Interview: Albert Finney

Albert Finney notoriously gave very few interviews. This one dates back to November 1973 when, as a student at Glasgow University, I was the joint editor of Moving Review, a revamped monthly version of the university’s more traditional arts magazine.  At the time, Finney was appearing in David Storey’s play Cromwell directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court in London.

By the early 1970s a more powerful British artistic triumvirate than Finney-Anderson-Storey would be hard to find.  Lindsay Anderson had directed This Sporting Life (1963) starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts (both of whom were Oscar-nominated) from a novel by Storey as well as the Cannes award-winner If…(1968) and the more recent O Lucky Man! (1973), both starring Malcolm McDowell. Storey had moved from award-winning novelist and screenwriter to award-winning playwright. Home (1970) starring theatrical giants Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and directed by Anderson had taken Tony Awards for writing, acting and directing. Anderson had also directed the plays  In Celebration (1969) and The Changing Room (1971).  

Born in 1936, the son of a Salford bookmaker, Finney had rocketed to prominence on the back of Karel Reisz’s rebellious Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tony Richardson’s ebullient Oscar-winning romp Tom Jones (1963) for which Finney, in the first of five Oscar nods,  lost out on the Best Actor statuette to Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field). Finney had turned down the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) because he did not wish to be tied to a long-term contract with Sam Spiegel. Freedom was a consideration which Finney appeared to value above all else including the financial security that would have come from cashing in on his fame and box office cachet post-Tom Jones. He turned down Hawaii (1966) and the opportunity of working with Brigitte Bardot in Don’t Go Away I Might Fall (never made).

In the decade after Tom Jones, he only made seven films, and not always good choices. After a small part in Carl Foreman’s directorial debut The Victors (1963) – a flop – and the leading role in Karel Reisz’s remake of Night Must Fall (1964) – another flop – he took a three-year sabbatical from the movies, returning in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road co-starring Audrey Hepburn which made a $2 million loss on its $5 million budget.  The Picasso Summer (1969) was shelved and went straight to television in America, and if Ronald Neame’s musical Scrooge (1970) was an ill-advised choice, and no big box-office earner either, Finney did collect a Golden Globe for his performance.

That those years were not a career write-off, (“of the films I’ve made,” he told me, “ I’ve not made enough good ones, ones that are pertinent”) despite the financial failures of virtually all these picture, was primarily due to a pair of iconic performances – the title roles of Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed, and the affectionate homage to the private eye picture Gumshoe (1971) which marked the directorial debut of Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, 1985; The Queen, 2006). Both pictures had been produced by Memorial Enterprises, in which Finney was a partner, at a time when the British film industry was in freefall.  

But far from being on the edge of oblivion as far as the movies were concerned, Finney was on the cusp of a major comeback. At that point in 1973, his next projects were intended to be the film adaptation of the Peter Nichols play Chez Nous and The Girl in Melanie Klein based on the 1969 novel by Ronnie Harwood (who later wrote The Dresser in which Finney starred). Instead, he transformed his career by essaying Hercule Poirot and headlining an all-star cast in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

(Here follows the original article, based on the  interview in 1973)

Albert Finney has class, maturity, as they say, when the wrinkles begin to show. He is not a superstar of the Sean Connery/Clint Eastwood mould, but he has certainly amassed a following in both the cinema and the theater. Not one to pursue the eternal round of chat-shows and interviews, Finney seems more at home in the comparatively intimate atmosphere of the Royal Court Theatre in London where I met him on the last night of his most recent performance in David Storey’s Cromwell. We arranged to meet again at the theatre during the day where we found an empty office. He is immediately relaxed, leaning back in a chair, making friendly chat while I fix up the tape recorder. His voice is mellow, not harsh, and he makes words work for him, rolling them in his mouth before letting them go.

I asked him first about the film which had established him with cinema audiences, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s novel published earlier that year, in which he played factory worker Arthur Seaton. Along with Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959), it helped established the British New Wave. Although many people regarded the film as a significant breakthrough in terms of British cinematic realism, Finney is not so sure, citing a north-south class divide that took different views of the film.

