Although he surely wouldn’t approve, it seems only right and proper to begin a Christopher Lee story with a Dracula anecdote. Actually, it is just over 25 years since Lee took the decision – as he puts it in his autobiography – ”to Draculate no more”. But the shadow of the Count – metaphorically if not literally, given that vampires aren’t supposed
to cast such things – obviously still haunts him. So let’s go back to 1999, when Lee agreed to narrate a documentary on the character’s historical origins.
As part of the film he visited Castle Bran in Romania, once home to Dracula (or at least his historical inspiration). Preparing his narration, he happened upon some officers from the Romanian army who had gathered at the castle for a function. He emerged into their midst dressed in a long cape and fur hat, looking like, well, like the Count himself. No wonder, then, that the sight of him was greeted by fervent crossings of the chest in the Orthodox style.
Even after all these years, it seems, one can’t help but expect there to be something Transylvanian about Christopher Lee. Not simply because of the six times he played the character for the Hammer studios in the 1960s, but because of the parts he has played recently. He is a prince of darkness again these days, most notably as the treacherous turncoat wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s also the treacherous turncoat Count Dooku in the most recent Star Wars movies. Both parts have something of the night about them.
So perhaps I should feel relieved that it is only four in the afternoon when we meet in a tiny hotel in Belgravia. As the clock strikes the hour, Lee arrives. Sporting a woolly hat. ”The day before yesterday I was reaching up to the top of a high stack of CDs and I
pulled them down on top of me,” he explains. ”One of them cut me through the scalp – they’re like razors, those things – and I had to go and get stitches in it. Doctor says I can’t take it off.” The photographer tries manfully to coax him out of the hat.
”Absolutely not. I’ll look hideous with part of my head shaved and these big stitches,” says Lee. It seems mildly ironic that a man who has spent so much of his career trying to look hideous should be worried about it now. ”I need to keep the beard because of Star
Wars,” he adds apologetically. ”Good God,” he says when he sees the Polaroids of the photoshoot. ”You’ve made me look like a Greek fisherman.” The photographer
points out, quite fairly, that it is rather hard to avoid looking like a fisherman when you insist on wearing a fisherman’s hat. ”I wore this very hat in a film called Bear Island in 1979,” says Lee. ”With Vanessa Redgrave.”
Christopher Lee is 82 and, as Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings, puts it, ”a wonderful gentleman with a delightfully playful sense of humour”. He berates the photographer for exaggerating his paunch, teasing him the way those who have worked
with him say he teases on set. Despite the self-effacing candour of his autobiography, however, he doesn’t talk about himself with ease. Although he is half-Italian – his mother was the Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini – he has the stiff upper lip you would expect of an Englishman educated at a Berkshire boarding school between the wars.
He has also had enough critical pastings from writers to make a naturally gregarious man like himself cautious. ”I do press interviews for two reasons: one because I’m contractually obliged to do so, as in the case of Lord of the Rings, or because I believe passionately in a film,” he explains. Which brings us to the reason we are here: a film called Jinnah. ”I don’t like watching myself on screen,” says Lee. ”But I can watch Jinnah.” It is, he says, ”the most important film I have ever made” and is ”probably my best performance”.
So why, you might ask, have you never heard of it? Very simple. It has gone straight to video. Or rather straight to DVD. And not even a DVD released by one of the usual production companies, but by his son-in law. Nobody else wants to touch it. The problem seems to be a combination of funding squabbles between the representatives of
British and American production companies, some technical problems with one of the prints, and an entertainment industry terrified by a film about a Muslim leader.
Yet when it comes to the merits of his movies, Lee is a man to be trusted. He is admirably, often comically, objective about his own films; by his own admission he’s been in quite a few bad ones. Of one called The Crimson Altar, his first with Boris Karloff, he says: ”I
hope no-one ever sees it.” The Curse of Dracula, his fourth appearance as ”the Transylvanian”, was, he says,”utterly feeble”. It is natural, then, that the old stager in the twilight of his career should want to puff up a decent part.
And, as anyone who knows anything about the history of the Indian subcontinent will tell you, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who helped create the state of Pakistan, is a great part. Jinnah led the movement for a Muslim state, separate from India, against the wishes of both Lord Mountbatten and Gandhi – and in the favoured British version of its colonial history he is the villain of the piece. Were it not for him, our version goes, India would have been returned peacefully to its native people, represented by the saintly, apolitical Gandhi, without bloodshed.
Lee plays the elderly Jinnah with a natural sympathy for the fly in the ointment. It is not a great film, but then judging by the way Lee carefully avoids calling it that, he knows this well enough. But it is a good film. He uses the phrase ”important” about it, which it certainly is, and says it is his best performance.
