Mark Amory

Diary - 17 May 2003

From Here to Eternity. Mark Amory on the highs of Hollywood to the lows of a friend's funeral

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The trouble with holidays is that when you return there is the same work to do and that much less time in which to do it; as well as no time at all, in my case, to acquire a birthday present for my wife or take the limping, mewing cat to the vet. My immediate problem as literary editor here was to decide which reviews to print and which to hold. As a general theory I feel that enthusiasm remains interesting, while contempt had better be dished out immediately. My own first book received friendly reviews and then a month later one that only in the last paragraph committed itself with 'This deadly biography....' I had thought the ordeal was over. A few years ago it was simpler; there was a publication date, you nagged reviewers to provide copy for as soon after that as possible, and they replied in a version of the old saying 'Do you want it good or do you want it Tuesday?' Now no one pays any attention to all that and if you do, you are left woefully behind. Our lead this week is supposed to come out at the end of the month. I saw a review two weeks ago, another last Sunday; so we are in the middle. My question is: is all this annoying or does nobody notice? Meanwhile, my wife liked a belated necklace, and the cat, which I transported in a laundry basket because there did not seem to be anything more suitable, is recovering.

Once a year Premiere magazine prints a list of the 100 most important people in the movies in, and this is the point, order of precedence. I, a mere fan, get so excited that I check bookstalls for days in advance; in Hollywood they must become hysterical. Who is up and, even more gripping, who is down? The crucial May issue is now on the streets. Top is Steven Spielberg, sixth last year, not only because Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can became his 11th and 12th films to make more than $100 million in America, but also because his company, DreamWorks, is doing nicely too. Then there are streams of largely unfamiliar names, chairmen and presidents of the vast companies which own the studios, for the power in question is the power to green-light a film and get it made. The stars arrive at 13. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts are each neatly up two places from last year but down three on the year before; then a gap until Denzel Washington at 28, up 12 with his Oscar (Halle Berry with hers and James Bond is lucky to squeeze in at 96). Nicole Kidman is well below her ex-husband at 31 but up 52 places, and just behind her is Reese Witherspoon, the biggest leap, up 64. The biggest drop is by James Cameron for doing nothing, followed by Eddie Murphy for what he did do. Our boys Sam (Road to Perdition) Mendes and Stephen (The Hours) Daldry squeak in at 91 and 92. No sign of poor old Clint or Arnie any more, but Jack Nicholson is back. You have to get a copy.

A friend died. It is the custom in England that the bereaved should immediately arrange what is in effect a huge party where no one has any control of the guest list. 'You are all welcome to lunch back at the house,' is announced from the pulpit, or in this case in the service sheet, and we expect and receive lavish refreshment. It is generally agreed, though not by me, that this is a help through mourning. As I surveyed the vast fleet of cars efficiently organised in straight lines across a Kent field, a contemporary observed, 'If you want to get a turnout like this, I suppose you have to die young.' 'And be greatly loved,' insisted a fierce voice at his elbow. They were both right. The village church overflowed, as did the specially erected tent, and I was directed to a door clearly designated 'Toilet'. Inside there was in fact a sort of sitting-room with a television, on which we could see and hear the service perfectly. After a momentary uncertainty as to whether we should join in, some bold spirits began singing and we did, which we wanted to. I never know if I am going to be moved but 'The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended' did its work and I was surprised by sorrow again.

I had known James Teacher for 40 years but found there was much about him that I did not know. The tribute told of an altogether more serious man, pursuing conservation through trusts and councils and his own actions with great effect. I was at least aware that he had been joint master of the Quorn. Once we went, rather surprisingly, to an Agatha Christie and, when a character fainted and was given brandy, James said in a voice that would have carried across the hunting field as well as it carried to the stage, 'Worst possible thing. Absolutely fatal.' Afterwards we were refused entry to the Savoy because, fresh from Leicestershire, he was still in his hunting clothes, which were covered with mud. We had to go to a beastly restaurant in the Strand, called Heaven and Hell, oddly a favourite of Bill Deedes. When I came here, without ever having seen a word James had written, I asked him to review books about hunting and the countryside, which he did with the clarity that flows from confident knowledge. If I then suggested 18th- or 19th-century memoirs, he would only say, 'I think I could manage that,' but it would often emerge that he was already familiar with the book in question and much besides. A man of depth and effect, then, as well as life-enhancing charm and humour.

Should we be colour-blind when black actors play white parts? Evelyn Waugh mocked a weekly journalist for writing 'I seem to think I feel...'. Well, I seem to think I feel, broadly speaking, yes, but I find it difficult to frame a principle. It is, after all, reasonable to think an actor physically ill-suited, too old or the wrong sex, for instance, but then if an ancient Sarah Bernhardt can make something remarkable of Hamlet, good luck to her; age and gender were obstacles but they were surmounted. Is colour the same? These thoughts came to me as I waited to see Adrian Lester as Henry V, presumably now a triumph at the Royal National Theatre. I had last seen him superb as a Danish prince, why not now an English king? In Peter Brook's Hamlet, he had been surrounded by foreigners of all sorts, but it was their inability to speak the verse rather than their foreignness that sank the production. Brook has been mixing things up for years, often with brilliant results. He had a whole lot of plump Europeans pretending to be starving Africans in The Ik as long ago as 1975 – unforgettable. In the event, any qualms about Lester evaporated with his entrance. The next night, however, Ragtime (excellent, underrated) dealt with racism, and it would have been muddling and absurd if the Irish had been black or the Afro-Americans white. And would it not be at least distracting to have, say, a black Jimmy Porter or Archie Rice? I seem to think I don't quite know.