The names Samuel Beckett and The Omen don’t normally crop up together in the same sentence. However, they have certainly done so over the past few days as tributes have been paid to actress Billie Whitelaw, who unfortunately passed away on December 21st. Whitelaw was a close collaborator with legendary Irish playwright Beckett from their first meeting in 1963 until his death in 1989; and she was also a considerable film presence whose most noticeable (if not subtlest) role was as Mrs Baylock, the demonic and psychotic nanny of the equally demonic and psychotic Damien Thorn, son of the Devil, in the first of The Omen movies in 1976.
Whitelaw’s association with Beckett saw her appearing in such works as Play, Eh Joe, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby. The one I’ll always remember her in, though, is Happy Days, a TV version of which I saw back in the 1980s. Its central metaphor is no more subtle than the character of Mrs Baylock in The Omen: a prattling woman of some maturity disappears piece by piece into a mass of sand. In the first act, she’s buried to her waist in the stuff, while by the second act she’s up to her neck in it. But it’s also a hard-to-forget metaphor and it definitely sums up Beckett’s bleak view of life, the universe and everything. (When trying to account for Beckett’s unrelentingly grim outlook, I’ve always liked the theory forwarded by Irish singer, musician, boozer and raconteur Shane McGowan. He attributed Beckett’s gloom to the fact that he was the only man in Ireland who’d ever wanted to play cricket for Ireland.)
Hard-to-forget too is Whitelaw’s turn in The Omen. After arriving in the Thorn household, her first salutation to Damien is, “Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee!” And she certainly shows her devotion to the Satanic little tyke when she disposes of his hapless mother, played by Lee Remick, by shoving her out of a hospital window with the result that she crashes through the roof of an ambulance passing below. Her final hissing, spitting, downright-animalistic confrontation with Damien’s ‘official’ father, Gregory Peck, is memorable too. In fact, Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is one of the great evil minions in horror-movie history. (Incidentally, in 2006’s nondescript remake of The Omen, the one thing the filmmakers got right was the recasting of Mrs Baylock. For the remake, they hired Mia Farrow – who of course had past form with Satanic children, having played Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.)
The Omen aside, Whitelaw’s movie CV was pleasingly varied. In 1960’s The Flesh and the Fiends, directed by John Gilling and the best cinematic telling of the story of notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers-cum-serial-killers Burke and Hare, she played the luckless Mary Paterson – a prostitute whose body turned up on the dissecting table at the Edinburgh Medical School under the nose of a horrified medical student who’d only very recently spent an evening with her. The same year, she appeared in Val Guest’s Hell is a City, the grittiest and hardest-boiled British crime drama before Mike Hodge’s Get Carter in 1970; while in 1967 she played Hayley Mills’ mum in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, one of those warped, sleazy psychological thrillers that British cinema was adept at turning out at the time. Another warped and sleazy piece she appeared in was 1972’s strangler-on-the-loose thriller Frenzy, the nastiest film in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. And 1990 saw her play Violet Kray, mother of the London East End’s favourite homicidal gangster siblings, in Peter Medak’s The Krays.
She also turned up on television. Back in the 1950s she played the daughter of Jack Warner’s title character in Dixon of Dock Green, the first British TV cop-show of any note. In 1980, she provided Michael Elphick’s romantic interest in the BBC’s morally-dodgy but entertaining Nazi comedy, Private Schulz. My favourite TV memory of her, though, dates to 1977 when she appeared in Supernatural, a stagey but atmospheric Gothic-horror anthology show that was scripted by her husband, the dramatist Robert Mueller. In the two-part Supernatural story Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion, she played a woman who during her youth had been used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle. After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Ian Hendry, Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser and Charles Kay – to her castle. What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon. And Whitelaw intends to use him, like a monstrous attack dog, to right a few wrongs.
I last saw Billie Whitelaw when she was playing a villainess in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, the second of the ‘Cornetto’ trilogy directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. At the movie’s climax we see her blazing determinedly at Pegg and Frost with an AK47. Which I think was as good a way to bow out as any.
