About me
Taking Risks
Robert Powell in an interview with Gordon Gow

People have accused Robert Powell of becoming the king of the re-makes. He is following his performance in the fifth screen version of A E W Mason’s novel The Four Feathers with the third movie of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. ‘Purely coincidental,’ he avers. ‘Both scripts, out of those that came up, happened to appeal to me. But the next one will be a first, and it’s very dear to my heart because it’s also my first film as executive producer. It’s about a football player, McKinnon, Man of the Match. I’m going to play him. At the beginning of the film he’s about thirty-two, not over the hill, yet not the man he used to be. We work forwards and backwards, progressing through a new period of his life, at the same time always counterpointing it with his youth, indicating why he is who he is now.

‘At the start, he has gone to the United States to play for an American club, but has patently lost his nerve. He can still play but all the magic has gone: he doesn’t really believe he can do it any more. And we see the reason why: this destruction of individuality that occurs in all commercialised sports. It not only destroys him, it brings out the worst in his own personality and makes him destructive as well.’

Powell used to play a good deal of soccer himself. ‘I’ve got to go back into training now fairly rigorously to get into shape for it. I played at the university, and through the years I’ve played for a shwobiz eleven. As soon as I got into this I couldn’t believe my luck. It’s everything coming together at the same time. My desire to be involved totally in the making of a film from the beginning to the end of it, and I’m going to place McKinnon in my own background. I was born in Salford, and he’ll be a northener too. So it gives me a chance also to explore certain other aspects of my own personality: the sort of person I might have been rather than the one I am.’

The one he is would appear to be quite satisfactory. In a fairly short acting career so far he has displayed a subtle versatility. His first experience was gained on radio programmes for children, and then on the stage repertory at Stoke-on-Trent and, by the mid-1960s, in London and at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. After a kick-off in movies with incidental roles in Peter Yate’s Robbery, and Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job, he landed the part of Toby Wren, in the BBC television series Doomwatch. Toby, as it happened, caught the pulse of the public, becoming a household hit.

‘That was totally accidental. It was very curious. I’m more aware now of the effect it had than I was then; but it did create some strange image. He was the enigmatic member of a team of three scientists, one representing the older group, another representing the very physical chatter-up of women who did all the dirty work, and the young guy I played, who was supposed to be a very clever physicist, but whose character was not delineated at all in the original episodes of the series. So it was really left to me. And because there were no restrictions on his character, it meant he could do anything, which strangely enough paid off, because as the series wore on and the other two characters became more established to their set ways, and the writers needed something to happen within the stories, they would always turn to my character. He could get drunk, he could get the sack, he could misbehave, because there was nothing to say that he couldn’t. He was unpredictable.’

He could also die, and Powell personally saw to it that he did, relinquishing the security of a regular income from a popular role, and quitting Doomwatch after the first batch of thirteen episodes. ‘It’s amazing that people still remember it. I had become great friends with one of the writers of the series, and we had a conversation one evening in the bar when we’d completed about half a dozen, and he asked me if I was serious about leaving. I said I was, and that not only did I want to go, but I wanted it to happen in such I way that there could be no question about my having gone – not just getting married and disappearing, but something really irrevocable. So he laughed and said, “Well, I suppose we could always blow you up”. You said, “Fine. I’ll buy that.” A large explosion!

‘I was twenty-six at the time, unmarried, no responsibilities. I think if at that age you start worrying about money and the future, it doesn’t say much for an actor. You’ve got to take risks. Once you’ve got yourself a family and responsibilities, then go for the security. But there was no necessity for me then to be in a secure position at all. I could always manage because I was alone. And it just struck me that, on balance, security was less important to me than establishing myself as an actor rather than as what the newspapers and television call a personality.’

His subsequent career has indeed smacked more of the lively chameleon that of the old time one-note star. His film roles have been widely diversified , and he is at pains to be sure that this will continue to be so. ‘I’m rather quirky about what I turn down and what I accept. I like to be constantly moving, and ducking and diving. The more difficult and strange something is, the better.

