Christopher Lee is an erudite man. Whereas most actors are content to say their lines and try to avoid bumping into the furniture, he considers the deeper context of every role, relating it to the languages he knows and the books he’s read. Even while out in Lithuania filming The New Adventures Of Robin Hood , Channel 5’s bid for a cut of the Xena / Hercules action, he’s determined to find the mythic archetypes underlying his role as Robin’s mentor, the Celtic sorceror Olwyn.
“The relationship between Olwyn and Robin Hood is exactly the same as that between Merlin and King Arthur in that wonderful book The Sword In The Stone . There’s one episode, ‘The Legend Of Olwyn’, for instance, when Robin Hood is a young boy, and I’m showing him the realities of life, and what to watch out for, just like in the book. So the way I see the character is that he’s spiritual, moral, educational, but also very real. Someone with a basis in everyday day. He’s not meant to be an intellectual. This is a guy who doesn’t take things seriously, just as this is a series of stories which are very entertaining to everyone… It’s fun, and it’s also fun to make. It really is a pantomime, with pantomime figures who can laugh at themselves...”
Merlin isn’t the only magician to whom Lee compares Olwyn.
“I regard this as a rehearsal for playing Gandalf. I can’t think of any other actor who could really play that role. I don’t mean just perform, get up and say the line. I’m talking about understanding the story, and the character of Gandalf. I’ve read just about every thing Tolkien ever wrote... He didn’t just create a whole new world, he invented new languages. I think it was the great literary achievement of my time.
“If you read The Lord Of The Rings , which I do at least twice a year, it’s a mixture of languages. I’m sure Tolkien was influenced by The Mabinogion , which is the great Welsh epic, so far as the Elves were concerned, and by the Finnish Pallibara , and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. .. I read Beowulf at school, so when I read The Lord Of The Rings I became completely immersed in it. I’m extremely familiar with these sagas...
“On top of that, I’ve played a lot of serious, strange, wise people with great powers over the years, including this one, Olwyn, and I understand the elder magic that’s involved. These people in The Lord Of The Rings are living beings. If you know this background, if you know the languages, and the cultures of the countries, the whole thing opens up. And because of that, I really do think I am the only actor who could play that role. I’m the right age, I’m the right experience. I’d have to grow my beard longer, but I could say the things he says with a sense of meaning.”
It’s about now that I mention Peter Jackson’s recently confirmed plans for a tripartite cinematic version of Tolkien’s saga, presuming the actor already knows about it. He doesn’t. Lee’s dumbstruck.
“A film? Of The Lord Of The Rings ? And they’re going to do the whole thing? I mean, I’ve always thought it would make a superb film, but when you start thinking about it it’s such a colossal canvas, with all these tremendous battles apart from anything else. The one between the Riders Of Rohan and the Orcs at Helm’s Deep, I mean, God, that’s a film by itself, and then outside Mordor when Sam and Frodo are travelling with Gollum... How are you going to get somebody to play Gollum?” Lee makes that distinctive swallowed gulp at the back of his throat…
“I mean, you’ve got the four hobbits, five if you include Bilbo, and then there’s the story back in the Shire, when Sharkey has taken over, so you’ve five or more hobbits, three wizards – the White, the Grey and the Brown... Were there any others?” The Mastermind chair might be terrifying, but it’s got nothing on Christopher Lee’s stare. Fortunately, the actor provides his own answers. “No, there were five wizards who are mentioned in one of The Unfinished Tales , but you end up with Radagast The Brown, Gandalf The Grey and Saruman The White, the three Istari. Now they can be played by actors, and the Orcs are just make-up, but the Ents... How are they going to do the assault on Orthanc? I would think that to tell the whole story would cost $200-300 million. Are they going to get that sort of money?”
Clearly, Lee’ll be asking his agent to make a few calls once he gets home... But now his dream part is in sight, he’s consumed with doubt.
“I don’t know whether they’d want me as Gandalf – they’d probably want a more expensive actor for something that big, because that’s the way casting is done these days, on the basis of what you get paid rather than whether you’re right for it... If you’re going to play a character derived from a book, you go by what the author wrote, it’s as simple as that. People make it very complicated, and this is where I had these arguments with Hammer over Dracula. I did, in fact, play Dracula like that, in a very bad film, made in Spain. But physically I’m the only actor who has portrayed Stoker’s character correctly: the old man, very tall, with dark glasses. The other image might be more successful, but in terms of Stoker’s book, it’s wrong. Producers raid the book for characters and so on, but if a character comes out of a book, then read the book for God’s sake.”
But even Lee abandoned this approach when it came to one particular fantasy role – when he played Death in the animated version of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld tales.
“I didn’t know much about it. I knew he’d written fantasy books but I hadn’t read them. I did ask the people at Cosgrove Hall if I should read these books, but they said, ‘No, it’s all in the scripts,’ and then when I saw the other actors doing the voices it came together. After reading the scripts, Death was something I could see I could play. He’s very amusing and sad and real, but also, let’s not forget, Death, an iconic figure. Terry Pratchett wrote me a wonderful letter, and he was very pleased.”
The New Adventures Of Robin Hood returns to Channel 5 next year.