Rupert Everett on his undying love for Julie Andrews
Actor Rupert Everett’s witty and mischievous new memoirs are the showbusiness autobiography of the year. Here, in our third exclusive extract, he brilliantly evokes his privileged Sixties childhood - and the birth of a slightly peculiar obsession:
At several times in life one comes to a point of no return. The drama of this moment often escapes us. We walk into it unconcerned, not hearing all the closing doors slam behind us, not aware that suddenly we are cut adrift from the past and are loose on the high seas, charting a new course through undiscovered waters.
I must have been four when it first happened to me. I was living with my mother and father, my brother Simon and our nanny in an old pink farmhouse with a moat, surrounded by the cornfields of Essex. The local farmers had finished the harvest and that morning they were burning the stubble.
We knew because my mother came charging into the house, after dropping my father off at the station (he was a stockbroker in the City). ‘Nanny!’ she screamed. ‘They’re burning the stubble!’
Mayhem. I sat on the hall floor as the two women in my life careered around the house slamming doors, closing windows, drawing curtains.
Footsteps pounded across the creaky floorboards above, shaking the whole house. Snatches of conversation could be heard from the gables. And then silence. The sun battling through the curtains made the house feel like an aquarium and, since my mother was a stickler for cleanliness, they would stay closed for days until the last fleck of black ash from the stubble floated off through the sky.
I loved it. Darkness made you feel naughty. And outside the inferno raged around us.
The stubble burning was always one of the highlights of our summer. As soon as we got the chance, we children would be out there, under the gentle scrutiny of the local farmers, looking for hedgehogs and field mice to save from the fire.
For the moment, we settled down to an agreeable state of siege, and all sat in the kitchen as Mummy reminisced about former stubbles — ‘That dratted ash can get through anything’ — and Nanny made coffee and Ribena.
It came as quite a surprise that it was decided I should be taken to the cinema. ‘What’s the cinema?’ I whined, lips a-quiver, ready for a tantrum. But there was no arguing, and no explanation.
‘You’ll see!’ was the only answer. So we all bundled into our Hillman, Mummy at the wheel, me beside her with my own steering wheel, suction-stuck to the dashboard, and Nanny in the back, as we drove at a snail’s pace through the howling flames alongside the lane so that I could have a good look. I don’t think Mummy knew flames made petrol explode.
There was a long queue at the Braintree Embassy and we nearly decided to give up. My mum had a million things to do and I wanted to get home to the stubble.
But fate was hell-bent and after half an hour of ranting (Mummy) and whining (me) we arrived at the box office. My mother bought the fateful tickets and unknowingly guided me through a pair of swing doors into the rest of my life. Goodbye, Braintree! Suddenly we were in a magical, half-lit cavern of gigantic proportions. At the end were the biggest pair of curtains I had ever seen. I loved curtains already, but these were something else.
I sat down between my mother and Nanny, took one of their hands in each of mine and slowly accustomed myself to the light and my racing heart. The place smelt of cigarettes, disinfectant and sex, even if I didn’t know what that was yet.
Kids’ giggles and screams bounced off the walls of the half-filled theatre. There was endless movement — to the toilets, to the ice cream lady. Then the bright little sconces on the wall faded to dull embers and the noise and the movement suddenly stopped. Those huge curtains swished open and Mary Poppins sprang across the footlights and into my heart.
The next 90 minutes were the most shocking, inspiring, funny, tragic, exhausting, draining and troubling of my entire life.
First of all, when all the nannies blew away, I was terrified. As I looked at Nanny for a second, her life and role suddenly came into a new perspective. This could be a dangerous job, I thought.
And then when Mary Poppins flew effortlessly down, something changed for ever. Was it that she looked and behaved somewhat like my mother? Or was it because I already loved my own nanny to death?
I could definitely identify with everything in the film. Julie’s way of showing emotion was our way, the way of the conventional upper class into which I had been born. Controlled but with feeling, practical but with warmth.
