An Interview With Douglas Wilmer
Douglas Wilmer was a distinguished British character actor, best remembered for his appearances as Sherlock Holmes on BBC television in the sixties, and in such major movies as Richard III, El Cid and Cleopatra. (Even if you don’t immediately know the name, you’ll surely recognise the face, the profile, and the rich, brown voice…)
He also enjoyed many years of success on the British stage.
Now 89 and long retired, he has just published Stage Whispers, a fascinating memoir in which he looks back over his long and varied career and recalls many of the celebrated names with whom he has shared stage and screen. (Among many fascinating recollections, it includes the funniest anecdote about Rex Harrison I have ever read.)
I visited Douglas at his home in the charming town of Woodbridge, Suffolk for the following interview.
MC: I’d like to start by asking about your very first acting appearance, which had something to do with your ‘scoundrelly looks’.
DW: Yes, I was cast in the school production of Richard of Bordeaux. This was at King’s School, Canterbury. The headmaster was visiting rehearsals and decided the boy playing the Archbishop of Canterbury was not right. He looked around, saw me and said: “You with your scoundrelly looks, you’ll do. Go away and learn the part.” I had never acted in my life and this was two days before the performance. The boy that was booted out later became a Bishop actually!
And that was when you decided you wanted to be an actor?
No, no, I was absolutely terrified! I had never acted before in my life, I only had two days to learn it in, and I never really got to grips with the lines properly at all. In fact, I had to play a long scene with one of the other leading characters, and I kept putting him back to the same place, and we’d go through it again. I remember he had to say of his father: “He had a fine seat on a horse”. And he said that three times! I was really terrified, and I didn’t enjoy it at all.
But Dame Sybil Thorndike came to see the play because her nephew Dan Thorndike was playing one of the parts in it, and she told the headmaster that the boy playing the Archbishop might be able to make a go of acting if I wanted to. And he rather ill advisedly repeated this to me.
Anyway, I was in the next play with rather more preparation the following year. Then, after that, Dan Thorndike was cast as Hamlet and I was cast as the King. And that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think it was then that I seriously thought that this was what I’d like to do.
You went to RADA, where you say you found the curriculum “surprisingly old-fashioned and disappointing”.
Yes, it was really rather dull. It was run on very snobbish lines. I felt that the principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes – no, I didn’t feel, I knew – was a frightful snob.
When I went back later to teach there, there was an actor called Percy Herbert and I cast him as Sergius in Arms and the Man. He was totally unsuited for the part, but then I cast everybody against type to give them an opportunity, as it was only a student production and nobody was going to see it, to play something that they would never actually be cast as, in order to sort of broaden them out a bit. And the students themselves were most pleased with this.
Anyway, Percy Herbert had at that time a very strong cockney accent. He went on to play a lot of cockney parts like his performance in Bridge on the River Kwai. And at the end of it all, we were all summoned to Sir Kenneth’s office; I perched myself on the end of his desk and the actors seated themselves on the floor while he gave each one a rundown.
When he came to Percy Herbert, he said: “I thought that was rather a common performance. Didn’t you, Mr Wilmer?” I said: “No, I thought it was a most uncommon performance!”
The war intervened at the end of your RADA training, during which you served with the 1st West African Anti-Tank Battery. You were eventually invalided out after contracting TB, and it was only after a prolonged period of convalescence that you were able to return to acting, which was in weekly rep, rehearsing one play during the day and performing another at night. How did you avoid getting the two mixed up?
Well it’s like… I don’t know what it’s like doing, really. It’s like having done a reconnaissance on one road and then having to go to another place on the same day: you don’t suddenly switch to the other road!
It sounds incredibly difficult to me.
Oh, it was difficult! One needed to be young, and rather more alert than I am now.
I was struck in the book that your recollections of the celebrated actors you worked with as your career began to take off, people like Olivier, Redgrave, Gielgud, Quayle and others, show a side of them that I have never really come across in any other film or theatrical memoirs. They’re not mean-spirited, but they are penetrating and very frank, and they make the subjects come alive in a new way. Why do you think so many actors’ memoirs are so much more reticent?
Because I think they are rather more fearful for their careers than I am. People don’t like to appear to be slinging mud at icons. But, I mean, the mud was there. I didn’t sling it. It was there.
