Star Turns is a new book by the journalist Tim Walker on his encounters with a variety of stars from stage and screen. Here, he shares his memories of meeting two famous Scots.
This is going to take a bit of explaining but it was The Winslow Boy that introduced me to Ronnie Corbett. The late, great Scots actor and comedian never appeared in the play but his old friend Edward Hardwicke had, at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2001. It was a wonderful production and, if there had been any justice in the world, it should have transferred to London.
Some twelve years on, Terence Rattigan’s play was revived at the Old Vic, with Henry Goodman playing the part of the father determined to fight for justice for his son. He wasn’t a patch on Hardwicke and I said as much when I reviewed it.
A few days later, I received a beautifully handwritten letter from Corbett, in which he said how thrilled he was that Hardwicke’s portrayal had meant so much to me. Corbett explained that Hardwicke, who had died two years earlier, had been his best friend since they did their national service together as pilot officers in the RAF.
Hardwicke had given the role everything he had, not least because his father, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, had previously played it in the classic 1948 film version, so it was for him – as Corbett put it – a matter of ‘family pride’.
Corbett was then eighty-three, but full of life and enthusiasm. Afterwards, if I wrote a piece he disagreed with, he was on the phone. He never wanted an argument: he just wanted to establish why I had thought something. His silences could be damning. He had a strong sense of the power of words and of right and wrong.
Around that time I had agreed – as a stunt to raise money for charity, rather than any obvious typecasting – to appear in a production of Spamalot at the Playhouse theatre. I was to play God. I told Corbett it would almost certainly be embarrassingly bad but invited him along anyway. To my delight, he showed up on a cold, dank winter’s night in a cheery tartan jacket and mauve waistcoat and was the life and soul of the after-party.
Corbett was, of course, a living legend, best known for appearing in the hugely successful BBC television series The Two Ronnies with his old friend Ronnie Barker but also a string of films, such as the first Casino Royale and No Sex Please, We’re British and the television sitcom Sorry! He’d also trodden the boards and done his share of pantos. He never, however, acted like a star: he was just interested in people, liked to laugh and wanted to make sure everyone around him was having a good time. Not long afterwards, Corbett attended a gathering at 10 Downing Street hosted by David Cameron, when he was still prime minister. Corbett confided in me he didn’t find Cameron at all impressive – ‘too eager to please’ – but, born in Edinburgh and a staunch defender of the Union, he was one of 200 public figures who subsequently signed an open letter expressing the hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the UK in the independence referendum.
Corbett had an understated sense of British patriotism based on the idea that everyone should have the same chances in life he’d had. Childhood memories of the war had left him with a sense, too, of the fragility of freedom. Our later conversations invariably ended with us both saying we must have lunch but that was never to happen. Sometimes he would commit to a date, but later cancel, saying he was feeling ‘a wee bit under the weather’.
Over the months, our telephone calls became less frequent. When I phoned, I found myself talking more often than not to his wife, Annie. She was initially mystified why suddenly he seemed so weary. She was obviously worried sick about him but she never once complained. The Corbetts sought medical advice and motor neurone disease was diagnosed; a cruel and debilitating disease of the nervous system. Rumours began appearing in some tabloid newspapers about Corbett’s health but the couple had decided they would handle the ramifications themselves and in their own way.
I’ve no doubt that Corbett, who had devoted his life to making people laugh, had been loath to make them sad. He died in the spring of 2016: I associate the moment now with a loss of innocence and the start of a harsher – and certainly less humorous – era.
Ronnie Corbett was born in Edinburgh on 4 December 1930, and died in London, on 31 March 2016. He was eighty-five.
In the age of coronavirus, it’s as well perhaps not to dwell too much on six degrees of separation: the idea that all people are on average six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. Still, I was struck by how true it was when I found myself questioning Sir Sean Connery about various allegations that his former wife Diane Cilento had made about him. It was good, strong stuff with the former James Bond star telling me that Cilento was an ‘insane woman’ who was ‘prepared to stoop to the level of the gutter’ to tarnish him.
Connery had had a son by Cilento in Jason and, in the midst of this diatribe about his former wife, he mentioned a school in Somerset where he had briefly sent the future Robin of Sherwood star. He said it was a ‘rubbish’ place and that he’d bitterly regretted the decision to send him there.
It so happened I had been at the school at the same time as Jason and I knew what had caused him to say this. Jason had walked into a changing room and found a thirteen-year-old Persian boy named Mehran Sarkeshik had hanged himself. He’d tried to resuscitate him but it was too late. Mehran had been badly bullied by an older boy. The traumatic experience caused Connery to remove Jason from the school and send him instead to Gordonstoun. Connery was still – just as much as I am – haunted by the tragedy.
Connery had a reputation for being a tough guy, and it’s true he had gone on to admit that he saw nothing wrong in a husband hitting a disobedient wife but, when I told him I’d been at the school at the same time as his son and had known Mehran, he spoke movingly about how, all those years on, he still felt furious about what happened.
He could not understand how the school had so fundamentally failed in its duty to Mehran’s parents and how he couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain they must have gone through. I’d got to know Connery through his French-Moroccan wife Micheline Roquebrune, whom I had interviewed some years before about her painting. She had always talked to me about her husband being in reality very different from his public image. ‘I think it’s not unhelpful for him professionally that the newspapers keep writing about what a macho guy he is, but that is not the man I know at all,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to marry him if he’d been an insensitive brute. He has most certainly never hit me.’
Connery never quite came to accept that being a film star was a proper job for a grown man. His real passions had always been off-screen – Micheline, his family, golf and Scottish independence. He had long been a member of the Scottish National Party and this, I discovered, had made for a complicated relationship with Rupert Murdoch, whose family also originated north of the border.
Initially dubious about independence, Murdoch – who is proud of his Scottish ancestry – has reportedly been coming round to the idea. ‘Rupert always tells me he thinks of himself as Scottish but you could often have fooled me,’ said Connery. ‘He is whatever it is expedient for him to be for tax purposes.’
In 2006, Connery announced his retirement and resisted attempts to appear in one last Indiana Jones film for a humongous sum of money. Sir Roger Moore tried to persuade him to get together with all the other living Bond stars for one final homage to the franchise, but Connery was having none of it. He said he was finding retirement ‘too much damned fun’.
Sir Sean Connery was born in Edinburgh on 25 August 1930, and died in the Bahamas on 31 October 2020, aged ninety.
Star Turns, by Tim Walker, is out now. Published by SunRise