Your Reprobate editor’s first encounter with the great man while filming a Wicker Man documentary.
If there are two constants in the world of Reprobate articles, then they might well be explorations of Christopher Lee’s more eccentric career decisions and ramblingly indulgent personal memoirs from your editor. Well, strap yourselves in, kids, as the two strands once again collide in a waffling tale of childhood fantasy fulfilled and bad behaviour.
Let me take you back to the spring of 2000, when the world was still a more innocent place and a bright, shining future of 21st-century progress and freedom beckoned us all. Yeah, that didn’t last. Anchor Bay had snapped up the DVD rights to The Wicker Man and decided to go all out on the release, something not all that common with indie labels back then. After appearing as a talking-head in the documentary The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – The Shocking Truth (shot, you’ll be amused to know, on yours truly’s camcorder), Anchor Bay overlord Bill Lustig hired director David Gregory to shoot a substantial Wicker Man documentary, which would finally emerge as The Wicker Man Enigma in 2001 as part of the expansive disc (that was the release that came in a wooden box for those of you with long memories). Gregory pulled together a team of local associates, including myself as production coordinator or production manager (depending on who you asked on any day and who wanted the more impressive credit) – it was my job to arrange interviews with various Wicker Man luminaries, often following long and detailed instructions from the shoot’s producer (who shall remain nameless) – so long and detailed, in fact, that it probably would’ve saved a lot of time had he just called them himself. But there you go. It at least meant that I got to chat to a magnificently irascible Anthony Shaffer, a pleasant Robin Hardy and an unexpectedly high-pitched Edward Woodward amongst others, and when the time came for a full day of shooting, I made my way from Nottingham to London to do my bit as talent wrangler and interviewer. The latter was primarily for a fresh-faced and wide-eyed Jonathan Sothcott – who knew back then just what he would end up doing? – while the former included sitting down with Ingrid Pitt, who was tremendous fun as she bickered with her husband.
All this was leading to the big event though – an interview at the National Film Theatre with Christopher Lee, prior to a screening of The Wicker Man and an on-stage conflab between various luminaries involved in the film. For a kid who grew up with ‘being Christopher Lee’ as his chosen adult profession, this was a big deal indeed.
I hadn’t spoken to Lee during my prep period; rather, I’d made the foolish mistake of calling his agent. Admittedly, this was at the behest of Mr Producer, who had given me the number, but as I was later informed – and Lee’s dead now, so presumably this is no longer much of a secret – he preferred people to make such arrangements directly with him and then pay him in cash on the day. You can probably work out the benefits of such a system. Anyway, he arrived, more or less dead on time, and made an immediate impression as he walked into the interview room, stopped in front of a poster for the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and said, in full Christopher Lee-level indignation, “I do hope that the interview isn’t for THIS.” Quite why we’d be interviewing him about The Wicker Man for a gay film festival is something to ponder, but Lee being a bit homophobic seemed oddly right – he was old-school to the core and it would’ve been a bit of a shock had he turned out to be a liberal lefty.
If you’ve seen an interview with Lee, then you know what to expect. He’s flawless, deadly serious, spot-on with facts and obscure references and discusses everything as if it was the most important film ever made, even if he is dismissing it. There are no ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ with him – every answer is a dead-on, useable quote. I think Lee is possibly the best movie interviewee I’ve ever seen and the closest comparison from personal experience was, of all people, Ben Cross, who once turned up late to an interview about Dark Shadows, gave some poor lackey an ear-bashing about taking him to the wrong room – and not even a nicer room at that (“this room is much better, much better, we should always do interviews here”), sent the poor minion off with a flea in his ear and then was perfectly charming and efficient throughout. Funnily enough, he was also paid in cash.
After the interview, Lee was cornered by Sothcott who was writing a book about him, and I could hear snippets of their conversation as I killed time waiting for the next arrival. “And then suddenly these WEREWOLVES appeared” shouted Lee – ahh, I thought, they are onto Howling 2. I wondered if this was another of those films where Lee had no idea just what he was making, like Eugenie – The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion or The Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre. And then he was gone – who knows where – to prepare for his time on stage.
There was a lot of time to kill before the Q&A and as my services were no longer required, I did the most sensible thing and went to the bar. Well, I say ‘most sensible’. Perhaps boozing for a few hours was not the best thing to do, especially as I then made my way to the after-party – something everyone else involved in the shoot was sensible enough to skip – where I found myself in conversation with some bloke or other, barking furiously about my important life. “Anyway”, I eventually said, “what do you do?”. “I write and star in this show called The League of Gentlemen“ came the reply. I pondered this, nodded accordingly and then continued to bang on about whatever nonsense came into my head. Drunk me is even less impressed by celebrity than sober me, clearly.
The next day, having somehow or other arrived back home, was spent in quiet contemplation. Sometime late in the afternoon, the phone rang. “Is that David Flint?”, asked the caller, “this is Christopher Lee.” The ten-year-old me did a jig of excitement at this point – Dracula was calling me! It wasn’t a social call, obviously – he wanted to contact Eric Boyd-Perkins, the film editor who owned and had dazzled me with a fully-annotated Wicker Man script in the bar – Lee had discovered the existence of this and presumably wanted a copy. I can’t blame him and I wonder where that is now – it’d be a hell of a publication. But anyway, the fact remains that Christopher Lee had phoned me up and that was a childhood dream fulfilled.
I would meet Lee one more time – you can read about that here. I sometimes regret not asking him to sign something or pose for a photo, but not often because that’s really not my scene. The Wicker Man Enigma came out and was generally considered much better than the Mark Kermode TV documentary about the film. For David Gregory, it was the launchpad to a glittering career as the go-to man for DVD extras and a label career that went from Blue Underground to Severin Films. For the rest of us involved… well, it was a fun project. Almost everyone interviewed for it is now dead, which is sobering. The Wicker Man has endured a terrible remake and terrible sequel and has oddly become so beloved that no one seems to ever talk about it anymore – it’s no longer an obscure cult movie but the film everyone loves, now available in all manner of different cuts just like Blade Runner. Lee remains the most impressive celebrity that I’ve ever met – sorry, everyone else, but it’s true. He was pompous, imperious and brilliant, everything you wanted him to be, and I’m oddly glad that I never got to know him well enough to get past the surface because it was the surface that I knew and loved. Christopher Lee in real life was exactly what I wanted Christopher Lee to be, and how often can you say that about anyone?
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