|The question remains – should I have taken the sapphires? Or just be satisfied with the award?|
A question that must be asked is, ‘Is the 21st. century about to ruin all our girlhood dreams?’ Or are we too late and they have been already ruined? Or maybe they were always dreams and never existed at all? Films are one of the prime indicators of the death of romance. Just occasionally a movie sneaks in which is not only exciting but has something more to say than “`Zap, bang , wallop”. Like THE ENGLISH PATIENT for instance. There was adventure and pathos, love and despair. Ralphie Fiennes carrying the dying Kristin Scott Thomas, wrapped in a billowing white parachute, up the slope to leave her in a cave, knowing that there was only the slimmest of slim chances that he would be able to return before she died, chokes me up every time. Unfortunately this sort of film has been supplanted by all-action movies that rely on spectacular special effects to entertain a sated audience. The more outrageous the action this week, the further the limit will be pushed next. CHARLIE’S ANGELS – FULL THROTTLE is a long way from THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (1936) – THE MATRIX a failed souffle compared with BEN HUR. Rudolf Valentino was silent in THE SHEIK (1921) but he provoked mass hysteria around the world and opened up the desert to the romantically inclined. Not that the sands of Arabia needed much advertising. Civilisation started in the shifting dunes and more seminal inventions were conjure into life in what are now the endless wastes of the Middle East than have ever been conceived in modern times. Sinbad was flying a carpet when the western world was still unaware of the mystic properties of the wheel. Omar Khayyam lounged under a tree, slurping wine and chatting up passing maidens while making mathematical calculations which nobody in the west would understand for another 500 years. Baghdad meant romance and adventure. Persia was a land of mighty armies and fantastic art.
It might seem a long way from the ancient world to the death of a movie star but the news of Gregory Peck’s death did it for me. I can’t say that Peck was a friend of mine but we did meet once, for a brief time, in the desert. I like the sound of that. Unfortunately the romance is in the implication rather than the fact. It was the Second Irananian Film Festival. Christopher Lee and I were part of the official British delegation. It was the usual round of parties and films packed into quite a short time span. Then we received an invitation to visit the Palace of the sister of the Shah , Princess Shahnaz. She had decided that she wanted to get a look at the strange creatures from filmland and had thrown her magnificent home open for the weekend. The journey was by bus. I sat next to Chris and stared out of the window as mile after mile of scrub covered sand sped by. Chris filled in the time giving me a glimpse into the history of Persia, or as it is called now, Iran. He knew quite a lot about it as various members of the Lee family had been instrumental in forming the new country when the Americans and the British goosed the Shah, Riza Khan , onto the Peacock throne. They had also served under our host Shah Riza Pahlavi when he came to power.
Suddenly there was a flash of light on the horizon. Those in the party that were still awake perked up. It was the nearest thing to excitement any of us had seen since we passed the last camel. As we drew nearer we could see that it was light reflecting from the palace. The surroundings changed as we drew nearer. Now we were running through small groves of palm trees and there was a scattering of houses. Real houses. Not the adobe huts of the fellahs we had passed occasionally along the road. Inevitably there were also soldiers. The bus slowed by a guard house as guards with guns barred our way as we approached the main entrance to the palace. Passports were demanded and we were all scrutinised in case we were some foreign terrorist intent on blowing up the palace. One of the soldiers put the passports in a bag and was about to leave. I wasn’t having that. I had lived too much of my life without the security that a passport affords and I didn’t like to let it out of my hands. The soldier refused to give it back and I was ready to challenge him to a duel when Christopher stepped in and assured me that my passport would be perfectly safe and I would get it back when we left. I still wasn’t too happy about it but it was either accept the situation or walk back to Teheran. As we drove through the grounds it became obvious why we had been attracted by the reflection from the palace. It seemed to be, made entirely of glass. I magical Crystal Citadel.
I soon forget my anger when I was ushered into a room straight out of the Arabian Nights. On a dais was a huge bed beautifully draped in silk sheets. The walls were hung with richly embroidered carpets and the furniture was a mixture of Louis French and Eastern promise. And the bathroom! Massive. The actual bath the size of a small swimming pool. It was obvious that the Shah and his sister were devotees of the Hollywood version of what the humble homes of Persian Royalty should look like.
