What a week. David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Fuck.
Bowie‘s death left me feeling strangely bereft. Despite never having been a dedicated ‘Bowie-head’ (a fan, though never a fanatic), I keep returning to the idea that I’ve never lived in a world without a David Bowie in it – my earthly debut occurring in the months between Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World – and the strangeness of that. A world without a David Bowie is a decidedly dangerous place.
Alan Rickman, on other hand, I adored, along with oh, about 89.2% of the female population and, I dare say, a sizeable chunk of the male inhabitants too.
First Things First: Goatee or Moustache?
I can’t remember now if it was Die Hard or Truly Madly Deeply that did it.
The urbane sophistication of international terrorist Hans Gruber, playing cat-and-mouse with NYPD cop, John McClane, over at Nakatomi Plaza? Or the quiet devotion and humour of Jamie, the recently-departed cellist, comforting his grief-stricken lover, Nina?
It might even have been his unlikely ability to make all manner of facial hair coiffeurs – safely banished since the 1970’s – sexually alluring once again.
Whatever the reason, from my late teens onward, Alan Rickman was a furry-faced, liquid-vowelled GOD.
Granite wrapped in ermine. Scissors shredding silk. The ooze of honey nestling a sting. If I dedicated my life to nothing more than puzzling out the exact ingredients of his languid drawl, I believe I would die happy.
Hearts and Spoons
While studying at Glasgow School of Art, myself and a friend, Julie, lusted after him in a vaguely competitive way, each of us recounting potential scenarios of Rickman-conquering seduction, to the faux-horror and ridicule of the other.
Occasionally, we would unite in the face of a common enemy – as when we joined the keening shriek that rocked the nation on the release of the single ‘In Demand’ by Texas, and the sight of a fellow-Glaswegian, Sharlene Spiteri, in the accompanying video, snuggling up to and cavorting with Rickman, in a manner that, I am sorry to say, can only be described as smug.
I delighted in the OTT, pantomime camp of his Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And, by the way, this is how you pull off the Emo / Goth evil-villain-in-a-cloak look (baby badass, Kylo Ren, take note).
I sighed at his Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility, his unrequited love for the Willoughby-smitten, romance-obsessed, poetry-snob that is Marianne Dashwood – from the first flicker of recognition, as she played the pianoforte, to his anguished plea to Eleanor to ‘give me a task’, as her sister lay racked with fever and on the verge of death. Marianne, of course, recovers from both fever and Willoughby, eventually coming around to the idea that it might just be possible to love a good man (who happens to have a devastatingly sexy reading voice), as opposed to a dashing tousle-haired rake with a glint in his eye and two-horsepower buggy.
So when I heard his directorial debut, The Winter Guest, filmed in Fife and starring Emma Thompson with real-life mum Phyllida Law, was to premiere in Glasgow – that Rickman himself would be in attendance – I was giddy with anticipation.
The Winter Guest
The premiere took place at the newly-opened Glasgow Quay entertainment complex, on the South bank of the Clyde. As we all thronged into the cinema, I couldn’t help but note a certain gender bias among the assembled film fans.
The Winter Guest is a moving tale of a recently-widowed single mother, coming to the realisation that her own mother is not well. The story is based on actress Lindsay Duncan and her mother’s battle with dementia (like Thompson, Duncan was another regular collaborator of Rickman‘s – she played the Marquise de Merteuil to his Valmont, on stage, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in 1985).
Set in Scotland, the film ends on a beautiful sweeping shot of the North Sea, frozen to ice, a metaphor for the slow encroachment of the disease.
As the curtain closed, it was announced that the director and lead players would take the stage to answer some questions from the audience. This was it: Alan Rickman IN THE FLESH, joined by both Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody actually wants to take part in a Q&A. No matter how lofty the personage – literary hero, academic deity, doyenne of the silver screen – or how tempted you are to seize the day and bridge the gap, the potential for looking like a complete twat is just too high. So we sat there, staring at the ceiling, the walls, our shoes, until the pressure got too much and the weaker souls cracked –
‘What day is it?’
‘Who am I?’
‘Do you like cheese?’
Then, from possibly the only male in the audience, a gentleman on the far side of the room, a question:
‘This is a question for Alan… Alan, don’t you think, in order for us to completely understand the interpersonal dynamics from a Jungian, intergalactic, theoretical, conjugal, Toblerone perspective,’ – yes, the finer points of his argument have escaped me… it was a really long time ago – ‘that we really need to see more of the relationship between Emma’s character and her (dead-caput-not-even-in-the-film-sheesh-what-does-it-take-to-make-a-man-pay-attention-to-a-woman-for-ninety-fucking-minutes) husband?’
A beat as everyone turned back to the stage. Rickman, in his silkiest tones, replied:
‘Well, obviously you do.’
There was a gasp around the auditorium, swiftly followed by five hundred women sliding off their seats. Then silence. A great, yawning chasm of silence. Rickman sat there, unperturbed, not to be bated, not to be budged. Mountains echoed, oceans rose, galaxies wheeled. We held our breath, thrilled to see a real-life Rickman take-down.
Dame Emma Thompson, T.H.B*
Emma Thompson – bless her – did the most fabulous double-take I have even seen, yo-yo-ing between Alan and the hapless male (who at that point had presumably begun to tunnel his way out of the cinema), and cast herself into the breach.
She explained her process of preparing for a character, creating a back-story – where she would work out things like what kind of relationship the character would have had with her husband – how that informed her playing the role and hopefully would permeate through to the performance on screen.
Now, in the late eighties / early nineties, as Thompson rose to fame, there was a lot of nonsense in the tabloids, a hate campaign really, targeting Emma, her then-husband Kenneth Branagh, and close friend of the couple, John Sessions, based on their all being la-de-dah, actor-y luvvies, dahling.
To call out an actor, particularly a stage actor, for having good diction and well-modulated vowels is akin to condemning a taxi driver for observing the rules of the road. It’s just what they do. So when she jumped in to save the gentleman from potential public mortification, I remember thinking, ‘I won’t hear a bad word about this woman ever again.’
What I saw that night was a Rickman who was nobody’s fool. Intelligent, droll, devastatingly dry. Thompson, kind and generous, a consummate professional and all-round good egg. Both, class acts.
*Top Human Being
Of course, in the years that followed, Alan Rickman became Severus Snape – the Is-He-Or-Isn’t-He bad guy of the Harry Potter series (I proudly own each and every one) – in a seven film arc that begins with his familiar curling sneer and ends in a confession of aching tenderness.
And that, to me, is his enduring appeal: his ability to move between two such disparate points on the emotional compass and make us fall in love him regardless.
The Winter Guest premiere, now almost twenty years ago, came back to me when I read Emma Thompson‘s tribute to her colleague and friend in Thursday’s Guardian:
“What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humour, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word. The intransigence which made him the great artist he was – his ineffable and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me, and the fact that he never spared me the view. I learned a lot from him. He was the finest of actors and directors.”
Yes. This. Always.
Alan Rickman (1946-2016)
Featured Image: ravepad.com