From The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins, a fabulous memoir of the Irish film director Brian Michael Hurst. Robbins is writing a (never filmed) film script for Hurst about the birth of Christ and they are hoping that Michael Redgrave will play Herod. This is sometime in the early 70s.
On arrival at [Brian’s] house I was briefly introduced before Brian excused himself and went upstairs for some reason. We were left alone and it was evident that Sir Michael Redgrave was painfully shy. He was dressed in an old tweed jacket and corduroys, and had on the floor beside him a white plastic bag that I thought might contain the script and the great man’s notes. Although I was anxious to talk about the film I understood that it would not be appropriate for either of us to mention it before Brian returned. Besides, I had never spoken to an actor in my life about a script, let alone one who was unarguably one of England’s finest. I wondered if Sir Michael would be intellectual and analytical, or manipulative and charming.
'Sorry if I'm late,' I said. 'The bus took forever.'
There was a silence. After a while, Sir Michael said, ‘Prefer the bus, do you? To the tube?’
'There's no bus that really connects Knightsbridge to Fleet Street, that's the trouble.'
Sir Michael nodded. Silence fell again. A minute passed. Maybe two. It felt like an hour. Sir Michael rifled inside his plastic bag and pulled out a bottle of brandy. ‘Drink?’
Sir Michael replaced the bottle inside the plastic bag. Another silence; more time crawled by. Sir Michael pulled out another bottle. ‘I have whisky.’
'That's very kind but no thank you. I have to work this afternoon. Spirits at lunchtime make me sleepy.'
We sat in excruciating silence once again until Brian entered. Sir Michael immediately rose from his chair, pulled an envelope from the plastic bag and placed it on the desk. The men embraced and Sir Michael made for the door. He turned to face me. ‘Goodbye.’
Brian accompanied Sir Michael to the front door and I heard them muttering conspiratorially in the hallway. The words were indistinct but there was something urgent in Sir Michael’s tone, almost panic. The front door opened and closed, and Brian returned and took up his seat in the winged chair. ‘You made a very good impression on Sir Michael.’
'I am pleased.' The sarcasm failed to find its mark. 'Brian - I came all the way from Fleet Street for this meeting. I thought we were going to talk about the script. Sir Michael asks me if I prefer the bus to the tube, offers me a belt of booze from a plastic bag and says goodbye.' A suspicion entered my mind. 'He does know, I suppose, that I'm the man who wrote the script?' The suspicion grew. 'He has read the script?'
'Set all that aside' Brian said, dismissing my questions with a wave of the hand. 'This is much more important. A delicate matter. I am asking you to perform a service for Sir Michael in the utmost confidence. This is strictly between the three of us. I know I can trust you.'
'What is it?'
'Sir Michael has had a spot of bother with Big Freddy.' [Big Freddy is a well known hulking rent boy].
'…Big Freddy has been sending daily telegrams to Sir Michael demanding money. Naturally, they have been ignored. But Big Freddy has a spiteful streak - he has threatened to go to the papers.'
'What? And tell them Sir Michael's queer? As if they don't already know.' [Bisexual, actually, but a moot point in this context.]
Brian looked at me searchingly, and seemed to be considering whether to continue. ‘There are a few “in” jokes about Sir Michael in our circle. “Sir Michael Redgrave, I’ll be bound,” and “Sir Michael is unable to come to the phone just now, he’s all tied up!” Do you understand? […] So you can see why Sir Michael doesn’t want this to get into the News Of The World.’
I didn’t know much about Hurst (except that of course he directed Dangerous Moonlight) and this anecdote is more about Michael, bless him, but The Empress of Ireland is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year. It’s fucking glorious. You don’t need to know anything about the film industry (British or Hollywood - Hurst went out in the 20s and became John Ford’s lifelong friend, amongst other things) but if you do it’s extra joyful. But it covers Ireland, and Gallipoli, London and Tangier, and Hurst comes out of it as a grand old charmer of a man, even if you wouldn’t want to lend him a fiver, or share a guardsman with him.
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