Fangs for the Memory
Isla Blair talks to Fiona Moore about Beatles, chimps, Faction Paradox and why vampires have more fun.
I've been checking up on your filmography, and it said that you were born in India?
Yes, I was. My father was a tea planter in India, as was his father before him. So my sister and I were part of an end of a era, really. We were part of the end of the British Raj. Bit of a shock coming back to Scotland, there wasn't much schooling in India, but it was lovely. My sister and I went back about ten years ago and it was fantastic. Often when you go back some place it's completely different, but the weird thing about this was that it was exactly the same. Even the furniture in my parents' house was still the same, it belongs to the tea company, so it was all utterly as it was then, it was very peculiar.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Yes, I think I did. My parents said that I acted from quite an early age, I was about two and a half when I first walked on stage, although that was quite amateurish, and then apparently coming home from India to England on board ship, they called for children who could perform and, to my parents' horror, I stood up and sang a song. It wasn't that I was showing off, I just liked doing it. I was in all the school plays, and I got more and more serious about it, and instead of being taken to pantomimes-- because, oddly enough, I hated them, I could never see the point of them, they never made me laugh, and I kept thinking there was something wrong with me-- I would rather go to a musical or a straight play, really. That was a little eccentric when I was about eight or nine, but that's the way it was, so I went to the theatre a lot.
Talking of musicals, apparently you did some filming for A Hard Day's Night?
Yes! I was in a very long scene, where I played a young actress in a rehearsal room, and I had to be interrupted by Paul McCartney, who then said to me, "you're not doing that right, let me show you how to do that more naturalistically." So that was the scene, and we were filming it for two days in a real rehearsal room in Shepherd's Bush. It was all very secret, and we'd been told that on no account should we let anybody know where we were going to be, because the Beatles were at the height of their fame then, and the fans would have been everywhere. Anyway, at the end of the first day Paul said to me, "can I give you a lift?" and I said "oh, that's very kind of you, thank you," but as soon as we got outside, to my extreme horror, we were attacked by fans-- I don't know how they knew we were there, but they did. And they all wanted a piece of Paul, but they also all had their fingernails out for me, and I got scratched and kicked, and oh, it was just absolutely awful, really frightening and they were vicious actually, so we eventually just got in the car and drove off, and the next day when Paul said "would you like a lift home?" I said "actually, Paul, I think I'll get back on the tube!"
Why do you think the scene was cut?
I think because it was too long, and so held the rest of the film, which was quite pacy, up. Also, perhaps they felt that it was not the most acceptable thing to see a member of the Beatles have a little flirty thing with a girl, as that would not make their fans very happy. Such a shame. But that was my little brush with the Beatles.
I'm surprised they didn't bring it back for the DVD.
Well do you know, nobody can find it! You'd think they'd have kept all those little bits, but they haven't. There are one or two stills of the sequence, but nobody can find the film. Which is very sad. I must say I'd like to see what it was like.
Your next film was Dr Terror's House of Horror.
Oh, gosh, yes it was. I played, I think, some art dealer's assistant or something, it was about, you know, modern art, and chimpanzees who could paint paintings, and they had the most adorable chimpanzee, I had my scene with him, and he was really sweet, but he kept on pulling my hair; I got quite giggly about it. Christopher Lee was in that. Gosh, and Peter Cushing. It was one of those anthology films, and in my little story, there was this severed hand that had a life of its own. It was almost a person itself, really.
And then your next brush with horror was Taste the Blood of Dracula.
Yes. I loved that one. But the odd thing was, I'd had my son, Jamie, literally, I think, about four weeks before, and so was very tied emotionally to him, which meant that, every evening I'd be rushing back home to see him. And sometimes I'd forget to remove the little Christopher Lee "Dracula bites" on my neck, which mean that I'd often get some very funny looks at traffic lights! Lots of similar things would happen in the canteen. I remember seeing Peter Sallis, who was playing my father, sitting there one lunchtime, having a perfectly ordinary conversation, but with this stake sticking out of his heart, and nobody paying a blind bit of attention to it, which made me laugh! I remember, too, having to be put into a coffin, and the coffin lid being closed on me. The director had said "you're not claustrophobic, are you?" and I said "no, no, no," but then, when I opened my eyes, my false eyelashes brushed against the inside of the coffin lid, and I thought "ooooh, that's very close!" But it was all good fun.