They didn’t want to make costly enemies. Especially of some of the troublesome leading men you worked with, like Richard Harris and George C. Scott…
I say, you are rather dwelling on all the villains!
In Olivier’s case, you seem to suggest that there was a coldness to him as a person that is conveyed by the performances he gave.
Well, I felt that he was an actor who could really excite and stir you; he had tremendous flair and dash, but I sometimes felt that his performances were a little lacking in heart. Some of them, I felt, were totally lacking in heart. And as heart is one of the main ingredients of nobility, noble parts like Othello I thought escaped him completely.
And this you link to a certain remoteness in the man…
I don’t think that he was remote, or if he was, he was remote from himself as well. It always seemed to me at least that he was curiously empty when he didn’t have a role to play. Others who knew him better may dispute this, but I never found him an especially easy man to get to know.
Your big break in movies occurred at a time when Hollywood was producing a lot of big epic movies, many of them shot in Italy and Spain, and classically trained British actors were much in demand for their casts. And so you appeared in El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra, among others. I don’t know how recently you’ve watched these films, but I wondered if you had a favourite? It’s always seemed to me that El Cid stands head and shoulders above the others.
Well I would say that El Cid was probably the best. Although I did think it was a bit long, mainly because the whole of the middle part I wasn’t in. (Laughs)
In Cleopatra, I dished out all my lines to somebody else because I wanted to go and make another film!
You got to know Richard Burton very well, and you talk as others have of the two warring halves of his life, the one leaning towards classical acting, the stage and the academic life, the other towards Hollywood and the big bucks and the booze and little creative reward. I suppose you got to know him, during the making of Cleopatra, right at the moment when the Hollywood side won.
Yes, it was during the course of that film. He could have been our greatest actor. And I remember him telling me how guilty he felt, at having acquired so much so easily. He certainly couldn’t resist Miss Taylor, and felt very guilty of that at first.
And I’d see him on the set holding a huge brandy balloon half full of something that I don’t think was cold tea at something like seven-thirty in the morning before going on and acting. I don’t know that it was a problem at that point. I mean, I certainly couldn’t do that, but it never seemed to interfere with his work.
The word while Cleopatra was being made was that it was shaping up to be a major disaster, spiralling out of control, massively over- budget, different directors, etc. What was the atmosphere like on the set?
Well Mankiewicz was very professional; I don’t remember any other director…
Rouben Mamoulian had started on it.
Yes, but that was way back, long before I arrived on the scene. I found Mankiewicz a good director. I thought he was very patient, very kind, and really one of the pleasanter people I met as film directors.
Unlike Anthony Mann, the director of El Cid…
Well, I found that he appeared to enjoy uncomfortable situations, which made actors appear in some sort of humiliating light, rather too much. And we’d all suffered from this throughout the film. One of the first scenes in the film was actually the last to be shot, in which I was brought on in front of a Spanish mob that were told to throw stones at me. And he did take after take after take of this, rather enjoying seeing all these stones bouncing off my nut. And I began to get pretty annoyed.
What were they made of?
Well they were made of a sort of a hard rubber. So, they were not amusing.
Then he said, “I’m coming in close now, and one of the stones is gonna hit you just under the eye. And you’re a prince, you understand? You don’t flinch, you don’t flinch.”I said: “Well I may be a prince but I’m also a human being, and I defy anyone to not blink when they’re hit in the face with a stone. It can’t be done.”
He said: “Why not? You’re an actor aren’t ya?”I said: “Yes, I believe I am. Could you do it?”
“Sure I could!”I said: “Then do it!” And I picked one up and flung it at his face.
And everybody just crept away! Heston was there; I saw him sort of melt away. And I was left with this furious man, hopping up and down like a dancing dervish, screaming at me that I’d never work again!
Though he in fact went on to employ you again in his next film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Yes, oddly enough he did. I can only imagine that he rather liked being stood up to, in a curious sort of way. But he never referred to it again to me, never. Other actors did. Alec Guinness came to me and asked if it was true, because the story had got round!
But that was certainly the thing I remember most from making El Cid. Apart from my friendship with Heston, who as well as extremely professional I found extremely kind and generous also.
You worked with him again in Antony and Cleopatra, which he also directed. What was he like as a director?