As for Mr Banks, he was my dad. And I was Jane and Michael. New horizons suddenly appeared. Maybe one could jump into the pavement. Maybe one could make toys and troubles disappear with the magic words ‘spit spot’. It had to be true, because everything else sort of was. Soon, it was all too much. My brain was overloaded.
When Mary Poppins left at the end of the film, without saying goodbye, I was so distraught that I had to be dragged out of the cinema, kicking and screaming, and missed Let’s Go Fly A Kite. I was silent on the way home. Listlessly I looked out at the black glowing embers of the stubble and the fields that had turned into giant tiger-skin rugs.
Everyone tried to coax me back into my usual boisterous self, but there was nothing to be done. I had changed. I could feel it. Actually, looking back, what had happened was that a giant and deranged ego had been born.
My mother discarded an old red tweed skirt, which I rescued from the dustbin. It was my first act of madness. I was going to be Mary Poppins’ daughter and the skirt was how I would pull it off. Before long I was wearing it all the time.
The new ‘me’ would sit on the garden swing in my red tweed skirt and black slip-on plimsolls, for hours on end, humming the hits I was learning from my new Mary Poppins LP. Nobody paid much attention. But something had started.
From then on I became a regular at the Braintree Embassy. I must have seen Mary Poppins 20 times, and no sooner had my mother put her foot down and banned me from seeing it again, than Julie responded to my desperate telepathic messages to her and came out with The Sound Of Music.
Meanwhile, there were other things to discover. My nanny, Jenny, was extremely pretty. She had an auburn beehive and every day we went for our walk down a lane to a fallen tree trunk where I would hold pretend tea parties with acorn cups.
One day, her fancy man, Dave, came with us. He was good looking with greased-back hair and long black sideboards. I turned round, proffering acorn cups to them, only to see Dave’s tongue burrowing down inside Nanny’s mouth like a huge slug.
Instant jealousy brought forth the most bloodcurdling scream I could manage, but Dave just glanced at me as he continued to kiss Nanny, and raised his hand in a gesture of ‘Wait a minute’.
I began to prepare myself for a major tantrum but something stopped me. This was interesting. Nanny’s heavily mascaraed eyelashes were tightly shut. She was in a trance. Dave had his hands in her beehive, on her bottom, all over, so I just gaped.
The thing that fascinated me was that they just weren’t themselves; they were bewitched. But after the snog was over, it was as if it had never happened. They both came to the tree trunk for ‘tea’, Nanny’s face raw from Dave’s stubble.
I tried reproaching them with my eyes as I passed round the acorn cups, but Dave wasn’t having any nonsense, though Nanny looked down with a self-conscious giggle. ‘Cake, anyone?’ I burbled with quiet wounded dignity, but in reality I was pretty excited.
Now I knew this was what grown-ups did, and I was longing to join in. At about the same time my mother took us boys aside and in serious tones warned us not to go into the woods above the farm because there was a funny man there who might take us to his house, give us sweets, and play with our ‘wees’.
My brother looked horrified but I couldn’t think of anything better. Travel, sweets and someone playing with me. I couldn’t wait to trike up there. But no matter how often I slipped away to the woods, I never met a soul.
Then Nanny and Dave announced their wedding. We were bundled into the Hillman once more and drove to Norfolk, where Nanny came from. As soon as we got to the church I could feel that chill wind of panic announcing the oncoming storm.
I had a starring role as her pageboy in short red corduroy overalls. We all waited outside the church, my mum like Jackie O in a miniskirt and an extraordinary pillbox hat. Nanny arrived, lovely in her wedding dress, and I was given her veil to hold.
Everything fell into place. All the previous conversations when she’d tried to explain to me she was leaving; all the warnings; all the little asides I had heard but not understood (‘I think he’s taking it rather well, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, he doesn’t seem to mind at all.’).
