmen - so you get this feeling of brutality and savagery from him at the very beginning.
“Flay has this tremendous loyalty to the dynasty I suppose you could say in general and each member of it in particular and that is made very, very clear.
“He really is Gormenghast… Many of my colleagues and most of the people in the crew said that they always had the feeling that Flay really represented Gormenghast more than anybody else. Probably his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather, the same people have served the same family. So he is the spirit of Gormenghast, in a way.”
It was, “nearly 50 years ago”, since Lee first read the books, so what kind of impression did they make upon him back then and did Flay stand out to him in any way?
“I had forgotten a great deal. All I remember about Flay, when I saw in the script, is that every time he walks he clicks. I tried to suggest a somewhat bizarre stiff-legged walk, without overdoing it because then it would be comical, unbelievable, but obviously you can’t have somebody clicking away as they walk because it would become somewhat monotonous. One tries to give the impression that the bottom half of the body’s going in one direction and the top half is kind of following it along.”
So what was the main obstacle in realising Flay, his odd grammar?
“Actually my main problem was the clothes, because they were so tight they kind of pinned me into this very awkward position. The same thing with June Brown who played Nanny Slagg, she was almost unable to move she was so constricted by her costume.”
|Lee as Flay in Gormenghast|
“No, not at all. I’ve never been daunted as an actor by anything, ever. I’ve been unsure, we all are, about how to play a character but I’ve never been daunted, ever.
“I met Estelle Daniel, Andy Wilson and Malcolm McKay for lunch. They’d sent a script and they wanted to meet me to talk about the character. Never a second thought in my mind at all. I thought, ‘This is a wonderful story. There would be wonderful people in it and it would all be terrific’. And I’ve had no reason to change my mind! It’s even better than I thought it would be. If you’ve been around for a fairly long time, you sometimes know within an hour, sometimes a few hours, sometimes a day, you know. And I got that feeling immediately, that this is going to be extraordinary.”
There must be a marked difference in the filming techniques nowadays, compared with Lee’s days with Hammer films through the 1960s and 70s - how did he get on with the integration of modern effects and acting against a blue screen?
“Blue screen...” he mused for a moment, “There’s a huge fight with me and the cook, Swelter. It’s not too serious, although I nearly broke my neck in the process - I’m not exaggerating, they all thought I was dead. Well, there’s a huge fight between me and Swelter. We are separated by Lord Groan who is sleepwalking and he’s in between us. So, of course, Swelter is trying to get at me with a butcher’s cleaver, I’m trying to get at him with a sword. This is not meant to be a serious duel like many of the ones I’ve been in, in the past. It’s obviously meant to be what it is on the screen - funny, ridiculous, absurd. Neither of us get anywhere near each other, really, until the very end… and then when it ends, I do recall there is some blue screen behind me and it involves the cook Swelter as well.”
Lee was doing his own stunts in order to maintain believability and allow the camera to come in close during the action…
“It shows you what can happen! Well, it could happen to any of us! The sword came down at the top of the steps and tripped me up - I must have gone a good 10 to 15 feet in the air, I think - and I went straight into the side of the set - luckily I’m used to that sort of thing, it happens very often - but the set was very solid and there are these wooden struts holding the set up. I went straight into the whole lot at full tilt. When I got there I couldn’t say anything and I did lie there for a while, just to make sure everything was moving and I was all right.
“I was bruised, yes, but I was all right. Because of this silence, there was another silence on the part of the crew and the rest of the cast - because they thought I was dead. They thought I’d broken my neck! It must have been quite impressive, to say the least.”
When Scrawl caught up with Christopher Lee to talk about his work on Gormenghast, he was fresh from a stint in New Zealand, filming for Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of another monumental work of imagination, J R R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy… An ambitious project which had previously been attempted by animator Ralph Bakshi back in 1978.
“I read the three books when it came out, and was completely transported." Lee recalled, "I don’t think I’d ever read anything like it and I read it every year - have done ever since it was published. I met Professor Tolkien, very briefly once - didn’t quite know what to say to him - with some friends in Oxford. It was a long, long time ago and I was introduced to him. I couldn’t connect his name to the books because I hadn’t read the books. Then, when I did, I was completely… well… I don’t think I’d ever been so affected by anything except possibly T H White.”
|Saruman the White|
“It’s magic. It’s complete magic what Professor Tolkien has done - and Mervyn Peake. Mervyn Peake created another world. A world of magic and enchantment. There’s no question about that. In my case [Flay], he certainly created another language and, bizarre as these characters are, you can’t place them in any specific period of history, it doesn’t really matter because speech is at times contemporary and at times isn’t. I think Peake, in that respect, did create a new world with new people and a new language.
“Tolkien of course did so on a much bigger scale, because he did it with writing as well as with geography and peoples… I remember when I read this, thinking, ‘What a fantastic film these books would make - what an incredible film!’ I remember thinking that, and at the same time thinking, ‘Of course it’ll never happen because it’s so colossal. The scope - such a huge canvas - it will never happen’. Well that’s been done and I was in it!"
Has playing characters from classic novels like those of Peake and Tolkien whet his appetite for more roles of a literary bent?
“Don Quixote, I’d love to play - and the locals have said they would accept me - I think I could play him, but I don’t think it will happen because it’s just been done by a very fine actor, John Lithgow, who I’m sure will be marvellous.”
|Dracula, Prince of Darkness|
“Nikolai Cherkassov - who played this for Eisenstein - was one of the immortal performances on screen. It would merely be another performance you might say. But of course there is a great deal more to Ivan the Terrible than being terrible, a great deal more. He was a remarkable ruler. At one time he wanted to marry Queen Elizabeth... ”
Christopher Lee also appeared briefly in Tim Burton’s recent Gothic pastiche, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, and says of his role, “I start the ball rolling, or you might say heads rolling, by sending Johnny Depp off to Sleepy Hollow.” This cinematic experience also delighted Lee, “Again it’s such a joyful experience, working just for 2 days, Tim Burton behind the camera, Johnny Depp in front of the camera.”
He was pleased to have the opportunity to work with Johnny Depp, “a marvellous actor who I respect and admire immensely. I told him that he had restored my faith in the star system. I think he’s quite extraordinary. And Tim is an absolutely marvellous person to work for. It was the same thing with Andy Wilson on Gormenghast. The director with all that energy, enthusiasm, appreciation.”
“Well,” he pondered, “Years ago it was really quite simple - somebody would come to you and say, ‘We’re going to make this film and we offer you this part,’ and you say, ‘Talk to my agent,’ if you wanted to do it. The agent did a deal and that was it…
“It’s not like that now. People come and offer you a film - I’m getting scripts sent to me all the time and none of them have got a penny behind them. The money isn’t there, or it falls out, or it’s pulled out, at the last minute.
“Nowadays, actually getting to the point where you are in front of a camera, doing the work, it’s like Sisyphus trying to roll the stone up the hill.”
This does not deter Christopher Lee in the slightest - and far from being ‘over the hill’, he is (grimly) determined to keep that stone rolling up toward new, and greater, heights… as he turned ninety, he surprised us all by releasing a symphonic heavy metal album about the life of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne(!) and today, and on his 92nd birthday we hear that he has released a follow-up metal opera about the life of Don Quixote… we look forward to many more surprises…
|The Reign of Charlemagn... Don Quixote's next! |
(Click image above to hear some samples)
- Thank you and Happy Birthday, Sir Christopher Lee! -