Given that few can have seen every one of the 200-plus films he has made, we will have to trust him on this. He is certainly very good in it, breaking down in a final scene to weep at the fate of the Pakistani people. ”Those tears were for real,” he says. Yet until now no-one has wanted to release it. Christopher Frank Carandini Lee has always felt like an outsider. At Wellington College in Berkshire – he didn’t have the maths for Eton – he felt acutely aware of his Italian background, especially after his English father abandoned him, his mother and his sister with huge gambling debts.
He felt fleetingly accepted, he says, as part of a motley crew in the RAF in North Africa, but was at a loss to know what to do when the Second World War ended. But in 1946 he had lunch with his cousin Niccolo, then the Italian ambassador to Britain, who interrupted an
amusing anecdote about how he came to be wounded in the buttocks during the war to inform Lee that he ought to be an actor. So that is what he did, signing with Rank and watching as such luminaries as John Mills and Richard Attenborough were nurtured by the studios.
Yet Lee was a terrible theatre actor – an unforgivable sin in the British dramatic profession in those days. He had a great voice, but he came to opera too late to make it. So he moved with his Swedish wife Gitte to Switzerland, where he worked in Italian and German films, until his association with the Hammer House of Horror began. In his autobiography Lord of Misrule he talks about his Hammer years with self-effacing humour. ”Dying as Dracula was usually worse than having a tooth out,” he writes. ‘
‘The worst was the time they discovered that vampires cannot abide hawthorns. I thought the religious connotation in dubious taste. But a film studio is not the ideal setting to thrash out a theological issue. I had to crash through a tangle of hawthorn bushes with a crown of thorns on my head, with Peter Cushing on the further side waiting to impale me with a stake snatched from a fence. They lacked the foresight to provide a dummy tree and I had to tear a way through vegetation with spines two inches long, emerging for the coup de grace shedding genuine Lee blood like a sprinkler. As she grew, my daughter, Christina, greeted each fresh contract with, ‘How do you die this time, Daddy?”’
He grew to dislike the role that made his name. ”A long time ago, I was typecast,” is the oblique manner in which he approaches the subject. ”Which was why I went to America. In America they make so many different kinds of film.” At the encouragement of the legendary director Billy Wilder he left for Hollywood in the seventies to spread his wings. Having typecast him almost to extinction, we were lucky he ever came back. Yet in his later years he returned to the very neighbourhood of his birth – the aristocratic crescents of Belgravia – and is now experiencing what can only be described as an Indian summer in his career.
Although he is scrupulously polite about everyone he has worked with, it is clear that working with director Tim Burton was a real turning point. He only appears in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow for five minutes but the director’s sincere and decidedly un-ironic appreciation of his work for Hammer lifted his spirits, while the film let Hollywood know he was still around. Not that he is unquestioningly grateful for what came next. He is magnanimous enough to admit that he was too old to play Gandalf, a part he had coveted since he first read The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, and he is full of praise for Ian McKellen’s performance in Peter Jackson’s trilogy.
However, he is still piqued by the exclusion of his performance as Saruman in The Return of the King. ”My whole sequence is about nine minutes. I would’ve thought it was quite important to the story – crucial to the story, in fact. Because it’s the final confrontation with the main antagonist, and it’s gone. There was a huge buzz on my website and it was front-page news in papers all over the world. Millions of people went to see that film and I know a lot of them – certainly the ones who had seen the previous films – will have said, ‘Where is he?”’
He’s being a little vain, isn’t he? ”It’s not a question of an actor’s vanity. I know there have to be cuts. But it’s a question of a sequence’s relation to the story. And in this particular instance what happens to Saruman is one of the most important things in all three films. I’ve had hundreds of people writing to me asking, ‘What does happen to Saruman?’ I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it.”
Anyone would think there was a curse on Christopher Lee. All actors at some stage end up on the cutting-room floor or see their films stall just before release. But it seems to happen to him only when the part is tremendously important to him. At least Peter Jackson has assured him that his part will be reinstated in the DVD when it is released in
November. As for Jinnah: it isn’t the first film that Lee has pushed for so passionately.
A few years ago Allan Brown’s book about the making of The Wicker Man detailed how Lee did promotional work above and beyond the call of duty in the 1970s to get a film that was treated with total disregard by the industry seen by the public. Yet it is now commonly considered to be one of the best British films ever made – and Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle is a work of no small brilliance.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Jinnah will be accorded the same kind of retrospective accolades. What can’t be faulted, though, is Lee’s single-handed role in bringing it to the world’s attention. Even before filming started in the late 1990s there was a furore over the fact that a Western actor, especially one who had played Dracula
several times, should appear as the founder of a Muslim state.
