Hallo friends, well this time it’s all about me and here is part of an interview I did for Shock Cinema Magazine, a great magazine for movie goers!! The full interview is in their magazine. I am honoured to be in the same company as previous interviewees:
Malcolm McDowell, Shirley Knight, Nancy Allen, Stacy Keach, Bruce Davison, Isela Vega, Jon Finch, Michael Moriarty, Scott Wilson, as well as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, producer Philip D’Antoni, directors Ken Russell, Paul Morrissey, and Bob Clark (who helmed the classic A Christmas Story). Some of Anthony Petkovich’s interviews for Shock have included pieces on actors Nigel Davenport, Aubrey Morris, Barbara Bouchet, Judy Pace, Steve Railsback, plus a few others. This is courtesy of Shock Magazine and interviewer: Anthony Petkovich…thank you both!
SHOCK CINEMA #48,
Jane Merrow is probably best known the world-over for co-starring with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the very Shakespearean, 12th-century drama THE LION IN WINTER (1968), in which lady Jane memorably portrays Princess Alais, the comely, passionately devoted, much-younger mistress of Henry II (O’Toole), himself dealing with sundry power struggles both within and outside his family. Based on James Goldman’s Broadway play, THE LION IN WINTER is certainly one of the more superlative entries in that strangely popular mid-‘60s-to-early-‘70s genre of British epic Medieval movies — involving plenty of blood, sweat & tears profusely poured out amongst, frequently, real historical figures and/or royal families — of which BECKET, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, Polanski’s MACBETH, and MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS are just a few examples.
And THE LION IN WINTER is, indeed, a treat to watch, what with such screen legends as O’Toole and Hepburn working their thespian magic full bore, while going toe-to-toe with such exciting then-newcomers as Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton and, yes, the beautiful and talented Ms. Merrow.
But before and after THE LION IN WINTER, Merrow just as brilliantly shone in a host — in fact, a much-appreciated plethora! — of wildly entertaining, completely escapist films and TV programs. Aside from her two neat Hammer entries — the 1967 sci-fi hoot NIGHT OF THE BURNING HEAT and the Victorian slasher HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971) — Merrow, as just a few examples, also engagingly contended with spies, dictators and various other meanies and mindbenders alongside Patrick McGoohan in SECRET AGENT and THE PRISONER; mad scientists and Russian megalomaniacs in THE AVENGERS; drawing-room murderers and amiable spectres in RANDALL AND HOPKIRK, DECEASED; while even finding time to play a car-racing, exceedingly (va-va-vroom!) racy villainess in UFO.
And after heading across the Pond in the ‘70s, Merrow never stopped turning out enjoyable fare in the U.S., prolifically but no less skillfully appearing in everything from to LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE; POLICE WOMAN to THE INCREDIBLE HULK; CANNON to THE SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN; and even starring in the ultra-campy William Shatner ghost-in-the-machine vehicle HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973).
Two thumbs up, Jane!
A war baby born in Herfordshire, England, to German father and British mother, Merrow expressed an early interest in acting as a child and, sticking to her dreams, eventually attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), her first big film role being the 1964 British-youth drama, THE SYSTEM [a.k.a. The Girl-Getters]. An impressive early effort from director Michael Winner, the absorbing black & white low-budgeter concerns a small group of roguish male Brits seducing gullible young female summer vacationers at a seaside British resort, with underlying (but far-from-covert) themes of social-class disparity and man’s predatory nature. Better still, a just-starting-out Oliver Reed is the male lead, excellently playing the leader of this pack of libido-raging rapscallions, with his artful, at times brutish, yet similarly vulnerable character Tinker sparing beautifully with Merrow’s own character Nicola, a cultured, worldly “bird” with an upper-crust background who challenges Tinker’s part-hip/part-old-fashioned/part-hyper-masculine views of the fairer sex.
Actually, it was Jane’s charismatic performance in THE SYSTEM as the fetching, far-from-naïve Nicola which initially made me want to interview her. Hard to believe that it’s been half a century (wow!) since she co-starred in that terribly underrated film.
Yet many performances later, the similarly underrated actress is still quite active. These days, if not appearing in the odd Shakespeare stage production, Merrow — spending half her time in the US and the remainder in Old Blighty — is making her own films, i.e., adapting, producing and occasionally starring in excellent horror/fantasy vignettes based on classic short stories, including Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” all of which you can catch at NewChillingTales.newchillingtales.com/ (an off-shoot of her main site, you guessed it, JaneMerrow.com).
