SIMPLE SECRETS OF JOAN'S ELIXIR
Screen legend Joan Collins is coming to the Theatre Royal, Norwich next month. She took time out to tell David Henshafl about her life and loves, and the importance of a regular afternoon nap.
SHE may be an icon, a marvel of telly and films who at 70 looks the epitome of a movie star years younger than her age. But it is a matter of some comfort to the rest of us that, legend or not, she needs a nap every afternoon.
The paparazzi may be hammering at the door for a new glamour shot and producers boiling with anxiety on the blower with a new offer but, come what may, at five pm each day Joan Collins takes a snooze. This is part of her regime for coping with the rigours
of her latest challenge, a 15-week theatre tour of Britain in a little-known, revamped 1950s play, Full Circle. It is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, on Monday, June 7, for a week.
Collins has developed a love-hate relationship with the press over the years, passionately disliking the cameras that are just dying to record some wrinkle or age-defining bulge and yet she is always good with reporters — who, for the most part, are as fascinated as the public by this woman who, even if she hasn’t found the elixir of eternal youth, somehow never seems to climb far out of middle age.
At the press conference for Full Circle, we try to pry out the secrets of her stay-young success but, almost invariably she sidetracks the issue by referring us to one of her several publications on beauty and fitness. She does tell us that she works out two or three times a week, drinks a glass or two of wine and is very disciplined about eating — a throwback to her mother who really insisted that she eat up her carrots and broccoli. “I also look after my skin — see my latest book Joan’ Way.” That, she says, firmly winding up the matter, will answer all your questions, adding: “I’m looking good and feeling great.”
And, to be fair, she does look good, years under what it says on her birth certificate. She is dressed in a figure-hugging red leather suit, smart shoes, expensive tights and she talks and smiles easily. She dodges round some of the questions about the men in her life — she’s been wed five times and had several long-lasting relationships, like her 13 years with Robin Hurlestone and her time with a then favourite of the gossip columns, ‘Bungalow’ Bill Wiggins. But she talks happily about the recipe for a successful marriage and about men in general.
Joan Collins was evacuated from London as a little girl at the outbreak of the second world war and started acting at 16. Her father, theatrical agent Joe Collins, told her to make the most of it because her career might well be over by 25. What he based this analysis on we don’t know, but 54 years later she is still proving him wrong in a big way.
Laurence Oliver’s wife Vivien Leigh was one of her idols in those days and she had dreams of following in her footsteps. She never quite made it into the top echelon of the theatre establishment but few would dispute her achievements in show business, television in particular.
She is especially remembered as the super-dressed super-bitch Alexis Carrington Colby in Dynasty and in her time has appeared with many top stars: Richard Burton, Bob Hope, James Mason, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, John Gielgud, Nigel Hawthorn and many others. More recently she has braved the critics, of whom she is not too fond, and returned to her theatrical roots. She got good notices in Noel Coward’s Private Lives in London and New York and crossed America with Stacey Keach in Love Letters. Among her films is the blockbuster Land of the Pharoahs, Road to Hong Kong, Decadence and In the Bleak Midwinter.
She is touring Full Circle because it is the play she has been looking for for a long time. “When I heard that it had once been done by Tallulah Bankhead, I read it and thought it great fun. It may be a bit old-fashioned because it takes place in Paris in the Fifties but I think it is something people will enjoy. And I am playing a best-selling author, just like me.” There is some laughter and she adds sharply, “Well, I am.” She has published ten books: several novels, two volumes of autobiography and three beauty books, one or two of which have, indeed, reached the bestseller lists.
Full Circle is a romantic comedy by Alan Melville, adapted from the French play, Les Enfants d’Edouarde by Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon and Frederick Jackson. Melville wrote it for Yvonne Arnaud (who gave her name to the theatre at Guildford). It tells the story of novelist Denise Darvel who unexpectedly confesses to her three grown-up children that the handsome man in the portrait over the fireplace is not, after all, their father. In fact, they all have different dads and, because two of her off-spring want to get married, the amusing hunt is on for substitute fathers.
Thankfully, says Collins, there is no nudity and “the only shocking thing about the play is that, in the Fifties, if you’d got children you’d better have a husband or you were a fallen woman. Denise Darvel, successful and famous, would have been ruined if it came out she had children by different fathers — something that would have been unthinkable in an English household and an English play at the time, but okay if it was French!”
Sitting beside her, the play’s director, Patrick Garland, who has dusted the cobwebs off the piece and done another rewrite, interposes quickly: “But she’s also a very romantic woman.” And Collins comes back just as quickly: “With three illegitimate children, I’ll say — but she was in love with all the fathers.”