I'd like to read you a quote from a history of British horror cinema called English Gothic, which says "Lucy's fanged grin of triumph marks out Isla Blair as one of Hammer's most chillingly effective vampire women."
Wow, how lovely! I think if you're going to be in one of those films it's much better to be a vampire, actually, even a sweet young thing who turns into a vampire is better than being a sweet young thing all the way through. But there was one other bit in that which was actually quite strange. I had to be found dead in a lake for some reason, I can't remember why, but Anthony Higgins, playing my brother, had to pull me out. Anyway, it was an unbelievably cold November day, and they were worried about my breath, because I was supposed to be dead, so I did the old trick of sucking on the ice cube, but of course people were complaining because there was steam rising off my body, because I was very much alive!
Another film you appeared in was Battle of Britain.
I was. That got very heavily cut too. I played Ian McShane's wife, he was one of the young fighter pilots, and I had two little children, and we were in a church hall, I think, and he thought I had taken the children to the country, but I didn't want to, so I kept them with me, and he had to go off and drop a bomb somewhere, and he came back to find that the church had been bombed and we'd gone too, and that was all that remained of me in the film. But it was quite good. And people have often said to me that I actually have very good billing for that film for such a tiny part! And the reason being was that, presumably the billing came first, and then the film was cut. Never mind.
You appeared also in The Avengers.
I did! Yes, I did, I think it was a story called "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station," and I played a very bad bride, well, I was pretending to be a bride... don't know quite what sort of no good I was up to, but I remember very clearly having to have a fight with Diana Rigg. And I was really terrible at fighting, and the poor fight arranger was saying "oh God, this woman's useless." But that was very much a cult thing to be in. I was only ever in that one, I think lots of people did several, but I just did the one.
Julian [Glover, her husband] did three.
Julian did three! Yes, you see, I only did the one, that was quite rare.
You share a lot of filmography with your husband... is there a connection?
Yes, well, the Indiana Jones one [Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade] was quite fun, in that one of the producers of the film said that, since Julian was already cast as the villain in the film, would I appear and do just this one line as Julian's wife? All I had to say was [puts on American accent] "Walter, you're neglecting your guests"; not a big role.
I thought you were very good!
Thank you very much! And I said "look, as it's literally just one line, it would be funnier if people know that I'm connected to Julian," so on the titles I'm credited as "Mrs Glover," so for the people who know, it's an in-joke. But of course I know that on the Internet I'm also known as "Mrs Glover," another sort of stage name. And there was a big, big setup on that particular scene, I got to wear a great dress, it all looked fantastic, and I came in and dried, when all I had to do was my one line, and it was terrible! But these things happen, when you've only got one line to do that's very often when you do go.
Julian and I didn't actually appear together in Blake's 7, or Space: 1999. I played a hilarious part in that one. I was this bald-headed alien with very strange makeup, and Anthony Valentine and I were playing two aliens together,and we couldn't look at each other, we looked so funny, and of course if he started to laugh, I'd start to laugh, and it got quite uncomfortable because the makeup was a bald cap that was stuck down, and if you started to laugh it would crinkle up the bald cap. And we knew what we had to do, but looking at each other trying to be very very serious, it was very hard. And what else was there, Blake's 7, Space: 1999, I think that was it?
You did two episodes of Space: 1999. That one was "War Games"; there was another, "Journey to Where." You wore a big white wig...
I did! I don't know what I was, in that--
A lab assistant.
Really? A lab assistant. I'm a bit behind on all this, I can't remember but yes, Freddie Jones, I seem to remember, played my boss. But they were good fun to do, I remember we'd all trot out to Elstree, or wherever they were being filmed, and it just became a sort of nice little thing to do. There were some awful things around then, one called Jason King, and I can't remember what else--
Yes, Department S, and I think I did one of each of those. They were great fun to do, and everybody did them, and I suppose they were just like people now, everybody's been in The Bill, everybody's been in an episode of Casualty or Holby City, and that was what we all did at that time, and very nice it was too.
Regarding Blake's 7, you appeared in "Duel," directed by Douglas Camfield.