When I spoke to her this past winter, the friendly, upbeat, 70-something actress was extraordinarily receptive about discussing her life and career, including plenty of marvelous anecdotes about THE LION IN WINTER, THE SYSTEM and, of course, her outstanding list of fun UK/US movies and TV programs… plus the reason why she moved to, of all curious locales, The Gem (and Potato!) State of Idaho…
SHOCK CINEMA: First off, Jane, let’s discuss some Merrow performances on ’60 and ‘70s British programs. For example, what about working on RANDALL AND HOPKIRK, DECEASED [a.k.a., My Partner The Ghost]?
Jane Merrow: I remember Mike Pratt was a very nice man. He was lovely and… Oh gosh, the actor who played Marty — I can’t think of his name — but I did a hilarious film with him called THE NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT, which was where I have to seduce him. [laughs] It was one of my Hammer films, and what a laugh it was. First of all, it was directed by Terence Fisher, who was the great Hammer director. A fantastic director. And then we had Christopher in it. Christopher… [imitating Christopher Lee with austere, characteristically deep voice], “Do you play golf?” And I didn’t play golf at the time. [laughs] And the sweet Peter Cushing, who was a wonderful man — I mean, he really was.
SC: And Patrick Allen.
Merrow: Right! Patrick Allen. I think Patrick’s no longer with us, either. But [in NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT] I played this saucy seductress — I simply love playing parts like that — and we’re all supposed to be dying of the heat because the planet is being burned up by some strange monsters that turned up. But we were actually filming in the middle of winter, and we were frrrrreeeeezing our butts off, covered in glycerin to look like sweat. And I had this seduction scene with the actor who played Marty in MY PARTNER THE GHOST.
SC: Kenneth Cope.
Merrow: Kenneth Cope. That’s right. [laughs] So one can’t take oneself too seriously in this business. You’ve got to have fun.
SC: What about growing up in England? Tell us about that period in your life.
Merrow: Well, I was born in Hertfordshire during [WWII], and my mother was evacuated there because you didn’t have babies during the war in the middle of London if you could avoid it. But I was brought up in southeast London, in a place called Crystal Palace… The only other actor I ever knew who came from there was Roddy McDowall.
And I basically grew up in what I’d call gentile poverty, because we were quite poor. [My parents met at the] same art school in England. Mother was an artist, and dad was studying art and painting as a hobby. They never really lived together. It was one of those wartime things that probably should never have happened. They were separated, then divorced, so basically it was a single mom who raised me. Dad was around — because he made a point of being around — but the three of us didn’t live together. I lived in a tiny Victorian-type cold water flat in Crystal Palace with my mother, grandmother, and uncle… and we were all crowded together in this tiny little apartment.
SC: And from where did your interest in acting come?
Merrow: My maternal grandfather and uncle were in the theatre. Grandfather was actually the stage designer and buyer for a famous theatre in London called The St. Martin’s, and uncle was an actor and stage manager. My maternal grandmother was also in the theatre. So they were real theatrical people. My mother had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but her father had talked her out of it because it was just too hard a life. So she turned to art.
Anyhow, at the age of eight I suddenly said, “Well, that’s it — I want to be an actress!” And [my family] all had a fit. “Oh my God, this is a terrible idea,” they said. “It’s a heart-breaking profession. You can’t do it.” But I stuck with it, and eventually when I went to boarding school, I was greatly encouraged by a teacher there who was married to the headmistress, and we did a lot of Shakespeare. Consequently, I entered all sorts of competitions and won them, and I thought I was the bee’s knees — you know, the greatest thing since sliced bread.
SC: Tell us about your experiences at RADA.
Merrow: Initially, I got an audition at RADA, for which you had to do a Shakespeare piece and your choice of something else. And, with great aplomb, I did Cleopatra’s death scene [from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”], which, when I think back, I don’t know how I had the nerve to do it — but I did. [laughs] I told you I thought I was really something.
And while at RADA for two years, I worked with some actors who became rather well known in England. Tom Courtenay was one of them, and another actor called John Thaw, who went on to become Inspector Morse. And even though I grew up poor, there were other people at RADA who grew up much poorer and came from a rougher background — and that was Tom and John, and they used to frighten the life out of me [laughs] because they’d been around. It was in my own head to a large extent, but they were so glamorous to me — knowing about street life and all of that stuff — that I thought I was rather boring compared to them.
