Gary Raymond must have been wondering if it was the end of a promising career — curtains. He was starring in The Rat Patrol, a wartime adventure series. Co-star Justin Tarr had managed to roll the jeep Raymond and fellow actor Christopher George were travelling in. Raymond escaped with a badly broken ankle (he tells me it still gives him jip). George had more serious injuries, including an injured back and a heart contusion.
Raymond lived to act another day, but when The Rat Patrol ended after two series, it really was the end of his Hollywood years. But what a few years he’d had, in El Cid alongside Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, The Greatest Story Ever Told (playing Peter) and in Jason and the Argonauts.
I’m interviewing him in the canteen at the National Theatre. It’s utilitarian, noisy and full of young people talking excitedly. Raymond and I are sharing a table with a pile of dirty plates and some dishcloths. I can’t help thinking: it’s no way to treat an 83-year-old legend. Still, he is about to play Dimitri Weismann in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in a cast of 40 and with an orchestra of 21.
I’m really here to talk about his beautiful performance in the film version of Look Back in Anger, based on John Osborne’s seminal stage play. Raymond is Cliff, the Welsh flatmate of Jimmy Porter and his much-suffering wife Alison. This year is the film’s sixtieth anniversary and it’s as raw and difficult as ever.
Osborne wrote the play quickly, almost in one go, and in it he voiced the frustrations of a country that had been humiliated in the Suez Crisis and wasn’t sure where it was going next. The critics didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but they did agree that this was something new.
Watching the film now, it’s Cliff who really steals the show. Raymond tells me: ‘It was such a low-key audition. There was no stir about it. I just went along and I got the part. I remember being pleased. It seemed like an important project — a new kind of film.’
New it was — perhaps the most noteworthy piece of British new wave cinema. And Tony Richardson, the director, spotted Raymond. ‘I was very quiet in those days, a bit shy and he saw that in me.’ That shyness translates well on screen. Raymond’s performance is the one that survives.
At times it feels like a film of a play rather than a film in its own right. As Osborne’s biographer Peter Whitebrook told me: ‘It’s very much a Burton Old Vic performance.’
The picture many of us have of the 1950s is of a comatose nation and Look Back in Anger being a roar of protest against the drabness of things. But Raymond says: ‘None of us found life drab, the country wasn’t dingy at all. It was exciting. It still is.’
But looking back, what did Raymond make of Jimmy the archetypal angry young man? ‘To be honest, I found him really irritating. I just wished he’d shut up. I think a lot of people felt that way, but you couldn’t really say it at the time.’ Raymond feels that the play has always been ‘a bit hard work’.
What a relief we can all finally admit it; Jimmy Porter is, and was, a pain in the neck.
Raymond was fascinated by Richard Burton. ‘Richard was very in tune with money — he had a fondness for it.’
On the first day of cast rehearsals in Soho, Tony Richardson took everyone to L’Escargot for lunch — a typically flamboyant piece of generosity. ‘Tony was like that, he was wonderful.’ As they sat down they realised that Burton was missing. Shortly after they’d started eating, ‘Richard came in. He couldn’t have walked more slowly. He was glowing — suntanned, a yellow jacket with no shirt, sunglasses. The only word I can use is wonderful. He was just so handsome. We all laughed because he was unbelievable in a way. You knew he was there. He had a halo, an aura.’
When filming Look Back in Anger was over, it was over. Raymond never saw or spoke to Burton again. They didn’t keep in touch and didn’t speak. Richard had left the building. But the film? Well, that remains — it’s been remastered and re-released, and Raymond, having seen it recently, has changed his opinion. ‘I saw it quite a few years ago and thought it had dated and was finished. But seeing it again, just last year, I felt that no, its time wasn’t past. I remember just thinking — that’s a really good film.’
But what of the rest of Raymond’s career? He went to Hollywood when it was in its pomp. He was box office.
His hit 1960s show, The Rat Patrol, may be a distant memory, especially on a grim old day at the South Bank. But amazingly, it still has numerous devotees and even a Gary Raymond fanclub associated with it. ‘I get cards every birthday and Christmas presents from fanclub members. The fans are very dedicated to my career.’ They even flew Gary and his wife Delena out to Houston one year for a celebration of the series. The old glamour of the matinee idol still hangs heavy. Whisper it quietly but you can buy Gary Raymond merchandise online.
I ask Raymond if playing St Peter in The Greatest Story had any impact on his own spiritual life. ‘No,’ he tells me. ‘A US preacher came all the way out into the desert where we were filming to meet me and to check if I was the “right” kind of person to play the part. I wouldn’t entertain him at all. I sent him away.’
We shake hands and he heads off for rehearsals. He has a thought. ‘There’s one thing I’d like to say, Steve. I have loved being an actor. I have had a happy and easy life…but I would have liked to work more.’
He’s still working, and was born to be an actor. He wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. But I wonder if he is nervous about being back on stage in Follies. ‘I’d like to say no, but I did have a sleepless night before rehearsals started.’ Is there anything he’s scared of as he prepares to act again? ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to die on stage while in Follies. That wouldn’t be good.’
A Blu-ray BFI release of Look Back in Anger is available now. Follies is at the Olivier Theatre from 12 February.