Honor Blackman is used to sophisticated banter with sophisticated men. Whether trading dry bon mots with the urbane John Steed or holding her own in a sexually-charged battle of wits with James Bond, she gives as good as she gets, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
So I’m glad I’ve done my research. And as Blackman has described her new one-woman show – which comes to the Arts Theatre next weekend – as a “spoken autobiography”, where better to start than at the beginning of a career stretching back more than 60 years.
According to her website, Blackman had something of a fairytale start when the lead actress she was understudying in the West End fell ill, and she stepped in to save the day. It’s just like 42nd Street, I venture.
“I think you’re thinking of somebody else,” she says, not unkindly. “That wasn’t me – I certainly didn’t have a fairytale start.”
“But it’s on your own website,” I offer, feebly. This sort of thing never happened to 007.
After some encouragement, she eventually reveals that she did indeed step into the leading lady role at short notice, but it wasn’t in the West End – it was in Bolton.
“I have a great fondness for Bolton,” she says, that famous kittenish purr undiminished by her 86 years. “It was the first time I stepped on to the professional boards. My director thought I was really rather good, and put me in his next play in the West End. And so we go on – that’s how it started.”
“I did three plays in the West End and then I seemed to be monopolised by films,” she continues. “I rather regret that in a way. At one point [theatre director] Peter Brook asked me to play Ophelia in Stratford, and Laurence Olivier thought I was really rather good, but because I was signed up for a film I couldn’t do it.
“It was my fault – I could have not accepted the films. But when I was very young and so stupidly ignorant, I hadn’t any idea about a career path. I wasn’t bright enough and I didn’t know anything about the theatre. If I’d had an agent who really cared about the path I might take, he might have said ‘hold on – although this would be a quarter of the money, it would be better for your career, and more interesting and varied’. So from that point of view I have regrets, though of course lots of people might say: you were damn lucky. And of course I was in lots of ways. But I can carp like anyone else,” she adds with a laugh.
Instead of Shakespeare at Stratford, she signed up as part of the Rank Organisation’s stable of talent at Pinewood, appearing in films as diverse as the Titanic drama A Night To Remember and Norman Wisdom comedy The Square Peg.
“I wasn’t a Rank Charm School girl, I just want you to know,” she says, a reference to the company’s reputation for nurturing raw talent. “I’d done all my drama school training and played in the West End, whereas the people in the Charm School hadn’t done anything, and walked about with books on their heads for deportment. That wasn’t me.”
But it was on the small screen that Blackman really made her mark when, in 1962, she joined the cast of spy-fi drama The Avengers. The show had begun a year earlier with Patrick Macnee – as debonair secret agent John Steed – playing a supporting role to Ian Hendry. But when Hendry left and Macnee was promoted to the lead, producers took the radical decision – remember Britain was still psychologically stuck in the 50s at this point - of pairing him with a female partner who was more than a match for him and the succession of villains they would have to face down.
Blackman’s character, Dr Cathy Gale, was a quick-witted anthropologist fond of busting some serious judo moves while dressed head-to-toe in black leather. (The look also gave rise to the term ‘kinky boots’, inspiring Blackman and Macnee to record a song of that name which belatedly became a top 5 hit in 1990.) Ophelia it certainly wasn’t.
“When I went to see [producer] Leonard White he sort of mentioned in passing I might have to do judo,” she recalls. “And I said, 'I know nothing about it so you’ll have to teach me'. And looking back, I have to say, it was amazing, and they must have been rather startled that I took to it and was fit enough to do it all.”
Like all television drama back then, early seasons of The Avengers were recorded “as live”, with no time for re-takes – and certainly no prospect of using stunt doubles.
“You did the fighting - on those cement studio floors - and changed your clothes on the run into the next scene,” she explains. “It was really tough going, especially for two years. The first year we didn’t even have Sundays off. It was the days when, if somebody died in the middle of a speech or something, you just had to step over them and take their dialogue and go on.”
The role made her so physically confident, she even released an instruction manual, Honor Blackman’s Book of Self Defence. Though she was reluctant to use her skills when, as frequently happened, slightly worse-for-wear men, clearly threatened by this new breed of powerful woman kicking her way into their living rooms every week, offered her out for a fight.
“You really couldn’t do anything about it because it was so unfair, with them wobbling about all over the place,” she recalls, amused. “With judo someone really has to go for you and then you use their force against them. Which is no good when you’ve got a wobbly drunk.
