I was thrilled when the actor – and very famous comedian – Mel Smith really liked a play I had written about Winston Churchill and Michael Collins in 1921, and was keen to act in it. He had been shown the script by Brian Gilbert, the film, theatre and TV director, who had become my friend too after he had directed a TV documentary about William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, from my biography, Germany Calling.
I remember the exact moment when I got a call from Brian about Mel: I was driving along the Dover road, and, illegally, of course, answered my mobile. “Mel really likes the script,” said Brian. “He really wants to do it.”
I am a stage-struck adolescent at heart and nothing is more gratifying to me than hearing that an actor likes something I wrote. And it was something that meant a lot to me too.
Back in 2003, my husband, Richard West, had read a biography of Winston Churchill called The Last Lion, by William Manchester. It was an engaging biography probably because Manchester was a journalist, not an academic, and while using the Churchill archives properly, he also had an eye for the human story. And there was one human story that Richard thought would interest me especially: a passage about Churchill and Collins getting drunk together one night in 1921 during the negotiations that were to lead to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, and eventually, the foundation of the Irish state.
Though initially opponents, Collins and Churchill had that kind of bonding session which men sometimes go through, and subsequently Churchill was firm in his resolve to support the Irish Free State, though he was much disparaged in the House of Commons for doing so.
It struck me immediately that this was a play. I began to research the biographies and contemporary archives and indeed, the period, the characters and events were all utterly fascinating. Since the most contentious aspect of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which would follow would be the “oath of allegiance” to the King, which the Irish disliked and the British insisted on, I called the play Allegiance: but there was also that double sense of an allegiance between men who have spent a night drinking together.
Brian Gilbert had been interested in the play from the start, and we had a rehearsed reading at the library of Reform Club in London, in which Mel played Churchill and Brendan Coyle played Collins. (Brendan Coyle was a respected actor who became renowned, subsequently, as Mr Bates in Downton Abbey.) Arnold Rosen, an energetic clubman at the Reform, acted as impresario who made the performance possible.
And then the occasion arose, through the suggestion of my friend Carol Sarler, the journalist, who was familiar with the Edinburgh Festival, that we might take Allegiance to Edinburgh in 2006. It was a terribly exciting prospect, and I set out to raise £8,000 to support the endeavour (and Mel Smith, too, generously helped by not taking any fee and entertaining the company with largesse). Many donors were very generous, including the late Josephine Hart, Herbert Kreztmer, my Deal friend Michael Harlick, the author Freddy Forsyth, Gemma Hussey in Dublin and other Irish friends who preferred to remain anonymous.
But who was to play Michael Collins? Brian, as director, set about casting. He was keen for Brendan Coyle to reprise the role but Mr Coyle was otherwise engaged. Through the late spring and summer of 2006 – the play was to go on at the Assembly, one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious locations, in August – Brian searched for an actor to play Mick. Brian had discovered Jude Law, casting him as Bosie to Stephen Fry’s Oscar Wilde in the movie he directed about Oscar and spotted the talents, too, of Michael Sheen early on.
And it was through the advice of an experienced casting agent who was familiar with the Irish scene, Ros Hubbard, that the name of Michael Fassbender came up. He had been in “Band of Brothers” and was known as a promising young actor. Was he free? Would he do it? Actors don’t make much money in Edinburgh, but it is a wonderful showcase. Yes, he would, but the agreement was made so late that Michael’s name wasn’t even on the posters advertising Allegiance. It was Mel, as Churchill, who was the focal point.
As it happened, the opening of Allegiance was a sensation, because Mel Smith was prepared to smoke a Churchillian cigar on stage, in defiance of the newly-introduced anti-smoking ban, which was implemented with particularly ferocious Calvinist fervour by Edinburgh Council.
The cigar was an authentic part of the interchange between Collins and Churchill, and made a specific point. But the Edinburgh authorities threatened to close down the entire festival if Mel lit that cigar. The episode made headlines all around the world, which brought huge publicity to the event, although, despite Sam Goldwyn’s adage, there is such a thing as the wrong kind of publicity. If everyone is focused on the sensation involved, nobody is focused on the substance.
Mel came very near to lighting the cigar, but didn’t quite. And Allegiance proceeded. And altogether it got some very good reviews, full houses – 400 people attending each performance – and at one point a standing ovation. It was all hugely exciting, and to echo Winston Churchill, I felt, personally, that “the whole of my life was a preparation for this hour, and I am walking with destiny.”
What was most thrilling about the experience was the chemistry which I felt existed between Mel Smith and Michael Fassbender on stage. (Brian Gilbert acted as reader linking the scenes, and Robin Browne very ably played Winston’s butler.) Mel got the big-baby side of Winston as a man of 46 – a man who had never dressed himself, who blubbed very easily, and who had just been through two personal bereavements which had affected him deeply: and Michael was unsurpassable as Collins.
Though he lacked the physical beefiness of Collins, he was able to act the physical impact: he was able to combine the outer warrior with the inner man who often suffered anguish over violence: he got Collins’ charisma and sex-appeal, and also his brooding side: his contradictions – a leader who, for two pins, would have shot the Bishop of Cork for opposing Sinn Fein, but who, daily, lit candles and even attended Mass at the Catholic church in Maiden Lane and at Brompton Oratory. A man of humour, and of rough play, sometimes, who called forth adulation from Hazel Lavery and inspired her husband, Sir John, to paint him as Hercules: a man who knew he was on a mission for which he would probably pay with his life, and yet who felt he must do his duty. Michael Fassbender internalised all that and then brought it all out in his acting. And between him and Mel there was a spark of humour which was terrific.
I wrote in my diary at the time: “A stage magic appeared, that chemistry which brings a drama to life, in which the characters take on a life of their own. I began by being thrilled to hear the text I had written by actors, but then, it was as if I was watching something which someone else was bringing something to me. Such assured performances by Mel, Michael and Brian….”
Michael’s parents – his German father and Irish mother – came over from Killarney to see the performance and they were lovely people. Michael struck me as a very dedicated actor, and yet an uncomplicated kind of guy: he had no pretensions and laughed easily. He was warm and friendly and good company. He was, it was said, one for the ladies, and sometimes one for a night on the town. I confided to my diary that he was “an absolute dish”: had I been thirty years younger I’d have developed a real crush. He was, however, charming to me, and even after late partying always sober and professional on stage. Acting mattered to him: doing the job right came first.
He has since risen and risen in the firmament and by 2012 had been a global star of the first rank. He was superb as the Bobby Sands character in Hunger, greatly praised for his role in Shame and outstanding, too, as Karl Jung in The Dangerous Method. But to me, he will always be my Michael Collins. ENDS
From a collection: “Something of Myself….and Others”.