Recalling … when Mr. Spock invited me on a day out

sherlock_nimoy x325By Ray Bennett

It was the familiar voice of Mr. Spock on the phone although Leonard Nimoy, who died today aged 83, at the time was soon to publish his defiant memoire, “I Am Not Spock”.

It was the mid-1970s and Nimoy was on tour in a production of the 1899 William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle play, “Sherlock Holmes” in the title role.

He had performed it on Broadway and now the play was on at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I had interviewed the actor for The Windsor Star and shortly after my story appeared, Nimoy phoned to ask if I would like to join him and the cast and crew of the play on a day’s outing to the Henry Ford Museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

I have no idea why he asked me although perhaps it was because I was not a great fan of “Star Trek” at a time when he wished to distance himself from the show and a few years before the first movie changed things, plus I had praised his performance as Holmes. He never said, but it was a lovely day, relaxed and off the record.

I mingled with the cast as we strolled around the automotive attractions and often found myself chatting just with Nimoy. We had a great lunch and I’m pleased to report what a decent and charming man he was.

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Recalling … why vet author James Herriot never got rich

James Herriot w: Don and Hector

By Ray Bennett

The stories of veterinarean James Herriot, who wrote “All Creatures Great and Small” and died 20 years ago today aged 79, remain immensely popular and they attract many tourists to Yorkshire but they did not make him a fortune.

He told me: “I’ve made vast amounts of money but in this country they take it all away from you. I mean, I pay 83% in income tax so it doesn’t leave a lot. It’s made things a wee bit more comfortable but you can’t get rich now, not in England.”

That was in 1979 when I interviewed him for TV Guide Canada. His real name was James Alfred Wight and he told me that his inspiration came one day when he finished his pint of McEwan’s Export ale and strode from the Three Tuns punlic house into the quiet Yorkshire evening. Once more, the villagers of Thirsk in the North Riding had supped their bitter entranced with his yarns about life as a country veterinarean in the 1930s.

all creaturs book x325With Don, a large black Labrador, and Hector, a Jack Russell terrier, at his heels, he arrived home and declared: “I’m going to write a book.” Joan Wight, his wife of 25 years, had heard that before. She smiled indulgently and said, “Old vets of 50 don’t start writing books.”

Twelve years later, the author told me, “I suppose she had a point but that sort of nettled me into it. I kept talking about the fact that I would write one day and then she made that remark.” His voice still had traces of a youth spent in Glasgow. “It made me think, well, right, I’ll show her. So I rushed out and bought a lot of paper and I started to write.”

Writing did not come easy: “The hardest thing was to realise that I couldn’t write. Aye, that was a nasty blow. When I’d written it down, I realised it was just terrible, you see. It was rather like a child’s school essay. Great, long balanced sentences that nobody in his right senses would ever think of paying money to read.

“Since they were supposed to be lighthearted books, I had to evolve some sort of light, conversational style. You’ve heard the phrase ‘artful artlessness’? That’s what I aimed at and it was damned hard work. I rewrote again and again. I think I was always regarded as something of a raconteur but on holiday I couldn’t even write postcards. My wife always wrote them for me.”

The eventual result was a novel titled “If Only They Could Talk”, a charmingly rustic and amusing account of Wight’s own introduction into the quaint and curious ways of farmers in the rolling hills of Yorkshire’s Pennine country before World War II with a combustible older partner he calls in his books Siegfried Farnon.

It led to another book, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet” and they both sold comfortably. But then an American publisher picked them up and packaged them as one under the inspired title of “All Creatures Great and Small”, and remarkable things began to happen remarkably fast.

All Creatures complete DVD x325Herriot said, “The books were more or less limping along here and then they found out I was a bestseller in the United States and they began to take a bit of notice at home.” More books followed, packaged in the States as “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “All Things Wise and Wonderful”.

Anthony Hopkins starred as Siegfried Farnon in a feature film, “All Things Great and Small” in 1975 with Simon Ward as Herriot and “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet” (1977) starred John Alderton as Herriot with Colin Blakely as Siegfried. In 1977, BBC-TV launched a 13-part series of “All Creatures Great and Small” with Robert Hardy as Siegfried and Christopher Timothy as Herriot. It reached an audience of 19 million every Sunday night and ran on and off until 1990 and is still available on DVD.