Ah, yes, lovely Douglas Camfield. Really good director, I think, and a very, very nice man, but he was very painstaking, he cared tremendously about each part, to make sure you knew exactly what your character was about, and tried as often as possible for you to bring some background to the performance. You would invent something for yourself about it, which was nice, actually, and I think it showed; all the various things that Douglas did, I thought they were very high quality.
So what did you invent for yourself?
What I invented at first was, because my character had no particular age as far I was concerned, I imagined she was very old, a very very old goddess, but because of that, she'd seen so much happen, so many bad things happen in the world, so many good things, so much of the human spirit, people looking after each other, people being greedy, people being selfish, that I tried to think that she brought with her an aura of calm, wisdom if you like. If you've heard the expression "an old soul," well, that's what I imagined my character was like, somebody who wasn't particularly fazed by things because she'd seen a lot. But she was a good person, she was somebody who recognised good and evil in all of us really, but sometimes evil's more prevalent than the good, and vice versa.
You were acting with Patsy Smart, who was your opposite number.
Yes, and she was-- was she the dark side, or...?
Yes, you were the maiden, and she was the crone...
Yes, that's right, we were sort of complementing each other in that way. Yes, dear Patsy Smart, she was terrific, wasn't she? I don't know the names of most of the people. Apart from lovely Douglas Camfield. He was very fine at what he did, and took it very seriously, and I think that's the way to do it, he was very professional about what he did, but at the same time it wasn't lacking in a sense of humour. He was very funny, a great man, I was very fond of him.
And you were also with Gareth Thomas in that one.
Oh yes, he was terrific, actually, and he was in all of them, obviously, because he was Blake, and it was quite a heavy workload for him. I think they always did one after the other, because they were on a roll, as regulars all the time, you had other actors coming in and doing the odd one, and there was Paul Darrow too. I think Gareth Thomas and I were supposed to do a bit of flirtation, inasmuch as a human and a spiritual being can.
Sally Knyvette played the love interest, and she was supposed to get a little bit jealous of you.
Yes, that's right [laughs], oh, goodness me, such a long time ago.
I understand from Julian that you were supposed to play his wife in the Doctor Who story "City of Death"?
I was, and that was a great shame. I can't remember what happened now. I think something overlapped, and I couldn't do it, and it was all really sad. I did want to do it because it was a terrific part, and it would have been nice to have been with Julian in that, and it was one of the Doctor Whos I quite enjoyed. Did he tell you that he got the part of the villain in the James Bond film [For Your Eyes Only] from that?
No, he didn't tell me that.
Yes, I think he was filming a film about Alexander the Great and going out to Greece, and he got this call because Cubby Broccoli and his wife Dana had been in-- Birmingham I think-- and they were in their hotel and they happened to turn the television on, and it was "City of Death," and they were watching it, and Dana Broccoli turned to Cubby and said, "that guy, I think he'd be perfect for Kristatos." And he said yes, so Julian was flown back from Greece to test for this Bond film, and to our astonishment and delight he got it and that was all through doing "City of Death." So you don't know, anybody could be watching you at any time, anywhere in the world.
There you go. Carrying on with Doctor Who, you were in "The Kings' Demons."
Yes, I was. We filmed most of that near Bodiam Castle in Sussex, and it was terribly cold, and there weren't a lot of wraps, and we were sitting outside-- you know what it's like, filming-- for hours not moving, and again there was a lot of ice-cube-sucking going on to show that we weren't that cold. Who was in that actually? Gerald Flood? And of course there was Anthony Ainley...
Another tragic loss.
Yes, that was very sad. Such a shame. Very sudden. But he was very good, he was the Master, and what was good about that story was that it was very different, being set in medieval times, and all that jousting, and tournaments and things like that. I don't know if that's been seen before, but it wasn't a very usual story for Doctor Who. That was nice.
But of course your husband was in a medieval-set Doctor Who story, "The Crusade."
Oh yes, of course, he played King Richard the Lionheart, didn't he? What a coincidence, he played King Richard, and I met King John.
You were also in the political thriller The Final Cut?
