Ingrid Bergman was beautiful – but she was such a big girl she broke my child's bicycle… and don't even ask Joss Ackland what he thinks about Lauren Bacall
22:31 GMT, 12 April 2012
Joss Ackland CBE has appeared in over 130 films and more plays than any other living actor.
In the biography he has supplied for the programme of The King’s Speech, in which he is currently appearing as George V, he proudly reveals all his conquests, on stage, screen and in real life. One of them is a man.
‘His stage and screen lovers were Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Jean Simmons, Demi Moore, Claire Bloom, Glynis Johns, Shirley Maclaine, Greta Scacchi, Barbara Cook, Anouk Aime, Dorothy Tutin and Denholm Elliott’ it says.
Joss Ackland CBE, who has appeared in over 130 films and more plays than any other living actor, has returned to the stage for the first time in 12 years as George V in The King's Speech
Then concludes, ‘His longest-running mate was Rosemary Kirkcaldy. They produced seven children, 32 grandchildren, and ten great–grandchildren.’
Now 84, he sits in his dressing room at London’s Wyndam’s Theatre, tugging his snowy beard, looking back on a life which he considers, on balance, ‘a bloody good one so far’.
Like George V, Ackland has a voice like a bassoon and eyes like lasers. This is his first foray onto the stage for 12 years.
Beautiful: Ingrid Bergman became a family friend of Ackland after the pair met on stage in 1971
After his wife, Rosemary Kirkcaldy, a former actress, died in 2002, he ‘couldn’t face’ the stage, but the workaholic is back treading the boards because ‘this is a wonderful play with a lovely company and a way of easing back in’.
He laughs in the pistol-shot staccato that has captivated audiences for six decades. ‘I don’t have many lines to remember, you see!’
In the course of his career, Ackland has had more lines than British Rail. His oeuvre includes Hollywood blockbusters such as Lethal Weapon 2 and The Hunt for Red October, most of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw, drawing room comedies and even musicals, as well as a Pet Shop Boys video.
He was also the first actor to kiss a man on stage in 1971, in John Mortimer’s Come as You Are, with Denholm Elliot (who, though Ackland was unaware at the time, was gay).
Was he nervous ‘Very. But I did a lot less than people thought. Ha! As for the audience, they were shocked out of their minds. Unlike today. Today you can do anything in public.’
He sighs. ‘I hate this decade. There’s no glamour or romance. It’s become a question of saying “do you want a fag or a f***”
‘No one relates to anyone anymore. No one respects anyone. It’s George Orwell come true.
'My friend Emma Thompson can’t stand walking down the street in London these days because all these people walk along with those things in their ears. It drives me up the wall.
‘As soon as I came back to the theatre I noticed all the magic has gone.’ He stares at me, imploring.
‘You have to get the romance back, somehow.’
Famous friends: Ackland also starred with Jean Simmons, pictured here in the 1960 film Spartacus next to Laurence Olivier, who he describes as 'breathtaking'
He must be an expert on romance. Ackland’s jowls and considerable frame, which has leant itself to many a villain, belie the fact that his professional conquests include the great beauties of the age.
To his mind, Jean Simmons was the most breathtaking. ‘She was stunning, Jean, and wonderful. I starred with her four times, including the first West End production of A Little Night Music.
‘She and I and Elizabeth Taylor were all born in the same area of Hampstead. We went to the same Mickey Mouse club. I liked Elizabeth very much. Aside from that c**p about the world’s biggest diamonds, she was a warm-hearted woman and extremely earthy!’
The legendary Ingrid Bergman, whom he met on stage in 1971, became a family friend. ‘There was no c**p about Ingrid. No starry stuff.
‘When she lived in London, she would have lunch with us every Sunday. She had a lovely face, but God, she was a big girl.
Co-stars: Joss Ackland has vivid memories of Lauren Bacall who 'could be a right pain in the a*se', left, and Greta Scacchi who was 'beautiful, intelligent and a great buddy', pictured right in the 1987 film White Mischief
'She was the outdoors type and we’d go cycling in Richmond Park. I got cross with her when she broke one of the children’s bikes because she was, well, big.
‘I was with her the day before she died of cancer. She knew she was dying.’ His firm voice falters; the past was not all clad in rosy hues.
I ask about Lauren Bacall, with whom he shared a stage in The Visit.
Ackland claps a paw-like hand to his forehead. Bacall, unlike Bergman, was ‘not a friend!’
Ackland declares: ‘She could be a right pain in the a*se! She was . . .’ He curtails himself abruptly.
‘More of a film star than an actress’ I suggest. He nods. ‘The critics gave her a hard time, which didn’t help.’