For most actors, becoming typecast is a pain in the neck. For the lugubrious-faced, distinctively-voiced David Warner, the day he became typecast – as an actor doing offbeat roles in offbeat films, often horror, science fiction and fantasy ones – was a pane in the neck. As Keith Jennings, the decent but unfortunate photographer who befriends Gregory Peck’s ambassador Robert Thorn in 1976’s The Omen, he is memorably decapitated when a sheet of glass comes crashing off the back of a truck and shears his head from his shoulders. Indeed, though The Omen was choc-a-block with people dying in gruesome freak accidents, and later there were Omen sequels with more freak accidents, and later still there were a half-dozen Final Destination movies following a similar template and serving up countless more freak accidents, the cinema has seen very few freak accidents as spectacularly shocking as Warner’s in that 37-year-old movie.
The main actors in the big-budget Omen – Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw – were names not normally associated with horror movies. Until then, Warner’s name hadn’t been associated with horror movies either. Mancunian by birth, he started acting professionally in 1962 and the following year he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to stage roles in Henry IV Part 1, Henry VI Parts I-III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and, in 1965, playing the famously self-absorbed and brooding Danish prince, Hamlet. The earliest films he appeared in were sometimes theatrical in origin too, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sea Gull, which both appeared in 1968. However, it was in 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment that he probably made his biggest impression on 1960s movie audiences. In it he plays a working-class artist who’s abandoned by his posh wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and who goes to unhinged extremes to win her back.
When David Warner’s movie career is discussed, it’s often overlooked that he was once a regular performer with the legendary director Sam Peckinpah. His association with the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, near-deranged filmmaker started with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in which he played an eccentric preacher who befriends Jason Robards’ titular hero. Peckinpah often boasted, “I can’t direct when I’m sober,” and for the young Warner Hogue must have been quite an initiation into the director’s weird and wonderful ways. When bad weather held up filming, Peckinpah and his crew went on a massive drinking binge and ran up a bar-bill worth thousands and thousands of dollars.
(c) EMI Films
In the next year’s Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s taboo-busting film set in the English West Country and a prototype for what is known now as the ‘home-invasion’ movie sub-genre, Warner plays the village simpleton who unwittingly kills a local girl and then takes refuge in Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house with a squad of vigilantes on his trail. In Cross of Iron, Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie about a doomed German platoon on the Russian front, he plays a humane German officer who just wants to get through the war in one piece. In fact, in Cross of Iron, nearly all the Germans, including James Coburn’s gallant corporal and James Mason’s world-weary colonel, are humane types who view war with extreme distaste. What upsets the apple-cart, and eventually gets most of them killed, is the arrival of Maximillian Schell’s glory-hunting Prussian officer who’s obsessed with winning an iron cross for himself and isn’t worried about his men dying in the process.
In 1973 Warner made his first appearance in a horror film, the British anthology movie From Beyond the Grave, whose stories were based on the writings of Ronald Chetwyn-Hayes. In the film’s first story, The Gate Crasher, he plays an arrogant prick called Edward Charlton who acquires an old mirror from an antique shop and gets it on the cheap by lying to the shop-owner about the mirror’s likely age. Charlton obviously hasn’t seen many horror films before – otherwise, he might have thought twice about fibbing to a proprietor played by Peter Cushing in a shop called Temptations Inc. He soon gets his deserts. The mirror turns out to be inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which possesses him and drives him to commit murder.
It was in the last years of the 1970s that Warner got his fondest-remembered roles, starting with the kindly but ill-fated Jennings in The Omen. Then, in 1979’s Time After Time, he switches from being a nice guy to being a bad one, playing John Leslie Stevenson, a Victorian gentleman and friend of the pioneering science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell. Unbeknownst to Wells, Stevenson has been making a name for himself in the London media of the time by butchering prostitutes in Whitechapel – for he is none other than Jack the Ripper. When Wells unveils his latest invention, a functioning time machine like the one he would later write about in his famous 1895 novella, Stevenson uses it to escape the closing police net and scoot one century forward into the future. But the machine has a recall facility, so a horrified Wells summons it back to the 19th century and uses it to follow Leslie to 1979, assuming that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on Utopia. Predictably, Wells is more than a little disappointed to find that the 20th century is less utopian than he’d anticipated. And the Ripper has taken to the era’s sleaze, violence and heavy-decibel rock music like a duck to water.