Mary Poppins was coming to life. The nanny I loved was going away. I played my part to the hilt. I completely ruined her wedding day. First of all, I started asking questions, tugging at Nanny’s dress as the vicar tried to get on with the service. ‘Where are you going, Nanny?’ I whined. ‘Shush,’ said my mother from the second row.
But I wouldn’t let up. My little quaverings rose above the drone of the vicar and became more insistent. No one would answer; I had become invisible. So, as usual, I became hysterical. Floods of molten tears burst out over my fat spoilt cheeks as I sat down in the aisle and bawled.
My mum tried to take me away but I had hold of Nanny’s veil and resisted arrest. I hung on even when the wedding march trumpeted and Dave began to walk Nanny firmly out of the church.
I yanked with all my might. My mum tried to prise the veil out of my hot furious little fists, and poor Nanny was stuck there in the middle of the aisle, Dave pulling in one direction and me in the other.
There was a brief impasse before my father hauled me out, and poor Nanny was whisked into her car and off to the reception before I had a chance to wreak further havoc.
My parents decided it would be too risky for us to go with them, so we drove off without a real goodbye. Just like in Mary Poppins.
There was a worse parting still to come. One day, my mother and I went up to London to a shop called Gorringes where she brought me shorts, sweaters, shirts, socks — all grey, four pairs of each.
I can’t remember having any particular reaction, mild curiosity perhaps. I gambolled around as we bought a trunk, totally unaware that the first significant part of my life was about to die and nothing would ever be the same.
I was going away to school. Strangely enough, I was totally unfazed by this information. The night before we left, I packed and repacked my overnight case in a boisterous fever of excitement.
Apparently I could not take the red tweed skirt. I thought that was a bit odd, but I let it pass in the general exuberance I was feeling at being an adult.
‘You’re being very grown-up about this, I must say,’ remarked my mother. ‘Well, I am seven,’ I replied proudly. My older brother watched through his tortoiseshell glasses with the cynical eyes of one informed by the past.
The next morning we drove to Hampshire in the luggage-crammed Hillman, and after several hours turned down a long avenue lined with huge ancient trees to a house which had once been a stately home.
Huge stone columns straddled by heraldic lions and black wrought-iron gates beckoned one into hell. My heart began to beat with an unknown drug: adrenaline.
We hit a traffic jam of upper-class couples driving back to London. Why were some of the women crying? My heart jumped into my mouth and sheer terror surged through my body.
We parked the car and got out. Instinct told me to stay close to my mother. I could hardly breathe. I was asphyxiated by panic. There were boys everywhere, all shapes and sizes, running in and out of the school in gangs, shouting and screaming. The unfamiliar smell of floor polish and school loos hung in the air.
This could not be, I thought. My mother would never leave me in a place like this.
Matron, a little old hunchbacked hag, took us upstairs, dragging herself one banister at a time, to the dormitories. My mother put my case on my bed, and before I could open my mouth it was suggested I went with my brother to the dining room for tea, while my parents went to the ‘drawing room’ for a glass of sherry.
My grasp on my mother’s hand turned into a sweaty vice-like grip. ‘Darling,’ she said, as she unprised my fingers from hers, her voice carefully casual, ‘We’ll probably go while you’re having tea so I’ll kiss you goodbye now.’ And then all the energy that had been building up exploded in torrents of the deepest pain I have ever experienced. I begged not to be left. I sat in abject grief through tea and then raced through the school, trying to find my mother and father. They were already outside, near the Hillman.
My dad patted me on the back and said, ‘Good luck.’ My mother stood there, guilty, uncertain and tear-stained. ‘Don’t cry or I’ll cry too,’ she said, as she hugged me for the last time. My mind was racing. There must be something I could say to bring an end to this madness.
