In a change from the usual. I am reproducing here my interview with the Welsh actor Victor Spinetti who died this morning at a hospice in Monmouth. He had cancer. What a delight he was to talk with and I am very sad to hear this news. The interview was first published on my theatre site, Rogues & Vagabonds, in 2003.
Tuesday 18th March 2003
Interview | VICTOR SPINETTI
The original idea had been to meet during rehearsals at the London Palladium where he has now taken over as Baron Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Congestion charging and cancelled trains scotched that in a trice. In the end, after a flurry of calls, Victor Spinetti and I managed to speak on the telephone. No one who has ever read or seen an interview with the actor will be surprised to learn that I spent most of the time laughing.
A tonic for any time of the day or night, Spinetti is one of that select but rapidly dwindling band of professionals that include Brian Murphy, Sheila Hancock and Barbara Windsor, as well as the recently departed director, David Scase, who had the joy and good fortune to be part of Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in the 1950s and 1960s. She was, says Spinetti, his ‘great mentor’.
Other than his Tony Award-winning performance as the Drill Sergeant Major in the original production of Oh What a Lovely War! for Littlewood — his favourite part — Spinetti’s most prominent claim to fame is probably his association with the Beatles after he was cast, courtesy of George, in A Hard Day’s Night, followed by Help! and Magical Mystery Tour. He may owe much to the visionary Littlewood and the ‘quiet’ Beatle, but his career overall comprises much more.
Although he has done little television, considering the length of his career — he says that casting directors find it difficult to see past the Italian name — he has appeared in countless films including Under Milk Wood with Burton and Taylor, The Return of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, and The Krays. In fact, it comes as quite a shock to discover he was not in the 1968 film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; surely, you think, he played The Child Catcher. But no — the part was actually brought to the screen by the ballet dancer and choreographer, Robert Helpmann.
In addition to his years at Stratford East — other productions there included Ben Johnson’s Every Man in His Humour and Brendan Behan’s bitingly funny play about Anglo-Irish relations, The Hostage — Spinetti has appeared in everything from straight plays and pantomime to stage musicals such as the 1958 Expresso Bongo! with Cliff Richard, Paul Scofield and Millicent Martin. In the 1960s, he oversaw several productions of Hair and has since directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others. Recently, he has been touring as Professor Marcus for Clive Francis’s stage adaptation of the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers.
Born in Wales to a Welsh mother and an Italian father whose own father had trekked across Europe to the coalfields of Wales, Victor Spinetti trained in Cardiff and made his debut at a concert party in 1953. He has travelled all over the world, meeting and working with some of the greatest names in the business, many of whom remain friends, and about whom he has a fund of stories.
SV: I’m very disappointed we’re not meeting face to face.
VS: I know. I’ve shaved, I’ve changed, clean underwear on!
That’s more than I did. I didn’t put any slap on, nothing!
Oh, I did an interview yesterday with someone who came up from BBC Radio Wales and they said, ‘Well, do you like working large theatres?’ and I said I love the Palladium because, of course, I’ve worked here before. It’s a lovely stage to stand on. And they said, ‘Yeah, but it’s awfully big.’ I said, ‘I know, but when you stand on the Palladium stage, as you stand there, your eyes should be in the Gods, your tits in the dress circle and your balls in the stalls.’ That’s if you stand on the stage at the Palladium. As a kid and growing up as a teenager, I used to come up from Wales where I was born and sneak off from school and get tickets for the matinées. And I saw them all. I saw Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Bob Hope. I used to come up, and when I eventually moved to London, I used to live here [central London]. At that time, Equity members could get free matinée tickets so I saw them all.
