Terence Stamp’s big regret, Vanessa Redgrave and his favourite East End mango

Perhaps it was because I had just been to a funeral that afternoon that Song for Marion was particularly poignant for me at its Cambridge preview.  I was feeling the loss of a dear friend whose smile always lighted a room, she had a cheerfulness similar to Marion, the terminally ill character played by Vanessa Redgrave in this heart rending film.

It was a delight to later hear Terence Stamp, who played Marion’s grumpy husband and remote father, speak refreshingly candidly to a star struck audience.  In his role as Arthur, I frequently wished I could pick Arthur up and shake him because he was so emotionally distant from his family who loved him so much.  Stamp showed us his very spiritual side too.

He told us how he had suffered a loss himself six weeks ago, the death of his brother Chris, but missed his funeral to attend a film festival.

“My brother, who I loved more than anything died about six weeks ago. It was, I think,  a very good passing. I felt knowing him, it was a kind of cosmic change of address.

“Shortly after that I was invited to the Marrakech Film Festival and I had a choice of either going to his funeral in New York or going to the Marrakech Film Festival and I chose to go to the Marrakech Film Festival. I thought yay, we stayed in  Mamounia before they wrote Marrakech Express, and I felt my brother in a different way.

“I have come to terms with the fact that he is not in a body and I cannot call him up and get abused by him, but I feel close to him in a more ethereal way.”

It was very moving when Terence spoke of Vanessa Redgrave and her fragility:

“We are talking about a national treasure, but the fact is I had worked with her in the theatre, I had done Ibsen with her in the Round House about 15-20 years ago and I had no reservations about her as an actress. But as a person,  I found her kind of political views a bit tough. She asked e more than once if I would  look after the donkeys at the Young Communists Fair, and I said, ‘piss off’.

“However, when I walked on to the set of Song for Marion, I saw her and I realized that within the space of 12-14 months prior to the day we met, she had lost her daughter, her sister and her brother and I don’t think I had ever seen anybody as fragile. I just thought to myself, I mustn’t be careless with her, I have got to behave really well with her and of course, and this is only my assumption, but my feeling was that she had done what great artists do, she kind of put grief into the character, but it was kind of tethered to the very best part of her.

“Consequently, when us other actors were on set, we just got the benefit of this and the kind of emotions between action and cut were the realest that I have ever experienced in my career, and I have to put that down to Paul Andrew,  (director) Vanessa, Gemma and Chris (co-stars).

Although 75 in July, Terence talked about his biggest regret, how he wished he had played another lead role with the name of Arther, that of King Arthur in Camelot, which was played by Richard Harris.

“I was a young actor and hadn’t had so much experience with song and breath and I kind of feared that I couldn’t do justice to the score  and I could possibly be re-voiced.

“At the time, I thought that will be the end of my carer as a serious movie actor.  It is the one thing in my career that I have always regretted. To this day I still think about how wonderful it would have been if I had played the young King Arthur. And it affected my decision to make this movie in the fact I was very nervous of the singing and I  was very nervous about the ordinariness of the character.

“But then I heard Vanessa had been cast, and  I thought, well, it’s Vanessa who played Guinevere,  the role is Arthur and I have to sing!

“At that point, I thought, maybe this has come for me, maybe this has got my name on it. When you feel that something has kind of come for you, you feel that you are kind of swimming with the tide, you feel like Venus is on course with Mercury.”

In fact, the director wrote Song for Marion about someone in his family, which he mentioned to Stamp who talked o him about his concerns of not being able to “do ordinary”:

“I thought what was really moving, very moving about this story was that they were kind of ordinary. As I said to the director, ‘I can do ordinary, I just don’t do it very well’. He said, ‘don’t worry about that, I wrote about that, I wrote it about somebody in my family, and they were much better looking than you’.”

In fact, Stamp does “ordinary” very well indeed.

“In the second week the director said very loudly so the crew could hear, “Christ, you and Vanessa, you nail everything on the first take”.

“And I said, ‘listen Paul, when you have a Redgrave and a Stamp, you  have got 100 years of movie acting.’

“And the crew all laughed, but it was actually true. I’m happy that the camera picked it up because we were acting on a level that I personally was unfamiliar with, it was a new octave for me, and I knew that I felt great about it, and I could see that the others were great, but I wasn’t sure the camera was getting it.”

And Stamp couldn’t have had a more ordinary background.

“I come from poor surroundings, my dad was a merchant seaman aged 15 and he was shipwrecked three times during the war and he worked as a stoker for most of his life. In East End terms, he was known as a donkey man, so the hardness of his life took away most of the grace that he must have had as a young man and one of the things.

“I grew up pre-tv and listened to radio and never spoke about my ambitions to be an actor to anyone, and then when we got a TV, I started saying I could do that, I could do better than that. My dad who never spoke very much at all suddenly said, ‘listen son, people like us don’t do things like that,’ and I went to protest, and he said, ‘son, I don’t want you to talk about it any more’.

“Because he was such a powering figure,  I had to leave home to pursue my ambition and when I finally got my first break and it was so well received, I actually  thought to myself, I can do this, I can actually make a living out of this., like I don’t have to be an interior decorator, I don’t have to trade antiques, I can make a living doing this.

“Very soon after that came the thought that what I wanted was a long career  and at that point I started taking care of the machine and it saved me a lot of  excesses of the 60s. So I did a few drugs and drink wine and it was after the pill and before aids so there was a lot of that, but the fact is I will be 75 in July and I think – I am well past my sell by date.  I am rather proud of that because I have noticed that as the body is ageing, my kind of awareness,  my consciousness, I won’t say it is getting younger because it doesn’t seem subject to change, but my focus on that part of me that is timeless is more evident.”

While Stamp has dated some beautiful women, including Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot, Celia Hammond and Julie Christie, he married only once, a pharmacist in Austrailia, Elizabeth O’Rourke, when he was 64; she was 35 years younger and they divorced in 2008.

He lives a nomadic lifestyle and doesn’t own a house, staying with friends or in hotel rooms, but still regularly visits his East End roots in pursuit of his favourite mango, hopping on local buses. He can’t help smiling as he recalls:

“When I am in England I am in the East End once a week. There is a mango I became very fond of when I lived in the East called the Alfonso and it has a very short  season from the end of April to the beginning of June  and the only place you can absolutely get them is in Green Street on the site of Carlton Cinema, which is where I had my first orgasm  seeing Brigitte Bardot. So I am down there a lot.”

One can’t help wondering whether Stamp can identify with Arthur’s emotional angst because of his own phobia to commit in relationships early in his life after being hurt. One can only imagine how difficult this film must have been for Redgrave. For me, she is the biggest star of Song for Marion, having to cope with her own terribl grief having lost three close family members, while acting “ordinary” in the most unglamorous way, particularly the role of a terminally ill woman.

If you see the film, which is released on Friday, 22 February, do be sure to take a box of tissues!