”The government of Benazir Bhutto provided financial backing for us, but when it fell, the replacement government withdrew its support halfway through filming,” he says. ”When the funds stopped I spoke to a friend of mine whose son was a general in Pakistan. I told him what had happened and he said it’s shameful, absolutely shameful, that this sort of thing should happen. I don’t know what happened after.”
The money came through in the end and the film was completed – only to stall in post-production due to legal wrangles. ”Distributors don’t want to touch a film that is going through litigation,” says Lee. He is reluctant to talk about it, but he is also fighting against the very forces of history. Relations between the West and the Islamic world have gone through a fundamental shift since the completion of filming.
Under pressure, however, he does admit that he is dealing with something very difficult. ”It could be that people are nervous of the subject, yes. They hear the words ‘Muslim leader’ and think Saddam Hussein. Not that I am putting them on the same level. As I
say, there is a great deal of uninformed fear. Jinnah was not a fundamentalist.”
The DVD is getting only a limited release, and Lee is visiting various British cities to drum up support among the Muslim communities. ”I am determined for it to be seen in this country,” he insists, although he sounds weary. He has come so far already, though. Filming was hard. He was accompanied everywhere he went in Pakistan by armed guards; his intrepid wife Gitte had her own. ”I was rather surprised when they told me that there was a retired army major that was trying to have the courts deport me,” he says ruefully. The case was thrown out. More difficult to deal with was what Lee calls a constant barrage of personal criticism from the influential Pakistani tabloid The News.
”It was relentless,” he says. ”It subsequently transpired that the editor wanted the part himself.” Yet the actor’s greatest criticism of this would-be rival is that he was ”quite small and Jinnah was a tall man”. Lee belongs to an antediluvian acting age where you quite
literally have to look the part – and oddly, with a bit of slap, he looks very much like Jinnah. Their public-school accents are identical too. No one, however, says ”sarcophagus” quite like Christopher Lee. The first syllable resonates throughout his chest. The second throws it out and the final two surround you like a shroud.
”I went to Jinnah’s tomb in Karachi without make-up on and dressed in my casual clothes. I walked in and I stood in front of his sarcophagus and I had a talk with him. I said to him, ‘I do hope you are satisfied and I do hope you approve because we are going to do our best to show you as you really were.’ There are guards standing inside that mausoleum. When I left they were all at salute. I think somebody must have said, ‘That man is going to play Jinnah.”’ For once Christopher Lee was not the main centre of attention in a crypt. For once everyone who was supposed to be dead remained dead, and those that entered alive left alive.
Before we leave him, he autographs a copy of his autobiography in a beautifully steady copperplate, revealing the crooked finger he got from duelling with Errol Flynn. Looking through the book, he comes across a photograph of him standing in his RAF uniform by the temples in Alexandria. His experiences in North Africa gave him, paradoxically, a fear of flying and an insatiable love of travel. Next he comes to a picture of his errant gambler of a father. ”There’s a tremendous likeness, don’t you think? ” And there is – apart from the fact that Lee is many times the man his father was, despite the rank and military distinctions that Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Lee achieved.
”I’m not a gambler by nature,” says Lee Junior. ”I don’t play cards or put money on horses, but my job has been a gamble. It’s a risk you have to be prepared to take: the endless disappointments and the endless treachery.” Treachery might seem a little too strong a word. It’s only acting, after all. Still, producers, moneymen and those other agents of chance and fortune have treated Christopher Lee abysmally over the years.
He looks through his wedding photographs and goes along the line. ”That’s my brother-in-law. He’s dead. That’s my sister. She died 18 months or so ago. There’s an aunt, she’s dead, an uncle – dead – and my wife’s father. Dead. Me and Gitte, we’re still holding on in there,
just,” he says wistfully. Then he comes to two young girls. ”Ah, and my niece. She’s very much alive. As is she, my other niece – Harriet Walter, a very distinguished actress.” This clearly cheers him: the profession of which his mother never approved passing on down the family.
Then there’s a picture of Boris Karloff. ”What a raconteur Boris was. A great storyteller. But when you asked him a question about his own life, a veil would come down. His late wife used to say to me, ‘I think I was his fifth wife, but I can’t be sure.”’ Christopher Lee readjusts his titfer and gives a low, mischievous chuckle. Even while raging against the dying of the light while wearing a woolly hat, there is still something of the Transylvanian about him.
This article appeared in The Herald Magazine on Saturday 24 July 2004. It was edited brilliantly by Simon Stuart who also kindly provided me with a copy of the text again recently. I repost it as a tribute to the late Christopher Lee who passed away recently. He was a great man.