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Laurence Payne
Interview in The Scotsman

08/17/1998 Evening News (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Festival luvvies please exit stage left.. there's a man here has you beat.
by Isabel Oakeshott

It's a mecca for luvvies -and they have arrived in swarms.

Blowing air kisses and flouncing down the High Street with cigarettes held high in the air, they are in Edinburgh to "do" the Festival, darling.

But tucked away in the Borders, there's a silver-haired actor who prefers to keep the annual arts extravaganza at arm's length.

Laurence Payne has seen it all before.

In his heyday, he was in Ben Hur, worked alongside Roger Moore and Dirk Bogarde - and even played a baddie in Dr Who!

He married Laurence Olivier's cousin, lost an eye in a stage duel that went tragically wrong and has appeared in countless films and television dramas.

But although a list of his friends reads like a Who's Who of stage and screen, Laurence isn't one to flaunt his connections or his glamorous past.

He lives a quiet life in a tiny hamlet at the end of a single-track country road in Berwickshire.

And these days, the 79-year-old would rather listen to opera - or paint in his drawing room - than mingle with the beautiful people.

Laurence Payne's story is a classic rags to riches tale, which began on the wrong side of the tracks in London.

His mum, Emily, widowed when Larry was just four, eked out a living as a cleaner.

Bundled together in a pokey flat, the family faced a daily struggle to survive.

Larry himself showed no interest in education or the arts, until one day he went to a movie - and heard a line from Shakespeare.

"It was a Saturday morning, and my mother had sent me to the pictures to get me out of her hair," he recalls.

"I don't remember what the film was about, but there was an amazing speech from Macbeth in it.

"Why a Cockney boy should latch on to something like that I have no idea. But that was the turning point. Shakespeare became my God."

Sitting in his plush drawing room, a vast portrait of Hamlet towering above his armchair, Larry recalls how he rushed home after the film to look up the quotation and learn it.

It was the start of an extraordinary love affair with drama and the stage, which was to shape his whole career.

"I had a book of Shakespeare plays which I had never in my life looked at. The speech started 'Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow' and I went through the whole book trying to find it," he says, enunciating every vowel so beautifully he could be reading from a script.

"From that moment, all I wanted to do was start my own amateur theatre. I got all my buddies together, and told them I was putting on Macbeth. They didn't know what I was on about, but I managed to rope them all in!" he says.

The show was a resounding success.

Larry, himself, was now so sure of his vocation he packed in his job at a flour importers and went for an audition at the famous Old Vic Theatre.

He was immediately accepted as a student, and began to work alongside men such as Olivier.

"He was a huge influence on me. He was 20 years older and we were never close, but we became quite good buddies. I was such a fan of his, I had to stop myself from imitating him," he says.

In the years that followed, he played leading roles at Stratford in almost every Shakespeare play.

And film directors were soon clamouring to offer him parts.

Among his credits are Ill Met By Moonlight, a 1950s war adventure set in Crete; Train of Events, a Friday the 13th-style Ealing film; and Vampire Circus, a horror thriller set in a plague-ridden village in 1825. But his biggest ever movie was the epic Ben Hur - in which he played the part of Joseph. "That was a marvellous movie," he says, his fine old face crinkling into a smile.

"I loathed making films. So did Dirk Bogarde, who is an old friend of mine. We both found it terribly boring.

"But Ben Hur was different. William Wyler was a wonderful director and fantastic to work for.

"He came to London to cast, and a lot of us turned up for auditions. I went for the part of Joseph and had about four minutes in front of the camera. Willie told me later he gave me the part because of the way I smiled when I read my lines."

The film, starring Charlton Heston, was shot in Rome.

"That was where the famous chariot races were filmed as well. But I spent a lot of the time just exploring the city. It was a magnificent place to be," he says.

From big screen movies, it was an easy hop over to television.

His most famous parts were in The Saint, which starred Roger Moore, and the cult sci-fi series Dr Who - in the days before the Daleks.

"Dr Who was great fun. I like working for the BBC, and always have done," he says.

"I think they just phoned me up and asked me if I wanted the part.

"I was one of the villains in the second series with that strange elderly man as Dr Who.

"We did about ten weeks filming at a time, and then had a break. It kept me in work and I got on very well with the boy playing Dr Who's grandson.

"I wasn't in any of the ones with those robots in, thank God! I think I would have laughed!"

Strikingly handsome and extraordinarily talented, Larry, who has also published 11 crime novels, could easily have hit the big time in Hollywood.

But making films was never what inspired him.

His real love was always Shakespeare - and time and again, he was drawn back to the stage to act the great playwright's leading roles.

It was during rehearsals for a TV serialisation of Sexton Blake in 1968 that he was blinded in his left eye by a rapier.

"It was a disaster," he says. "I was practising the duel. We were in the middle of a really violent stage fight, when he gave me a wrong stroke, and his sword went straight in my eye. I was in hospital for four weeks. I was trained to duel at the Old Vic, and I absolutely adore it.

"I really go for it, like this and this and this," he says, brandishing imaginary stilettos in the air.

"The audience have to know it's a fight to the death, and they can sense the excitement.

"But you should never put a sword in the hands of someone who doesn't know what they are doing.

"It wasn't until later that we found out this guy had never held a sword in his life. He just wanted to get the part, poor bloke."

Although Larry was blinded, doctors were able to put his eye back so cleverly that it's almost impossible to tell.

He was later able to go back to acting as before, and appeared in several more plays and films, the last - I Am Who I Am - for ITV in 1980.

As he grew older, Larry Payne gradually broke his ties with the world of showbiz. He hasn't seen Dirk Bogarde for seven years - and his memories of his glamorous past have now grown hazy.

But while his health is now failing, and he prefers to watch movies on the TV rather than act in them, his love of Shakespeare has never faded.

With his third wife, Judith - whom he met at Stratford 25 years ago - at his side, he likes nothing better than to read aloud the old lines he once recited on stage... and particularly that Macbeth quotation which inspired him to act all those years ago.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Scotsman Publications Ltd.

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