Donald Pleasence as B.D. Brockhurst, President of Big Deal Records, in a scene from the Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band, directed by Michael Schultz. The film is built around the music and lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney much in the same way as the great MGM musicals assembled company stars around the music of Cole Porter, Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Written by rock critic Henry Edwards, the story is told entirely in music, no dialogue, and concerns the rise to stardom of the new Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Heartland, the groupís hometown, almost succumbs to a fiendish plot to eliminate all love and joy from the world. The film stars the Bee Gees as Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band and---"Thereís a new album for the film," says Pleasence, "itís great."


The Thames looked bleak from the windows of Donald Pleasenceís house in Strand on the Green and the star himself was not really unhappy at being off to the warmth of California in a couple of days to make a major TV programme and then play a sympathetic (for a change he said) psychiatrist opposite Anne Heywood in a new film.

I asked him whether doing seven or eight films a year brought any difficulties concerning the delineation the different characters---how many scripts did he have work on at a time...

Donald Pleasence: No, not difficulty has a certain facility...there are some roles I take more seriously than others, but I study each part individually, and I know what I am going to do before I go on the set. I know that I have a reputation for sinister characters, but, in fact, I play quite a range of characters and I certainly have no kind of Ďactí or Ďset imageí such as...well like that great actor Peter Lorre. For instance in Chabrolís film Blood Relatives, shot in Canada, I was interrogated by Donald Sutherland about the assault on a thirteen-year-old-girl. A few days later, I caught a plane and I was playing a Chief of Police myself.

One of the odd things about filming like this is that I can step off a plane one day and the next Iím being shot dead or tied to a stake, because so often they are shooting my role backwards---I start with a death scene.

Gordon Reid: Youíve made close to 70 films and you could surely write a good book about the directors youíve met. Have you any preferences?

DP: Well, I particularly like working with Pinter, but thatís theatre. Chabrol, Polanski, Clive Donner, John Sturges...Chabrol is a great character. He knows exactly what heís doing...he edits in the camera...he doesnít take a close-up unless heís going to use it and heís very genial. Polanski is very good...he is a technical man and this I admire because I know little about that side...

GR: Would you like to do more theatre work?

DP: I havenít done a play for about six years now. Yes, I would like to work in the theatre soon...Iím very interested in the new Durrenmatt play I saw in Zurich, Period of Grace itís called in English---Iíd like to direct that. Itís about a dying dictator, whom you never see, and the various ministers and authorities who are trying to keep him alive for various ends...

GR: Do political plays interest you...?

DP: What is a political play? Durrenmatt has said heís not a political writer. I think the only political film Iíve appeared in was Mr. Freedom directed by William Klein.

GR: I thought that was a very effective pop piece

DP: Yes, Klein is very talented.

GR: Do you find moving from the theatre to film difficult---playing the same character first in the play then in a film.

DP: No, not really. The Caretaker, for instance, Iíd already played that for a long time on the stage before we made the film and making the film was a luxury. I knew the character so well, I could improvise---I knew exactly what that character would do in any situation. In fact, when we were filming in Hackney, I used to walk about the streets in character. No, I find it is more difficult going back to the theatre after a long period in films. After a couple of weeks rehearsals, you find youíre not reaching the back of the theatre. A matter of projection. Itís easier to cut down.

GR: What was your last play?

DP: Wise Child...on Broadway. Alec Guinness played the role over here. I think it was one of my best performances. I had good reviews, but the play was damned by the New York Times and that was that.

GR: A pity one critic should have such an influence.

DP: You donít get a second chance...and it takes a couple of months to really bring the part up.

GR: It must be disappointing too when one of your films gets a slim showing---The Passover Plot, for instance. Itís a very interesting theme...the book was absorbing I thought.

DP: Yes, it was interesting to play Pilate like that, but the film got mixed notices in America and there were other was controversial...I remember I was asked if Iíd take part in a radio phone-in show discussing the film and I agreed. Then, when the phone rang in this room, I realized the whole thing was going out live in was a bit unnerving.

I think there is, perhaps, too much concentration on what the metropolis thinks---what does well in London.

GR: I donít think any one critic has quite the same influence here...

DP: I think film critics can influence the success of an art film...the current success in London of The Duellists, I think, is due to the marvelous reviews. A big adventure film can be critically damned but the public will still go to see it.

GR: With such a full filming programme, how do you find time to write? Your childrenís book, Scouse the Mouse, has been published and youíve just finished a sequel, Scouse in America. Do you write on your Atlantic flights?

DP: No, I always watch the movies. No, I write because itís something different...a change from acting...and because I thought there was a need for books that didnít play down to children. I think there is a market for books and recordings, in fact, my partner and I are working on an animation project...

GR: So, you donít write as a you have any hobbies?

DP: No. Iím just lazy.

GR: Apart from seven or eight films a year and commercials and a couple of books. By the way, Iíve been admiring that Bratby...and is that a Braque litho? Do you collect?

DP: The Braqueís only a print Iím afraid. No, I donít collect...I buy one or two things I like...not for investment. I like Bratbyís work...heís done one or two portraits of me...

GR: I liked the work he did for The Horses Mouth...

DP: Yes...that was a role I would have liked to have played, Gully Jimson in The Horses Mouth.

GR: A pity such parts are not more forthcoming.

DP: Iím always looking.

GR: Do you read much with that end in mind?

DP: Not really. I would like to do Graham Greeneís The Honorary Consul, but then so would a dozen other actors...

GR: Any classical roles?

DP: Lear...I would like to do that...but Iíve got time for that.

GR: Do you go to the movies much?

DP: Not a lot.

GR: Not your own?

DP: I see my rushes, but often I donít see the whole film. Some I make a point of seeing, some not. I wonít say which.

GR: With all the directors and stars you work with, you must have a mass of material for an autobiography.

DP: Oh no, not an autobiography, Iím much too secretive a any case, the good stories one couldnít print

GR: How do you advise your family about going into the theatre?

DP: I donít. If they want to, they can do so. I did, however, try to dissuade Angela against it, because she was young when I was just making my way and she was aware how tough it could be. After all, Manuela was the first film in which I had a decent part, and I was thirty-eight then.

GR: Youíd been in the war, of course. A gunner in the RAF.

DP: Yes. I was shot down over Germany and stuck in a POW camp---mainly Americans. They organized a dramatic society, and I remember we did Petrified Forest---I played the Leslie Howard part---remember the film?

GR: Very much, Howard was an early favourite of mine. You know there seems something of a return to decent-chapmanship---The Four Feathers, Dornford Yates books as TV plays (She fell among Thieves) and Buchan...To think that after so long out of production, Rank should start up with a re-make of The Thirty Nine Steps.

Interview courtesy of Tim Murphy

Interview from the May 1978 edition of CONTINENTAL FILM REVIEW.

Interview © 1978 CONTINENTAL FILM REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

Photo courtesy of Mr. Baby Man


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