Donald Pleasence, long the odd man out among our leading actors, tomorrow appears as Dr. Johnson in BBC1's controversial The Falklands Factor
I'm a kind of lovable figure really. I'm loved by middle-aged women. They're my fans...
INTERVIEW BY BRYAN APPLEYARD
Donald Pleasence gazed into the pale spring light of Albermarle Street, a hint of madness in his eyes. Suddenly the bald head swivelled chameleon-like in response to the movement of a waiter in a far corner of the room. The poor minion scuttled away.
Most of this did not happen. It should have done but it did not. Pleasence in the flesh is not at all sinister, displays very few signs of madness and only swivels at the request of the photographer. Indeed he is evidently a little impatient with the very word "sinister." "I'm a kind of lovable figure really. I'm loved by middle-aged women. They're my fans. When men stop me in the street for my autograph it's always for their wives, who must be around 50."
But, whether he likes it or not, the latter half of Pleasence's career has been marked by sinister roles, odd characters and, failing that, people under pressure to the point of madness. Nothing could have more completely made the point than the television ads for Pils---"the odd lager."
It was not ever thus. In the late Fifties he was everybody's idea of the common man, a role he played month after month in the live television dramas of the time. Happily he recalls those interminable travelling salesman and the days when directors used to cry "Let's get Pleasence for the ordinary bloke!"
But even as he hankers after the commonplace he exposes his anarchic streak: "Actors have much more control in live television. Millions of people watching and you can do anything. I used to have this fantasy that I would go home in the middle of a play and turn on my set to watch my next entrance---I knew that nobody was going to come on." He unleashes his wheezy chuckle, his most characteristic sound apart from the sudden, unnerving swoop into a whisper which punctuates his conversation.
But, after the dramas, came the television series Armchair Mystery Theatre of which he was host and occasional star. The public attached the name to the face and the face to an air of mystery, to a sense that something rather strange was going on. But it could not simply have been the effect of casting. At the age of 18, Pleasence left his first job as a booking clerk at Swinton Station in Yorkshire---"my parents had influence." He told the station master he was off to become an actor. Finding this very odd, the railway company sent in a high-powered auditor to discover if he had been selling bogus first-class tickets and was attempting to abscond with the proceeds. The label "odd" was stuck on early.
Labelled or not, he is now an eminently bankable property. Stage parts appear to be available whenever he wants them and he travels continually to play in a steady flow of films. Now he is in Mexico working on Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie.
"I only make odd films, that's the point. If they made interesting films then I would appear in interesting films. But the fact is that only horror movies are made at the moment. This at least is a funny horror film and I'm quite looking forward to it." With a little prompting he drifts into a happy reminiscence about Cul-de-Sac, the Roman Polanski film in which he portrays a nice guy driven mad by his wife and friends.
"I was watching a couple of films I'd rented from the video shop round the corner, and I thought films have got so complicated. They're all shot like commercials---your nose, your glasses and so on. And I thought how wonderful to see a film like Cul-de-Sac. The essence of that film is what you read into it, not what the director puts into it by way of fancy cutting. It was a straightforward film in the sense that it could have happened---like Waiting for Godot. The weirdest things are those which bear a resemblance to the truth."
The Falklands Factor---Don Shaw's play to be shown on BBC 1 tomorrow---bears a very close resemblance to one truth and a slightly more distant similarity to another. The first is the invasion of the Falklands by the Spanish in 1770 and the second is the invasion by the Argentinians in 1982. The BBC is running it as a Play for Today, the first historical drama to appear in the slot. Pleasence plays Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was persuaded by the Prime Minister, Lord North, to write a pamphlet against war with Spain. Johnson at the time was struggling with poverty and the fear of madness, not to mention a vigorous hatred of the pro-war writer Junius, the scribe Who Supported Our Boys.
"I think it's very important to remember that when Johnson was doing the pamphlet on the Falklands he thought himself to be on the verge of insanity. It was a genuine fear so far as I can tell from the books I've read..."---he swoops into the whisper---"...but how do you know about history? He didn't have any money, never had any money, just worried all the time about what was his place in the world and whether he'd made a terrible mistake."
Pleasence's thoughts on the great Doctor have produced a performance which is startlingly at odds with the coffee-table book image of the portly mandarin of Eng. Lit. There are still the perfectly turned sentences but they are delivered as from the depths of a vastly depressed soul. The Pleasence whisper is used to elaborate the effect of a man drifting back and forth from the here and now. Small wonder that he gets so few common man parts when he does the uncommon ones so uncommonly well.
But it all leaves him with a slightly maverick image, as if all this oddness somehow puts him outside the scope of the term "distinguished actor." And "maverick" is certainly a term he warms to a good deal more than "sinister."
"Yes, I think so. I don't like establishment people who know what they're doing or...I must be precise about this...I think everything changes from day to day and I can't see myself as a precise figure as somebody who always knows what is right and what is wrong...I don't. I don't know what is going to happen tomorrow..." (whispers) "The world is full of people who know exactly what's going to happen tomorrow, which seems to me to be a pity..."
He drifts off into thought but turns abruptly back into the alert professional when the photographer asks him to pose. Obediently he turns up his collar and gazes out into the pale spring light of Albermarle Street, a hint of madness in his eyes..."
Interview from the April 25, 1983 edition of THE TIMES.