“That was one of the problems with the actors – they were so kind and considerate. They used to sag as they approached you, and that meant it was like lifting a dead weight.”
An exception, she says, was Tony Blair’s late father-in-law, Tony Booth, who was so “stroppy” in rehearsals she taught him a lesson by “banging him onto the ground”. “That was a bit naughty,” she adds, without a hint of remorse.
Blackman left the show after two years. I wonder if she felt any slight pangs of jealousy when it went on to be a huge international success with her replacement, Diana Rigg.
“No, no,” she says, “because I could have done that. No-one could understand why I left, because it was just going on to film, and then colour, and proper money. But I thought two years was long enough, so I left – and stepped into Pussy Galore, so it wasn’t too bad, really.”
Along with Cathy Gale, Pussy Galore – the bisexual female aviator working as a hijacker-for-hire in the third James Bond movie, Goldfinger – is a role that defines Honor Blackman to this day. Just don’t try calling her a Bond girl.
“I hate that term,” she says. “Well, they can call other people Bond girls, but I don’t like it, for the simple reason that that character would have been a good character in any film, not just a Bond film. I consider Bond girls to be those ladies who took one look at Bond and fell on their backs. Whereas Pussy Galore was quite a character.”
She had a very rude name. Could you get away with it back then because audiences were more innocent?
“Actually an awful lot of people were upset about it. When I went to America it was very dicey. Some interviewers wouldn’t interview me, and those that did wouldn’t ever say the name. I wish everybody wouldn’t take things quite so seriously – I mean it’s Ian Fleming’s joke, isn’t it? It’s like Oddjob and Goldfinger and all those things.”
Sean Connery was already an icon as Bond by then. Was she in awe of him?
“In awe of him? No I wasn’t. Attracted to him, but not in awe of him.”
Was he in awe of you? (Pub trivia: Blackman is one of only two leading Bond actresses to have been older than 007 himself – she was 36, while Connery was 34. The other, fittingly, was Diana Rigg.)
“I don’t think so, she says. “He didn’t mind throwing me but I think he was a bit quirky about the fact I got to throw him. But he was fun and professional.
We’ll take it as read Connery is her favourite Bond – but who’s the second best?
“I don’t think there’s been anyone to touch him,” she says. “I know it’s not fair because he was the first and therefore had an advantage. But let’s face it, he was the best looking one there’s ever been: he was Mr Universe before he started, remember. He had – or still has, that wonderful Scottish accent, which he uses whether he’s playing Russian or French or anything. Nobody else has been able to play it like he did. He was so cool.
“And everybody said it was typecasting, which is about the furthest thing it was from a Glaswegian milkman or whatever. He was so good and so charming and so merciless – he could take a lady to bed and shoot her and walk away whistling.” Maybe that milk round wasn’t entirely wasted then.
Blackman was rarely out of work over the following decades, but it wasn’t until 1990 that she found another signature role, playing a glamorous – in fact positively predatory – granny in ITV sitcom The Upper Hand, which clocked up an astonishing 95 episodes during its seven-year run. She’s proud of the fact she got to play a man-eating femme fatale in her 60s and, a few years later, the lifelong republican struck another blow for single-minded women when she refused the CBE (though it wasn’t widely known at the time, thus denying headline writers the “Honor declines honour” open goal).
“I think it’s an anachronism,” she explains. “We call ourselves a democracy and we have over-privileged representatives who haven’t done anything to qualify to be the leader of this country.”
Though she would, strangely, make an exception for Princess Anne. “If she became the leader of our country, I’d be extremely happy,” she says. “She’s just so good at it – she knows what she’s talking about it. She is a patron of two or three charities that I support, and I like her very much.”
So you’re a republican but you’d have Princess Anne as Queen?
“Well, she’s a woman. I don’t care who she is, she’s a woman and she’d do the job properly.”
I feel duty bound to point out that the Queen is also a woman.
“Tony Benn did say about the Queen, 'she can’t say good morning without reading it'. She’s alright, she does her best. But I don’t think they’re qualified to be there – they’ve done nothing to earn it. And I like people to earn their place.
“Anyway, I’m going now,” she says, with cheery abruptness. “Having been thoroughly pompous, I’m going.” And off she marches to demolish a few more wobbly drunks, charm school bimbos and unsuitable monarchs before lunch.
Published in the Cambridge News, 26 January, 2012 © Cambridge Newspapers