RIP Victor Spinetti

THE SAD news today is that Victor Spinetti has died at the age of 82. As recently as 2007, the actor was appearing at the Pleasance on the Edinburgh Fringe. Here’s an interview I did with him for Scotland on Sunday then:

He’s not one for holding things in is Victor Spinetti. His autobiography, Victor Spinetti Up Front, is an anecdotal romp through a life that began in a Welsh mining village and flourished in the London of the swinging 60s with roles in Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War! and a string of films with the Beatles, a period he has capitalised on as a professional raconteur ever since.

But even though he is frank, funny and candid about his private life – whether he’s recalling stories of the sexual advances of the soldiers in a military hospital, his male “life companion” Graham Curnow or his steamy affair with his room-mate’s girlfriend – he never pigeon-holes himself with words like gay or bisexual. It’s partly because he’s never been part of a gay scene (“I’ve never even worn a pair of jeans,” he says), but more because he’s always been open to sexual expression in whatever form it takes.

“If there’s somebody you like or love, it’s possible to do something, even if you just hold each other or lie with each other,” says the 73-year-old. “But it never occurred to me to be straight or gay. If there are people you really like and enjoy, you can lie in bed and there’s always something you can do. I can’t bear labels, but on the other hand I support Gay Pride. In the 60s we were persecuted as much as anybody for living together. We were advised by our lawyers to tear up all the correspondence we’d ever written. Finishing a letter with ‘all my love, Graham’ was enough for a court case. I grew up without knowing about it [homosexuality]. I found out about it, luckily, through somebody who became my ‘significant other’.”

He’s saving some of his racier anecdotes, including “true stories about Edinburgh”, for an “Uncut” performance of A Very Private Diary Revisited at midnight on August 24. Those seeing his daytime show, which opens this week, will be spared the more outrageous details in favour of comic tales and expert imitations of Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and John Lennon. It’s an off-the-cuff show he first tried out on the Fringe in the early 80s and recently returned to at London’s Donmar Warehouse to much acclaim.

His only problem is how to get so many stories into a single show. Will he, for example, have time to tell the one about being denounced by the Pope for directing a production of the hippy musical Hair in Italy? “I arrived in Rome wearing a suit and tie, cufflinks, a hat, a brolly and a briefcase,” says Spinetti, a man never lost for words. “All these kids were sitting in the Sistina Theatre waiting to audition for Hair and they’d expected a hippy. There was a table with the producers and their girlfriends, sitting like a tribunal. I came in and said good morning. Then in my Italian that I had only just learned, I said, ‘You have read in your papers that there is a scene in Hair which is the nude scene.’

“As I was speaking I was gradually taking off my clothes. When I was finished, I was absolutely naked and I said, ‘Ecco la scena nude. It’s the easiest scene in the show to do.’ Some people got up and left in disgust, so they would have been useless anyway, the others applauded and the producers fled because they were with their girlfriends. Twenty minutes later Franco Zeffirelli phoned and said, ‘Victor, I hear you’re showing your cock at the Sistina Theatre.’ I said, ‘The only thing that travels in Rome is gossip.'”

Edinburgh Fringe dreams

THIS MORNING I came across a couple of tweets from Fringe participants about having festival-releated dreams or nightmares. It reminded me of an article I wrote in 1997 for The Herald. That’s a long time ago, I know, and few of the people quoted are doing the same jobs, but it was lovely piece to research and the idea still stands. I’ve copied it here. It’d be great to hear your own Fringe anxiety dreams in the comments below:

IT ALL started a few weeks before the Festival when I woke up convinced that Brian McMaster’s programme had taken a bizarre new twist. I had dreamt that Peter Stein’s Cherry Orchard was going to be done not in the respectable confines of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, but in Glasgow, as street theatre. How would they sustain an audience’s interest in Chekhov for three hours on Sauchiehall Street, and how would I get back to Edinburgh to get my on-the-night review phoned in?

It struck me that if I was having such dreams, then so too would Festival workers across the city. I wasn’t wrong.

Fringe supremo, Hilary Strong dreamt she’d arrived at the office to find it closed with a crowd of people waiting to get in. “I looked in the diary and realised I’d forgotten to do a live radio link with the Today programme, which had been scheduled for 7.30am,” she says. “By this time, I was due to attend a formal award ceremony, but for some reason, I was wearing painting overalls, and my shoes were covered in white emulsion that left footprints all over the carpet in the City Chambers.”

For performers, the anxiety of revealing themselves on a daily basis inevitably plays havoc with a peaceful night’s sleep. Gerry Gowans, starring in Garland, Judy With Love, at Hill Street Theatre, dreamt she was coming to the Fringe, not as an actress – but as a stripper. “I went on stage, but found it impossible to get my clothes off,” she quivers. “The show was a flop.”

Mervyn Stutter, he of Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe, at the Pleasance, was convinced he’d hit the big time. “I got a call from the BBC saying they wanted to broadcast my show on prime time TV,” he says. “I was in the wings waiting to go on. The audience went into a hush. Then a voice: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Edinburgh Festival, will you please welcome your host – Julian Clary!'”

Perhaps the most revealing dreams are those for which the dreamers have asked to remain anonymous. A member of the Traverse Theatre’s production staff, for example, would sooner keep quiet about finding him or herself in a dentist’s chair which had somehow appeared on the set of Knives in Hens during a sell-out show. “For some reason I had no clothes on and was in the dentist’s chair. I soon realised that Helena Christiansen was there, also naked – but what could I do in front of the audience and cast? The rest is a bit sordid.”

Then there’s the Fringe Office worker who had to go out for a night on the town, and had to get dressed in a hurry. “I couldn’t find anything to wear except a huge pair of pink underpants that came up to my armpits,” he or she confesses reluctantly.

For reasons of diplomacy this dream about our own arts editor is also anonymous: “Last weekend I woke up next to my partner, who looked at me rather frostily and said, ‘Who’s Keith Bruce?’ I had been having an angst-ridden dream about The Herald’s switchboard, and had been calling out, ‘Get me Keith Bruce’. When I told him Mr Bruce is the arts editor of The Herald, he raised his eyebrows as if to say, so it’s true you’d do anything for press coverage.”

The Fringe of slumberland is an even more amazing place than the real thing. Stephanie Noblett, press officer at the Famous Grouse House had a radical new vision for Chambers Street: “I dreamt there was a show-jumping gymkhana as part of our programme. The whole of Chambers Street had been turfed over, and all our performers were on horse back. I woke up in a cold sweat when of the Wrigley Sisters (one of the folk music acts) took a fatal fall.”

Theatre Workshop publicist Jane Molyneux was in populist mode: “I dreamt Diriamba! would have more commercial appeal if done as a version of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday on the Meadows. Cliff was very obliging and was quite happy to belt out several songs with Theatre Workshop’s Nicaraguan and Scottish performers from the top deck of one of Edinburgh’s open-top tour buses, but things started to get out of hand when I found myself on a Keystone-Cops type chase, following after a convoy of three buses, heading across the Meadows, straight for Nicaragua, with Cliff singing the theme tune to Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song.”

While Mike Griffiths, the Traverse’s production manager, was trying to figure out how the main theatre had been turned into a swimming pool, stage manager Gavin Johnson was discovering how the Festival budget had been overspent: “I went to the green room to find the fridge full of bread – and no matter how much I pulled out, there was still more and more. It wasn’t even the right kind of bread, because I needed wholemeal and this was all Sunblest white.”