Burgess Memories: C.C. Humphreys
I met Anthony in the French House in the Summer of 1983.
For those who don’t know it, the pub at 49 Dean Street in Soho is unlike any other. For years it still sported its original inn sign of the ‘York Minster’. But everyone called it by what it had been known as for years: The French House. (Or more often simply, ‘The French’). It’s fiercesome – and fiercesomely mustachioed – landlord was Gaston, a Belgian in fact, and son of the owner who’d bought it from a German in 1914. Gaston had been there when Charles de Gaulle reputedly had his unofficial Free French headquarters upstairs during World War Two. When you walked in, no familiar pub décor or paraphernalia greeted you. The walls were covered in black and white photos of French gymnasts, cyclists, boxers and, I think, circus performers, from between the wars. There was one tap, for rather insipid lager, which would only be sold by the half pint. Beside it was the far more important water dispenser, with Ricard in bright letters upon it. Pastis shared equal billing with wine in the establishment.
Its life as a bohemian hang out truly began in the 1950s, drawing the demi-monde of artists, writers, actors, photographers, poets and prostitutes. (Brendan Behan, Malcolm Lowry and many others wrote and drank there. Dylan Thomas, on a bender, may have lost the original manuscript of Under Milk Wood there.). It still drew a mixed and fascinating crowd when I began going in the late 70s. In a cloud of what I fancibly remember to be unfiltered Gitanes smoke, the new bohemians still mingled with the old.
1983. I was a young actor, five years in the business, and I’d recently had a big break: I’d been cast in one the leading roles in a huge Biblical-Roman epic, AD: Anno Domini, playing Caleb, a Jewish zealot who goes on to become Rome’s top gladiator. Though it was made for NBC in the US (and shown on the BBC in Britain) the production team was almost entirely Italian, headed by the producer Vincenzo Labella. He had made Jesus of Nazareth several years before – which Anthony Burgess had scripted. Vincenzo had then asked him to write AD.
We shot in Tunisia. I was back in London on a short break from filming. Walked into the French – and through the smoke saw Mr Burgess. I would never usually have approached such a celebratory though I was a big fan of his writing. But now I felt I had an excuse. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello, Mr. Burgess. My name is Cecil Humphreys. I am working on AD.
AB: Are you really? What role are you playing?
This was going to be my moment of triumph: I was playing the leading role he’d created.
AB: Don’t remember him. Never mind. What are you drinking? Come and tell me how much Vincenzo is changing my script. He always does!
Somewhat crestfallen, I went and sat with him and a lady, whose name escapes me. Burgess was wonderfully funny about the perils of filmmaking, the lowly position of the screenwriter, the rewriting of an Italian producer who sometimes wanted to give a series of historical/religious lessons often at the cost of the drama – which I had suffered from. Finally, he asked:
AB: Who did you say you were playing again?
Me: Caleb. (Then the light bulb) Oh, I think in your original script he may have been called Eleazar.
AB: Good god! You are Eleazar! My goodness! It’s the main role.
Me: Uh, yes.
AB: Have another glass of wine.
It was the only time I met him. But it was a wonderful night in a special place during which I felt connected, for a short time, to that extraordinary, now lost, Soho world of which Anthony was a member. Long afterwards I became a novelist myself. And though I am primarily a writer of historical fictions, I wonder if I absorbed some of his influence in my reading of him – along with the wine he bought me that night in the French.
C.C. Humphreys is an actor, playwright and novelist. As well as AD: Anno Domini, as an actor he has appeared in The Bill (1989-1990), Highlander: The Series (1996), The Core (2003), and Elysium (2013). As a novelist, he has published 13 books, including the Jack Absolute series, and The Runestone Saga of novels. He lives in Canada.