Naked Lunch at the Theatre
Leslie Phillips discusses his recent return to the Theatre.
First published in The Times Feb 2001
Back to give us his leer....
Well hello, Leslie Phillips, says Denail Rosenthal, tell us about your new part, as well as your 76 glorious years as the roué's roué. Ding-dong
Lock up your grandmothers: Leslie Phillips, the cad who launched a thousand filmic paternity suits, is about to set female hearts aflutter again A few minutes into John Mortimer’s new stage play, the courtroom drama Naked Justice, a genial sixtysomething character named Fred tells a puritanical colleague: “What I could never understand about Blind Date was the way they never seemed to get down to rogering.”
An amusing enough line, it positively leaps off the page when you know that in Leeds this week, Fred will be played by Leslie Phillips. You picture blue eyes, blond moustache, tweed suit, and hear “rogering” delivered in that unmistakable voice, with a posh, mischievous purr.
Phillips is the first to acknowledge that his voice has dominated his career, and it continues to bring him the lucrative voice-over work which “means that I can afford to do Naked Justice for very little money”. For several years, Virgin Atlantic passengers were treated to a sprightly, animated safety film, with Phillips voicing the dashing pilot. He recently did an innuendo-laden radio campaign for a car hire firm (jokes about “getting my hands on a sporty little number”) and a couple of Saturdays ago, in a TV commercial filled with buxom, bikini-clad models, he delivered a trademark “Ding-dong!”, encouraging red-blooded readers of the Sunday People to rush out and secure a “babes” calendar. Phillips chuckles: “They offered me a substantial amount of money to appear in the ad. You know, lying next to those lovelies. I said no.”
Because for a chap with a 77th birthday looming there are limits? “Absolutely.”
Advertisers continue to play off audience association with Phillips’s performances in gin-drinking, filly-chasing parts proscribed to a large extent by his fruity tones: three Doctor films, three Carry Ons, the lothario of Casanova ‘73, Lord Astor in Scandal, through to Falstaff for the RSC and, last year, a kindly Tory backbencher in Peter Tinniswood’s monologue On the Whole It’s Been Jolly Good, as subtle a solo turn as you could hope to see.
As the decades passed, the scripts improved, but the pedigree of his characters has remained pretty constant, making you wonder if John Gielgud’s self-assessment that he was “quite unable to act without suggesting good breeding” can be applied to Phillips.
He assures me that he could have convinced as a working-class hero, but who would ever have dreamt of casting him in such a guise? While Gielgud, the stockbroker’s son, was to the manor born, Phillips was the son of a Tottenham shopkeeper who died young, leaving his widow, Cecilia, to bring up three children on a meagre income, soon supplemented by Leslie’s earnings as a child actor.
He began at ten, in Peter Pan at the Palladium, and by the time he went on tour at 14 had begun to replace his Cockney accent with the refined instrument we know so well. “I remember making terrible bloomers as the accent changed, dropping aitches and so on. Going into the Army helped, because I was mixing with upper-class officers.”
He joined up in 1942, at 18, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry “because I looked like an officer. I enjoyed the camaraderie, but I didn’t enjoy the war. There were too many shells going off around me. I got banged up quite badly and ended up in hospital with damaged nerves.”
The breakdown, in 1943-44, probably saved his life. “If I hadn’t been in hospital I would have seen more action and might have been killed. The war made me grow up very fast, whereas my two sons - both smashing, successful boys - were not men until they were nearly 30.”
He says that he was untroubled by his return visits to that period via screen appearances in I Was Monty’s Double (1958) and then as a prisoner of war in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987). Watching war films is another matter. “Young people tell me, ‘Oh, it’s marvellous. So-and-so is in it and everybody’s killing each other.’ When I’ve seen them, I’ve found myself walking out. War is brutal. Had I had this feeling when I was 18 I could well have been a pacifist, but I just thought: ‘I’m British, so I must enlist.'
“But the war turned out to be probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because without it, I wouldn’t now be an actor. At 18, I was thinking of packing in the acting, but after the war I did not know what to do, so I drifted back to theatre.”
His work-rate on stage was phenomenal: ten West End comedies that ran for more than a year each, including For Better, For Worse, when his understudy was an unknown called Nigel Hawthorne. Hawthorne waited in vain for two years, as Phillips never missed a show, not even a midweek matinee; testament to both his professionalism and his stamina.
He made “serious money” from those West End hits in which he invested as well as acted. By the mid-1970s, however, the financial rewards were outstripping the professional satisfaction. “I had a reputation as a light comedy actor which left me hard-pressed to get a dramatic part. That drove me mad, and I made the only conscious career decision of my life - to find parts that were really worth doing, and not just entertainment.”
Acclaimed performances in the premiere of Peter Nichols’s Passion Play (“My all-time favourite") and as Gaev in The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lindsay Anderson, obliged many to extend their view of Phillips’s capabilities beyond the bounder stereotype. They also rejuvenated a love of acting which explains why he cannot contemplate retirement, even though he sometimes thinks he’s an idiot to do plays like Naked Justice, centred around the Rumpole-like trial of a black teenager accused of murder, “because they take me away from so many other things that I love, particularly our place in Spain [he and his wife, the actress Angela Soutar, are restoring a 200-year old farmhouse].”
In Mortimer’s play, Fred monopolises the best lines, although even after 60 years on stage, Phillips still finds it impossible to predict where the laughs will come. “I hate it when directors say, ‘This is where the laugh is.’ Never anticipate laughter. The most important thing is to connect with the other actors, not think about the audience. They tell you what the play’s about. They’re the missing member of the cast.”
His journey from Tottenham to an OBE would make for quite a memoir. He could reminisce about colleagues as diverse as Kenneth Williams ("A one-off. I miss him very much”) and Spielberg (“He gave me his baseball cap when we finished Empire of the Sun - although maybe he has boxes of the things”). There’s the poor-to-posh transformation; the war; first marriage; acrimonious divorce in the 1960s; the second marriage to Soutar, 22 years his junior; four children and 15 grandchildren; a brush with financial ruin as a Lloyd’s Name; the shocking death of his 92-year-old mother, mugged by three boys at a bus stop.
Macmillan knows a cracking life story when it sees one, and has signed up his autobiography. “I’ve got an awful lot to say - and I’d put everything in. Otherwise, what’s the point? The trouble is I just can’t find the time. Hard job, writing. Lonely.”
The writing also obliged him to do something uncharacteristic: think about his age. “It’s sort of crept up on me. I mean people give me their seats on the Tube for goodness’ sake!”
But morbid thoughts were an unavoidable consequence of his most recent screen appearance, as the aristocratic Gervaise Crouchback in Channel 4’s Sword of Honour. In this otherwise disappointing Evelyn Waugh adaptation, Phillips delivered a reserved, dignified cameo every bit as memorable as Gielgud’s portrayal of the equivalent, though very different, father figure in Brideshead Revisited. “When I got the script, I thought, ‘Oh, yes!’” he says, beaming. “No comedy, just a deep, religious man. Lovely.”
Gervaise’s death involved a scene in which Phillips lay in an open coffin, immaculate in a three-piece suit, as the deceased’s friends paid their respects. “God, filming that was absolutely horrific. It made me very low, and when my family saw it they found it pretty unbearable.”
For Phillips it was a jolting reminder of mortality, and for the rest of us a reminder of what a strange business acting is: the only profession where you get paid to stage your own death.
Given the chance to pen his own epitaph, Phillips would opt for something geared more towards matter-of-fact career summary. “Rather like the Windmill, which never closed during the Blitz, I think I’d like people to say: ‘He never gave up.’ ”
Naked Justice ran at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until February 24.