And at the same time I also joined something called The National Youth Theatre [of Great Britain], where, a little while after me, Helen Mirren started. It was a fantastic organization created by this wonderful man [Michael Croft] who wanted to give kids something to do in the summer holidays, the ones who didn’t have enough money to go away on vacation. So he’d put on a Shakespeare play, which he’d rehearse for a couple of weeks, then he’d put on the play in a London theatre — and that became The National Youth Theatre.
Then I went off and started work almost immediately. I was really quite lucky in that I got spotted by an agent at one of these plays which we did at the end of the semester as a showcase.
SC: We have to, of course, talk about THE SYSTEM, [a.k.a. The Girl-Getters].
Merrow: Fabulous movie. I just wish they’d stuck to the real title, which was THE SYSTEM. Michael [Winner], however, was a nightmare. A dreadful man. He wasn’t really a dreadful man… but he was! [laughs] An awful show-off, who didn’t really quite know what he was doing. Actually, Michael was very lucky to have for his dp [director of photography] a man who became a superb director called Nicolas Roeg. And if Michael hadn’t of had him, the film really have been a disaster.
And, of course, we had Oliver [Reed] in it, who’d done a lot of Hammer horror films, and THE SYSTEM was his first big straight role. Oliver really was a good actor, and he and I had this big love affair in the film. There were also all of the other young lads in it, and THE SYSTEM is where I met David Hemmings, with whom I ended up living for about four years after that.
SC: Just around the time that Hemmings did BLOW-UP.
Merrow: Yes, he did BLOW-UP while we were together. He eventually wanted to get married, but I said, “No. You’re always going to go off after other women, and you drink too much, so what’s the point of getting married [laughs] if we’re obviously only going to eventually get divorced?” But we had a fun time together.
SC: So what was it like working with Oliver Reed on THE SYSTEM?
Merrow: He was very attractive — and another one who drank too much. Very gifted actor, but there was a slightly cruel streak in him, and it was a bit off-putting. Oliver was actually quite good with me in THE SYSTEM, until he had to hit me around the face in a scene one day. Michael said, “Do it for real!” and Oliver hit me so hard, it nearly knocked me out. [laughs] A real hit. I mean, if you did that sort of thing today, I would’ve probably sued them both. But anyway…
SC: So was THE SYSTEM somewhat controversial when it came out?
Merrow: A bit, because there was this nude scene in it which I did with Oliver and, of course, the press made a great song and dance about that. In those days, we actresses said, “Oh, we don’t do nude scenes.” But I didn’t mind. I mean [laughs], it was part of the film, it was part of the character, it worked, so it didn’t bother me. It was just Oliver and I dancing around in the sea, and we didn’t have any clothes on.
SC: Let’s discuss the amazing LION IN WINTER. How did you land an incredible role like that? — right alongside both Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.
Merrow: I was doing a film [1968’s ASSIGNMENT K] with Stephen Boyd, and the director Val Guest said to me, “Jane, they’re doing this film with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, and there must be something in it for you.” I said, “God — are you sure you mean Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, not Audrey Hepburn?” And he said, “No, no. It’s definitely Katharine Hepburn.” ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘maybe I can get a lady-in-waiting part or something like that.’
Peter [O’Toole], however, had heard about a play that I was doing at the time at the Hamstead Theatre Club, for which I received very good notices. It was, in fact, one of the best things I ever did: a small play called “Country Dance” written by an outstanding writer called James Kennaway, who wrote a film called THE TUNES OF GLORY starring John Mills and Alec Guinness. Fantastic film. Well, he wrote this play for his cousin, who was Susannah York, but she couldn’t do it at the time, so I did it, with Edward Fox, and got really good reviews. And I think Peter had heard about it. So it was that play, as well as the William-Morris Agency which got me this film test for THE LION IN WINTER.
Peter, you see, was originally going to do a film with [American film producer] Joe Levine, but the script wasn’t right or something, so he still had this slot with Levine, and somebody brought him this script for THE LION AND WINTER, and he took it to Levine and said, “I really want to do this,” and Levine said, “Okay, if you can get Katharine Hepburn, we’ll do it.”