 “The book was a big success first,” he said. “It just so happened at that time that British Lion were able to do it. They had energy, especially with Tony Richardson and John Osborne having done Look Back and The Entertainer (1959). Saturday Night was Woodfall’s third film and it was made by that kind of new wave. The success of the book helped to get finance. The budget was something like £240,000 which is still a lot of money even now (1973). I kind of feel, though we shot in the spring of 1960, that the hero is a fifties boy.

“There are still boys with the frustration of Arthur Seaton. I mean the way he’s looked at, the way he’s shown to you, is in the fifties style of rebellion and inarticulacy, in the time before someone in that position was able to mention causes like Vietnam. There was no tradition of looking at the working-class boy seriously. The so-called New Wave actors were always of our class. There were guys like these before, but they were never able to play leading parts. I saw the film in the North (of England) and they seemed to view Arthur Seaton very differently from what they did in the South – many people in the south could directly associate with Arthur in a factory, stuck there for forty years and getting a gold watch at the end of it.

“But Arthur, by and large – this is a generalisation – seemed more dangerous to a southern audience. In the north they thought he was a smashing character, they didn’t find him as dangerous as the more socially-conscious people in the Arts. They thought he was a bit of a lad, gets away with murder, you know, and rather enviable in that way. So I’m a bit sceptical about whether this revolutionary thing was actually revolutionary. In Manchester they still see it in film fantasy terms.”

This element of fantasy, taken up by Finney in theatre (he had the title role in the original stage production of Billy Liar in 1960 – Tom Courtenay who won the film role was his understudy) and cinema (Gumshoe) dates back to a Hollywood-influenced childhood in Salford during the period of futility after the Second World War.

“I would probably argue that Gumshoe, the Bogart fantasy,” he said, “is connected with the same part of me as the Billy Liar fantasies. I was very much a daydreamer as an adolescent. The movies encouraged us to fantasise to an extent and to think beyond and outside our own environment. When I read Billy Liar (the play was co-written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, based on Waterhouse’s novel) I identified clearly and strongly with the hopelessness of this dreamer.

“The reason I think Neville Smith wrote the screenplay for Gumshoe is that he wanted to tip his hat, as it were, to those movies of the forties which I suppose he saw as a young kid and which used to take him out of his reality living in Liverpool.”

The films of Hollywood in the forties influenced Finney because they seemed to taking place in an American society where money was obviously important but not your method of speech whereas British films of the period reminded him that he did not speak properly. New York seemed an exuberant placed to be when sailors disembarking could walk down Broadway singing as in Stanley Donen’s On the Town (1949) starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, a film that had such a resonance with the young Finney that he jumped at the chance to be in the director’s Two for the Road

Gumshoe is a thriller in its own right as well as being a Bogart fantasy.  Nightclub bingo caller Eddie Ginley plays out his private eye fantasy after putting an advert in the local paper. In due course he comes into contact with a fat man, drugs and weapon smuggling. Soon he finds being a private eye is more dangerous than acting as one. If, with a brilliant script, the film suffered from any flaw it was the attempts at Liverpudlian accents. Finney explained that attempting to appeal to an American audience limited verisimilitude in the accent department.

“I didn’t talk like dat, really down the nose and hair like dat, but he’s got a sort of Northern Lancashire sound with just occasionally a little extra hardness.”  Although he responded to the script and the opportunity to play a fantasy role, Finney felt Gumshoe was not a complete success since it fell between the two stools of being a homage and a thriller.

His most commercial project in decade following Tom Jones was the musical Scrooge. “I hadn’t done anything for a while. I was kind of fluffing about at home. The producer Bob Solo rented an office in the Memorial Enterprises premises and he was at the early stage of producing Scrooge. Richard Harris (Camelot, 1967) was going to do it. Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) was going to do it. But one day Bob walked into my office and talked to me about it. I said I’d meet the director Ronnie Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) and I thought well why not, I’ll have a go. I knew it would turn out a kind of pantomime and that was all right. I saw it very much in those terms. I don’t think of it as my finest success.” 

