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.'”