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Derren Nesbitt on Frank Sinatra, being blinded on a movie and £43 million

Derren Nesbitt as 80-year-old drag queen ‘Jackie’ in Tucked

Yesterday’s blog was the first part of a chat with Derren Nesbitt, star of the new movie Tucked, which was released in the UK yesterday.

But there is more to him than merely being an actor. Now read on…


JOHN: You were saying your father, after he stopped being a comedian on the music halls, got in involved in all sorts of businesses…

DERREN: Yes, we had a huge house in Avenue Road, NW London. And a Rolls Royce.  My father just wanted one. He couldn’t drive. I used to drive. I had learned to drive on a Mini Minor. Julian Glover once told me: “We could never understand you arriving at RADA in a Rolls Royce.”

Derren Nesbitt as Major von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare

JOHN: You built your own career, though. Famously, you were a very nasty Nazi in the Clint Eastwood/Richard Burton movie Where Eagles Dare and there was an accident…

DERREN: Yes. I was supposed to be ‘shot’ twice: once in the head and once in the chest.

JOHN: Which one went wrong?

DERREN: The chest. I was always wary of the special effects man, because he had a finger missing!

They put two condoms full of blood on my chest with a metal plate (to protect the skin). We had five jackets for five takes and eight loads of condoms had exploded and splattered blood over the first four. So we got to Take 5… I was very cautious by this time… and when the explosion went off, it went KAPOW! and it looked like I had been hit by a bazooka. It went in my eyes and they took me to Denham Hospital, trailing blood, with a perfect bullet hole in my forehead and said: “He’s had an accident.”

JOHN: You must have had your chin and your nose damaged.

DERREN: No, I moved back, anticipating catastrophe but my eyes got burnt and bits got in them. It was not very pleasant. I was blind for two weeks.

When I could see again, Clint Eastwood sent me a Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a bottle of Optrex eye wash in the middle.

JOHN: Sounds like a nice man.

DERREN: Yes. I did a film with Frank Sinatra – The Naked Runner. He was a lovely man.

JOHN: Really?

DERREN: Yes, really. He was the biggest star in the world then. Absolutely. One of the tabloid newspapers asked me to write a story for £20,000 or £30,000 about working with the biggest star in the world. But I thought that was tacky. I didn’t want to do that.

He must have heard that this English actor didn’t take the money. And he was absolutely wonderful. So nice. 

We had been going to film in Copenhagen.

He said: “Have you ever been to Copenhagen?”

I told him: “No, never have.”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” he said

Anyway, they changed it and they shot my stuff in Welwyn Garden City instead.

“You’re not going to Copenhagen?” he said. “Well go and have a holiday there on me.”

So we flew there in his private jet and, when we arrived, there was this stretch limousine and a man in a grey suit who said: “Mr Sinatra welcomes you to Copenhagen,” and he handed me a manilla envelope with a LOT of money in it. I counted it up and said to my wife: “We will never manage to spend all this in ten days.” And I have been known to spend money!

There was an amazing apartment for us with the kitchen full. We went out that night; came back at four in the morning; and in the apartment waiting for us was this young man who says: “Mr Sinatra hopes you had a lovely evening,” and he handed me another manilla envelope with – again – LOTS of money in it.

The money was not to cover us for ten days – it was PER DAY. I had money stuffed everywhere: in suitcases and…

Derren Nesbitt and Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner

When I came back to London, I told him: “That was very very kind of you.”

“Oh no no no,” he said. “It’s no problem.”

He was so kind to me – he called me and invited me to the Festival Hall when he did the concert; I had to be at his table to have dinner with him at Claridges. And I met him after the show and he asked me – this little English actor – “What did you think of the show?”

Now that shows an amazing humility that you don’t associate with him. 

“What did you think?” – He said that to me – a little, insignificant English actor.

I said: “By the way, you didn’t sing the song I like!”

“Which one?”

To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

And he sang me the refrain and all I could think of was: Not many people have had Mr Sinatra sing the refrain of a song for them.

He was a very nice man.

Two takes. That’s what he did on films. Only two takes, which I loved. Go for it. Shoot the rehearsal. The magic happens at the beginning. You are not quite sure what’s gonna happen, but magic happens. If you keep on replaying, you lose that magic. Tony Curtis was exactly the same. Instantaneous. That is really what you’ve got to do. You never quite know what’s gonna happen and every take is different, but the REAL magic happens at the beginning.

