Sussex Life - March 2004

The Man From UNCLE

Gil Saunders recalls an acting talent honed in colonial West Africa

The Lisbon hardly merited the name of 'hotel." It was a long, low wooden building on the fringe of the airport apron in Accra, capital of the Gold Coast -- shortly to be renamed Ghana. New arrivals, having a first sight of West Africa as their Argonaut taxied to a halt, probably thought it was something left over from the war. A temporary barracks, perhaps, now converted to its new role and offering pretty basic accommodation for twenty or so guests.

The users of the Lisbon were nearly all expats, working for the government or one of the Syrian or French businesses or stationed here in the Army. All were birds of passage, serving a year or two at a time before going home on leave and returning to face the rigours of another tour. This was the coast that be been known as the White Man's Grave; Somerset Maugham territory.

Very few of the Lisbon's patrons were there for the accommodation. They had come to crowd round the bar or to have a meal or to dance. There was no band, only a pianist who played by ear, badly. His star turn was Tico Tico, played inaccurately and very fast. The right hand picked out a shaky approximation of the tune, while the other few up and down anywhere. Agony to listen to, but the couples on the floor gigged around energetically, enjoying themselves. On Saturday nights, the place was packed. For those seeking relief from the noise and hub-bub, there was a wide patio outside in the open air where you could sit and order your drinks from white-robed attendants. This is where I found myself one evening sharing a table with a slightly built young man. He was in tropical Army uniform bearing the single pips of a Second-Lieutenant. Pam and the boys had gone ahead to England and I was to follow them soon. I was glad to have someone to talk to.

We exchanged backgrounds. He wa doing his national service and could hardly wait to get back to his first love, which was acting. He'd been lucky enough to be taken on by a company was hoping they'd re-employ him when he went back.

I was with the government information services, writing, editing, broadcasting... at which my companion brightened visibly. Didn't I do a programme called Records I Like? Indeed I did, a half-hour of chat and '78s, the Andrew Sisters, Glen Miller and all that. The Africans hated it, the Europeans -- including my new acquaintance apparently -- enjoyed it.

Modest and understated though he was, it didn't take David McCallum long to make his mark in our little colony. He joined that standard institution in the rapidly vanishing bits of the old Empire, the amateur dramatic society. His arrival caused something of a flutter among the ladies, and it was a real coup to have a professional in the company. This was wonderfully illustrated in his very first production. I was not in the audience when it happened but I heard the story several times from the cast.

The play was a mystery thriller and a key scene required the actors to listen to a radio commentary on a horse race, the outcome of which was vital to the plot. A recording had been made of the 'commentary' that was played when someone pretended to switch on a radio.

At one performance the recording failed to operate. (Such moments were known as a WASA -- West Africa Strikes Again.) The stage at once became a tableau of silent and immobile actors. The audience wondered what was going on, or what was not going on.

Then David McCallum moved over to the radio, picked it up and shook it while he said something like "Oh, this damn thing is always playing up. Well, it doesn't really matter because I'm absolutely certain it's going to be Fancy Feet at twenty to one..." And he went rattling on until someone caught his cue and took up the dialogue. It was a shaky moment, but the night was saved.

Fast forward now some eight or nine years to Harrow in Middlesex. I'd been to see a film that Pam hadn't want to see, A Night To Remember, the story of the Titanic. "Guess who I saw tonight," I said, "David McCallum. He played the radio operator. Must be doing all right." After this we saw him from time to time, in wartime roles among others, fighting the Japanese (The Long and The Short and The Tall), outwitting German guards (The Great Escape), performing deeds of derring-do in the RAF (Mosquito Squadron).

Directors liked him because he could always turn in a reliable performance, but the big roles proved elusive -- until he was tested for a new American television series. The Man from UNCLE started out as a spoof of James Bond: espionage on a global scale, the future of continents at stake, miracles of weaponry and gadgets of unbelievable sophistication.

The experienced American actor Robert Vaughn had the lead and they needed his sidekick as a counterpoint, as different as possible in appearance and speech. The result was Illya Kuryakin, fair-haired, lithe and as Russian as the Kremlin, with accent to match.

The series proved a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It ran for more than three years and eight of the stories were made into feature films for cinema release. It was tremendous exposure and marked the high point of McCallum's career.

Having shared something of the colonial life with him before any of this began, we followed his fortunes with interest. I watched for a chance to meet him again and it came when The Lion In Winter was due to arrive at the Festival Theater in Chichester, with David McCallum in Peter O'Toole's film role as Henry the Second. I wrote at once, recalling the old days and suggesting an hour's chat, from which would come a profile piece about him.

The play came and the play went, with no word from the leading man. then, on the final weekend, a message was left on the answerphone. "Yes, Gil, great to hear from you, sorry I haven't replied, been busy-busy. I'm due to play in Poole later on, can we talk then?"

The man was struggling to say thanks, but no thanks. Whatever his memories of his days in the Army and amateur dramatics in tropical Africa and Saturday nights when the old Lisbon was heaving, David McCallum had no wish to re-live them.