About me
‘I feel like I’m king of the remakes’
Robert Powell tells Dave Badge

Leslie Halliwell’s book, “The Filmgoer’s Companion”, the “Who’s who” of the film world, describes Robert Powell as a “sad looking British leading man of the Seventies”. But when I met him at a West End hotel, he looked anything but sad. In fact he has very little to feel sad about. His latest film, The four feathers, has just received a Royal premiere and, since he landed on one of the most coveted roles of the decade, as Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, his career has progressed by leaps and bounds. Now he has just begun work on a new version of The Thirty Nine Steps, formed his own production company and will begin work on its first film later in the year.

In private life too he has much to feel happy about for his wife, the beautiful ex-dancer Barbara Lord, has recently presented him with a son they have named Barnaby.

It was a very relaxed and casually dressed Robert Powell who greeted me the day after the news broke that he was to be the new Richard Hannay – the hero of Buchan’s mystery thriller, The thirty nine steps. The original film, directed by Alfred Hitchock in 1935 had starred Robert Donat in the role, and he was followed in 1960 by Kenneth More in a second version. I asked Robert how, so soon after The Four Feathers, yet another remake had come his way.

“I feel like I’m king of the remakes”, he joked. “I was shown a script by a friend of mine, Greg Smith who is to produce it. Had I been shown a lesser script I would probably have turned it down, but this is just marvellous. It’s the best first draft I’ve ever read.”

I asked him if the new film would be much the same as its predecessors. “No”, he replied. “The only thing, apart from the central character, that will be the same is the theme –you know, a man alone being chased by the villains and the police. Our film will return to the original time set in the book though, that’s about two months before the outbreak of the first world war”.

Robert’s co-stars in The thirty-nine steps will include John Mills, David Warner and Karen Dotrice. Part of Karen’s role will, Robert confirmed, involve the famous scene in which she is forcibly handcuffed to Hannay overnight.

Changing the subject, I asked Robert about The Four Feathers which has now been filmed a total of five times. It’s an adventure story set in the Sudan in the 1890s.

“I play Durrance,” said Robert. “I suppose he is the villain of the piece – if there is one. Beau Bridges plays Feversham who is branded a coward and comes to join the war in disguise. I get blinded during the fighting and he rescues me from death. Then he sends me off to tell his fiancée, played by Jane Seymour, that he has redeemed himself. That’s when I become the villain.” He laughed. “Because I don’t tell her. I too want to marry her, you see.”

I asked Robert if portraying a blind man is difficult for an actor. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s an extremely hard thing to get across. In the past when I have acted I suppose I must have used my eyes more than anything else to convey an emotion or an expression. This is one thing I couldn’t do as Durrance. When we started filming the scenes in which I was supposed to be blind, the director, Don Sharp, had to keep stopping us because I was looking at something. It took immense concentration not to.”

I mentioned to Robert that Beau Bridges, although very popular in his native America, had not yet made his name in Britain. “He is a very nice guy and an excellent actor,” replied Robert. “I think this film will be the one to do it for him here.”

Robert Powell was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1944 and studied law at Manchester University. Catching the acting bug, he broke off his studies and joined a repertory company in the Midlands before coming to London in 1965, making his film debut alongside Stanley Baker in Robbery. In 1968 he took a small role in The Italian Job and two years later he experienced his first taste of stardom when he played toby Wren in the BBC TV series “Doomwatch”. The fan mail poured in but Robert, frightened of being typecast, asked for the role to be written out. It is a fear he still has and he avoids making too many television appearances for that reason. He said, “I just felt that TV people, the so-called personalities and celebrities, become over-exposed. It destroys a little of the actor’s anonymity.”

Mixing stage work with an occasional role on TV, Robert began to concentrate on making films, taking his first major role opposite Jacquelin Bisset in Secrets. He took the role of the poet “Shelley” and a featured part in “Looking for Clancy” – both for TV. But since then he has made only movies, including Asylum, Mahler, Tommy and Jesus of Nazareth.

Mahler (in which Robert took the title role) and Tommy were both directed by Ken Russell and I asked him for his opinion of the “enfant terrible” of the film world. “He is a genius,” he said. “I just adored working for him and I know that one day we will do another film together.”

I commented that perhaps most of the criticism levelled at Russell was levelled at him personally rather than at his films. Robert shook his head. “I know Ken will forgive me for saying this,” he said, “but most of the criticism is justified. For instance, I enjoyed his latest film Valentino, very much – except for two passages. And those two sequences, which just didn’t work, were vital to the whole film and it’s this kind of thing which will spoil a film for a critic.

“There were a couple of sequences in Mahler too which didn’t work and the reason was that I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.”

“Was it because they were not scripted?” I asked.

“They couldn’t possibly have been – they just came out of Ken’s head,” he replied. “I was very pleased with Mahler though, on the whole. I regard it as a peak in my life. I believe that life goes along in peaks and troughs. Jesus was, of course, another peak.”

I asked what his first thoughts had been when he heard he had been given the role of Christ. He laughed. “I wished they hadn’t asked me,” he said. “But, having been asked, I couldn’t possibly have turned it down.

“I was apprehensive. You see, with any other role one has a chance to turn in a faultless performance. With this particular one I knew there was no chance at all. A man can’t play a god.”

“Aside from your misgivings,” I asked, “did you enjoy playing the part?”

“No,” came the short, sharp answer. “That’s a question not many people ask and I’m glad you did because it’s important. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the most physically exhausting. I lost a stone during the filming. There is no other part where in every scene you are on it. There’s no other part where I’ve had to learn seven foolscap sheets of script every day and there’s no other part where I’ve been unable to use any of my own personality.

“For example, if I arrived on the set one day feeling a bit irritable or fed up, normally I could use those emotions, but with Jesus I couldn’t. But, although I didn’t enjoy it, I don’t regret having done it.

“Of course,” he added, “now that I’ve seen it, I would like to do it all over again – and do it better.”

Jesus of Nazareth is running in cinemas all over the world, attracting huge crowds. But it will not be seen on the big screen in Britain as we have already seen it on TV. I asked Robert about his plans for when The Thirty-Nine Steps is completed. “I feel as though I’ve been booked for the rest of my life,” he joked. “After The Thirty-Nine Steps I’m making a film called Man of the Match about a footballer for my own production company which I have formed with two other people. I’m very excited about that.”

“Does it mean we shall actually see you on the field!” I asked.

“Yes, playing football – and getting paid for it,” he replied. “How marvelous! After that I’m going back to the sun and sand to make a picture called Arab. It’s a terrific story about a tribal war.”

As I rose to leave I asked Robert if he had any abitions to direct. “Yes,” he admitted, “but not until I’ve learnt enough about the side of the business I’m in now. Strangely enough, I think that some of the best directors are ex-actors. I like them to be because I prefer the understanding they have when I get something wrong.”

Dave Badge, Film Review Vol.28 N° 4 April 1978