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Powell and glory
Robert Powell became one of the biggest tv stars of the 1970s playing Jesus of Nazareth. Then he disappeared from our screens. Here, he tells Mary Greene what happened.

It was the most costly television epic ever made, seen by 600 million viewers around the world. To many of them, Robert Powell’s haunted, suffering eyes were the embodiment of the Son of God. Yet in 1975, when the actor was offered the role of Jesus of Nazareth in Franco Zeffirelli’s mammoth production, it was just another job, and one he didn’t particularly want to take, ‘I didn’t turn it down, I just didn’t say yes, not immediately,’ says Powell now. ‘I knew I couldn’t play it… nobody could play it, it’s unplayable. But  I probably knew in my heart of hearts I would have to.’

There is no physical description of Christ in the Bible – and yet everyone ‘knows’ the hollowed cheeks, the eyes and the straggling hair. It was a strange sensation, says Powell, now 57, the first time he looked at himself in the mirror. ‘When I walked on to the set for the first time, there was an audible intake of breath from the crew. My hair had been chemically straightened and I’d been growing it, so it was almost down to my shoulders. All they did was add a piece at the back.’

In the 1920s, the actor who played Cecil B DeMille’s King of Kings was tied for five years to a contract enjoining no smoking in public, no liquor and no loose women. Apocryphally, executive producer Lord Grade demanded that Powell – who, as they phrased in the 1970s, was ‘living in sin’ with Pan’s People dancer Babs Lord – should make an honest man of himself and marry her. The story, Powell recalls, originated in Private Eye, which implied that Grade had offered an undisclosed but substantial wedding gift to ensure that moral standards were upheld. He is still mildly cross about this slur on his reputation. All he ever had from Lord Grade was a large cigar, ‘which I kept for many years until it fell apart’. But he married Babs – the voluptuous, blonde one – quite willingly: ‘No pressure. Good grief! Suddenly, I was about to disappear to Africa for nine months filming and that sparked it off, my wanting to make it secure before I went away,’. In the event, Babs soon retired from Pan’s People and joined her husband in Africa. They have now been married for 26 years.

'Thank God Babs was there,’ Powell says of the long months he spent filming Jesus Of Nazareth in Morocco and Tunisia. It was a star-studded cast: Lord Olivier as Nicodemus, Ralph Richardson (Simeon), Peter Ustinov (King Herod), Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalen) not to mention James Mason, Anthony Quinn, Christopher Plummer, and Ian McShane as Judas. ‘But it was an extraordinarily boring experience for most of the actors,’ he admits, as they spent weeks on stand-by awaiting dramatic weather effects for their scenes. Then there was the food and Tunisian wine. The camera crew’s joke was to beg Powell, please, to change it back into water.

Deliberately, he says, he tried to avoid being emotionally moved by the part. He wasn’t a religious man, and still isn’t. ‘Particularly when I was on the cross, it was incredibly cold. And rather than bring me down between the shots, they left me up there, gave me a dressing gown and a pair of slippers – and my wife would hand me a cigarette. In fact, it got so cold I think I was handed a brandy too.’

Almost despite himself, though, there were moments when he was touched, particularly filming the Sermon on the Mount. ‘There were several thousand extras, shafts of the setting sun over the hill. I saw these thousands of upturned faces – who I don’t think could understand me because they were Moroccan. I thought I’ll pitch it to them, so I raised my voice…and, across the valley, I could hear it coming back – and so could everybody else. And it just had a very eerie effect. The crew were all in floods of tears. It was as if one had been slightly touched by an external force.’ Jesus Of Nazareth never made Powell a rich man, he was paid a flat fee of £20,000 for nine months work and not a ha’penny more for repeats all over the world. And he wasn’t tempted by a business offer to market Jesus sandals and jeans: ‘Good god, no. I wanted another 50 years of being an actor. If you capitalise on things like that, who’s going to take you seriously?’

But the 1970s had already been good to him. The series that made him famous was BBC’s Doomwatch in 1970: when he asked to be written ouf after the first series, the scriptwriters blew him up, defusing a nuclear warhead on Brighton Pier. ‘The Radio Times told me they’d only had more letters for Grace Archer’s death.’ In 1974, he played Mahler for Ken Russell, then the father in Tommy: ‘My only regret was that he doesn’t sing a note, because I love singing. But I did get to swim naked with Ann-Margret in a mountain stream in the Lake District. I was the envy of my friends for that. It was extraordinarily cold, we had to cuddle together in the water.’

In his late 20s, Powell went through a bad depression – caused, he candidly admits, by his own bad behaviour: ‘Probably enjoying some of the fruits of fame and money.’ He had one long, five-hour session with a shrink. ‘But at the end of it the psychoanalyst said, “You’ve not got a problem because you know you’ve got a problem. Therefore it doesn’t exist.”’ When he met Babs, in the early 1970s, that was all behind him. Like men all over the country, his Thursday nights were for watching Pan’s People on Top Of The Pops – usually with his friend Dennis Waterman.

‘I’d always fancied the blonde one,’ says Powell – but when he finally met Babs in the BBC canteen, he was too shy to ask her for a date. Instead, he asked the whole lot of them out for dinner, sat next to Babs and contrived that she needed a lift to collect her car. Then he asked her out. ‘And from that date we’ve been together ever since.’ Their children, Barnaby, a website developer, and Kate, an archaeology student, are in their 20s and have shown no inclination to act: ‘I didn’t encourage them, that’s for sure,’ says Powell.

After the 1978 film The Thirty-Nine Steps, when he played another charismatic hero, Richard Hannay in the remake of John Buchan’s thriller, he planned to stay in Hollywood to further his career, but became bored, so he gave up acting to develop his own films. ‘My timing was less than immaculate. The British film industry was collapsing and people were losing millions.’ He had to make a living and he returned to acting – he is currently touring in Alan Bennett’s double-bill play, Single Spies.

In the 1990s, he reinvented himself again in the police spoof series The Detectives, with his friend Jasper Carrott. ‘It was fourth most popular after Fools And Horses, Men Behaving Badly and maybe One Foot In The Grave. And that’s not bad. Then we stopped because we’d had enough.

‘I’ve been terribly lucky that The Detectives brought me to another generation. Ten years ago, kids didn’t know who I was: if you don’t do soaps, you don’t exist; the antithesis of 30 years ago, when soap opera was the end of your acting career. I don’t want to sound as if I’ve got sour grapes about it, because I haven’t.’

Powell walked away from stardom because his boredom threshold was low. Didn’t fulfil his potential? ‘That’s in other people’s minds. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do.’

Mary Greene, Daily Mail Weekend, Saturday 2nd March 2002