About me

Robert Powell… tilting at windmills

You can be sure that the action is for real when Robert Powell steps out to begin a second series of Hannay this week. “Anthony Valentine and I have a sword fight which lasts for about two minutes on screen,” says Powell, who once played Jesus Christ on television. “We did the whole thing ourselves and it took all day to film it.” Sword fights are genuinely dangerous affairs. The blades are real, so the choreography has to be perfect, to make sure each man knows exactly where the other will be when he swings his blade. Make a mistake and blood will flow from real wounds.

The same applies to the other stunts. “Audiences today are sophisticated,” says Powell. “They are used to seeing American series where there are car crashes and machine-guns and so forth, and, of course, we don’t have any of those. Nevertheless, the essence of the Hannay adventure is that it has very physical properties.” The action sequences in this new series of adventures include swingin from the sails of a windmill while they turn, as well as endless running, jumping, swimming and diving.

“I have to swing on the windmill myself,” says Powell. “I have to dive into the reservoir. I have to drive a truck through an Army checkpoint. I am endlessly shot at, of course. And I have a fight on an Army truck.”

He relates all the adventures with a light in his eye and an enthusiasm in his voice that indicate he is having the time of his life. Despite a genuine antipathy from hanging from things, ever since the Crucifixion scene in director Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on television began to border on the all-too-real, he throws himself into his stunts with genuine zest. During a dance sequence in the first series of Hannay, he slipped on an over-polished floor and fell heavily on one knee, bruising himself painfully. The injury soon cleared up, though, and he was horrified, months later, to find himself being described in a newspaper as badly injured.

“I was playing cricket at the time, for heaven’s sake!” he grumbles. “We were in Monte Carlo for the Lord’s Taverners, and I actually scored 43 runs while I was doing it!”

Newspapers have been bad news for Powell for years. When he was cast in Jesus of Nazareth, he was already living with Pan’s People dancer Babs Lord. A knock on the door one night nearly cost him the role. It was the start of a newspaper campaign in which he was pilloried so many times for being unmarried that he almost lost the part.

“I got so fed up with journalists at that time,” he says. “A man gets cast as Jesus Christ and they immediately tried to find something that might preclude him from playing the role!” What infuriated him even more was that, when he and Babs did get married,

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a classic, I’ve never had another penny from it since,” he says.

It did, however, make him a close friend of one of the giants of the screen. His own family and Zeffirelli have remained friends ever since, and the Powells often holiday at Zeffirelli’s villa in Italy. He is godfather to the Powell childre, Barnaby and Kate.

“It gave me a terrible passion for Italy,” says Powell. “I actually get withdrawal symptoms when I am not there, and Babs gets them, too. Also, we both adore pasta. Now, there’s real compatibility for you!” He also makes films in Italy.

Powell is no stranger to the role of Hannay, which is based on John Buchan’s thriller, Thirty-nine Steps. He starred in the film version but now his main concern is that this second TV series is a success and re-establishes his name on televison.

“I found I had been spoiled by the cinema,” says Powell. “What made me aware of it was when a little girl came up to me at a cricket match and said, “Give us your autograph, my mom says you’re famous.”

“I suddenly realised there was another generation which had little idea who I was. Their mums had to tell them.

Source TV Times 1989