So Peter flew all the way out to LA and spoke with Katharine. “I’ll only do it,” she said, “if you personally supervise the casting of all of the other characters” — “the boys and girl” as we were called, because we were playing a family, and we all had to be right and fit in with each other.
So Peter told Katharine, “Alright,” and he tested every single actor for that film, not just my part but all of the other ones. There were, of course, four young men in it, as you remember: three brothers [played by Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry] and the King of France [Timothy Dalton]. And, as I say, Peter himself tested every actor in the movie. And practically every actor in London wanted to be in this film, as you can imagine — and all of the women, as well. I did two tests for it because the first one wasn’t very good, since we did it on a windy day in the park, so I did a second test and then got it.
Then Katharine came over from LA, and we all met, got along, turned up for our first day of rehearsal, and rehearsed for two weeks, just on our own as actors at [Haymarket Theatre] in London so we could get to know each other. Well, Katharine turned up knowing not only her own lines but everybody else’s, and none of us knew our lines. So we all went home [laughs] that night and made sure we learnt our lines for the entire film. And I’ve always done that ever since. But she was amazing. So we rehearsed at this London theatre for two weeks, then went to Ireland to shoot the film.
SC: Moving forward a bit now, what prompted you to come to America, and how did you wind up in Idaho?
Merrow: I was doing a film in Australia with Beau Bridges called ADAM’S WOMAN (1970). Not a bad film — a bit Disney-esque, but it’s okay. [laughs] And I met my American husband on that film. He was flying the airplane that transported us to the faraway locations for the film. He lived in LA, so we came back and got married in America.
And when the marriage eventually broke up in the ‘90s, he took our son with him to Idaho… Then I stayed in California and sort of ran back and forth between there and England. Eventually we got divorced, and I started to spend more time in Idaho, and my son basically said, “Well, can’t you move here and help out with the grandchildren?” So I bought a little house here — and that’s why I’m in Idaho.
Can I talk about my own films now? The ones that I’m making?
SC: Please do.
Merrow: Thanks. [laughs] In England a couple of years ago, I suddenly thought, ‘I’m not getting any work here, and I’ve been away for a while and people have forgotten. Okay, to heck with it — I’m just going to do my own stuff.’ So I decided to [shoot] classic gothic horror stories because I knew that: a) the rights were available, because they were out of copyright, and b) they were great stories, so I didn’t have to worry about having bad scripts, because you just took everything straight from the story. So I did one. And now I’ve done four of them. I acted in two, and specifically produced and wrote the other two. Well, I shouldn’t say I wrote them… I adapted them from the original stories. And we’ve done “The Monkey’s Paw,” which is the first one, then “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a powerful Edgar Allan Poe story. Then I did one called “The Yellow Wallpaper” [by Charlotte Perkins Gilman], which is a real woman’s lib tale from Victorian times. The story concerns this woman who’s been confined to a room, and she starts to obsess with the room’s wallpaper, seeing things in it, and slowly goes mad. A brilliant story.
And the last one we did was by a wonderful American writer called Ambrose Bierce. I would liked to have done his “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, but it would have been very expensive, since it has a lot of underwater sequences. So we did another Bierce story called “The Damned Thing” about a reclusive writer, which is probably Bierce himself, who’s suddenly stalked by something that he can hear — but can’t see. And he decides in his wisdom that the reason why he can’t see the creature is because, as there are sounds which we can’t hear because they’re outside of the human spectrum of hearing, so then there must also be images that are outside our spectrum of light, and this thing must be outside of that spectrum. The imagination of this man… These writers were so visionary.
I also especially liked “The Damned Thing” because we were able to use a lot of the Idaho outdoors, and the creature looks great in it, because you do eventually see it. It’s CGI [computer-generated imagery], and one of the fortunate things about being in Idaho is that I hooked up with a young bunch of guys here who have a CGI company, and they really created a memorable creature for “The Damned Thing.”
But my overall thinking was that, since horror has always been a popular genre, and as these are classic stories, they’re perfect to have on apps. People are going home on the subway, and they’re standing on the crowded underground with their arms strapped against their side because they can’t get a book up to their face… [laughs] And instead of reading a book, maybe they can get an iPhone up to their face and watch a 15-minute film. So that was some of my reasoning behind it.
Okay, I’ve done my pitch. Now you can talk about whatever you like. [laughs]
Special thanks to Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee Video (ebsmvideo.com).