‘Come on!’ said my father. My mother stumbled into the car and shut the door. Tears splashed down on to my new sandals from Startrite. Last week I had loved them, but now they were just another part of the plot against me. I couldn’t look up. I didn’t want to see the betrayal in my mother’s eyes.
My brother took my hand as my mother unwound the window and waved. She was crying and her mascara had run.
Holding hands — frozen between one world and the next — my brother and I stared at the tail lights with a terrible intensity as they disappeared. Maybe they would wink a sudden reprieve, the whole image would dissolve and we would be back at home at the end of a nasty dream.
But with their last glimmer died all hope and we were left to make our own way through the rest of our lives.
That first night all the little boys sobbed in their beds. We were heartbroken but soon most of us passed out from exhaustion, apart from a boy called Wilson who wailed all night. The next morning we woke and remembered where we were with a deep shudder and the sobs began again.
What was it about the English upper classes of that era that drove them to procreate and then abandon their children to the tempestuous dangers of boarding school?
A child with a soft, vulnerable heart soon had it calcified by abandonment, bullying, beatings and buggery. Our little hearts hardened with each beat. We cried less and grew fast. Like jellies we began to set in the moulds of class, religion and nation.
At least Mary Poppins never left me, not deep down. She was still there many years later when I was sitting in a bar on the island of Mustique and my agent rang to say there was a part for me in a new Julie Andrews film.
I nearly fell off my bar stool. Could it be true? All those years pretending Julie was my mother, and now art was finally imitating life, or rather fantasy life, which was better. I was on the next flight back to London.
The film, Duet For One, was based on the true story of the classical musician Jacqueline du Pre and her battle with multiple sclerosis. I was to play her protégé, whom I modelled on the latest prodigy on the music scene, Nigel Kennedy.
I developed a quiff and a nasal Bromley twang, wore my costume at home and at work, and never came out of character, even when going to confession. (My fake accent couldn’t have been that successful because the priest peeked out from behind the curtain. ‘I thought it was you,’ he said, before disappearing back inside.)
Julie came gliding in to rehearsals wearing a pair of tight beige trousers and a woolly jersey. I could hardly stand up. She hadn’t changed since Mary Poppins, still looking remarkably young, beautiful and frosty with a kind of wartime no-nonsense cheer.
‘Wotcha!’ I said. ‘Do you normally talk like that?’ she asked. I wanted to say: ‘No, spit spot. Normally I talk like you.’ Instead, I said: ‘I’m in character.’ ‘Ah’ she said, disapprovingly. We rehearsed for two weeks and I was in heaven, but she was a hard nut to crack. She clearly didn’t like my interpretation of the part. Liam Neeson and Alan Bates, who were in the cast, knew about my secret obsession and goaded me to tell her. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What was I going to say?
‘Miss Andrews, I just want you to know that because of you I was taken to a child psychologist.’
But towards the end of the shoot, there was an astonishing scene. No psychiatrist could have hoped for a more perfect resolution to a childhood obsession. It brought a whole new meaning to the word ‘closure’.
We were to be filmed performing (or, rather, miming) a Bach concerto live at the Albert Hall. There were posters of the two of us all over the walls. I nearly fainted when I saw them.
The auditorium was filled for the scene by queens with Julie obsessions, some of them quite freaky in wigs and flashers’ macs. They had been queuing up since dawn, and they watched me with green envy and undisguised hatred as we rehearsed.
I played it all to the hilt, chatting with Julie, sharing jokes, generally acting as if I ruled the roost.
Then, in my white tie and tails, I knocked on Julie’s dressing room door for the actual filming. ‘Good luck, darling. I love you,’ she said. She had been difficult to conquer but at last she had come round to me. This was better than tripping on drugs.
We walked through the backstage corridors up towards the stage. The crowd had been told to chant and we could hear them pounding on the floors above us. It was one long orgasm.
As we arrived in front of them, the whole audience stood up and screamed. Julie looked at me and winked. I was ecstatic. I probably should have retired immediately.