Gods and Monsters
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 384
Edward De Souza is a British actor whose career in film and television spans over fifty years and covers series from A Tale of Two Cities to Coronation Street, Sapphire and Steel to Jackanory. Here he talks to Fiona Moore about drawing Christopher Lee's fangs, being Northern and what links his career to a little hill station up the Irrawaddy River....
Well, my first question, which is rather obvious and banal, is to ask...
How old are you!
It was actually going to be, “how did you get into acting.”
[LAUGHS] Well, the reason why I got into acting was because I couldn't really do anything else. That's the simple answer. To be honest, I didn't try very hard to do anything else, and it was easier to be an actor back then, when I was twenty-five, or whatever it was, than it is today. There now. I've got nothing further to say on that subject.
De Souza is a Portuguese name, isn't it?
It is. My father was born in Rangoon, and his father was born in Goa, which was a Portuguese colony. My mother had a house in Worcestershire and she called it Kalow, and one day I asked her, "Where did this name come from?" And she said, “how old are you?” “Twenty six,” I replied, and she said, “That's old enough, I think. I can tell you now that you were conceived one thousand miles up the Irrawaddy, which is a river in Burma, in a hill station that was called Kalow!" Now, you know the programme notes you get to accompany a play? Well, you have to do your own, and one thing I've always wanted to do is start the programme notes with “although,” and I think I've finally found a way of doing it. So the next time you go to a play I'm performing in, take a look at the programme notes, because it will say, “although Edward de Souza was conceived a thousand miles up the Irrawaddy in a hill station called Kalow, he was born in Hull."
That's great. You don't get a much better intro line than that.
Not really, no, but the facts are true and bizarre, so I'm happy with it.
You've appeared extensively in the theatre, film, television and radio. Which do you prefer?
My favorite is the stage, as you're right up close to the audience. Then comes film, which I like very much, and then radio, and, I'm afraid, a very soggy fourth is television. When I first started in television, a lot of it was live.
Your first TV role was in 1957.
Was it, by damn. Was it a biblical tale?
IMDB says it was A Tale of Two Cities.
That wasn't the first.
Oh, really? IMDB must have got it wrong, again...
The first was when I was at Nottingham Playhouse, before I went to Stratford. We did a Christmas television and I was called Joseph and somebody else was called something else, and both these chaps were going to be fathers and one chap says, “what's your child going to be called?” and I said, “if it's a boy it's going to be called Jesus, and what's yours going to be called?” and he said, “well, if mine's a boy, he'll be called Judas.” So, that was my first television performance, and then I did A Tale of Two Cities, and that was rather scrummy because when I was at Stratford, and in my second season, I was on the huge salary of £15 a week, but for a little bit of that time I was on £35 a week, because of the £20 I was getting for A Tale of Two Cities, so I was grateful.
How did your part in the Doctor Who story “Mission to the Unknown” come about?
I haven't the faintest idea, but I can remember that I was going to rehearsals in Acton and there was a chap I was at drama school with, and we got chatting and I said, “I've got to go now to rehearsal,” and he said, “so have I,” so we both went up in the same lift, and I said, “which rehearsal are you going to?” and it was the same one that I was in, so I said, “are you in this Doctor Who?” and he said, “yes,” and I said, “what are you playing?” and he said, “I'm playing a Varga plant." [LAUGHS] And this was a bloke who, when he was at drama school with me at RADA, he was a little bit older than everybody else, and we all thought he was going to be the real coming one, and there he was playing a Varga plant, and all he had to do was to disappear into a spongy green plant costume and wave his arms about. If you got stung, or pricked, by a Varga plant you turned into a Varga plant, but luckily, I didn't get turned into a Varga plant as I was instead exterminated by a Dalek. When the episode went out, I was watching it with my son, who was a toddler sitting on my knee, and when I got zapped, I remember him turning round to make sure I was still there. It was the only story of Doctor Who that didn't have a Doctor Who in it, and it's now gone missing from the archives, so there's no visual record of that Doctor Who. But at least it's unique.
It's a great tragedy really.
Not really a great tragedy. As for why there wasn't a Doctor Who, perhaps William Hartnell was poorly, or negotiating money.
Do you recall the director Derek Martinus?
Yes, but I haven't seen him for scores and scores of years.
I also see that, in the 60s, you appeared on Jackanory?
I didn't do very many Jackanories, but I did do a series with Jackanory about motor cars, and I can remember the first time I did Jackanory, I was told to read my script off a roller caption. I'd never used one of these before, and as I started reading, the text suddenly started going backwards and then disappeared altogether! So, I was completely stuck. They eventually fixed the dratted thing, but I did feel a bit of a fool just sitting there, not knowing anything and waiting for the damn thing to start up again and tell me what to say.
You've also done some directing.
Yes, I have done. I once directed a play by Tom Stoppard, called Night and Day. It was set in Africa, and we had this enormous prop tree in the middle of a big living room stage set, which I suppose is not uncommon in Africa. Now, during the play, Diana Rigg had to go behind this tree and reappeared naked a few seconds later. Of course, it was actually her stage double, who was hiding in the tree all the time, but one day Diana Rigg's gynecologist came to see the play, and he said afterwards, “how on earth did you come out naked?” So, it must have been quite a good double.
On the subject of gratuitous nudity, you did a couple of Hammer films?
I did, but I didn't get any kit off in them at all. And nor did anyone else. Actually, come to think of it, I did. I had to be stripped to the waist, I was clasped by a burly man, and Isabel Black, who had been turned into a vampire, had to tear my shirt open and rip my chest, leaving it covered in blood and then, with great presence of mind, I made the sign of the cross with the blood, and of course, that frightened the life out of her.
That would have been Kiss of the Vampire?