Derren was promoting Tucked in London earlier this week

JOHN: Sinatra acted and sang. Have you any musical ambitions yourself? 

DERREN: No. But I did once write a song for my father as a joke. My father was in music publishing and god knows what else. I never really knew him at all – and one Sunday – because he was always working – he said to me over dinner: “What do you think of this song?”

I was so amazed that (a) he spoke to me and (be) he knew my name that I said: “It’s rubbish,” just to get a laugh.

He said: “Do you think you could write something better?”

I said: “Yes.” 

As a joke.

I told my brother Gary: “I’m going to write the worst song ever – as a joke.”

I wrote it in 20 minutes, rolling on the floor, and handed it to my father and thought he would laugh. But nothing. No reaction. Absolutely nothing.

Anyway, there was a young singer called Adam Faith and his first record was What Do You Want If You Don’t Want Money? It sold a million copies. My song was on the ‘B’ side. From Now Until Forever. 

And you got paid the same money as the ‘A’ side.

JOHN: Was that your only brush with the music business?

DERREN: No. I started a company many years ago, in 1971, with my little brother Gary called Our Price Records.

I said to Gary: “We’ve got to start like a supermarket for records. So there was a tiny little tobacconist’s kiosk at the side of Finchley Road tube station in NW London and he was going to retire, so we bought that and I arranged how the records should be sold – which everybody has copied – and it started from there. And expanded.

The 300th Our Price record store in Brixton, south London

JOHN: I remember shops in Oxford Street and all over.

DERREN: Yes. Eventually, we sold the business to WH Smith. They wanted to buy it and I said to my brother: “Sell it, because the days for record shops are over. Sell it.” So we sold it for £43 million in 1986 and WH Smith lost everything. Ridiculous! Why? Why?

JOHN: So what’s next now?

DERREN: I have no idea. People now seem to be asking me to do work again.

JOHN: I’m not surprised, on the basis of your performance in Tucked.

DERREN: I also run one of the biggest drama awarding bodies in the country: New Era Academy. That keeps me out of trouble. We are in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, France… and Spain is coming now.

… I CHAT WITH THE DIRECTOR OF “TUCKED” HERE

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Derren Nesbitt: subtly sensitive as a loudmouthed transvestite in “Tucked”

The British movie Tucked is released in the UK today. It has already won, among a clutch of other awards, the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Naples International Film Festival and both a Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at Outfest in Los Angeles.

“Like a jewel (and) Derren Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle…”

In the UK, the Guardian calls it a “touching, unexpectedly funny end-of-life drama with a terrific performance by 83-year-old Derren Nesbitt.”

It has pretty accurately been called “a slice of life smeared with glitter, laughter and tears” and the Hollywood Reporter singled out the “two splendid performances” at the heart of it. In London, the Financial Times writes: “Tucked is small but bright and multi-faceted: like a jewel. Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle”.

The official synopsis says it is:

A raw and tender drama about an ageing 80 year old drag queen who forms an unlikely friendship with a younger queen, both struggling with their own issues of gender identity and mortality. As they discover more about each other, they realise how to truly be themselves.

Nesbitt stars with 27-year-old Jordan Stephens, one half of successful British hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks.

Comedian Steve Oram turns up as a drug dealer and comedian Brendon Burns wrote some of the on-stage gags and appears briefly as a club MC. 

But the movie centres on Derren Nesbitt’s extraordinarily sensitive performance as the grumpy, foul-mouthed drag artist Jackie, diagnosed with terminal cancer, with only six or seven weeks left to live and his performance is an award-deserving revelation.

IMDB currently describes Derren as: 

A rather intriguing British actor who first appeared on UK cinema & TV screens in the late 1950s, and quickly found steady work as a rather unpleasant or untrustworthy individual. His cold, yet cunning features had him appearing in guest roles on many UK TV series. 

Derren Nesbitt seemed to be all over TV

It seemed like he was in everything you ever saw in the 1960s  and 1970s, on TV and in movies.

His father was Harry Nesbitt, a comedian and music hall artist who came from South Africa with his brother Max and they performed as a duo on stage.

