Eleven years ago, I was summoned to the Manoir de Ban, a huge white house overlooking Lake Geneva, to meet Michael Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s oldest surviving son. Charlie Chaplin had lived here for the last 24 years of his life. Now the house was empty, and the family wanted to turn it into a museum. I doubted it would ever happen, but I was keen to look around the house and I was eager to meet Michael. Chaplin’s biographer, Simon Louvish, had called him ‘the family rebel’. Michael had written a frank teenage memoir called I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn.
The house was all shut up, but Chaplin’s looming presence was everywhere. ‘He was a little man, but he took up a lot of space,’ Michael told me, as we sat in the deserted dining room, looking out across the lake, towards the snowcapped Alps beyond.