Grand dame of acting

Hollywood diaries

Grand dame of acting

It’s been quite a month for Dame Helen Mirren. She recently won her first Tony for playing The Queen in Peter Morgan’s The Audience — something to add to her Oscar, her Olivier, many Golden Globes, Baftas and Emmys. Then it was straight back to Broadway for her weekly haul of seven performances, free time eaten up by rehearsals and brief moments of rest.

But she had to make time for something else too. “I had to,” she says, melancholy clouding those bright, English vowels. “I realised that John’s gone, and of course the brilliant, wonderful Bob is gone too, so...” She exhales. “I’m the only one left standing, really.”

John is the late British director John Mackenzie, Bob the late British actor Bob Hoskins, and the experience they shared together the making of one of the greatest, most prescient British films.

Restored for a BFI 35th anniversary season, The Long Good Friday tells the story of East End gangster boss Harold Shand (Hoskins) trying to become a legitimate businessman — ­albeit with the help of the American mafia. “It was an important film for me to be a part of,” she says, with passion. “I loved being in it because I’m a Londoner...and because it was a great learning curve.”

In 1978, Mirren was 33, and already a darling of the stage. Rave reviews had met her Royal Shakespeare Company performances, but her film CV was sparse. A forgotten lead in Michael Powell’s last movie, Age Of Consent, plus small parts in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah did not a movie star make.

Then this role came along — as did Mirren’s capabilities to make it her own. In the film, Mirren plays Shand’s girlfriend Victoria, a new kind of gangster’s moll. Elegant, intelligent, and middle-class, she was more than a match for her partner.

“The only thing that wasn’t brilliant about the script, as is often the case, even to this day, is that the female character was under-realised,” Mirren explains. “One-dimensional, thin. I was there like an appendage.” She said this directly to the film’s writer Barrie Keeffe, as well as John Mackenzie, who agreed they would develop her role before shooting.

But when she arrived on-set, she realised that little had changed.“So I went into the film in a blissful state of ignorance, fighting every inch of the way to drag this character more into the story, make her more proactive. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise you can’t really do that — although, in reality, yes, you can change the script the morning that you shoot.”

But Mirren has no words of criticism for director MacKenzie or the film’s writer Barrie Keeffe. “I’d done few films up to then, and I was a pain in Mackenzie’s butt, I know I was! But he was a wonderful filmmaker. And Keeffe’s script was one of the best I’d ever read.”
And so they worked together. Victoria changed. Suddenly she was wining and dining the mafia as Harold tried to find out who bombed his club, and physically restraining Harold after an accidental killing. Mirren's wishes only succeeded, she admits, because of someone else’s support. “Without Hoskins, it would have been impossible, because he was the star of the movie. If he had been resistant, my cause would have been lost.” Her friendship with Hoskins endured long beyond the film. They last acted together in 2001’s Last Orders, while Mirren wrote a moving obituary for him in The Guardian last year.

On screen, Hoskins is the consummate Cockney kingpin, delivering one-liners with dripping black humour. But while he came from North London’s Finsbury Park, Mirren was the real Eastender. Her mother, Kitty, was born in London’s West Ham, while another relative linked her to what she calls “the underbelly of East End life.” “Bob was the one who came on like a gangster, but I was the one who literally had a gangster for an uncle.”

This remarkably visceral world came from the pen of Keeffe, who by the Seventies was a successful TV writer. For The Long Good Friday script, he recalled his time in the ‘60s as a cub reporter for London’s Stratford Express, when the Krays were still ruling the East End.

Keeffe had also known Mirren before, when they both were at the National Youth Theatre in their teens (“She was even a star then...[although] I don’t think I ever had the nerve to speak to her!”). He also has fond memories of how Victoria’s role was rewritten, and he still salutes Mirren’s strength for fighting her corner. “Her performance was absolutely fabulous, and Victoria became the character that held the whole thing together. She became the power behind the throne, the manipulator, in an unflashy way.”

He remembers disagreements with Mirren too, but they got resolved kindly. “Although I think she’d have rather been carrying the machine gun!”

Mirren hasn’t seen the film for years, she says, but she still thinks of it often. After all, when not wowing audiences on Broadway, she lives close to the site of several scenes in London’s Wapping. “It was all empty lots and bomb damage back then, and it wasn’t a done deal that it was going to change. There were sort of plans, and thoughts afoot, but nothing was in place, nothing had been realised.”

“So for everything that Bob’s character talks about, actually, came to reality...” The melancholy returns for a minute. “But all cities change — it’s what a city is — but the soul of the city never changes. I do feel that about London. Just as we all did.”

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