That was very interesting to do, and a bit scary because I had to do a lot of rude things in it, but only because it showed my character was very devious and manipulative, and highly ambitious, and quite prepared to shop anybody for her ambition. She was a very unpleasant character actually. And that was great, because it was the last in the trilogy of House of Cards, it was all about power and how corrupting power can be to just about everybody who touches it, and I think it takes a very unusual human being in this day and age, indeed any day and age, not to be. And there were a lot of very Machiavellian people in that, out to control, out for what they can get, very greedy, and utterly ruthless and unscrupulous.
And it was interesting, because I also spent a lot of time down at the House of Commons meeting politicians and the like, and we asked them how much truth is there in the story, well obviously not that people get murdered, but the whole quality, the whole feeling of it, and they said, "well, actually, it's not that far from the truth", because people are very unscrupulous a lot of the time, they're quite power-hungry, and when they do get into power, they're used to being driven around and having their own car and driver at taxpayer's expense, and it's also, strangely-- sexual is the wrong word to use, but the adrenaline run is so high, that actually there are quite a lot of naughty affairs that go on.
Yes, yes. It's quite awash with adrenaline and power, and power can be an aphrodisiac to both sexes, that part of it was true as well.
Getting on to Faction Paradox, you played a vampire in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and now here you are playing a vampire again. Any parallels?
Well, those are the best parts, aren't they? It's great stuff to do, and I hope it will be very great to listen to, because it's so full-blooded, full of a kind of passion, and there's certainly nothing milksoppy about my character, she's a full-on person really, and scary, but it was great, it was good fun to do.
What I heard sounded very good.
Ah, thanks. It's one of those things, you've got to really go for it, to show the passion and fear and everything, otherwise it doesn't come across to the audience. I love, actually, being in things which are just audio, because the best sets, as we all know, are in the imagination, and you can do what you like, really, people can imagine all sorts of things. But you have to give it to them, you have to let the audience in on your kind of storytelling, because that's what it is. It's a very good story, very scary actually, and full of gore.
So have you done a lot of audio?
Um, I do a lot of audio books, I love doing them. I've done, for instance, all the Tracy Chevalier books, The Lady and the Unicorn, and Girl with a Pearl Earring. I've done quite a lot of Antonia Frasier's books too, quite a lot of historical fiction. And then I did a biography of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth by a very good writer called Jane Dunn, and that one topped the bestseller lists. It's a privilege really, and I think it's great to be able to read all these fantastic books.
How do you see Merytra, the character you play in Faction Paradox?
Well, you think she's quite sort of sweet to begin with, and then suddenly she develops into this powerful, seemingly all-powerful, person, very strong, but at the same time has got her devotion to her Dark Lord, and her compassion for Jala. You think there's this very powerful, very scary woman, but she's also got this warmth, this gentleness, almost motherliness for "the Beast" as she calls him, and I think that's quite a touching relationship. You don't hear him speak, just this sort of grunting instead, but she obviously cares for him and protects him. So she's not in any way a one-dimensional character: there are lots of sides to her, she can be haughty, she can be dismissive, but at the same time she's got all sorts of facets to her, and I hope that comes across.
Do you find that particularly difficult, playing against Jala, who is added in post-production?
Well, again, along with the audience, you have to use your imagination, and I sort of got a picture in my mind of what he is like; it's probably not like anybody else's picture of what he is like. Very often, when you see huge and scary-looking powerful men, it's-- for example, Julian was in Troy, and the man who played his champion, right at the beginning, was this seven-foot-four giant of a man, very powerfully built, he was terrifying. Very good looking, but he was very, very huge, a bit scary, and Julian said he was one of the gentlest, kindest, most soft-hearted people that you could meet. And that's what I had in mind for Jala, actually, that he could do all sorts of scary things, but she's protective of him, and almost looks on him as a sort of surrogate child.
And of course there is Upuat, who is--
Played by Julian! I know! I'm sorry we didn't actually get to be together in the same studio, but she looks up to him and cares for him, and what can one say? That's me and Julian [laughs]. But no, it's great. I'm really looking forward to hearing this, you know, hearing how it all fits together.
So overall it's been a good experience?
Yes, it's been really good, really good actors; David Bickerstaff's a friend and I've admired him for a long time, so it was delightful.
Well, thank you for doing it, and thank you for the interview.
It was a pleasure.