Ackland describes Glynis Johns as 'round the bend'
But Greta Scacchi, who played his adulterous wife in the 1987 film White Mischief was ‘beautiful, intelligent and a great buddy. She tells me all her problems!’
Claire Bloom, with whom he made an acclaimed TV version of CS Lewis’s Shadowlands, is ‘lovely’ and theirs is ‘better than the film with that Anthony Hopkins!’
Ackland has the directness of a heat-seeking missile — a refreshing change to actors reciting lines given to them by their agent. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
He found it hard to tolerate Glynis Johns. ‘She was round the bend. I had to say all her lines.’ He rolls his great eyeballs, the size of God’s marbles.
Then there was his indiscretion about the intellect of Demi Moore, with whom he starred in Passion of Mind in 2000.
‘The trouble was her marriage to Bruce Willis was breaking up and she wasn’t there at all.
'I made this fatal mistake saying she wasn’t bright or talented and the papers leapt on it.’
They co-starred again in the 2007 film Flawless ‘and the producer kept hiding newspapers from her!’ Ackland recalls, rocking with mirth.
‘But she had no recollection we had ever met! She behaved impeccably and couldn’t have been nicer. I couldn’t say “I got you wrong” — she had no idea what I’d said in the first place.’
Is there one actress he wishes he had worked with ‘Not really. My loveliest leading lady was my wife.’
I ask cheekily if he ever gave her cause to be jealous. His voice hovers between mischief and uncertainty, that of a schoolboy wondering whether or not to spill the beans.
‘Well, er, Shirley Maclaine was a bit much, when I was a guest star on her television series. She did annoy Rosemary. There were moments!’
In fact his relationship with Rosemary was preternaturally happy. They married in 1951, when he was 23 and she 22, after meeting in Scotland while performing in a play.
Ackland co-starred alongside Demi Moore in the 2008 film Flawless
They had seven children, 32 grandchildren, and Ackland is soon to become a great-grandfather for the eleventh time.
‘Rosemary was gentle, petite, and ran everything, including me! We were hardly ever apart.’
Then in 2000, his beloved soulmate was diagnosed with degenerative motor neurone disease. ‘She behaved with such optimism and courage,’ says Ackland, almost reverentially. ‘It was Hell though, that illness.’
Eventually she couldn’t speak or swallow, but she kept writing the diary she had started as a girl, which Ackland published in 2009 under the title My Better Half And Me.
After they married, the couple sailed to Africa on a cargo boat to find work. Ackland worked as a tea planter in Malawi before moving to South Africa with their growing brood and returning to the theatre.
‘Then one day we were raided by the police and they confiscated a book, Black Beauty, because the horse was black! I was faced with prison, so I got out in a hurry.’
Workaholic: Actor Joss Ackland, pictured in 2006, has had more lines than British Rail over the course of his career
When the couple arrived back in England in 1957, Ackland joined the Old Vic and his career took off.
‘The fun of acting is to become different creatures. I don’t sing well, but I managed the musicals. They were a challenge.’
Not that he liked them all. Ackland created the role of Juan Peron in the first West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in 1978. ‘I was bored on day two and thought, this is dreadful — how am I going to do this for a year!’
Former actress: Ackland's wife Rosemary Kirkcaldy died in 2002
He admits, with little vanity, that some of his films were ‘Godawful’, naming Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Pet Shop Boys video.
‘I had a big family and needed the money. I did some as a bet, some because I hate doing nothing and the Pet Shop Boys because my children dared me!’
He adds robustly that it’s more than actors do today. They are too scared ‘to play anything but themselves. Every film is the same. The villain dies twice, the car chase must go on for no less than 12 minutes. It’s dreadful.’
His outbursts seem more in sadness than anger. ‘I’m sorry for the young. They only admire money, made fast.
'When I was young, three of my actor friends killed themselves because they were so ashamed of being unemployed. Now people enjoy it! They don’t seem to care at all.’
Ackland cares. When he was 11, he started a gang to help prevent the persecution of London’s Jews by Mosley’s Blackshirts.
‘I wanted to do the King’s Speech partly because they put back the politics that was missing from the film,’ he explains, carefully.
‘The play reminds you how close it all was. So many people supported Hitler, including the Duke of Windsor.’
It’s nearly time for the curtain call and as he is led away by an anxious stage director, I ask: is there one role he would still like to play
‘King Lear. I would be good. You have to have a big tree to fell. You can’t have a sapling!’
Ackland is right. He is a big tree in every sense. In fact, I would call him an oak of old England — and there are precious few of those left.
The King’s Speech is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre. For tickets see kingspeechtheplay.com or call 0844 482 5120