He was very good, except that I don’t think he was experienced enough as a director to take on the leading role and at the same time direct. He directed another actor of roughly the same height, who had to learn all the lines, so he could see how it would all look, and then he took the guy out and he went in himself and the camera shot it. But I don’t think he was ideally cast as Antony.
You say in the book that he had an almost puritanical streak that sanitised his love scenes with actresses, a kind of physical reticence.
I don’t think that he felt he was reticent; I think they felt it… I don’t think it was reticence so much as a lack of chemistry. I mean, he went through all the motions… He never looked at another woman besides his wife. I think he’d had a bit of a fright early on in his career in that sort of direction, and vowed that he’d never have anything to do with leading ladies ever again. So there was always this distance, and a lack of chemistry. He never paid the least attention to Sophia Loren on El Cid.
Heston and Wilmer in El Cid: "You're a prince, you understand? You don't flinch; you don't flinch..."
One of the surprising omissions from the book is that there’s no mention of Peter Sellers.
Well, I did actually write a chapter on Peter Sellers, and by some oversight forgot to send it. When I looked in the index to see where Peter Sellers was, I was amazed to find that he wasn’t there!
You worked with him on A Shot in the Dark and Revenge of the Pink Panther, both films during the making of which, according to director Blake Edwards, he was on his very worst behaviour, to the extent that on the latter they would only communicate via a third person who ferried messages back and forth. What is your recollection of working on those films?
No, I don’t think so… That’s certainly not my memory of it. I mean, I didn’t have an awful lot to do in Shot in the Dark; I had rather more to do in the second film, where I was the commissioner. But no, I don’t remember any kind of terrible atmosphere like that.
Ordinarily he was a fiend for giggling at his own antics. By the time you came to about take five or six one would be getting a bit stale. You’d go on and on and on repeating the thing and he’d break down laughing each time, and one would get thoroughly cheesed off.
He had been fitted with a pacemaker, which made him a bit wary of smoke, and we had a scene where he had to accidentally set fire to my office. He was determined to get through that without any giggles or laughs because he didn’t want to do a retake. Though in any case the whole shebang had gone up in smoke, so it would have been impossible to do any retakes!
Let’s move on to Sherlock Holmes. When you were first offered the role, did you have any feeling that this might be the part of all parts, or was it just another job?
The part interested me very much because I’d never really, I felt, seen it performed to its full capacity. There’s a very dark side to Holmes, and a very unpleasant side to him. And I felt that this was always skirted round which made him appear rather sort of hockey sticks and cricket bats and jolly uncles… a kind of dashing Victorian hero. He wasn’t like that at all. He was rather sardonic and arrogant, and he could be totally inconsiderate towards Watson. I tried to show both sides of his nature.
Had you been a fan of the stories?
I’d enjoyed them very much, but I can’t say it was a thing to which I went back, re-reading and re-reading, no.
I regret to say that the only two I’ve seen are the two the BBC issued on video, The Speckled Band and The Illustrious Client, both of which I enjoyed very much. The first was a one-off, wasn’t it?
It was a pilot, yes.
And I think I read in one of the books on Holmes on tv that you weren’t happy with your performance in that first one, and that by the time of the full series, beginning with Illustrious Client, you had made some changes in how you played him.
I don’t remember saying that, no. I wonder where you read that! Certainly we had the finest director on that first one, a very good director. I have seen those two recently because I thought I’d better look at them again before writing the book. I don’t remember being unhappy with my performance in the first one; looking at it this time, I thought it was rather better.
I must track that quote down, then.* The series itself was unfortunately beset by production difficulties, scripts not being delivered on time, problems with financing and so on.
It was nothing to do with finance, just incompetence.
Where was the blame for that?
At the top. I’m not going to particularise! (Laughs) It was the administrative department. The scripts came in late and some of them I rejected and rewrote myself. They went straight into the waste paper basket; I simply refused them. The Red-Headed League had fourteen characters that don’t exist in Doyle, and I said no way. This is not on. And they all sounded when I read the script – before throwing it into the waste paper basket – as if they’d been borrowed from Damon Runyan. One was called Harry the Horse.
Did you watch any of the later Peter Cushing ones?
I watched some of them. He was very ill advised to take it on; two other actors had been offered it and refused it, for the same reason that I did: the terrible shortage of rehearsal time. Although that wasn’t the only reason. I felt very wary about doing it again anyway, purely and simply because it was such a disagreeable experience.