In direct contrast to bigger-budgeted pictures like Scrooge, Two for the Road (1967) and The Victors, the average Finney vehicle had less financial backing, Night Must Fall (1964), a classic example.

“We were going to do a film about Ned Kelly for which David Storey had written a screenplay and then it fell through. So Karel Reisz and I were in a sort of vacuum. I went off to Glasgow to act in Pirandello’s Henry IV and planned to direct. While I was there Karel phoned and said what about the idea of a remake of the thriller Night Must Fall.” The original, based on the Emlyn Williams play, had been turned into a Hollywood film in 1937 starring an Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery. but the new version did not gel on screen and failed to find an audience.

Outside of Gumshoe, Finney’s biggest artistic success was Charlie Bubbles. Produced by Memorial (also responsible for If…, O Lucky Man! and Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut Bleak Moments) with a screenplay by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), it charted the disillusionment of a successful writer who wants to get closer to his son and wife, from whom he is separated. He fails but finds momentary uplift by taking a balloon flight at the end.

“I was told by a mutual friend that she was writing an outline for a film. She sent it over to me and I rather liked the feeling of it. We talked about it and began to work on it. I was just starting with the National Theatre in London where I spent about fifteen months then I planned to do Two for the Road which would take another four months.

“So we were working on it spending afternoons every week, with Shelagh going away and doing stuff on her own, and coming back with more stuff in a month and the same process would go on. When you make a film from an idea, not a book, you’re digging into yourself. It’s an emotional progression, rather than a narrative one. You start out with a feeling and it’s very difficult in the discussions to sort out what you really want. In order to end up with all the things that are right, you have to go through an awful lot of things that are wrong. It was a long, very enjoyable, but laborious job.

“It was possible to direct and act in that film because the movie is showing you the world from Charlie’s point of view. Charlie didn’t have to develop his personality, didn’t have any great dialogue. I usually had to fit in with a certain mood that went along with how the camera saw it. We got an actor, who was playing a minor role, to be my stand-in while I fixed up the camera shots with the director of photography. He was quite happy to do this because it meant he got a lot of experience in a relatively short period of time.

“Watching rushes was very peculiar. When I came on screen, it wasn’t me, it was just this man playing this part. I was totally objective about myself as an actor. If I’m just an actor in a film I watch rushes to see if what I’ve been trying to get over worked.”

In retrospect, the movie stands up very well, (and Finney repeated the experience of directing for the TV movie The Biko Inquest in 1984), but for the casual moviegoer it holds significance in that it heralded the debut of Liza Minnelli, Oscar-nominated the following year for The Sterile Cuckoo and Oscar-winner in 1972 for Cabaret.

“Stephen Frears, my assistant who later directed Gumshoe, met Liza in Paris and thought she was extraordinary. Originally, the part (of Eliza) was going to be English but we changed it to an American girl because we thought an English girl from the south would provoke class comment and what I wanted was romance and naivety rather than somebody snobby. We saw all the Canadian and American Equity members and none seemed quite right. I went over to Los Angeles for a day to hold auditions. But Liza was the best and that’s how she got the part. She was naturally very eccentric, very bright and a bit…coming from a funny angle without any effort.”

Finney had a different perspective on the movies than many other actors in the business.

“When I was a young actor, people said the theatre was where you worked seriously and the cinema was where you made money and it was always viewed very much in those terms. But the cinema has always seemed to me to be an opportunity for serious work.” 

Under the banner of Memorial Enterprises, which he formed with actor Michael Medwin, Finney made his contribution to serious cinema.

“We wanted to have the freedom to do what we liked. A production company like ours has six possibilities a year which boils down to one because in two of them the writer goes out of his mind and you go off the other three.” 

The company was involved in Peter Watkins pop star drama Privilege (1967) with Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones and model Jean Shrimpton, If…, Spring and Port Wine (1970), the Tom Stoppard-scripted The Engagement (1970), and gave directorial debuts to Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Mike Leigh. The Engagement, starring David Warner, was made for American television but actually made its money back because it also went out as a supporting feature.

