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Kathleen Byron at the NFT

From: Steve Crook

Nicky wrote:
> Just back from seeing Black Narcissus at the National Film Theatre
> plus an interview with Kathleen Byron who doesn't look a bit like
> Sister Ruth :-)

When you get closer the fire in the eyes is still there :)

> Steve and Natacha will have more details as they really was hobnobbing
> with the stars and went to Kathleen's party after the show but Richard,
> Alan and I were awestruck enough at Columba's partner Susan rushing up
> to Steve and hugging him and then saying Hi to Columba !

Well I told you that after I went to see them they're such lovely people we felt like old friends.

Alan wrote:
> Awestruck is probably the right word. I'm not normally the type to get
> enthusiastic about "celebrities", but sitting in the NFT watching BN
> with Columba, Susan, and Kathleen's daughter a couple of rows in front
> of me was one of those times where you just have to pinch yourself.
> Kathleen was a bit nervous (wouldn't you be with a few hundred fans
> sat in the audience hanging on every word you were saying?), but on
> fine form - loved the story about the cat in SBR (no doubt Steve will
> give a full recap, so I won't steal his thunder.

That was great wasn't it.

We'd often wondered about the white cat (Snowball) that we see in Sammy's rooms in SBR. Who's cat was he meant to be? The fact that he had a food bowl in Sammy's room doesn't mean that he was definitely Sammy's. I know that at least 3 of my neighbours have bowls they use to feed my cats when they go a-visiting.

Could the cat be any sort of clue as to the relationship between Sammy & Susan?

So anyway, one of the stories Kathleen told was that it was HER cat (in real life).

Someone had said that they wanted a cat in the film & Kathleen had said that she had one that could do it. So the studio said they'd send a car for the cat !! No wonder they ran out of money :)

But just before the car was due to arrive Kathleen couldn't find the cat anywhere. It had run out the back and into some garages and got all mucky !!

So when they arrived at the studio, while Kathleen was being made up, they gave the cat a complete wash & grooming session. Kathleen said she hardly recognised him when she arrived on set. They'd made him even whiter by adding talcum powder to his fur - he spent most of the film trying to lick it off !!

> It was great to meet Nicky, Richard, Steve, and (briefly) Natacha
> and to not realise I was meeting Susan and Columba until it was
> too late (despite knowing them from the pictures!)

Well I introduced them "around the table" when they turned up :)
But yes, there was so much going on by then and it was your first visit to the NFT Alan (although I saw Nicky & Richard there again today, Sunday, and Nicky tells me you bought a lot more tickets while you were there <G>)

It was lovely to have such a crowd of us there.

The full roll call was ...
Nicky, Richard & myself (NFT regulars).
We'd been sitting there for a little while when Natacha turned up. Richard & I were both at the Oxford screening of TRS that Natacha organised last year (although I don't think Richard met her then) but I recognised her and we were all chatting and swapping videos like mad when Nicky spotted someone wandering outside who she thought matched Alan's description. I went out & it was him so now there were 5 of us.

Shortly after that I was attacked from behind by a lady so even before I turned around I knew that it was Susan & Columba. Lots of hugs & kisses later and an introduction to Kathleen's daughter & we all went in to see the film.

I'd got the tickets for 4 of us (me, Nicky, Richard & Alan) so we were all together. Columba, Susan et al were two rows in front & Natacha was a couple of rows back & to the left.

> BN went down very well with the audience - quite a bit of laughter
> (more to do with the period dialogue than anything else).

They also laughed at all the "gags" like Esmond saying how he was going to feed them on sausages - "Do you see that crate? Sausages! They will eat sausages. Europeans eat sausages wherever they go." and Sabu wanting to be taught physics by "The physical sister".

May Hallatt as Angu Ayah always raises a laugh or two, especially when she mocks the nuns calling for the missing Sister Ruth.

> I personally spent the first couple of minutes giggling trying to
> convince myselfthat the Mother Superior wasn't the Emperor in Star
> Wars - it was the headgear, the weathered face, the voice, and the
> dialogue that did it
> ("Our plans at Mopu are in place" - pure Darth Vader)

Great - I'd never thought of that connection before. But you're right :)

> It was stunning on the big screen - Clodagh's flashback to her Irish
> idyll was more emotive than normal, and that dissolve back to the
> chapel is just totally awesome.

It's perfect isn't it - even when you know it's coming.

> The print was very good, and although the shadows were darker than
> I remember on TV this added to the menace of the final scenes. What
> I hadn't noticed before is the UFA influence - the shots of peasants
> working in the fields are pure Reifenstahl,

And such a wide ethnic mix for a small Himalayan valley :)

> and some of the shots of Sister Ruth in the end sequence reminded me
> of Nosferatu.

Especially when she walks out of the doors towards Sister Clodagh. It's partly the makeup but a LOT due to the lighting (thanks Jack) that she has that skull like appearance.

> And David Farrar did a very good job of burning a hole in the screen
> (and Kathleen did like his shorts!) If they'd started making Bond
> movies earlier he would have made an excellent Bond.

Ah, there are so many "if only" things we could say about Mr Farrar's career - especially in the later years.

BTW Did anyone else record him as Xerxes, leader of the Persians in 300 Spartans that was on ITV while we were watching BN? I did but I haven't watched it yet.

After the film we all rushed out to the loo & to grab a quick cuppa before going back in for the questions.

Ian Christie chatted to Kathleen and they showed her in extracts from AMOLAD, SBR & Prelude to Fame (which they'd shown earlier this month).

He was mainly asking her about how she got started and direct reaction to the clips we'd just seen.