‘When one looks at the last ten of fifteen years in films, and in fact certainly before that, the one thing that established people was the guarantee that, with their names outside on the marquee, and audience knew exactly what they were going to go walking into, without reading a review. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s name outside a cinema, you knew what you were getting. You still do. And Charles Bronson. You know what you are going to get. And if you like it, then it’s a wonderful cosy feeling for an audience.

‘I operate almost entirely by instinct, though. Scripts are the first things I react to – not directors but writers. If somebody comes up with something a little peculiar, then it’s liable to be more interesting. It’s got to be. It’s one thing to do a five million dollar film where you’re playing a fairly obvious policeman or something. On the other hand, Liliana Cavani asked me to go to Rome to do a strange story about the German philosopher Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. And suddenly I knew which I wanted to do: I wanted to go to Rome, and get involved in that rather peculiar story. It’s very loosely based on a piece of history about three peple who came together in the 1880s – Nietzsche, a courtesan who was a Russian emigrée, and one of Nietzsche’s disciples, a young German writer called Paul Rée. They established a ménage à trois, and the two men destroyed each other and attempted to destroy the courtesan. It’s a mammoth story, emotionally very violent.’

This inclination towards the unusual was already evident in one of Powell’s earliest films, the one in which arguably he made his first deep impact as an actor, Running Scared, which David Hemmings directed in 1971. It began with a suicide: slashed wrists leading on to a visual elgy. A Cambridge university student has died ‘the way he wanted to’ while his roommate (Powell) has watched, making no attempt to prevent the fulfilment of a decision that he believed his friend was fully entitled to make. Legally he is in the clear. Socially he is regarded by some people as culpable, not least by the dead student’s sister (Gayle Hunnicut).

Powell has mixed feelings about Running Scared. ‘It hurt, that one. Potentially it was a very good film, but ultimately I felt it didn’t work. It somehow went soft in the middle, and avoided issues. Whether that could have been avoided or not I don’t know, but David certainly for the first half-hour or forty minutes of the film sustained what is obviously a considerable talent. I’d really like to see him direct more. There’s a lot there, if only he will discipline himself. He could become a really fine director. But somehow, while we were actually shooting it, we lost the basic thread.’

Hemmings has directed only one other film so far. In Running Scared the lack of explanation for the suicide called to mind the unsolved mysteries that were likewise the starting points to studies in relationships in two of Anotnioni’s films, L’avventura (1959) and Blow-Up (1966).

Hemmings of course, played the lead in the second of these, and one felt that in his directorial debut with Running Scared he might well have been influenced by the Italian master. Powell detected also a similarity to the work of Chabrol. ‘David had never acted for him, but obviously he had studied him. There was certainly a very strong continental influence altogether. It was the feeling for detail that I liked specially about what David did. Unexplained, curious things, like a dog barking on the soundtrack for no reason at all except that David had put it there, and then suddenly you see a man on a bike with a dog. It deliberately breaks the thread, takes it in another direction and then brings it back. He did a lot of that sort of thing.’

The distinctive uses of sound are still rare enough to be remarked upon even at this remove from the dawn of the talkies. One’s ears, and consequently one’s mind, are alerted in the midst of somethings quite sentimental like Mizoguchu’s Oyu Sama (1951) because a Japanese conversation as ripe as one would find in any Hollywood weepie is punctuated suddenly by a bird cry, coming naturally enough from the environment beyond the frame, yet lending to the occasion more than just a reminder of the natural world the characters inhabit – intensifying the drama by intruding upon the figures who are uppermost in owr awareness. So it is with the Hemmings dog.

A visual strength was equally beneficial to Running Scared, as Powell points out. ‘David was very colour conscious in that film. The beginning of the film was in browns, and we moved into blue and white. It became very cold, deliberately so. It was beautifully done. But I think that what needed to be said in terms of the subject wasn’t ultimately said, orit wasn’t said clearly enough. The character I played was like a rotten apple that had been gnawed away from the inside. On the outside he looked totally healthy, strong and secure and coherent. But as soon as you got underneath that, as the girl did eventually, you find that he has blocked off all his intuitive emotions. They don’t exist. And when he is forced to face that, he breaks down. Curious. Interesting.’