When I interviewed him, he was, at 62, still a full-time working veterinarean, still in partnership with Siegfried (he had given up hiding his own identity by not Siegfried’s). Herriot said, “I’ve been inveigled to go to a tax haven. There’s not many of me left in this country, Most bestselling authours are away in Ireland, where they pay no tax at all; in Jersey, where they pay 10%; or on the Isle of Mann, where it’s much the same. But I stay here and pay my 83%. I like it here.”

Little wonder. Pennine country is spectacular. There are no massive peaks but the high grassy hills are magnificent. He said: “I like to get up into the hills. About my only pleasure pursuit these days is dog-walking. I’ve always carried two of them around in the car. The terrier died recently but I’ve still the Labrador. One of the nicest things about my job is to be able to stop, get out of the car and walk along the top of a hill with the dog. The countryside around here is practically unchanged.”

His stories traveled widely but Herriot was content to stay at home, he said: “I’ve done two tours of the States and I’ve had many invitations to go to Canada, New Zealand and Australia, but when I do these rather exhausting publicity tours, I come straight back, put my gumboots on and get back to my veterinary work. It’s a bit much, so I’ve opted out of all that.”

He never wrote about modern times and he was nostalgic for the old days, he said: “When science comes in, the fun goes out. In those old days, we were a very unscientific profession and farmers were unscientific people. There’s always fun in dealing with animals but there’s nothing like 30 years ago – the lovely old characters with their witchcraft cures and their bigotries, all their funny old ideas. And the funny old vets, too. Bigger farms today are run by very clever, very knowledgeable young farmers. They’re a lot more efficient than their forefathers were but they’re not nearly as interesting.”

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Recalling … Robert Altman on building sandcastles

Robert Altman x650

By Ray Bennett

I love the movies of Robert Altman, who was born 90 years ago today and died on Nov. 20, 2006, because some are masterpieces and the ones that are not invariably have moments of wonderment and magic that occupy the mind.

A new documentary titled “Altman”, to be released in the UK by Soda Pictures on April 3, illustrates the director’s philosophy that filmmaking is like building sandcastles – you make them and then the tide comes in and washes them away but what you made is in everybody’s memory.

Gosford Park Altman x325I was at BAFTA in November 2001 when producer Stephen Woolley interviewed Altman for the David Lean Lecture and he said something that I think displays his great wisdom about drama. Wooley asked if there might be a sequel to the well-received “Gosford Park” (pictured left) and Altman said: “I don’t think so. I don’t know very much about endings. The only ending I know about is death, so when you say, ‘Oh, this film has a happy ending’ it means that’s a stopping place, so the couple get married and kiss and walk into their honeymoon bungalow and it fades out. And then a week later, she’s caught with the gardener and he’s killed her mother and there’s a long trial and they all get a terrible disease. So endings are just stopping places and I think that wherever these stories are stopped in these films, that’s all I have to say about them.”

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I first met Altman in 1976 when the two of us stepped alone into an elevator in the New York hotel where the junket for “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (above) was taking place following a screening the night before.

McCabe & Mrs Miller'

He asked if I was there for that and then, as if he’d never made “MASH”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (above), “The Long Goodbye” (below) and “Nashville”, he appeared anxious to know if I’d liked it. I assured him that I loved it and he beamed like a new kid on the block.

longgoodbye-hayden gould

At the press conference, “The Tonight Show” writer and comic Pat McCormick appeared as President Grover Cleveland, his character in the film, and he was blisteringly funny about US politics at a time when Gerald Ford was in the Oval Office.

Altman and Newman showed their political stripes too but on the subject of filmmaking they stated that their favourite part of the process was in the preparation, devising the story, developing the screenplay and rehearsals. If they could stop then and not actually make the film, that would be perfect, just like a sandcastle.