One thing she mentioned about SBR (apart from Snowball) was that she was never really happy because they were all wearing Dior's "New Look" gowns and it was meant to be set at the height of wartime austerity. Similarly (Nicky pointed out today) how come it was so easy to get a drink at Nucksie's pub when in the rest of the country there was a 2 beer limit (remember Bob Trubshaw in AMOLAD telling Marius about "whisky being hard to come by")

They'd already mentioned (in the program notes that the NFT always provides) that Kathleen hadn't studied any aspects of madness - remember that this was long before "The Method", when actors just acted !! :)

Then Ian asked for questions. I looked around but nobody else seemed to want to start so I dove in (as I often do) I introduced myself and then asked that great question from Tracey about BN being one of the few (if only) films to ever show the private competition between women behind closed doors and had she & Deborah discussed this at all before filming.

Sadly the answer was "No, not really". Kathleen said that as she had so much less experience (especially of films) than Deborah she let her take the lead in a lot of their scenes together. Later, someone asked if Kathleen had done any research on what it was like being a member of a religious order but that got a similar answer - no special research.

It was made a bit harder because we (the audience) didn't have microphones, it's quite a big theatre and Kathleen's getting a bit hard of hearing. But Ian "passed on" the questions as best he could.

That opened things up and there were lots more questions. Some about how she'd done various performances and what memories she had of them. Often the answer was just like Larry Olivier (reputedly) said to Dustin Hoffman when Dustin was going through all sorts of agonies to prepare for his role in Marathon Man. Apparently Larry watched all this and then said "Try acting, dear boy. It's so much simpler" :)

Often Katherine's answer was that she just "went out there and did it" . As for particular memories - well it was a long time ago :)

She did relate how Spielberg would take them through all sorts of variations in the script during rehearsals for Saving Private Ryan (Powell was renowned for not liking too many takes) which she found "interesting". And yes it WAS because of his liking for P&P films that Spielberg cast her - well, that and that she was good in the screen test & did a reasonable accent :)

Someone asked her about the Horror films she was in such as Twins of Evil (1971) and she said one of the hardest things that they all found was to try not to laugh :)

Someone asked about the scene just after the "red out" in BN when Dean puts Ruth's coat over her shoulders and she sneaks a quick kiss to his hand. It's a little touch I'd always liked and Kathleen said that it wasn't scripted but the hand was there and she just did it. She said there and in a few other places that she tried to play Ruth not as a totally crazy woman (as Powell often wanted) but as someone who thought herself to be sane and who, with a bit of understanding from the others, could have been helped.

Kathleen was full of praise for Jack Cardiff's lighting & Alfred Junge's design saying that it was that more than the acting that she felt made the film the success it was - remember there were Oscars for Jack & Alfred but no actors were even nominated so Kathleen wasn't alone in that opinion.

One of the last questions was asking who chose the name Kathleen Byron with the "hidden" question "what's your real name?". In the program notes they say that she was born Kathleen Elizabeth Byron but in her answer Kathleen said that it was her first agent who'd chosen it and she couldn't remember why. As to her real name, she'd had many (I suppose maiden name & married name) but she seemed reluctant to reveal any of them.

Eventually it all came to an end and we all trooped out. Nicky, Richard, Alan, Natacha & I met outside the main entrance but then I spotted that Columba & Susan hadn't come out that way so telling the others that I expected they'd gone to see Kathleen and to follow if they could, I dashed around to the side entrance where Columba & Susan were just about to go into the small room (the bookshop) where Kathleen & co had retired to. Natacha had followed me faster than the others & we managed to blag our way in on the coat tails of Columba & Susan (as I'd hoped).

Inside I managed to have a word with the great lady and thank her again. I mentioned that someone (Susan) had said that she was nervous before the interview and I asked how she felt about it now. She said she had been very nervous but had quite enjoyed it but was glad it was all over.

She signed my copy of the AMOLAD book, just underneath Jack Cardiff. I think I'll try to get Lord Dickie's signature in there next :)

I managed to ask Kathleen some of the questions I'd wanted to ask in the main session such as had she heard of any fuss being made about the "naughtiness" of SBR (Sammy & Susan's odd relationship, that offer she made on the embankment etc). She hadn't, and in fact she hadn't really realised how naughty it all was until much later.

Of course there were other people in there as well & I had a word with Ian Christie as well. Amongst other things he introduced me to Peter Todd who had directed Kathleen in the short film "Out (1993)" which they'd shown (and I missed) just before Prelude to Fame.

Ian & I also talked for a bit about DVD's and he said that Carlton are in the process of doing "decent" versions of the P&P DVD's that they rushed out that we've been slagging off in various ways.

Natacha managed to have a nice chat with Columba and Susan (aren't they lovely people?) and then she confessed to being shy of approaching Kathleen (aw, bless) so Susan quickly introduced Natacha to Kathleen's daughter (what WAS her name? I was told but can't remember) who then introduced Natacha to her mother.

Once they'd got started they chatted away quite merrily, Kathleen being quite interested in the work Natacha's doing for her PhD about P&P.

The program notes said that the BFI were recording the interview for the archives so maybe we'll get a proper transcript from them some time.

Oh, one last comment from the program notes that I loved :- Kathleen was saying how, after Sister Ruth, everyone thought she really was "mad, bad and dangerous to know". Well, a few years later she was in an episode of Crown Court (a TV program with actors playing the defendants & witnesses but with "ordinary people" in the jury). Well in this episode the jury decided that she was guilty (her character was accused of murder) even before they'd heard the evidence !!


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