Relative values: Harriet Walter and Christopher Lee
Ann McFerran Harriet Walter and her uncle Christopher Lee, both actors
Christopher Lee, 79, came to fame with such Hammer Horror classics as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. His film roles include the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, and he will soon be seen in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He lives with his wife, Gitte, in Knightsbridge, London. They have one daughter, Christina, 38. His niece Harriet Walter, 47, has played leading roles for the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and in the West End. She is appearing as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing at the RSC’s Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. She lives in Fulham, London.
HARRIET: Some years ago, I went to the rainforest in Guyana, courtesy of Friends of the Earth. We were three hours down river, miles away from anywhere, and the only thing we were told to worry about was vampire bats, which possibly carried rabies.One day, these bats appeared overhead and a fisherman cried: “Look, Christopher Lee bat!” He nearly fell into the water when I told him that Christopher Lee was my uncle.
When I was about nine, my uncle had just played the title role in The Mummy, in which he had to walk with stiff legs because he’d been bandaged up in the mummy’s wrappings. Soon after the film came out, he had supper with my parents, and came up to my bedroom to kiss me good night. He knocked on my door and his silhouette in the lighted corridor appeared in the doorway. Then he lurched into the dark bedroom and did his mummy’s walk towards me. I was absolutely terrified. I screamed and screamed and screamed. So, to me, he could be more frightening off screen than on.
My uncle is my mother’s younger brother: she adores him, and he adores her.
She has a sweet nature and it’s a good relationship. She was the classic little girl who had to be very good because of her very, very naughty younger brother. The whole family got furious with Christopher, but also found him incredibly sweet.
To me as a child, my uncle was a roving, exotic bachelor figure who swanned in once in a while. The heart rate went up when he walked in the door.
Perhaps it was his wonderful deep voice but he seemed to have an extraordinary power over you. He was a great raconteur and a flamboyant dresser and had glamorous girlfriends and a bachelor pad off Ebury Street before he married my Aunt Gitte. Because he was so very handsome and very gentle, I feel I’ve been in and out of different phases with my uncle, of having a crush on him, then being a little in love with him.
In the 1950s he became famous for playing Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster in all those Hammer Horror movies. In terms of his life span and career, it was a very short period, but he was a bit pigeonholed by it. I’ve had a very different career, but I haven’t had the kind of fame that he has.
My grandmother disapproved of her son being an actor, but of course she went to see him, and she didn’t mind taking part in a deceit so I could see him, too – because I was only 10. I remember we went to the Coronet in Notting Hill, and I wore my sister’s bra stuffed with socks and put on high-heeled shoes and dark glasses. I even turned the collar of my coat up! It was my first horror film – Dracula gets swallowed up in the ice, and my uncle wore a high-collared black cloak, the classic Dracula garb. To me it was not scary, but absolutely riveting to see someone I knew so well on screen.
Today everyone loves to knock those Hammer films, but he brought a great dignity to them. He knew just how serious or not serious they were, and he knew that you had to honour what you’re doing. Sometimes we watched him at work at Bray Studios, where they did the Hammer films. I saw Can-Can and The Crimson Pirate being made, and I remember playing in the dungeons and the maze on the set of Dracula’s castle. On those visits, my mother met famous actors like Paul Schofield, which she loved, and it all made me think: “Acting – that’s what I want to do.” But I wasn’t aware of quite how famous my uncle was until I was older, when I went with him to meet my mother at London Airport, and everyone stared.
He went to Hollywood when I was starting at drama school, but before he went he had some heart-searching talks with me. He said: “It’s a tough profession, but stick at it.” Then he came to see me in my first season with the RSC. We were talking about acting, and I thought: “This is great! This is a real bond.” He told me he’d done a recital in Stratford, which meant a great deal to him. I’d just joined the company, and I, too, had experienced that great sense of history and magic, standing on the Stratford stage. Maybe he felt a twinge of envy – and maybe I’d feel my nose slightly out of joint if a niece or nephew was doing what I’d done.
My grandmother and I had a close relationship, and after drama school she said: “Surely you want to be at the top of your tree?” At that time I was involved in ensemble playing, and I had a very egalitarian outlook. “No, Granny, it’s not like that,” I told her. I did fringe political theatre, and my uncle and family were anti my pinkish stand. But my uncle is more of a maverick than being just a Conservative. Anyway, we were saved too much confrontation because he was abroad most of that time.
In his late thirties, he married my Aunt Gitte, who was a model and stunningly beautiful and very clever. In a way, his marrying late gave me licence not to marry and to be single. Once, my mother was being soppy with me, treating me like a child, and Aunt Gitte, who has a wicked sense of humour, said: “Harriet’s not a child; she’s a middle-aged spinster.”