And now, I am standing in those spots on that stage. Now, it was the year I did the pantomime here and I said to Louis Benjamin, who was running the Palladium at the time, I said, ‘Do I have to sing that song? It was a song about the rats that are creeping down the streets — terrible song — and he said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘We’ve got a three minute spot, do what you want.’ So I wrote out something else. I actually sang from Carmen as King Rat. So therefore, it’s a magical place. Of course, I saw the show and I fell in love with it. It’s a wonderful show and I thought oh, how lovely to be in the world of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang instead of what’s going on at the moment.
Until I checked, I was convinced you were The Child Catcher in the original film.
People used to think I was. They’d say, ‘Oh, you frightened me as a child.’ Well, listen to this — I once got a review in The Times from Benedict Nightingale. I was doing a play by Ionesco and my critique was: ‘And why did Victor Spinetti elect to wear that absurd false nose?’ And I wasn’t wearing one!
You’re a diverting mix of Italian and Welsh. How have both cultures affected you?
The Welsh thing in the sense that of course one was born in Wales and grew up there. There’s a love of music, of course, but I don’t know. It’s a good mix. I mean, my father was the Italian side. You see, my grandfather walked from Italy, walked from Northern Italy, love. He walked across Europe to find a new life ‘cos the coalfields had opened in South Wales and at that time there was a common market. You could go where you liked for work. There were no passports, no work permits. This is before the First World War. It was only the war that brought all that stuff in. Before that, people could come, so people came to Wales from Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary — everywhere. My grandfather, as a young man, walked across Europe to work in the pit in South Wales in Swansea.
And so, when I first came to London, agents said, ‘You’ll have to change your name, dear. We don’t have that many parts for crooks or Welsh.’ I said no, I wouldn’t. And therefore, that’s why you don’t see me much on telly because when I was doing The Odd Couple in London with Jack Klugman, when I was doing that, I got a script from the Beeb. I thought, ooh, this is it, I’ve done it now. And the television script was to play in one episode of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook as an Italian who couldn’t speak a word of English! Recently I was on tour with Dulcie Gray doing The Ladykillers. I was playing the Alec Guinness part and I got another script from the Beeb. And I thought, this is it, and it was to play in one episode of Holby City as a dying old Italian! They never got past the name. Never mind.
How did you become part of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop?
I used to go and see the productions, of course. And I thought, oh, this is too dedicated, too good for me, this. And yet, when I met her, she asked me to audition. I was asked to audition and I went along to the theatre. And, well, we clicked. She said, ‘How much would you give me for this set?’ And I said a fiver. Because it was only half a window and a beer barrel. And she said, ‘This a Sean Kenny set!’ And she said, ‘If you had to pull this theatre down, if you owned this theatre and somebody offered you a million pounds, what would you do?’ I said I’d go round the world, have a lovely time. And she said, ‘Oh, good, darling, you can play Charlie.’ And a voice at the back of the stalls said, ‘Charlie’s the lead.’ She [Joan] said, ‘You’ve got the lead, love.’ We started from there. And she was my great mentor.
I met Brian Murphy at a dinner party last year and he was also saying just how important she was in his life. She was clearly a tremendous influence, and not just on those who worked with her at Stratford East.
People have said to me, you know, like Trevor Nunn and people, Jane Eyre, Richard Eyre — she used to call him Jane Eyre — they all said that she was the great influence on them, and made them want to come to the theatre. Mainly because they saw Oh, What a Lovely War! I spent two and a half years of my life in that, darling.
I’m right, aren’t I, in saying you won a Tony Award for it on Broadway?
London, Paris and New York. I called it the Max Factor tour. There are two shows I’ve been proud to be in, in that sense, and one was Oh, What a Lovely War and the other was The Hostage, Brendan Behan. I said to Brendan, ‘What can a Welsh Italian do in an Irish play?’ He said, ‘A fockin’ IRA officer, of course!’
Everyone inevitably questions you about the Beatles and I’m not going to prove the exception! I was going to ask about being cast in A Hard Day’s Night.