Derren’s mother was also in the music halls as a chorus girl.

Derren was trained at RADA where he won the prestigious Forbes-Robertson Shakespearian Acting award.

From there, he joined Peter Hall’s repertory company.

I met him a couple of days ago in London.


JOHN: So the casting for Tucked… Here is a film with a rather grumpy, foul-mouthed transvestite. Who is the first person I would think of to play that role? Suave, 4-times-married Derren Nesbitt? Erm. No. Not an obvious choice.

DERREN: (LAUGHS) Exactly, because I usually kill people. Jamie Patterson the writer/director and I became vaguely friendly and I thought: He’s very talented. Then he asked me: “Do you want to play a drag queen and a trans-crosser?” So I said: “This script I gotta read!” I read it and I thought: Absolutely! This is really good!

And I’m glad I’ve been proved right on two points.

One: Jamie has now been signed-up to one of the biggest agents in Hollywood.

Two: the film has done magnificently well in Los Angeles.

JOHN: Great acting. Emotion with your eyes.

DERREN: Well, you can never be anybody else. So what you have got is me as a drag queen in those circumstances. What would I be in those circumstances? And that’s what you try and do.

JOHN: He’s a grumpy old bloke, but he’s sympathetic.

DERREN: Well, he’s a human being. The hardest thing in the world is to present true reality on the screen, but that’s the name of the game.

JOHN: For your role as a nasty Nazi in the Clint Eastwood movie Where Eagles Dare, you reportedly talked to an ex-Gestapo man to get the feel for your screen character. 

Did you do any research for your role in Tucked?

DERREN: Well no, not really. Everybody seems to thing you’ve gotta do an awful lot of research. But not in this particular case, because my family were very famous music hall stars. I was in theatres from the age of 5 and, later on, was seeing drag queens and all the rest. So it didn’t take very much for me to ‘become’ a drag queen.

JOHN: Your father was a comedian and your mother was a dancer.

DERREN: She was a chorus girl, but my father and his brother were the biggest stars in London in 1928. They only retired in the mid-1950s.

JOHN: You were you born in London.

DERREN: I was born at the Finsbury Park Empire. Actually born in the theatre.

JOHN: So you were bound to end up an actor…

DERREN: Well, I was very fortunate. I left RADA and I’d won everything there… 

JOHN: …and then you worked for Peter Hall.

DERREN: Yes. He chose me to go to the Oxford Playhouse. But he only did one play there and moved on and then I was very fortunate. I think the movie Victim was the turning point. And I have never done an audition.

JOHN: You’ve still never done an audition?

DERREN: No. Never. People have seen me in other things and thought: He’s the one.

A film very much of its time – 1975

JOHN: You must, at some time, have wanted to be more than an actor because there was The Amorous Milkman in 1975, which you wrote, produced and directed.

DERREN: Yes, I did and, afterwards, I thought: Well, I’ve done it and that’s good enough. I wrote the novel, then wrote the screenplay from the novel. But then, afterwards, I felt: I’ve done it. So why do it again?

JOHN: Any further writing ambitions?

DERREN: So many people have asked me to write my autobiography…

JOHN: You should.

DERREN: I did. I finished it about two months ago. I thought: Who would want to read it? But I wrote it more as a cathartic thing. Whether or not anyone wants to publish it, I have no idea.

I was in the War in London. I was in the Blitz, right in the middle of it. My first memory is seeing a baby’s head in the gutter. I saw the dead bodies and god knows what else. So I start from then.

Well, in fact, the first thing I ever really remember was my mother throwing me in a bush as a German Messerschmitt came over. (LAUGHS) I never quite trusted her after that!

It is really less of an autobiography and more of a book that happens to be true.

JOHN: What’s the difference between a book and an autobiography?

DERREN: I don’t know. I think an autobiography is a little… a little bit… self… 

JOHN: Navel-gazing?

DERREN: Yeah… Yeah… And I’m more interested in knowing the person. I’ve read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and I want to know the person.

JOHN: People are not interested in facts as such; they’re interested in other people.

DERREN: Yes. It’s boring (if it is just facts).

Funnily enough, years and years ago, Richard Harris – an old friend of mine who was a great drunk – was asked by someone to do an autobiography and he took an advert in The Times saying: :”If anybody could remind me what I was doing between…” (LAUGHS)

JOHN: You said your father retired in the 1950s… After that, he did nothing?

“Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother”

DERREN: He did everything. He was involved in so many different things. Including the Grade Organisation. Lew Grade was a great, great friend of his. In fact, Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother and told her: “If he doesn’t marry you, I will marry you and adopt him (Derren).” (LAUGHS) Maybe the biggest tragedy of my life!

Years and years later, I went to the South of France where my mother used to live – she had by then married someone richer than my father – and she asked me: ”How is Lew?”

I told her, “it’s LORD Grade now.”

“Oh,” she said, “many years ago, he asked your father to put some money into some new company he had.”

I said: “Pardon?”

“You know,” she said. “Television. You know, you sell beans and things on television.”

And I said: “Ah!… What happened?”

She said: “Well, your father wouldn’t take Lew seriously. If Leslie Grade had asked him, he would have put money in.”

JOHN: And this company was ATV?

DERREN: Yes, my father could have put £10,000 in at the beginning and…”

JOHN: … and that would have been like putting money into MicroSoft when it started up.

DERREN: Mmmmm….

… CONTINUED HERE

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An unsettling story about an illegal gun and “an awful lot of firepower out there”

In a recent blog, I mentioned that mad inventor John Ward – a man of often admirable creative eccentricity – used to have a gun licence for several weapons. It was not something I ever found reassuring.

He now tells me this true story…

_____

One evening in the early 1990s, before the Dunblane massacre, I was at my local shooting range. It was not unusual for members to bring guests.

The evening went on its merry way with members blasting away at paper targets and seeing who had the best score. Then, at the end of the night, as we were clearing up to go home, a guest who had been watching asked:

“Does anybody mind if I use of the target area?”

No-one did.

So he went to the boot of his car, dragged out a bag and walked back to the shooting area which was a wall about twenty feet high and twelve feet wide made from old wooden railway sleepers because, as well as being a ‘stopping point’ for all the bullets fired in its direction, it ‘soaked up’ the bullets and prevented any ricochets.

The guest unwrapped his weapon and it was a German MP 40 machine pistol – also called the Schmeisser sub machine gun – of the sort that is a staple of World War 2 films when the German side is shown with automatic weapons – think Where Eagles Dare. It is the cheaper-made model that derived from the MP 38 but, for all that, it still killed folk efficiently.

Its magazine holds 40 rounds of 9mm ammo. It is not a sporting gun by any stretch of the imagination and, as such, was/is a banned weapon on these shores for obvious reasons and can only be legally owned by a very few people or dealers who hold a Home Office Section 5 Licence.

So we stood there with our mouths wide open and the silence was deafening. Our guest then inserted a magazine into the forward section of the MP 40, cocked the weapon, turned to us and said:

“I’m not sure how this is going to go as I have had it years and I’m not sure what noise it gives out.”

With that, we put our fingers in our ears – we had already cleared away our ear defenders/ear muffs – and… BBBBBBBBBBBBRRRRRRRRRR as our guest emptied a full magazine of forty 9mm bullets at the target area in about ten seconds – much like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare in fact!

As the smoke cleared, he turned to us and said:

“Well! – that seemed to go alright, didn’t it?”

And, with that, he took the magazine out, thanked us, proceeded to put it back in the bag with the gun and took it to the boot of his car and drove off.

Afterwards, oddly, nobody could recall just who had brought him along as a guest…

For the next few weeks, I scanned the newspapers to see if there had been any ‘bank jobs’ done locally but there were none.

That was almost twenty years ago.

All this was and is illegal and, if caught with an MP 40, one’s future holiday arrangements might be arranged by Her Majesty for the next twenty years, but the streets of this country are nowadays awash with far more of this sort of stuff than ever before.

There is even more firepower in the MAC-10, which has 32 rounds of 9mm held a stick magazine housed in the pistol grip – a .45 calibre option was/is also available. The MAC-10 can empty its magazine in about 2 to 3 seconds flat.

It was put on test by the SAS but they refused to adopt it as it was inaccurate unless  – I quote – “you were having a fire fight in a telephone box”.

The MAC-10 is now a common fashion accessory among British drug gangs.

There is an awful lot of ‘firepower’ out there, perhaps some of it nearer than you might think.

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