Scott was backed to make the drama Loving Memory (1971) and Leigh’s initial foray was Bleak Moments (1971). Memorial put up £14,000 rising to £18,000 for Bleak Moments.

“I’ve always felt that when we’re in a position to finance a young film-maker, we should do so. At that time we happened to have some profits so we put some money into it and the British Film Institute put up some. You know with a film like that you’re going to get your money back unless it’s a freak.” The low-budget picture soon honed its artistic credentials with first prize at the Locarno Film Festival and made the rounds of the arthouses.

Despite working cinematically with two of the main driving forces behind the British New Wave in Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, somehow Finney had avoided onscreen work with Lindsay Anderson, though they had crossed swords in the theatre. He first met Anderson when he left Birmingham Rep after playing Macbeth there (“at the age of 21 – I only say that to excuse the performance,” said Finney, somewhat self-deprecatingly since the performance drew tremendous acclaim) to work in London in John Arden’s play The Party directed by Charles Laughton.

“During the run of this, Lindsay was asked to do The Long, The Short and the Tall by Willis Hall. I’d known Willis as a radio playwright and I’d done one or two of his works with the Rep on Birmingham radio. I met Lindsay and was ready to do the part and I rehearsed it but then my appendix burst and Peter O’Toole took over – the rest is history.

“So I had the experience of working with Lindsay because I was involved in the auditioning of the other actors and we got on very well. At that time I found him interesting, for he seemed to be always trying to find the honest answer, rather than the convenient one, and had a kind of directness about his approach. And the following year I did a play with him again, after I’d been to Stratford, a  musical called The Lily White Boys by Christopher Logue, which I’d kept being told was Brechtian and I didn’t quite know what that meant.

“Lindsay and I didn’t get on. I found him very, very charming and fascist. And we kind of rubbed each other up the wrong way a bit, but just as animals. I thought he’s too sort of tart for me. You know, the work’s difficult enough without these sorts of neuroses getting in the way. And then I didn’t work with him again until Billy Liar (in the theatre in 1960) which was eight months later.

“I liked the play very much so Lindsay and I had a long meeting to see if we would get on all right. Course we did do it, and it was quite right that we should, and we got on rather well. But he’s a very – I’ve not worked with him for a long time – demanding. He was in those days and I’m sure he still is very good to work with but demanding. But you’ve always felt there was good reason for it. He had a good sense of what’s going on under the text, interested in digging and not going for what may hit you on the page, turning it over and over. The proportion of directors who do that is very small.” 

Although technically he was directed once by Anderson for the screen, it was the small screen, in 1960, for the BBC series Theatre Night which consisted of 45-minute excerpts of current plays running in London, of which Billy Liar was one.

Even at this stage in his career, as the run of Cromwell came to a close in 1973, there was a wistfulness about Finney.

“In the last ten years I feel very much that I’ve meandered a lot and my work’s revealed this in the restless and lack of direction. When I was 27, I’d just finished a run of Luther by John Osborne in New York, which I did just after Tom Jones. When I left New York I travelled by myself for eleven months around the world. Since I’d left drama school, I’d had a degree of success, but I’d never been introspective, always been busy, and I wanted to get away. I still very much feel that it’s one’s life that it’s about and one’s got a lifetime to do it.”

Postscript 2019: When Albert Finney’s life came to an end, aged 82, in February 2019, he had carved out for himself a career of some distinction. He had been nominated for five Oscars, four for Leading Actor, in Tom Jones followed by Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984) plus a Supporting Actor nod for Erin Brockovich (2000). He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002). Apart from an Academy Fellowship in 2001, the top prize in the leading acting categories at the Baftas also eluded him despite being nominated six times. Even as he lost his box office cachet as a star who could pull in the audiences, he still delivered dynamic performances in supporting roles in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and in his final part as Kincade in Skyfall (2012).