Did you feel any apprehension about doing it again because it’s a part that has traditionally had a tendency to take over an actor’s career and stop him doing other things?
Well, I suppose the thought occurred to me but I don’t think it had any influence on my decision. My decision not to do it was immediate. As soon as I was asked, I said no. They had cut the rehearsals down to ten days and I told them it just couldn’t be done. At least I couldn’t do it.
You worked with Peter Cushing a few years later on the Hammer film The Vampire Lovers.
Yes, and he told me it had been the worst experience of his career. He said he’d rather sweep Paddington Station than do it again.
I wish the BBC would issue more of your programmes; six of the Cushings are now available…
Well, I think for one thing mine were in black and white, and Peter Cushing’s were made in a more modern format, and they’re probably in better nick. Also, I think that people have forgotten who I am and they haven’t forgotten who Peter Cushing is.
I’m going to make a confession to you now. I’m a big fan of the Fu Manchu films. And when I got your book, I went straight to the index to look them up, and was amazed to find that you dismiss them as “preposterous twaddle.” And you talk about Christopher Frayling alerting you to the fact that they have a cult following, and I’m surprised that you didn’t already know that.
Well I did know it. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re a bunch of nuts as well. I suppose that has to include you now!
I’m afraid so, yes. You say you get a lot of fan mail on account of your appearance in Octopussy; do you not get a lot of Fu Manchu fan mail?
I don’t think I ever had any. I don’t think I was very good in the part. As I say in the book, when I watched it, the impression I got of watching myself in it was of a suit of clothes walking about.
The character is obviously based on Sherlock Holmes…
Without the touch of genius that Holmes had.
So I suppose you would think of your performances in those films as a bit like the standard portrayal of Holmes that you had come along and moved forward.
No, I don’t think it was even as good as that.
Another performance of yours that gets very short shrift in your book is your reprise of Holmes in Gene Wilder’s Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother.
Don’t tell me you’re a fan of that as well!
I do enjoy it, I’m afraid… (Wilmer laughs heartily at the very idea.) Were you Wilder’s own casting?
I was definitely Wilder’s own casting, yes. Because there was some sort of difficulty about my doing it at one point, and he said “But then we’ll have no Sherlock Holmes!” He seemed to think that nobody on God’s green earth could do it except me. But I was so regretful about having done it; I really felt I shouldn’t have done it.
Do you have any memory of it at all, I mean of the finished film?
No, not really. I remember seeing it, of course…
Because I have to say, there is a very, very fine piece of comic playing by you in it. If you don’t remember the film too well, it’s the first scene, and you and Thorley Walters as Watson are sat just as we are now, and there’s an ugly six foot three inch murderer peering through the keyhole, seemingly unbeknownst to either of you. Watson is reading a book and you are writing something on a piece of card with a conspiratorial look on your face. Then with an expression of mischievous glee you turn the card around so Watson can see it, and it says: ‘Ugly Six Foot Three Inch Murderer At Keyhole’. And we cut to Thorley Walters, who is reading this with a big smile on his face, until the import of it hits him and he explodes with fear. Whereupon, still with this impish smile on your face, you turn around another card, which reads ‘Act Naturally’.
I remember something to do with cards… I remember thinking it was rather footling at the time.
But your actual performance of it is a very good piece of comic acting of which you can be proud. (Wilmer smiles with bemused tolerance, interviewer recognises defeat and moves on.)
Finally, then, if the circumstances were entirely to your satisfaction, could the right project come along that might tempt you back to acting?
Totally in the past?
Totally, yes. I’m incredibly ancient, you know! My wife might try to pummel me until I agreed to do it, perhaps. But I still wouldn’t.
*“Following the remarkable success of a try-out instalment, the BBC wasted no time in throwing its considerable resources behind a full 12-part series of Holmes adaptations starring Douglas Wilmer as the Great Detective and Nigel Stock as Watson… Wilmer watched the 25 September repeat of The Speckled Band, but was unsettled by his own performance, thinking his Holmes ‘too smooth, urbane and civilised’. Over the next few months he would develop the character, hoping to capture ‘a much more primitive person, more savage and ruthless. He was a surprisingly unfashionable individual for a Victorian writer to portray, really – completely unsentimental in a very sentimental age.’” – Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes On Screen