I did a film with Dame Joan Collins once. No no, not The Stud. It wasn’t as good as that. It was called The Clandestine Marriage. And although it wasn’t that fun to watch, it was really fun to make. We filmed it one autumn in someone’s stately home. I had a lovely fling with a woman in the art department, who, in order to hide the fling from friends of her faraway boyfriend, came up with the brilliant ruse of pretending to have a fling with the third assistant director to confuse everyone. At least that’s what she told me she was doing. I was definitely confused, but I believed her. It was years later that someone explained to me that she really was having a fling with the third assistant director.
But I never minded. She was so nice. And I was just so delighted to be working with Joan Collins. Charming, flirtatious, stylish, politically incorrect, iconic in her own lifetime, sharp as a proverbial pin, and enjoyably tactile. Forged during the Blitz, she’d survived being chatted up and predated on by everyone from J. Arthur Rank to Frank Sinatra. Now it was my turn.
She was very beautiful without her makeup on. I only saw that once. And I wasn’t supposed to. I was slumped in a chair on the make-up bus when Joan came in. It was 5 a.m. A candid time of day. Too early to hide. And somebody is scraping your hair back and painting out your liver spots. Gone was the smart-talking dominatrix, and in her place a pale, delicate, ironical girl. Girlish anyway. No grandeur. And disarmingly, no opinion of herself as an actress. As a star, yes, but not as an actress. Just a very famous woman of a certain age, hoping to survive the insanity of the director.
Halfway through filming, the finance collapsed. It turned out the whole thing was being paid for by spivs and nobody had been paid. The spivs turned up in a blue Bentley Turbo to try and stop the crew walking off. We had a sort of latter-day peasants’ revolt in the old hall of the house with an incensed Glaswegian first assistant director speaking on behalf of the crew. The shiny-suited spivs shifted their weight from foot to foot. Standoff.
Then Nigel Hawthorne, the star of the film and the kindest man in the room, spoke up. He spoke on behalf of Joan. Joan had a plan. Joan loved the film and loved everyone working on it, and was damned if she was going to see it go down. Joan was taking out a loan out against the value of her flat in Eaton Square to give the spivs time to sort out their cashflow problem. There was a stunned silence. Then a spontaneous cheer. The spivs looked down at their shoes like chastened schoolboys. This was magnificent. This was historic. And all in an ancient hall with halberds and a Minstrels Gallery. Suits of armour clattered their spurs and rattled their visors. She was our heroine: Saint Joan, Joan of Dynasty. Through her determination, her strength of character, and the considerable value of her super-prime Belgravia apartment, we were allowed to continue having our affairs for a few more weeks, before winter drew in and we returned to the our long-term relationships, and the reality of the film we’d all been making.
But there were a couple of lovely times to still to come. At Joan’s Christmas party I sat on her bed between Nanette Newman and Conrad Black and chatted to William Hague. There was a charming lunch for Nigel Hawthorne’s 70th birthday in a restaurant when I tried to kiss her for slightly too long on the back stairs. At some stage she very kindly invited me to come and stay with her that summer in St Tropez. I said I’d love to. But I hoped to swerve it. What would we talk about, really? And in truth, I was unsure about spending time with her immaculately presented boyfriend. He appeared to blow-dry his hair. We’ll call him Lance.
The summer arrived and we still hadn’t made a plan. I had however made a plan with some friends who had a house not far from hers, in the hills behind Grimaud. I mentioned that I was supposed to be making an arrangement with Joan but hadn’t got round to it. The two gay New Yorkers staying in the house spluttered into their margaritas. ‘Joan Collins!?? You’re kidding, oh my gawd sweetie, you have call her immediately!!’
‘Yes Tom,’ said our hostess solemnly, on behalf of hostesses everywhere, ‘You must call her — otherwise it’s very rude.’
Panicking, I put down my cocktail, and dialled. Someone picked up. Lance.
‘Helloooo? Who is this?’ The voice was languid and treacherous. The voice Americans have in mind when they cast English people as villains.
‘Hello? Is that… er… Lance? It’s Tom…er…Tom Hollander.’
‘Yessss, what time is it?’
‘Oh um, what is it? 9.15 p.m.? Is that OK? Look I just wanted to say I’m staying up the road as it happens with Liam and Natasha. Yes! And though there’s probably no time now to take her up on the very generous offer to stay, because I’m staying here, um, I would really love to see you both. Is that OK? Is Joan there?’
‘Nooo. She gets back from LA tomorrow night. Why don’t you come for dinner on Thuursday, I’m sure she’d love to see youuu.’
‘Oooh, yes yes, thanks Lance, that would be lovely and as you know I’m really high-maintenance ho ho, and I expect a lot of fuss ha ha, so you’d better kill the fatted calf and everything ho ho!’
The next day I got a long voice message on my mobile. ‘Hi darling, it’s Joan here. I’ve just arrived in London from LA where I’ve been shooting The Flintstones 2 and I’m absolutely exhausted, but Lance tells me you’re coming to dinner on Thursday so that’s fantastic, can’t wait to see you, darling. Byee…’
And then something terrible happened. Something that everyone fears happening, but that never actually happens, happened. She didn’t hang up. Nope. She didn’t press the red button. She kept speaking to whoever was in the car with her: ‘Urgh. I hope he doesn’t come. Really. I’m so tired. I invited him to stay weeks ago and he never got back and now apparently he’s having a much more glamorous time up the road. Lance says yesterday he called, in the middle of the night, and demanded that we kill the fatted calf for him! I mean honestly. Anyway darling, nearly home. Look, I bought this from Bulgari to cheer myself up…’.
It stopped. She’d realised and hung up, or the phone had committed suicide, but either way: Alexis Carrington was back. And yes, she actually said the Bulgari thing.
I ranted by the pool: ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it, what a total bitch — and Lance, that two-faced blowdried piece of shit. Right, I’m not going to dinner, I only rang to be polite, I didn’t even want to go in the first place. And what’s more I’m going to sell that voice message in the back of Private Eye. Like those recordings of Linda McCartney singing out of tune on “Hey Jude” that you used to get. I’ll probably be able to retire on the back of it. Does anyone know how to save a voicemail?’
No one did. What’s more, they all really badly wanted to meet Joan Collins.
So we all went to dinner at Joan’s bungalow in a people carrier. Joan was fabulous. Lance was smug. The New Yorkers were beside themselves. I sulked the whole evening. It was a huge success.
The years rolled by. Joan dumped Lance. Met dear Percy Gibson. That woman from the art department married her kind boyfriend.
A decade later, I was hiding in the corner of a restaurant in Toronto with some wine and a book. Joan came in with sweet Percy. I hadn’t seen her since the evening in St Tropez. She looked happy. She smiled warmly and opened her arms wide: ‘Tim, darling! How lovely! Percy, have you met Tim? We’ve got so much to talk about. You must come and have dinner some time.’
Tom Hollander played the Revd Adam Smallbone in Rev; his recent films include The Riot Club and Muppets Most Wanted.