Because I’ve done “serious” plays, perhaps I’m more obsessed with the theatre than my uncle is. But he’s got many more interests – he’s well read, speaks several languages and he’s well known in the profession for being a real gentlemen. In recent years, after reading about the idiot pranks of the Russell Crowes of this world, I’ve come to value him as a role model.
About five years ago he played Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and there was a big rumpus because they didn’t want the man associated with Dracula to be the hero. But he played Jinnah with beauty, dignity and such emotion. Recently, Ian McKellen and my uncle were wonderful together in Lord of the Rings. Although he’s nearly 80, he didn’t even have a stuntman, and he wouldn’t think of asking.
CHRISTOPHER: I’ll never forget my sister, Harriet’s mother, ringing me up one day and saying in this voice of doom, “Harriet wants to be an actress,” followed by a long, ominous silence. The implication was that we had one lunatic in the family – me – so we certainly didn’t want another. Then my sister said: “Would you please see her?” The theatre is a highly competitive, tough profession, and I didn’t know that Harriet would succeed. But I think Harriet knew. She must have done. You’ve got to have that feeling early and stick to it.
I met with Harriet at my agent’s in Grafton Street. She sat there with these big, dark eyes and a solemn face, hardly saying anything. I said to her:
“I’ll give you both sides of the coin, because unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll get good bits and bad bits. It’s marvellous to create portraits of other people, but be prepared for terrible disappointments. But if you’re totally determined that that’s what you want to do, do it.”
In fact, my sister’s reaction wasn’t as terrible as my mother’s had been when I said I was going to be an actor. My mother literally reeled back towards the doorway, crying: “The shame of it. How can you bring such disgrace on the family?” I’ve never forgotten the next remark. She said: “And think of the appalling people you’ll meet!” For years she kept saying:
“Give it up.” Yet it was my mother’s grandparents who started an opera company in Australia, and my mother’s grandmother was known as the Tasmanian Nightingale. So for me and Harriet, it’s in the blood.
A few years after that meeting with Harriet, I went back to England to stay with my sister and her husband. They said: “Come to Stratford to stay in a bed and breakfast so we can see Harriet in the plays she’s doing at the RSC.” Harriet was in two plays. The first, The Witch of Edmonton, with Miriam Karlin, was in a tiny theatre called the Other Place, where you’re almost sitting on the stage. Harriet gave an extraordinary performance, and did a brilliant West Country accent. She’s brilliant with accents; so am I. That sounds immodest, but it’s something you can or can’t do.
The next day she was in the really unrewarding part of Helena in The Dream, but she really made something of it. I said to my sister: “She’s going to be an outstanding dramatic actress. One day she’ll play Portia, and Lady M in the Scottish play.” Later, in her first Stratford season, she played with Peggy Ashcroft in Much Ado about Nothing, and apparently she was incredible. Peggy Ashcroft called Harriet her successor, but Harriet is modest and she won’t tell you that.
Today, she’s done films and TV, but basically she’s a theatrical actress, and she’s in her element. Recently she was awarded a CBE, which she got before I did. I say she got hers for achievement; I got mine for survival!
As a child Harriet was very much like her grandmother, my mother, to look at. She was very solemn, very quiet and reserved – and she’s like that now. She doesn’t say or take anything lightly. She has an iron will, and so have I. In that way, we are very much alike. As an actor you need an iron will to have the self-discipline. Her career is her life. I never thought she’d follow in her sister’s footsteps and get married and have children.
People think Harriet and I resemble each other, with our Italian origins and looks, and sometimes when we’re watching her, her mother will say: “Exactly like you.” Many of her performances have been very much based on my mother’s behaviour. Our mother was the greatest dramatic actress I’ve ever known, but she didn’t act professionally. So as a small child Harriet was being very observant, in a quiet way, and retaining my mother’s behaviour, which was dramatic to say the least. In The Royal Family, which she acted in recently at the Haymarket with Judi Dench, she was my mother. All that rather camp comedy and dramatic gestures.
Harriet and I share lots of qualities but politically we disagree almost entirely. She supports Labour and I support the Conservatives, so this has led to thunderstorms on certain occasions, but I respect her opinions. When people ask me why I became an actor, I tell them how at the end of the war I was having lunch with a cousin, who was the Italian ambassador here, in the embassy in Grosvenor Square. I’d just been demobbed and he said to me: “What are you going to do?” I said: “I’m not going to go back to being an office boy at £1 a week.” He said: “Have you thought of being an actor?” Boom! It came like that, out of nowhere. So I went away and thought: “Why not give it a go?” I wonder if Harriet thought along the same lines.
I do enjoy seeing her when I can. I phone up and I lower my voice to cavernous depths and say to her: “This is your ancient relative.” It always gives her a laugh.Posted in Old Special Reports on May 5, 2002 by xoanon