And that was what, forty years ago? I’ve just had a job out of that film, that’s interesting. I’ve had many jobs. I was in a film with Prince only because I was in the two films. Last September and October, I went to America for Miramax Films and Walt Disney Films because they bought A Hard Day’s Night and it’s out on DVD and they asked if I would go to America on what they called ‘a trip of a lifetime’ to say how lovely it was to be on that film. And my God, I went first class to a beautiful hotel in New York, theatre tickets, limos — stretch limos — and then on the train to Los Angeles, and just went on as I’m doing with you now, and on radio and television, about what it was like to work on the films, in return for which I was given what they called ‘walking around money’ and all expenses paid for five weeks. That came out of that film.
And all because, as far as I’ve read, George’s mother fancied you. Is that right?
It’s true. He came to see me in Oh, What a Lovely War and George said, ‘You’ve gotta be in our film, Vic. In fact, in all our films.’ I said why and he said, ‘Well, if you’re not in ’em, me Mum won’t come and see ’em ‘cos she fancies you.’ And that’s exactly true.
Are you getting enough rehearsal time for the takeover?
Oh yes. I mean, yes. I must always say no, it’s never enough. But we are, indeed. We’re getting four weeks. Usually it’s three, sometimes two. Especially when you go on the road. I’ve been out touring for the last few years (a) because that’s the work that came up and (b) a lot of actors won’t tour, but I love it because I’m getting to see the places.
I interviewed Timothy West a short time ago and he was emphasising the fun of touring, and it is such fun, isn’t it?
Oh God yes. You’re suddenly standing in Durham Cathedral and then you go to all the great stately homes. You go to visit the towns, the cities, all paid for and just work in the evenings. That’s why I like the theatre. Much prefer it to telly. Telly’s like bankers’ jobs. From nine in the morning to about five at night. No, no. My idea of luxury is to have breakfast and go back to bed with the papers. And then loll. And my other idea of success — somebody once asked me this: what’s your idea of success, and I said well, it’s to read the review on Sunday and buy the book on Monday. And not have to wait for the library or the paperback. I wriggle with delight at the thought of that.
Obviously, reading is a huge passion.
What else are you passionate about, that has nothing to do with the theatre?
Nothing to do with the theatre. That’s what Binkie Beaumont always used to say about plays. ‘I’ve put this play on and I was speaking to someone the other day — nothing to do with the theatre — and they thoroughly enjoyed it.’ Oh, what passions? Darling, I’m very passionate about things. I’m passionate about the fact that we have no education. We need to teach kids that the planet rises at 7.10 and sets at 6.15 — the sun doesn’t move! Start with that and we’d all begin to realise we’re on one thing. I’m passionate about all sorts of things. If you want to keep anything, you’ve got to give it away. Then it’s yours forever. If you want love, you have to give it. If you want generosity, you have to give it, if you want delight, you have to give it. You don’t expect it to be found, you have to give it away and then it’s yours forever. Things like that excite me.
And I love people who have a kind of intelligence. When you’re touring round the country and you go into a city or a town that has a theatre, there’s a different level of intelligence in the air, a little bit of something but you can tell there’s a theatre in that town. It’s very important. Things like that I’m passionate about. Food? Well, I eat and I enjoy it but I wouldn’t go as far as some people like Tony Shaffer, the guy who wrote Sleuth, used to go to — very great gourmet. He used to go to one restaurant for hors d’oeuvres, and one restaurant for a main course and another restaurant for dessert. That was the only drag on the QE2 because you had to dress for dinner every evening. Once or twice, okay, but every night!
Life’s too short.
You directed Jesus Christ Superstar in Paris in the 1960s?
