An actor whose politics were a touchy subject

Anthony Quayle in the mini-series The Last Days of Pompeii

Anthony Quayle in the mini-series The Last Days of Pompeii - Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty

TIM WALKER remembers a somewhat frosty encounter with Sir Anthony Quayle, who was unwilling to be drawn on his political views.

All actors have areas of their lives that are off limits and it was no different with Sir Anthony Quayle. The year was 1986 and the grand old man of the stage was about to appear in a series of productions at the Theatre Royal in Bath, starting with King Lear in which he was naturally going to take the title role.

For once, it had nothing whatever to do with his private life - he had found blissful happiness with his second wife, Dorothy Hyson - or a play or a film that had bombed so badly it was considered impertinent to bring it up. Quayle had lately narrated a Conservative Party broadcast, and, under a prime minister quite as divisive as Margaret Thatcher, that was something that he knew wouldn't go down well with vast swathes of the public, not to mention a lot of his fellow actors. He knew, too, it would also complicate the public perception of his knighthood which he had accepted the preceding year.

"If you don't mind, dear boy, I'd really rather not get into that," he told me. "I'd sooner talk about my work and the plays I'm doing. I don't see that my political views should have anything to do with this."

As it happened, Thatcher then had a number of admirers in the upper echelons of the acting profession - Lord Oliver and Sir Peter Hall, his successor as the boss of the National Theatre, among them - but all were reluctant to admit to it publicly. I was of course a lot younger then, and, working for a left-wing Sunday newspaper, I was determined to get Quayle to address the question. I asked him why, if he didn't want to make an issue of his politics, he had narrated a Conservative Party broadcast in the first place? He gave me a long icy state.

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"You are being rather tiring," he said eventually. "I don't happen to share the politics of your newspaper, but I don't think that should give it any right to dispatch someone all the way out to Bath to pillory me for my convictions."

The son of a lawyer and educated at Rugby, his politics were hardly surprising and no one would seriously suggest that he'd needed to ingratiate himself to Thatcher or any other politician to be knighted. He was without question one of the greatest actors and directors of his day. 

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He had helped to establish Stratford-on-Avon as a major powerhouse of British theatre and won widespread acclaim for his Shakespearean roles and notable Broadway performances in Tamburlaine the Great in 1956, and Galileo in 1967. He appeared, too, in more than 30 films, including his Oscar-nominated turn as Cardinal Wolsey in Anne of the Thousand Days in 1970.

Trying to make amends, I told him I'd especially enjoyed his portrayal of Colonel Harry Brighton in Lawrence of Arabia. Quayle said the film had been "a difficult experience" for him as the director Sir David Lean saw him as an honourable character and Quayle as an idiot and that was how he insisted on playing him. When I then mentioned the wonderfully pugilistic barrister he'd played in the television miniseries QBVII, he once again sighed. "That was the last time my friend Jack Hawkins appeared on screen before he died," he said, sadly.

We eventually wound up the interview and said our farewells rather stiffly. "I don't really feel we got very far," he said. I regret giving him such a hard time and wish I could have separated in my youthful head an actor of such formidable talent from political convictions that I happened at the time to find distasteful. 

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