His sentiments are less mixed when it comes to a film that proved controversial, Ken Russell’s Mahler, in which he played the title role. ‘Of all the films I’ve made so far, that is the one of which I’m most proud-genuinely proud. For all its faults, and it is very heavily faulted, that’s where, when I saw it, I was satisfied at least that what I had intended was represented, and it seemed to fit in what Russell had intended. For the first time, almost, there was a complete understanding of each other between me and a director.

‘I do find that somehow, no matter how much you talk to directors, and no matter how much rapport you seem to develop, when you actually see the edited version of the film it seems that somewhere along the line they have misunderstood what you were trying to do. And that misuderstanding should have been resolved on the floor. As an actor I don’t do things by accident. If I pace a scene very slowly, it’s for a reason. And I make sometimes a rash assumption that the director, if he wanted it played faster, would tell me on the floor. But what happens is that some directors tend to think that you’re only playing it slowly because you can’t remember the lines, and it doesn’t matter because they can speed it up in the cutting room. But by doing that, of course, they break the rhythm that you are deliberately setting up for the scene. So although it looks all right at the end – and it plays all right because all the lines are in the right order – there’s something missing, and what’s missing is what I intended. Now, if he didn’t like it, I always feel the director should say so and let’s get it right on the set: let’s play it as he’s going to edit it.

‘So often, under the pressure of working, any preliminary discussion you’ve had seems to go out of the window. I insist more and more now on discussing the approach with the director in some detail beforehand. Because in films you are very much in a director’s hands. On the stage, you virtually do you own close-ups: in live theatre you can throw your own focus. I mean, obviously, unless you’re utter egocentric, you don’t stand centre stage and try and hold it the whole time. You allow the focus to be thrown to somebody else, and then take it yourself at the moments you’ve all worked out in reharsal. But you are in control of that focus, by your physical presence, by your position, by the pitch of your voice. And in cinema, of course, not so, as we know too well.

‘This is why I’m moving now into production – siding into it very slowly. Because the one thing I do want more than anything is the responsibility to take the blame myself. I find it incredibly painful to work my head off for three months and then to have it, I think, not exploited correctly. I may be arrogant to think that. But if what I do is bad, then it’s much easier to take the blame if it’s my own fault. It’s so easy to accept responsibility for disaster, instead of having it out of your hands. It’s like knocking your car: it I scratch it, then it’s easy, but if somebody else does it I get very angry.

‘But Mahler, as I say, was a case of complete rapport. We never saw rushes. Ken himself never saw them. He didn’t see anything of the material he had shot until he saw a rough cut assembled by the editor. It was apparently an economic matter. We were working on location and we had very little money. Ken decided that he might as well take advantage of the fact and experiment. As he put it, “I have no time to re-shoot, so if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But all it will do is upset me every night and make me miserable the following morning if I look at the rushes. So if I don’t see them, and I just get a call from the editor to tell me that all the shots are there, at least I can continue happily shooting, assuming it’s all right.” And his editor rang up after two weeks, and he said to Ken, “You’d better watch Robert. I don’t know how to tell you this – but he’s coming across extremely unsympathetic.” Ken told me this afterwards, but he decided not to tell me during the shooting, and not to do anything about it. For that I’m ever grateful.

‘I knew what I was doing, in the sense that I knew the script and I knew the areas of the story where Mahler could swing the audience with him. I mean, there were scenes with the kids where one could show the other side of his character. But Mahler was unsympathetic in many ways, because of his obsession with work, and his relationship with his wife was far from loving and gentle: he was very, very severe with her. So I think it would have been an awful mistake to have tried to play for sympathy. As I say, thre are points in the film where you can win people over and they’ll get the Kleenex out. I knew that. So did Ken. But in the main he allowed me to play the hard line.

