In The News: Dark Lord at the Peake of his Powers - The Sunday Times
Dark Lord at the Peake of his Powers
by Francis Gilbert
The Sunday Times - January 14, 2000
No one looms quite like Christopher Lee. In
Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, he looms over
Johnny Depp's hapless, gadget-obsessed
detective. In the forthcoming film of the Lord
of the Rings, he'll be looming alongside Ian
McKellen and Liv Tyler; and on Monday,
viewers will cower as Lee takes on the role of
Mr Flay, faithful retainer to the 76th Earl of
Gormenghast in BBC2's eagerly awaited
adaptation of Mervyn Peake's epic trilogy.
But for now Lee is focusing all his attention on
me. The full force of his loom hits me head-on,
as he fixes me with those famous dark eyes and
waggles a forbidding finger. "I hope you've
done your research," he says. "Far too many
journalists never do. I haven't played Dracula
for nearly 30 years now and still they ask me
about it as if that's the only role I've ever
That said, he dusts down the trousers of his
immaculate grey suit and sits down. We are in
the gloomy library of his favourite hotel, which
is just off Sloane Square. The light is
crepuscular and the Victorian fittings jab spiky
shadows over leather-bound volumes. What
could possibly have attracted him to the
larger-than-life characters and Gothic settings of
"When Estelle Daniel, the producer, showed me the script, I was struck by Malcolm
McKay's excellent writing," explains Lee. "He did an amazing job whittling down the
novel, employing Peake's words to great effect, revealing the thoughts behind them.
Peake's children, who have refused many offers to adapt the novels, were delighted with the
"I read Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, which comprise the Gormenghast
trilogy, many years ago and loved them," he continues. "I also met Peake himself a
number of times in the old Harrods library during the 1950s. He was a delightful man:
quiet, unassuming, with the most brilliant blue eyes. He had beautiful manners and gave
no indication to me of the terrible depressions that plagued him. I didn't know him well
enough to perceive that dark side but it obviously informed his fiction and his drawings -
he was a fine draughtsman."
It is typical of Lee to have known Peake. Lee knew (and knows) everyone. After all, he's
been in showbusiness for an awfully long time. The son of an Italian countess, he attended
Wellington College and served in the RAF during the Second World War, before
becoming an actor in 1947. After playing a series of aristocratic villains, he made his
breakthrough ten years later as you-know-who. Since then, he has appeared in more than
200 feature films, including countless Hammer Horrors, The Man With the Golden Gun
and The Wicker Man.
As fans of the books will know, Peake's epic trilogy has always been considered virtually
unfilmable. But, says Lee, McKay has succeeded in compressing Peake's sprawling
masterpiece into four hours of television, without losing any of the scale or
characterisation. "Look at the way he brings my character to life," says Lee. "Mr Flay is
the Earl's right arm, utterly loyal, true to the age-old rituals of the family. When Flay first
appears he seems very unsympathetic: he speaks in monosyllables and nearly murders the
"But then Flay surprises us. His initial instincts about Steerpike prove to be right and by
the time Flay is exiled from Gormenghast you feel quite sorry for him. The most moving
moment is when Flay returns with the youngest Earl. Then we realise that Flay is actually
the soul of this decayed, ritualistic domain."
Lee is full of admiration for fellow cast-member Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays
Steerpike. "His instincts about the role were absolutely right," he says. "He would
improvise things that weren't in the script but were very appropriate."
Indeed, Lee thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, despite an on-set brush with death.
"The swordfight between Swelter, played by Richard Griffiths, and Flay was particularly
difficult," he remembers. "I'm actually a very good swordfighter but I had to pretend to be
an extremely bad one. I had to walk backwards and swing at Richard over the top of Ian
Richardson's head, who was striding towards me impersonating an owl.
"Unfortunately, the weight of my sword sent me flying and I crashed against the side of the
set. Luckily, I knew how to cushion the fall so I was OK. But apparently the cast thought
I'd had it."
Certainly, one can't help but wonder whether Lee, in true Hammer style, might not have
made a pact with the Devil to preserve his youth. He certainly doesn't look or act like a
77-year-old man. What's his secret? "I think it's because I'm still working hard. I will
always act - I don't know what else I would do. My recent work in America has given me
a wider audience. The young know about me because I've starred in shows like the New
Adventures of Robin Hood and films like Sleepy Hollow. And of course the older fans are
devotees of Dracula. Burton said to me that Sleepy Hollow was his own tribute to
Lee is famously prickly about his Hammer days. He feels the world tends to overlook his
more serious work in favour of the vampiric Count. "Recently I made a film where I play
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, one of the founders of Pakistan," he says. "There were physical
risks involved in playing that role: I had to be protected by armed guards. It was definitely
the greatest challenge I've ever had as an actor.
"The film has had some great reviews, but it still hasn't had a mainstream release in the
West," he continues. "Britain has been churning out stinking films for years. There are
enormous sums of money being sprayed around by the lottery but they've got it all wrong
- it's not going to the right people. I actually talked to the Chancellor of the Exchequer
about it but nothing happened. People don't listen to an experienced person like me."
Lee's next project after Gormenghast is one of equally phantasmagorical proportions. "I'm
off to New Zealand to film Lord of the Rings," he explains. "I'm the evil wizard, Saruman.
For me, Tolkien's novel is the definitive work of the century. I was lucky enough to meet
Tolkien, you know. He was a charming man and always laughing. For me, he was the
greatest author of his time. I was speechless in his presence."
This is difficult to imagine. Lee has talked non-stop throughout our meeting. As I leave, I
can hear Lee launching into a lecture about the shocking way taxpayers' money has been
wasted on the Millennium Dome. Be afraid, Lord Falconer, be very afraid.