Roger Moore was my childhood hero. When I first discovered the James Bond films, he was the Bond I related to the most. He was a favourite onscreen hero for several generations of fans, and his memorable roles include Ivanhoe
, Simon Templar
and Lord Brett Sinclair
. It is hard to think of another British star who was so loved by an army of fans and yet so frequently dismissed by critics. I remember reading a review for a film (that didn’t star Moore) a few years ago and the critic said ‘this film is so bad they might as well have put Roger Moore in it.’ When they’re blaming you for other people’s bad movies you know something went wrong with your critical reputation. But when I saw my boyhood hero stride onto the stage at the Liverpool Empire Theatre
last night, still looking strong at 88, I couldn’t help thinking that no other living actor has taken such a leading role over so many stages of international film and television history. His first role was a walk-on part as a Roman soldier in Caesar and Cleopatra
in 1945 where he saw his screen idol Stewart Granger
playing Apollodorus deliver the line, ‘It is purple on the green below’. From that point on he was hooked. As an actor, he would try to model himself on Granger (they would star together 33 years later in The Wild Geese
), and he still carries today those values of suave authority and charm that Granger embodied on screen. That being said, much of Moore’s early career was on the stage (he recounted sharing a class with Lois Maxwell
, the future Miss Moneypenny at Rada in the 1940s), and he gave a suitably theatrical rendition of his first ever rehearsal as an actor, a recitation of Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge’
which he still remembers almost line for line to this day.
Roger Moore and Lana Turner in Diane (1956)
Introduced and interviewed by Gareth Owen, who ghostwrote his memoirs, Sir Roger is a natural raconteur, and he talked through his seventy-year acting career in his usual disarming fashion. The highlights of this history, some of which he touched upon and others he did not, include his role as Stephen Colley in the play I Capture the Castle. The notices he received for his performances were so glowing that it led him to being offered both an MGM contract and a chance to join the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He accepted the more lucrative MGM contract. If he had gone with the RSC, I doubt critics would have sniped years later that his acting range was limited to how high he can raise his eyebrows. His initial career in the US was not an unqualified success. Few people remember today that he replaced James Garner on the hit TV series Maverick. However, he would find tremendous success back in the UK as Simon Templar, aka The Saint in the biggest television show of the 1960s. Moore was in the running to be James Bond when Cubby Broccoli was first looking at actors for Dr No. However, it would not be until 1973, after squeezing in another TV hit The Persuaders! with Tony Curtis, that Moore landed the role of the cinema’s greatest hero. The story that Moore was Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond may well be false, even though it was repeated by Fleming’s biographer, but it is true that Moore immersed himself in Fleming’s writing when preparing for the role. As he revealed in a recent interview:
When I first took on the part, I read Fleming’s books. There was little offered in them about the character. However, I remember reading one line that said Bond had just completed a mission – meaning a kill. He didn’t particularly enjoy killing but took pride in doing his job well. That was the key to the role as far as I was concerned.
Last night Moore gave many anecdotes about members of the ‘Bond family’. There was a risque tale about the perverted sexual tastes of the actor Herve Villechaize
, aka Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun
, and there was one story that made a few people squirm in their chair when Moore described how he nearly had his buttocks blown off filming Stromberg’s death scene in The Spy Who Loved Me
. If you don’t recall the scene it’s the one where Stromberg fires a mini missile at Bond from a gun hidden beneath a long dinner table (only in Bond!).
Aside from starring as Bond, Moore appeared in a series of films in the 1970s that when viewed today could easily be considered the best British films produced in a decade when looming economic disaster threatened to kill off the British film industry entirely. From his favourite role as Harold Pelham in the doppelganger thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself
(1970) (the last film directed by the most underrated figure in British cinema Basil Dearden
), to his leading roles in the action/adventures Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976)
produced by strip-club-owner turned-film-producer Michael Klinger,
Moore played a key role in keeping British cinema alive in its darkest hours collaborating with pugnacious and undervalued figures such as the directors Peter Hunt and Andrew V. McLaglen
and producers Euan Lloyd
and Lew Grade
. This for me was the highlight of Moore’s career and an almost criminally overlooked chapter in British cinema history.
After he stood down as Bond, Moore put his acting career on the backburner and became a goodwill ambassador for Unicef
, a subject he talked about with passion and eloquence. He movingly described how Audrey Hepburn persuaded him to get involved in the organisation shortly before she died of cancer. I was surprised Moore was as candid as he was at times. In interviews he has a tendency towards evasion, which I get the impression he employs when things are getting a little too close to home. Only on a few occasions in his long career has he dropped his guard to an interviewer. For instance, this interview with Barry Norman from the set of Moonraker
is revealing when Norman asks him why he knocks his own talents so much. Last night was a treat for fans who wanted a glimpse of the man behind so many onscreen heroes. Of course at Sir Roger’s age no one should expect this to be the most dynamic show ever staged at the Empire Theatre. That being said, he was still on fine form regaling an enraptured audience with countless tales from a life well lived. You don’t see many actors in the style of Stewart Granger anymore. Sir Roger Moore is the epitome of the English gentleman actor and the last of his breed.
Postscript: Inevitably there were a few mentions of Spectre. Sir Roger claimed he hadn’t seen it yet but was typically enthusiastic about Daniel Craig returning as Bond. I’ve got tickets to see it this Saturday and needless to say I’m quite excited. Review to follow.