‘That’s just a demonstration of how astonishingly, for two people who’d never worked together before, there was a very fast feeling of trust.’

Most actors one meets who have worked with Russell are enthusiastic about him, yet increasingly his films tend to get a bad press. The hackles of certain critics rise against a Russell film before it even hits the screen. He is a director, of course, who goes right against the grain of traditional British reserve. Powell is of the opinion that there is a vicious circle here.

‘Ken deliberately creats it himself, because he quite enjoys that. And I’m inclined to think that in one or two recent films the reaction of the majority of critics has been justified. He’s made a couple of mess. I think Liztomania was a complete mess. I can actually quote Ken on that: he said to me, “Mind you, I didn’t actually make Liztomania. It made itself. I deny all responsibility. We began shooting and suddenly the film started to make itself. It’s nothing to do with me.” And he made a mistake in Valentino, I think: a mistake that’s a very easy one to make. Ken treated Valentino in the same way he treated Lizt and Mahler and Tchaikovsky. Wrongly. Because the one thing Valentino didn’t have in common with the others was that he wasn’t a genius. You see, I feel that if you’re dealing with genius you are justified in making the inner sequences fairly troubled and fairly extreme. In many ways, genius is close to insanity. The stream of consciousness of Mahler or Tchaikovsky would, if you could use an encephalograph in some way to animate it, be close to what Russell represents: a fair nightmare.

‘But he gave Valentino the same values in terms of the imagery. For instance, the scene where his wife is leaving him was dealt with as if Ken were talking about Mahler and Alma Mahler, on a high plane of emotion, and it just did not deserve or warrant that sort of treatment. I thought Valentino highly successful at the beginning, when Ken played it light-heartedly and a lot of it was tongue-in-cheek. It completely lost its thread when it tried to be serious.’

There is, in any case, a resistance in the minds of many to any study of individuals who really lived unless the style in objective realism. Within what passed as realism during Hollywood’s Golden Age, audiences would take something as glossy as Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie (1943) without much sigh of scepticism. By now, however, the commercial popularity of Russell’s films would seem to indicate a growing willingness among the public to accept something that demolishes the ‘realism’ barrier. Powell certainly hopes that this is so.

‘We’ve been criticised on Cavani’s Nietzsche film because some people have said that it is not anything to do with the life of Nietzsche. Well, of course it isn’t. If you wish to know what the life of Nietzsche was, then we’ll make a documentary about it or you can go to the library and get a good, dull, biography. But we’re talking about directors like Cavani and like Russell who are using the cinema to portray one aspect, their own version of a possibility. It is themselves that they are expressing, just as much as it is the subject of their film. All of Russell’s films, I feel, are autobiographical. They’re all about him. He just does it through major people, because that gives him more scope. Television programmes like Omnibus or Horizon can tell us when a poet or a musician was born, where he lived and where he died and what he wrote. I don’t want to go to the movies to discover that. I want to go to be entertained. And Russell does that without fail. He is never less than highly entertaining. And intellectually stimulating as well.’

Oddly enough, when Franco Zeffirelli made his film about St Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), it was critically reproached for another kind of unrealism, being in some opinions too beautiful to look upon, too clean; and a comparison was drawn between it and the objective realism, the grit and the earthiness, of Liliana Cavani’s Francesco d’Assisi (1966). But, from Powell’s account, it would seem that Cavani herself has eschewed the received ideas of realism in Beyond Good and Evil.

‘I have a feeling that for Cavani the central character in the story is neither Paul Rée nor Nietzsche, but the woman. That is Cavani exploring certain of her own attitudes towards men, which are very much to the fore in her own make-up. She’s not an easy lady. She’s a sort of diminutive, slightly scruffy woman, whom I adore. I got on with her very well; we became great buddies. But on the set you would find a six-foot-six electrician, weighing about two hundred and twenty pounds, or less that that, and she could put the fear of God into him. I’ve never known such verbal savagery as she was capable of.

