We first met in 1973, when I was a guest of Peter Cushing at Pinewood Studio where he was filming Nothing But the Night with Diana Dors and Christopher Lee. I remember Peter introducing me to this imposing figure who was as austere and as intimidating as you might expect him to be from so many of his roles.
Not long after, my best friend and I (confirmed film nuts) bought tickets for a BAFTA award ceremony at the National Film Theatre and found ourselves sitting behind Christopher. Eager to impress my chum, I accosted the actor as we were getting up to leave the theatre and sought to remind him of our meeting at Pinewood. Of course, he had absolutely no recollection whatsoever of the occasion and I should have let it go at that, but – in a vain attempt to prolong the non-conversation – I stammered: 'So, how is Peter Cushing?' Raising his busy brows and giving me a withering look, he replied snappishly: 'We don't live together, you know.'
When, many years later, over lunch at my then London club, I plucked up the courage to recount this exchange, he was graciously penitent about the put-down. Another memory of that lunch was listening to Christopher, an exceptional linguist (who had just been quoting J R R Tolkien to me – in Elvish), conversing with the club's Cypriot maître d' in both Greek and Turkish. On that and other occasions, he shared his seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes including personal memories of Tolkien and two other shared literary heroes, C S Lewis and M R James.
One prickly encounter occurred at Cannes early in 2001, where the preview footage of The Fellowship of the Ring was being screened. I was showing the proofs of my first Official Movie Companion to members of the cast for them to check the biographical details. Having read the entry on himself, Christopher looked up, frowning: 'I don't believe I have actually played Dracula as many times as you say here.' Standing my ground, I replied: 'I think you did...' He glowered and, handing back the proof, said: 'Well, even I did, I don't think we need to say how many, do you?' So, of course, we didn't!
Then there was Dominic Monaghan's 26th birthday party (coinciding with the December 2002 premiere of The Two Towers) at an expensive restaurant in Paris. Cast and other talent were present and I was seated with WETA Workshop's Richard Taylor on one side and Christopher and his wife, Gitte, on the other. After the first two courses, Christopher and Gitte decided to slip away, in order to be rested for the following day's premiere exertions. Getting up from his seat, Christopher murmured: 'Settle up what we owe when the bill comes, there's a good fellow and I'll sort it with you tomorrow.' I had what was an anxious hour, uncertain whether – if I ordered desert and coffee – I would have enough euros for the Lees' dinners and my own! Mercifully, when the bill did arrive, it was instantly snaffled by producer Barrie Osborne, who paid for all present.
I spent a good number of hours interviewing Christopher for The Lord of the Rings DVD bonus discs, invariably getting into trouble from Gitte for keeping him too long in front of the camera; although, in truth, I was never to blame since, whenever I made an attempt to wrap the interview, Christopher would always embark on yet another round of stories.
Our most memorable interview, however, was a remote one, via telephone. It was 2008 and David and I are having lunch in our local pub when my mobile rings. I answer and hear the familiar basso profundo tones: 'Is that Brian Sibley?'
'How did you know it was me? I was disguising my voice!'
He has just finished reading my biography of Peter Jackson in which PJ relates a story about directing Christopher's death scene as Saruman in The Return of the King. Pete had asked Christopher to give a great scream when Grima stabs him in the back, but Christopher had explained that somebody stabbed in the back would never cry out, but would simply give a sharp exhalation of breath. So, PJ wanted to know, how come Christopher knew this? The answer: because he had been in the Special Air Services (SAS).
'Peter,' says the voice on the phone, 'was incorrect in telling that because I was, in fact, in the SAS Reserve.'
I apologise: 'I should have checked with you...'
'It's alright,' he replies, 'I have spoken to the Head of the SAS this morning and explained the situation and that you are not to blame.'
I am then treated (not for the first time) to a detailed analysis of why Peter was wrong to have cut the aforementioned scene from the theatrical release of The Return of the King ('Saruman has been established as a nemesis for two movies and then simply disappears?!') This complaint, in turn, prompts a tirade about the fact that his recent appearance in Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has also been cut. The intention had been for the film to begin with Christopher singing the musical's opening song, 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd', which, in the stage show, establishes Todd's character and the narrative style.
'You know the number, I presume?' he enquires, but before I can reply he has launched into the song with great gusto. I thought to myself, I will never forget this moment: I am sitting in a pub, eating pie and mash, while Christopher Lee sings Sondheim to me down the phone!
He was, of course, noted for his idiosyncratic discography: from Mussorgsky's 'The Song of the Flea' to Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' – not forgetting his memorable Heavy Metal version of 'The Little Drummer Boy'! A pity then that the world at large was denied his screen rendition of the Sweeney Todd song, but I can hear it still...
That marathon telephone conversation (though it was more of a monologue than a conversation) ran for over an hour, until the 'low battery' warning on the phone was flashing with increasing rapidity. Just before finally defeating my Nokia's endurance levels, Christopher made a surprisingly unguarded comment about someone connected with The Lord of the Rings and, when I laughed, added sternly: 'And you will not repeat that, Brian Sibley, do you understand? Remember, I still have a number of very good friends in the SAS!'
Farewell, Christopher, the world is an immeasurably duller place for your passing...
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee
Caricature by Bast