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Christopher Lee at the Oxford Student Union October 8, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films , trackback

One thing I can’t help but notice at these events: hanging on the wall in the speaking chamber at Oxford is a painting, probably extremely old, of a very elegant, distinguished lady … who looks just like Cordelia Chase. It’s the funniest thing. Well, maybe it isn’t actually the funniest thing, but it always amuses me for about three seconds. And if you don’t know who Cordy is, tough. Google is your friend.

But enough of my ramblings. The guest at the Oxford student union this past Wednesday evening was the iconic, seemingly immortal Christopher Lee, appearing for an informal Q&A session with students. At the age of 85, he may now be a little slow on his feet, but time hasn’t affected his storytelling abilities, nor his recall of events from throughout his 60 years in film (even down to correcting a fan over the exact wording of a line from 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu). He entered to thunderous applause from an audience of several hundred, and with his booming basso voice still very much in evidence, held court comfortably for a little over an hour. In fact, relatively few questions were asked; each one was merely a springboard that allowed Lee to move effortlessly from one anecdote or experience to the next.

As one might expect, his career in horror films came up several times, and he happily discussed films like The Devil Rides Out, the Dracula series, and Fu Manchu, always with honesty. He declared The Wicker Man to be his best film (adding pre-emptively, “and no, I haven’t seen the remake.”) but was quite blunt with his thoughts on the quality of Dracula and Fu Manchu sequels. “I’ve made some dreadful films, but of course I didn’t know they were going to be dreadful before we made them.” Some of Lee’s funniest recollections were from his horror days, such as filming The Vengeance of Fu Manchu in Hong Kong, when he found himself on a ferry en route to the studio, in full asian make-up and drooping moustache, much to the bewilderment of the locals; or while filming a Dracula history documentary in Romania, he was costumed as Vlad the Impaler for a dramatic recreation, only for the crew to stumble across a field of happily picknicking families, who according to Lee, took one look at him, crossed themselves, and promptly fled.

At this point, I should admit that I’ve never seen a Hammer horror film (nothing personal; just not really my thing, is all). Therefore, I had planned to ask Mr Lee about the role I most associate him with from my childhood: that of Francisco Scaramanga, one of the very best Bond villains, in The Man With The Golden GunHowever, with questions at a premium, and other people frankly asking far more interesting things than I had up my sleeve, I decided not to butt in. As luck would have it, he did touch on the subject in any case, particularly his long friendship with Roger Moore who, Lee said with fondness, he’s known for 59 years, “and he’s never been changed by fame”. Praising Moore for his charity work, he said that the knighthood conferred on Sir Roger was richly deserved and should have come sooner. ”Roger’s 80 this month,” he reminded us, “and you can bet he’s going to get one hell of a phone call from me.”

Asked who was his favourite living actor, Lee couldn’t pick just one. Walter Huston, he said, was his all-time favourite. He also illustrated the remarkable longevity of his career when he remarked that after appearing in Moulin Rouge for John Huston in 1952, his next film is to be directed by John’s grandson, Danny. Among working actors, he’s a fan of Gene Hackman, along with Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. Of the current generation, he was full of praise for Johnny Depp, with whom he’s worked several times, and clearly hopes to again. Lee also happily mentioned that he’d managed to meet one of his favourite actresses not long ago: “I was in Berlin recently, with Kim Basinger - and my wife, I hasten to add.”

The 1998 film Jinnah, in which he portrayed the famous leader, was one that Lee raised himself as, in his opinion, his most important film. He spoke of the respect and reverence he encountered, simply because he was playing the part, even down to an impromptu salute from the military guard at Jinnah’s mausoleum.

An account of the evening would not be complete without reference to Lee’s singing abilities. After mentioning in passing that he’ll soon be travelling to Spain to perform songs from Man of La Mancha, he seemed to sense a little doubt over his vocal talents. So he sang some for us.

Oh my.

Lee has a singing voice that, for a man in his prime, would be impressive. For an 85 year old, it’s remarkable. I think I heard a few slates fall off the roof when he was through. And I thought Tony Bennett could still belt ‘em out …

Anyway, that’s pretty much the ballgame, folks. For once, cameras weren’t verboten, so I may be able to post a few photos sometime (from the front row, too; they’ll let anyone in these days …), but not at present. I’ll make reference in a future posting if I get them uploaded.


1. primus - October 8, 2007

Wow - would loved to have been there! Thanks for the write up, Jackal.

2. Daniel Stephens - October 9, 2007

Great stuff, sounds like quite an evening!

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