‘Lina Wertmüller, of course, is another such in the Italian cinema. I’ve met her and I’d love to work with her. She’s astonishing. She looks like a lady from Kansas City. She wears enormous sun glasses with diamante bits on them, vast gold chains – about thirty of them – round her neck, and an enormous belt about a foot wide. She’s an amazing vision as she sweeps into a room. And an immense talent, too.’

The expansive, operatic nature of the Italians appears now to have supplanted the neo-realistic heritage in the most notable products of their cinema, not least in the latterday Fellini movies. Having worked beautifully in the wake of neorealism, especially in his memorable La Strada (1954), he moved gradually into more imaginative areas. Powell concedes that there is an affinity between his recent films and those of Ken Russell.

‘Fellini’s in a spot of bother at the moment, and very depressed because he knows that after Casanova it will be a little while before he is able to raise the money to do another one. They’re always on that knife-edge, people like Russell and Fellini. Tommy for Ken was a wonderful springboard, because its commercial success allowed him to do another film.’

Powell’s own contribution to Tommy was comparatively minor. ‘Ken rang me up one day after Mahler and asked me, just for fun, and for him, to do seven days playing the dad: nothing to say, nothing to sing, only about three or four minutes of screen time. But he said it would be nice for him if I did it. Then he added that, on account of the changing locations and so forth, the seven days would be spread over eleven weeks. As it turned out, I was on the picture for twenty-four weeks. So I have mixed feelings about Tommy. It prevented me from doing any other work that year.’

Critical controversy and fairly widespread popularity were again mingled in what has become perhaps his most famous assignment to date, the eponymous role in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, which was screened on UK television, and has been released in cinemas (as two separate films) in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome, Milan, South Africa and elsewhere. Obviously, for Powell, it was a challenge, not without its daunting aspect.

 ‘Well, when I was asked to do it I wished I hadn’t been. One of those jobs where you just wish they hadn’t asked you. I didn’t want to do it. But, having been asked, of course, I had no alternative. Any actor, when faced with a challenge like that, cannot refuse. It’s too big a thing to say no.

‘Of course, it’s impossible. In every other part you can play, there is always the possibility of achieving a hundred per cent. I’ve never done it, ever. But there’s always the chance. You’ve always got that to strive for. But when you walk into the character of Jesus you know that there is no possibility of doing it. All you can hope for, at best, is to get away with it. That’s all you’re actually asking for. There’s nothing else that you can possibly do.’

Among those bold enough to make the attempt in films, the most celebrated remains H B Warner in the Cecil B DeMille version of King of Kings (1927). Powell managed to catch that at a cinema club, long before he knew that one day he would be tackling the task himself. ‘It was years and years ago, in the Midlands I think. It’s interesting that the whell has come full circle since Warner played it with such apparent confidence, and went on to play other parts and have a very full screen career. Even as short a time as ten or fifteen years ago, if you played Jesus, it would be very difficult to persuade people to give you other roles afterwards. But now it’s just the opposite. And I simply don’t know why.

‘I also saw Jeffrey Hunter and Max von Sydow play it. But none of these did I go and see as a result of getting the role. They were just part of my adolescent cinema-going. I wanted to see every big epic that came on at the local cinema. One was a bit starved in Manchester at the time.’

Of his own performance, the quality that seemed most to impress people was the use he made of his eyes, which had a particularly haunting quality. It was suggested here and there that he used special contact lenses, but this was not so. ‘I wore nothing at all on my eyes. All actors discover over the years things that work and don’t work, physical attributes that can be a help to you and the ones that aren’t. And I found out fairly early on that I was able to express a great deal through my eyes alone. But I did something in that which I’m not aware of having done before. I’m not even sure now how it came about, but I discovered that with a little practice I could keep my eyes open without blinking for anything up to three or four minutes. So I don’t think at any point in the film do I blink. One had to find technical ways, coldly and consciously, of expressing something different. I’m a mere mortal and I just grasped at anything to make me slightly apart from the other actors. By keeping the gaze not as a stare but just steady, it was possible to sustain a thread between me and the camera, a thread which would be broken if I blinked for only a fraction of a second. And by maintaining that thread, the eyes become virtually hypnotic for the audience. That’s all it is. It’s a trick.’