Keenan Wynn in Nashville x650

On March 2, 2006, Altman was at The Old Vic for first night of his production of the Arthur Miller play “Resurrection Blues”. He lingered in the aisles at the intermission, happy to chat with audience members. I thanked him again for making my all-time favourite, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, and mentioned that I had seen “Nashville” for the umpteenth time recently. It had struck me this time that the great character actor Keenan Wynn (above right) as the bewildered Mr. Green was the heart and soul of the film. He smiled as if I’d stumbled on a secret and he said, “Keenan invariably was.”

Altman told Woolley at BAFTA: “Somebody came up and said ‘Which is your favorite film of the ones you’ve done?’ I said, ‘Do you have children?’ This woman said, ‘Yes, I have three.’ I said, ‘Which is your favorite child?’ It’s an unanswerable question because you know about ‘MASH’ and ‘Nashville’ and ‘The Player’, and this and that, but I know about ‘Quintet’ (below), and ‘Streamers’ and films you’ve never heard of. You do tend to love your least successful child the most. But that difference, just because of popularity, does not exist in my soul.”

Nor mine.

Quintet x650

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Recalling … when Jack Palance winked at me

The Professionals Claudia, Palace x650By Ray Bennett

Jack Palance, who was born on this day in 1919 and died on Nov. 10 2006, had one of the scariest physiognomies in movies but my favourite memory of him is of a wink. Continue reading

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Why Jon Stewart should listen to Johnny Carson

Carson and Stewart

By Ray Bennett

Count me among those who will hate to see Jon Stewart walk away from “The Daily Show” and I wish he could have heard what Johnny Carson told me about his own temptations to quit “The Tonight Show”.

Carson was the king of American late-night comedy when I interviewed him in his Burbank dressing room in 1981. “The Tonight Show” on NBC was starting its 20th year and it had made him, in his fifties, one of the biggest stars in entertainment. There were rumours, however, that he was restless and would pack it in, so I asked him about it. Continue reading

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Recalling … wounded rock star Gene Vincent

Gene-Vincent x650

By Ray Bennett

Rockabilly star Gene Vincent, who was born on this day 80 years ago and died on Oct. 12, 1971, had a huge influence on my musical tastes with ’50s tracks such as “Be-Bob-a-Lula” and “Right Here on Earth”.

I interviewed him in the early 1960s backstage at a music venue in Gravesend, Kent, called the Co-op Hall just a few years after the car crash in which Eddie Cochran (pictured below) died and Vincent and songwriter Sharon Sheeley were both seriously injured. Continue reading

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Recalling … when I asked Robert Wagner about mortality


By Ray Bennett

“What the hell kind of question is that?” It’s 1985 and I’m sitting with Robert Wagner, who turns 85 today, in his luxury trailer on the Warner Bros. lot where he was making the shortlived TV series “Lime Street”. Continue reading

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John Williams on working with Steven Spielberg

John-Williams-and-Steven-Spielberg x650

By Ray Bennett

Composer John Williams, who is 83 today, has won five Oscars and scored almost every Steven Spielberg film with a Tom Hanks spy thriller and another Indiana Jones adventure on the way, not to mention another episode of “Star Wars”.

When I interviewed Williams for The Hollywood Reporter almost 15 years ago, I asked him about his long-time relationship with the filmmaker. Continue reading

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Warrior Andy McNab loves a good story like ‘Mamma Mia’


By Ray Bennett

Things you might know about Andy McNab: He was a highly decorated SAS soldier; he wrote the bestselling “Bravo Two Zero” about his time in combat in the Gulf War; and he writes action thrillers, the latest of which is titled “The New Enemy”.

Things you might not know about Andy McNab: He has been married several times; he loves films like “Mamma Mia!” and “Little Miss Sunshine”; and he enjoys watching Fox News because it makes him laugh. Continue reading

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20 Gene Hackman films you must see

French Connection x650

By Ray Bennett

With most movie stars it’s not very difficult to sort out a Top 10 of your favourite films but Gene Hackman’s exceptional 40-year career has included so many terrific performances in such a wide range of films that it’s impossible. As the retired actor turns 85 today, here’s an extended list of Hackman films from his 99 acting credits that are even more watchable than most. Continue reading

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