Kiss of the Vampire, it was, and the other one was Phantom of the Opera, which was just beforehand and in fact Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Vampire were set in roughly the same period, so I wore most of the clothes a second time to save money.
Neither of those films featured Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee...
No, they didn't, but I did get to meet Christopher Lee when I was filming The Golden Compass.
I was going to ask you about that. Did you read the books beforehand?
I did by accident, I mean I didn't read them for the role, but I did read them and fascinating books they were. And I was very pleased with the film. I had a live snake, which I had to handle, when I met the snakes, I said to the handlers, “now I want to be absolutely certain that all the venom is removed from the fangs of the snakes,” and they said “Oh yes,” and I said “and also be certain to remove the venom from the fangs of Christopher Lee!” [LAUGHS] When I met Christopher, who I hadn't met before, I just turned around in the makeup chair and there he was, and he said “Ahhh, Edward de Souza. We have something in common, Hammer Films.” So I told him my story about taking the venom out of the fangs of the snakes and also taking the venom from Christopher Lee, and he said “oh, very funny!” He was a nice old fellow, I liked him.
You played a member of the Magisterium.
I am in the Magisterium in the film, yes, and I'm sitting at the table with my snake in my right hand, with Derek Jacobi at my left, Christopher Lee on my right, and I look at Christopher Lee, and I look at the snake, and then I look at Derek Jacobi and that's it. That's all I have to do. It's a good film, I love the film, I love the bears. I went to see the crew and cast showing and the stars turned up, and I said to my friend “who'd have thought Nicole Kidman would be upstaged by bears.”
Sir Ian McKellan voiced one of the bears...
... and he was very good. It actually took me a little while to realise who he was, he is so serene.
Now on to Sapphire and Steel...
Yes, Sapphire and Steel! We put them to sleep and to bed and finished their lives, didn't we? And I've never seen the story, though I've got it now, so I should be able to have a look at that. There was this fellow called Charlie Drake, and Charlie Drake had a dreadful thing happen to him. He was not very well liked by quite a lot of people, but he was a wonderful clown, and he had to come crashing through a window. He had to be thrown by somebody, and he had to do a summersault and then fall through this window that was made of sugar glass and balsa wood. But, in fact, on the take they changed the window, and he had the most dreadful accident, it was quite, quite horrific. And when it came to my episodes of Sapphire and Steel, this was uppermost in my mind, because I had to do much the same thing. I had to go walking smartly through a closed door with glass panels, because I was macho, or I was timeless, or something. And I thought, “I hope they aren't going to do the same thing to me [LAUGHS], and, thank god, they didn't, but I did have to do another take because the first time around, I couldn't get though the bloody thing. So they had to do a bit more sawing of balsa wood to make it even more frail.
I watched that scene the other day and it looked splendid.
Does it? Good. I'm not wincing, or blinking?
No, you just walk straight through it, and then there's another scene where you push a door right off its hinges.
Really? Oh, heroism! Heroism beckons!
I think it's one of the most disturbing Sapphire and Steel stories ever.
Really? Well, well. I used to say to Joanna Lumley, “Show us your wobbly parts, Lumley.” She never did .
Did you understand the script when you got it?
No, not in the slightest.
As a viewer, you really have to concentrate to follow it.
It was probably my performance that muddled it. [LAUGHS]
It's a very David Lynch sort of thing, really. A lot of things happen that don't make sense, like in the scene where the speaking clock ringing David McCallum back. It's kind of nightmarish and dreamlike. And at the end of the story Sapphire and Steel were defeated.
And they were left behind a little window that went way, way, way out into the stars, and that was the last episode. Obviously, they couldn't afford to have me in another one, so they ended it there. [LAUGHS] It was a great part. A lovely four episodes.
What do remember of your time on the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me?
It was wonderful. I had a great time on it, and I didn't know which stage I was on, as, you know, there was all sorts of things going on at Pinewood Studios, and I thought, “well, I know I'm going to be a Sheikh, in a tent in the desert,” so I thought “I'll look for a studio with a pile of sand, outside of it” and I looked, and eventually came across a pile of sand, and so went into the studio and there was my tent! A huge, enormous tent. And it was full of beautiful objects, So I thought “I wonder what's outside this tent?” So I went out there, and the sand eventually dribbled away, and then there was snow, and next door was the set for the cabin scenes, which appeared very early in the film. So inside the tent, it's supposed to be a hundred and forty degrees in the shade, and on the other side of the studio, it's supposed to be fifty degrees below zero. It could only happen in films. Extraordinary.
You've just played Colin Grimshaw on Coronation Street. How did that part come about?
I was summoned, I don't really know. It's just that the casting people wanted me, and that was it. It was their decision.
It seems a bit surprising to cast you as a broad Northerner, given you're best known for playing very suave, RP-type characters.
I am quite flexible, but I haven't been showing myself as quite as flexible over the years. I don't know why they thought of me as a North Countryman; I was born in Hull, but I don't seem or sound North Country. However, it's not something I find difficult to put on.
Having just played another very earthy character [Geb, Father of the Osirians] in Faction Paradox, what do you think of it?
I think it is a fascinating piece of work. It's well written, in fact, I think it's very well written, and I was very pleased with the part I was given. The writer gave notes for the actor who plays Geb, and it struck me that he was supposed to be a cross between Brian Blessed and John Henshaw, and as that is what I perceived it to be, that is what they got. And for that I do not apologize.
It sounded great from where I was....
What do you mean? You were too far away to hear what I did!
When you were doing your shouting, I could hear you through the studio wall, it was that loud.
Oh, lord. Dear oh, dear. So did you approve of my Brian Blessed and John Henshaw?
Oh, yes. Edward de Souza, thank you very much.
And thank you.