In the course of making such a lenghty film, he built up a lasting friendship with Zeffirelli. ‘Franco is now the godfather of my son, and we shall know each other forever. Fairly constantly throughout the shooting, we argued. We rowed a lot. I got very frustrated because I didn’t know how to play it. Franco was asking me to do things and I didn’t understand why, so I got upset. I shouted at him, and he screamed at me, and we fought and squabbled. But out of it came a genuine understanding of what we were both trying to do.

‘I don’t normally row with directors but I certainly argue. Actually it’s the best way to draw things out of me, and it’s certainly the best way for me to draw things out of other people. I force them actually to be specific: to put a generality into a specific form. That’s what one had to do with Franco a lot of the time. Yet I love working with him. I hated the physical thing of doing it, but I’m not sorry I did it: it’s been the most amazing experience.’

As a filmgoer, it was inevitable that Powell should have seen a couple of the earlier treatments of The Four Feathers. There were two silents, a British one in 1921 and a Hollywood version with Clive Brook in it in 1928 – also two sound films, the first with Ralph Richardson in 1939, and the second, renamed Storm Over the Nile, with Lawrence Harvey in 1955. Richardson is an actor of size who can operate in the cinema without splitting the medium, and the scene where he goes blind under a fierce desert sun remains a classic of screen acting, as Powell is well aware.

‘Everybody remembers that. God – how can you follow it. I wouldn’t even begin to emulate Sir Ralph. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still the magician. Ours is different – I hope that it is interesting in a slightly different way. But he is one of the guv’nors. If I could get close, or even half way, I’d be quite pleased. It’s a lovely story, which is why I did it.’

Don Sharp, who directed the latest remake, is also directing the new The Thirty-Nine Steps in which Powell plays the Buchan hero, Richard Hannay, a role previously taken by Robert Donat in the Hitchcock version of 1935 and by Kenneth More in the Ralph thomas film of 1959.

‘Hitchcock treated the story as fair game. The novel is unfilmable. Modern writers of course are writing film scripts in novel form. They’re so aware of the possible sale, that they’re writing screen dialogue and screen locations. They’re almost doing the camera cuts. But Buchan in his day just wrote a novel in which great deal of the action happens off-stage, so to speak. The ending is astonishingly anti-climactic. So Hitchcock took Hannay and the idea of The Thirty-Nine Steps and did his own film. The thing about The Memory Man is pure Hitchcock – there’s no girl in the original novel.

‘Ours is a very completely original script. The only thing it has that Hitchcock had is the character of Richard Hannay, and the title. We are going back to 1914, where it’s supposed to be, two months before the First World War. Hannay has been in South Africa for twenty years. He is English but he has lived over there. He’s a mining engineer. He comes to England on leave and is irretrievably bored. So at the beginning of the film he is going down to P & O  to book his passage back to Cape Town. He knows nobody. He has no family, no friends, no contacts. He’s in an England that is conventional, and to which he doesn’t belong. He’s lived a much freer life in the veld. Certainly he’s not accustomed to the very rigid formality of London in those early years of the 20th century. So at the start we’ve got an interesting contrast to all the characters he meets. He behaves in a way that raises a couple of eyebrows.

‘In the fights that are in the film, Hannay is no James Bond, and he doesn’t know karate or judo, but he’s physically very fit. And he observes no Queensberry rules. Whatever object is to hand, he will hit with. And if the other guy happens to turn his back, he doensn’t wait for him to turn round – he hits him. There’s a boat hook in one scene, and Hannay doesn’t throw that aside and raise his fists to have a good punch-up. Ni, he hits hard. He’s going to get out. He’s a survivor. He’s and interesting character to explore within the realms of a wonderful adventure story.’

No doubt the requisite physical fitness will at the same time prove valuable preparation for the work to come on McKinnon, Man of the Match.

Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, March 1978  Vol. 24  N° 6, Issue N°282