The Den of Geek interview: Leslie Phillips

Simon tracked down Leslie Phillips for a quick chat about why he won't retire, the ghost writer he didn't get on with, and what he thinks of Peter O'Toole...

Saturday 24th November 2007. The Memorabilia Show, Birmingham.

Cards on the table: I’m a huge Leslie Phillips fan. I’ve seen him on stage, television and film, and maintain he’s one of the most watchable actors we’ve ever produced. It was thus with some apprehension that I approached him for interview. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried…

I’ve seen you at these shows before, and it must be a real thrill for you, looking at the people you attract to your table, to see you have a real cross-generational set of fans?

It’s a remarkable cross-section. In fact, we were just talking about it, because I have no kind of age limit one way or another. It’s because I’ve done so much work, and they’ve all travelled round all the various mediums, and they keep travelling round. They go round the world, being repeated and repeated.

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So all the new generation who come in are just as au fait as the older generation! And I’ve been an actor for a considerable length of time – 70 years! – and I’m still working.You said in your recent autobiography, I think it was on the set of Venus (2006), that there was a moment where it just felt like three actors sitting, talking, and wondering where the next job was coming from. Do you still feel very much in that frame of mind?

Yes It hink it’s the frame of mind that every actor has all the time. They always think that this job is going to be their last, or that a bad time is round the corner, then something crops up, and it goes on and on and on and on…

You’ve done a real mix of work, though: as you said, you’ve covered all sorts of medium. And you strike me as the kind of person who has enjoyed a busy, continuous career. There doesn’t seem to have been much downtime to it at all?

No, I’ve always covered all the mediums and done a lot of American films, and a load of English, Italian, Spanish, Irish films…!And we’ve got the extraordinary situation where I’ve got a three year old boy who knows you as the voice of a hat in Harry Potter, and then someone like me who came to your work watching Chancer back in the 90s..

… ah yes, that was good, yes.It was. It must have been an extraordinary find at the time; at a point where ITV’s drama wasn’t particularly great, and yet this nugget came to you. How did it come about?

Well, if you believe in yourself, and you don’t lead a stupid life and get pissed every night … which I don’t, and I don’t smoke… I have a very good and interesting life, and I seem to keep my career going.

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Is it a thrill that you land a role in a film as meaty as Venus, when there are people 30 or 40 years your junior who couldn’t buy a part that good?

Venus came at a time when I was feeling a little bit unsure about what was coming next. And the phone rang! Just like that! Wasn’t my agent. Wasn’t any friend. But the producer, the director and the writer of Venus decided I was worth looking at.

It was a smashing part, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was a terrific part. And I never thought of myself as winning awards or anything like that.

Peter O’Toole, who is terrific to work with, terrific actor, an absolute bloody nutter as well, great sense of humour. And I was starred with him and Vanessa Redgrave, it was a super cast, a lovely director, a marvellous cameraman. Everything was right.

Do you find the people coming to you at an event like this then are talking to you about the Doctor films, the Carry On films, or are you really finding that cross-generational appeal we talked about is reflected?

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Yes, well the work does keep going on television, and all round the world. They go round and round. I mean, if only I got paid for them all, probably now I would retire. The word that we don’t use!And would you retire?

No. I don’t think actors do retire. They’re like old soldiers, they fade away. Something happens, the phone doesn’t ring, or they become ill. Something like that. But I’ve only heard of about two actors who actually retired. And they both came back again, and then retired again!

Did you get much of a thrill out of writing your autobiography? It was a very candid and honest book.

Yes, I did.There was no obvious sign of a ghost writer?

Well there was one, who I didn’t terribly get on with, because, well, although he did help me in a way … he helped me in such a way that I never had to face a blank page. And although when he wrote something I always rewrote it, he did take away the blank page.But it did feel very much your book?

Oh yes. And it was honest, and it was daring, and I told a few things I’m not very proud of, and I was determined to make it straight and no-nonsense.

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Thank you very much for your time…!