She sees Full Circle as perfect for her and is struck by some of the similarities between herself and the part she is playing. “As well as being a novelist, she has three children and so do I — but she’s never been married whereas I have. I’ve always loved comedy and I consider myself a comedienne.
However, although it is set in Paris we are not going to do this with accents. Yvonne Arnaud, in those days the archetypal Frenchwoman, used a pronounced acceent while the rest of the cast spoke pefect English - and nobody thought it in the least odd.
“I love comedy and was lucky enough to work with Leonard Rossiter in a series of Cinzano commercials - in which I was the main prop! - and it was difficult not to laugh because he was so brilliantly funny" She quotes the 19th century actor Edmund Kean who was allegedly asked on his deathbed what dying was like. "He said dying was easy, comedy was difficult - and it's true. Comedy is much more difficult than drama and you get something back from the audience. With drama you don't know whether they are enjoying it or asleep.
"The stage is more daunting because you have to keep it fresh, whereas with films or television you can have ten takes, or whatever. I did not set out to be a film actress. I came into this business to be a stage actress. I went to RADA and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Pamela Brown and Vivien Leigh and end up like Flora Robson. I'm not quite Flora Robson yet," she adds, amid laughter. “I don’t want to go out for weeks doing Medea, tearing my hair out and being shattered every night. I want people to see the play and go away feeling it was fun.” The critics, she says, are like the perils and Pauline. “If you don’t take too much notice of the good things, you don’t worry too much about the bad ones. You give the play your best shot and if the critics don’t like it, it’s just too bad. Critics prefer heavy; serious theatre and don’t like fun, frothy things. When you are touring you meet the real people. In London you don’t. You just meet 30 critics who will make a judgement on whether you run, walk or stumble. It’s lovely touring because you don’t have to worry about all that.”
Collins is also very happy to be touring because “I’m a gypsy at heart” and she likes seeing new places, with Norwich high on her list of attractive cities to be explored — “I don’t need to go shopping, I've done enough of that”— but she is worried that all the traveling and hotel changing may wear her out a bit. So, without fail she has an afternoon nap, which starts at five o’clock and gears her up for the evening performance.
She finds time every day to answer her mail — she gives a lot of time to National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and to breast cancer charities and she gets a lot of letters from fans and from young people “who simply want to be famous, but don’t want to know about the hard work that goes into building a show business career.”
Is she a demanding diva, one who requires a freshly-painted dressing room and lots of special treatment? “I request nothing and I certainly don’t ask to have my dressing rooms redecorated — I’m not Beyonce! But I do make it very homey with pictures of my family, candles, plants, cushions — and my make-up which takes up an entire table,” she adds with a grin, stretching her arms wide to indicate a lot of space.
One thing is certain, she will not be lonely because her fifth husband, Percy Gibson, 38, is with her. He is the company manager — “and very good he is too. It’s the third time Percy and I have worked together and we get along brilliantly.” It seems a good time to ask what she now feels is the best basis for a lasting marriage.
“I think the secret is being each other’s best friend, sharing everything, being on the same wavelength — and being kind. Percy and I started off as best friends and I think that’s very important.”
Steve Martin and John Cleese are among her favourite comedians but, with the exception of Harrison Ford, she is less forthcoming on the type of man she finds attractive. “I certainly don’t like the sort of man who falls in love with an animal,” she laughs, in a swipe at Jonathan Pryce’s West End theatrical success, The Goat.
Joan Collins married first film actor Maxwell Reed in 1952. Anthony Newley was next in 1963, followed by Ronald S Kass (1972) and Peter Hoim (1985). Her children are Tara Newley (1963), Alexander Newley (1965) and Katy Kass (1972). She becamed a grandmother in 1998 but doesn’t want to be called grandma.
Her famous male involvements include Warren Beatty, to whom she became engaged, Dennis Hopper, Sydney Chaplin and Ryan O’Neal. She reputedly turned down affairs with
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Robert F Kennedy. Asked what life has taught her about men, she laughs:
“Have you got a couple of hours? Some are wonderful, some are horrible. Men are physically stronger, that’s all I’ll give them. Women these days are just as bright and intelligent and do just as many things as men.”
This is the woman who said a few years ago that the secret of having a private life was not answering too many questions about it. “I’m someone who enjoys the benefits of money. I created a lifestyle for myself, nobody else did it for me. Everything I have I’ve bought with my own money.” She says she has never been depressed or needed things like Prozac or used other drugs.
Made an OBE in 1997, Joan Collins pauses and ponders when asked what in her long career has pleased her most.
“Probably the mini-series I produced and starred in called Sins which took the ratings in America. And I am delighted to be able to do this play. But really I think I am most proud of being a survivor in a very tough business.”
She has no thoughts of retiring, although she doesn’t look ahead further than a year or two in terms of work. But what will she do when that finally stops?
“I will go on till it does.” •