Cocktails were served in another enormous hall at eight. By this time the festival delegations from the other countries had arrived. For a while I circulated with Christopher while he explained various works of art and how you could tell a good Persian carpet from a bad. We even found a picture of one of Christopher’s uncles, in the military uniform of a Colonel, I think. I’d had my fill of culture by now and when I spied the legendary Russian film director, Sergei Bundarchuk, sitting on the bottom step of the grand staircase which swept down from the floor above, I excused myself and joined him. I think Chris was relieved to get rid of me as he was instantly engulfed by various officials of the festival who wanted to bend his ear. I gave Bundarchuk a fulsome hello and as he pushed himself to his feet, grabbed him and implanted enthusiastic kisses on both cheeks. I had met the director at a couple of Embassy do’s in Kensington and I didn’t intend to give him the chance to disown me. He responded gallantly. As I listened intently to what he was saying I was aware that someone was hovering just out of my field of vision. I fluttered an eye sideways and felt weak at the knees. It was Gregory Peck. I knew he was a guest at the Festival but so far our paths hadn’t crossed. I swung round and he gave me his famed hesitant smile. “Hi. Lee, “ he said. One of my problems at that time was I kept getting mistaken for Lee Grant. I never understood it. As far as i could see we looked as alike as Laurel and Hardy. He instantly realised he had made a gaffe. I stuck out a gallant hand and did the James Bond thing, “Ingrid. Ingrid Pitt”. He covered well and apologised for his mistake and claimed that he had known who I was all along. I introduced him to Bundarchuck and it soon became evident why he had joined us. He wanted to talk War & Peace with Sergei. He did have a problem. Bundarchuk’s English was restricted to ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and , with an effort, ‘Where’s the bathroom’.. I let them struggle for a moment and then, when it was obvious they weren’t getting anywhere, chipped in with a translation.
We were sitting on the bottom steps of the stairs, sipping wine, and I was trying to keep a lucid dialogue going between Peck and Bundarchuk. Suddenly a man dressed like the `Grand Visier in a Harryhausen movie rushed up and demanded that we stood. We did as he asked . He cooled off a little an haughtily explained that the carpet was priceless and could be ruined if we tipped our wine on it. He turned and marched off to savage someone else committing a crime against property but did nothing to discourage the smokers . But this was the seventies and everybody smoked. Later we were all introduced to the Shah, his missus, Farah Diba, and our hostess Shahnaz before retiring. It had been a fun day but I was ready for bed. I had hardly time to take off my make-up before there was a knock on the door and a man dressed in black jacket and pin-striped trousers stood on the doormat beaming. He bowed and offered me a small leather draw-string purse. “With his Highness, The Shah’s compliments.” I thought how cute, took the bag, thanked the man and went to shut the door. He stood there obviously expecting more. I opened the bag and my eyes nearly did the popping out of the head thing. The bag contained two beautiful sapphires. Gobsmacked I looked at the messenger. He bowed again and said that the Shah was pleased that I had accepted his gift and would like to invite me to take dinner with him. I explained that I was leaving in the morning. He bowed again said that the Shah’s invitation was for now. It was 12.30 and I guessed that His Highness had more than a cous-cous on his mind although in Arabic who knows. But the sapphires were tempting. I was about to go along with the play but a thought suddenly hit me. The scuttlebutt was that the Shah had a problem that I was not interested in sharing. It was said that he had syphilis. But the jewels!! I shook my head quickly before temptation got the better of me. I told the messenger to thank the Shah for his kind invitation but I was tired and needed to sleep. Reluctantly I returned the sapphires and closed the door. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I kept chiding myself for being so prudish and turning down the present. After all, hospitals are pretty good with that sort of thing now.
The next morning on the ride back to Teheran I sat next to the Mexican actress Katy Durado. I told her about my midnight visitor. She smiled and nodded but made no comment. I had the distinct impression that she had also got the call. I didn’t like to ask.
I only saw Gregory Peck once after we returned to Teheran. He called me and asked me to have dinner with him. Flattered I accepted instantly. When I arrived in the restaurant Gregory was already there – with Sergei Bundarchuk! But I still remember that crystal Persian Palace in the desert and it all came back to me when I read that Gregory Peck had died.
MM September 2003