Yes. Hair in Rome. Hair in Amsterdam. It only came about by accident. Something turns up and you go and do it. I never made any plans. You don’t have to go to America; America comes to you, if you know what I mean. If you’re on a plane, you don’t go anywhere; the thing comes to you. With directing, I was doing this play with Joan [Littlewood] and Olivier said, ‘You have to direct [Hair] for me, my dear baby, because none of us understand it.’ That’s why I was directing. No big deal. I was there doing that. And then the people who wrote Hair were in town then — 68/69 — in London. And they came to see the show and said, ‘We want you to direct Hair for us in Amsterdam.’ And I said, yes, but can I change things? They said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, each country should grow its own Hair, you see. It’s no use doing an appliqué of what happened on Broadway, you have to find out what is going in that country.’ So I said if I can do that—. They said yup.
So I went to Holland and I found out that the biggest thing they were discussing at that moment that was getting people into a rage was whether priests should be allowed to marry. And I made that an integral part of the show. I kept the storyline about Vietnam and going to war and all that but I also put that in. And so when I was asked to direct it in Rome, I said okay. So I put in there the question of abortion and the Pill. Well, of course, it got rioting in the streets, it really did! They were throwing mud at the posters and the Pope denounced us — spettacolo scandaloso — I had to go and learn Italian. I went to Berlitz. I did a crash course; I did 100 lessons in 10 days. What had happened was that all the Italian directors — Zefferelli, Visconti even, the other one, Fellini — had all been asked to do Hair in Rome because it was going to play at the Sistina which is the Palladium of Rome. And they wouldn’t do it.
So I was asked to do it and I didn’t know they’d turned it down, of course. I said, ‘Sure, as long I can do what I want.’ They said, yeah, yeah, do what you want. So I put in divorce, the Pill, abortion. Well, they went mad. But of course, that’s what it should be. The songs are wonderful but the book is a bit sort of, you know. In other words, let each country grow its own Hair and then it works. It really did. It was the longest- running musical. Nothing ran in Rome except gossip. But that ran and then it toured the country. It played Milan, it went all over the place and it caused a lot of fuss.
I hope it earned you lots of lovely dosh.
Don’t be so silly, darling! You know and I know…! We haven’t had the costs back yet! You get a fee and that’s about it really. If you get a percentage, you’ve got to be in Rome, you’ve got to be sitting behind the box office staff to check the receipts. Actors never get anything because that’s what we do.
Have you done any directing since then?
Oh yes. I just can’t remember. The last one was a musical based on the life of the one who played in all those great silent movie films directed by D W Griffiths, and who loved him madly. This wonderful lady who went on and on and on for many, many years, in fact came to London for the opening night. Lillian Gish. And I did a musical on her life that went on at the Phoenix. I directed revues with Sheila Hancock, George Cole. And Christ, all sorts of things. The last thing I directed was at Stratford. It was a play about the life of Christ. That was the last one so that was a few years ago.
Super Ted the Musical on stage. I even put Fiona Richmond [1970s porn star] on stage: Let’s Get Laid at the Palladium. Raymond [of Raymond’s Revue Bar] rang up and said, ‘I’m going to open the Windmill as a theatre and I’ve got this fucking girl, she can’t fucking act, she wants to go on the stage. Will you do it?’ I said okay, so I did it and it ran for two and a half years. I opened the Windmill Theatre. Elizabeth Taylor came to see it. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’ve just directed a play called Let’s Get Laid.’ ‘Oh, come on, let’s go.’ She went backstage. The kids opened the door and there was Fiona wearing nothing but a merkin and she said, ‘Victor always brings weird people back to see us but you’re the most beautiful of all the weird people Victor’s brought back.’ And Elizabeth looked her up and down and said, ‘Honey, you’re so slim! If you were on the Pill, it would show.’ Great sense of humour. Max von Sydow came to London. ‘What shall I see?’ And I told him. ‘Great! Let’s go.’
That’s difficult to put on stage. A lot of people wouldn’t mention it. ‘With nudes? How could you do it?’ But we did it and it was the most innocuous thing but it was very funny and there were these beautiful women in it. But people don’t mention that, don’t put it on their CV because they’re all on the OBE trail! Did your dad get one?
[We had earlier discussed the fact that my father, Richard Vernon, had appeared in A Hard Day’s Night as the city gent on the train who complains about the noise of the mop-haired four.]
No. They did do his This is Your Life in 1986, though!
I can see him now sitting in that railway carriage. Wonderful actor! I’m a fan of his. He was on the train. I can see him now. I can see that scene now very well.
Do you think the run of Chitty will be affected by current events worldwide [Iraq war]?
I think all these things are so important to have, to see, to get away from it all. Yes. Oh, what! I can’t wait to get into this. When I was at the RSC, when I was leaving to do something else, they said, ‘What do you do? You don’t do pantomime, do you?’ Well, yes, of course. And you go into that and you think, oh wonderful, you’re in there all day, and the kids are laughing and oh, how wonderful. I’m lucky to be in this world that I’m in now.
Baron Bomburst is the part that Brian Blessed has been playing and, of course, you are both very, very different.
Brian said to me: ‘You may be funnier but you won’t be as sexy.’
But of course you’re as sexy, don’t take any notice of him! How is your Baron Bomburst?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m just learning it. I’m an instinctual rather than… I don’t know about technique. I feel this guy is obsessed, he’s spoilt, he’s a spoilt brat. He’s got the power of life and death. And he’s a sort of bully boy and a child at heart. Darling, it’s enchanting, the show is enchanting. I am absolutely—. The word is enchanted.
Before I go, a friend of mine, actor Richard Syms, told me to ask about The Odd Couple and whether ‘the Jack Klugman story’ was true.
Absolutely true. He came on and he said, ‘How are you feeling?’ and I said, ‘I’m fine.’ He said, ‘Good. Because tonight I’m going to murder you.’ And he walked on stage and did stuff I’d never seen before in my life. It didn’t matter because having worked with Joan Littlewood, we were quite used to actors who’ve suddenly been changing things in the middle. So I just kept going. But it’s only because of the guy who played Felix in New York, Walter Matthau, [who] played it on Broadway and Art Carney played Felix. Now, Walter Matthau wiped the floor with him, talked directly to the audience, ignoring him totally. And the next day Walter Matthau got every review and Art Carney wasn’t mentioned. So bad was it that Art Carney tried to commit suicide.
Now, it’s a two-hander, obviously, well, virtually, but it’s mainly between Oscar and Felix. And I knew that, you see. I knew that had happened. I was rather wary that it could happen here, in London. But it didn’t. But it didn’t matter. His wife came over, his ex-wife now, and said to me, ‘Is he trying to pull you down? He only does that in order to get his energy up.’ It was all right, we ended up okay. It was just a ploy really. It’s their choice.
It’s like The Return of the Pink Panther. When the film was finished, Universal Studios said ‘we want more of Sellers and Spinetti’; so they rebuilt the set in Pinewood and Peter and I filmed for two weeks of extra stuff. And Peter kept saying, ‘This has got to be the funniest scene in the movie. God, this is going to be wonderful.’ And it was all cut. And Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine told me, each independently, it was Peter because he had the final cut of the film: ‘He was jealous of you.’
Now, the point is I have nothing in my gut when I tell you this; that was his choice at the time. That’s up to him. I’m still alive and he’s dead. Right? I’ve worked with some people who have been terrifying about… well, if everybody’s good, the show’s good. He was feeling vulnerable at the time, you see, and so his choice was that. I mean, at that point in the middle of the 70s, I suppose it could have changed my life at that time. But he chose to do something because he felt vulnerable and I can understand that. I don’t think: ‘Bastard!’ He was brilliant, he was wonderful and I did about five films with him. He never ever saw me in any of them but he liked working with me and we enjoyed improvising together. I’ve been asked many times to write a book but I’m too lazy.
I read yesterday that it’s because you prefer telling it.
Yes. Well, you can do the voices.
Sarah Vernon © 17-03-03