A quirky and very entertaining movie, Time After Time was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, regrettably, hasn’t made anything as distinctive since. Instead, during the 1980s, he got involved in making Star Trek films. Actually, it’s probably because of Meyer’s involvement in the Star Trek series that both David Warner and Malcolm McDowell have made appearances in it – Warner was in both Star Trek V and VI. I’m no fan of Star Trek or its movie spin-offs, but I quite like the sixth one, largely because Warner is in it. He plays Chancellor Gorkon, charismatic leader of the Klingons and obviously modelled on the then Russian leader Mikael Gorbachev, who’s decided it’s time for the Klingon Empire to pursue peace-talks with the West, sorry, the Federation.
In 1981 Warner delivered another memorable performance in Terry Gilliam’s imaginative cinematic fairy tale The Time Bandits. He plays a character called Evil, who’s been created by Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and then imprisoned in a hellish place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness – obviously, Warner and Richardson represent the Devil and God. Some fine actors have played Old Nick in movies over the years, including Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, but for my money Warner’s portrayal is the most entertaining. His Devil is a petulant and embittered character who spends his time ranting at his idiotic minions (“Shut up! I’m speaking rhetorically!”) about how rubbish God is. The Almighty, he argues, has wasted His time creating useless things such as slugs, nipples for men and 43 species of parrots when He could have concentrated on making laser beams, car phones and VCRs. Warner steals the show in The Time Bandits, which is no minor achievement considering that in addition to Richardson the film stars Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall and a delightful gang of time-traveling dwarves led by the late, great David Rappaport.
Thereafter, Warner’s CV filled up with all manner of oddball movies, hardly Shakespearean in the acting opportunities they offered but relished by weirdoes and obsessives like myself: 1979’s Nightwing, 1980’s The Island, 1987’s Waxwork, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness and 1997’s Scream 2. As an actor he’s adept at playing out-and-out villains, for example, his Dillinger / Sark character in the 1981 Disney computer-game fantasy Tron, a movie that was unappreciated at the time but that, in the decades since, has acquired considerable retro-cool. He’s also good at doing mad scientists, like the splendidly named Doctor Alfred Necessiter in the whacky 1982 comedy The Man with Two Brains, which is poignant today as a reminder of those long-gone days when Steve Martin used to be funny. But he also has harassed and melancholic qualities that lend themselves to playing fathers. He was, for instance, the heroine’s father in 1984’s The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s atmospheric and sensual adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic story; while in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes he plays Senator Sandar, father of Helena Bonham-Carter, the sexiest chimpanzee in the world. In heavy simian make-up and in Warner’s unmistakable tones, Sandar sighs at one point: “Youth is wasted on the young…”
(c) Walt Disney Productions
In 1997 Warner also found time to appear in James Cameron’s Titanic, then the biggest-grossest movie of all time – and holder of that title until Cameron broke his own record with Avatar. Say what you like about Titanic, about the mawkish love story between Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio, about Billy Zane’s cartoonish performance as the villain, about the unspeakable theme song sung by Celine Dion, but you can’t deny that it has a great supporting cast: Warner, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton. Warner, playing Spicer Lovejoy, Zane’s valet, doesn’t have much to do apart from connive with his master, stalk around, spy on Kate Winslett and generally behave sinisterly. He does, however, to get to punch Di Caprio in the guts after he’s been handcuffed to a railing on board the holed and sinking liner. Actually, that’s my favourite bit in the film.
Warner has long been a fixture on television too. He’s appeared in one-off TV movies and dramas like 1984’s Frankenstein, where he plays the creature to Robert Powell’s Victor Frankenstein and Carrie Fisher’s Elizabeth, 1993’s BodyBags and 2003’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; appeared in series and miniseries like 1981’s Masada, 1982’s MarcoPolo, 1984’s Charlie, 2011’s Secret of Crickley Hall and, from 2008 to 2010, Wallander, in which he plays another father, this time to Kenneth Branagh; and lent his voice to animated shows, including the Superman, Batman and Spiderman ones during the 1990s. In 1991, he guest-starred in three episodes of the second and final series of David Lynch’s classic off-the-wall soap opera Twin Peaks, playing Thomas Eckhardt, the Hong Kong-based crime-lord who has a long, dark and tangled history with Joan Chen’s Jocelyn Packard. Mind you, Chen brings that history to an abrupt end by shooting him in the chest.
A few years later he was in the underrated, Oliver Stone-produced mini-series Wild Palms, which for the time was a very odd hybrid of conspiracy thriller, Alice in Wonderland and the then-new literary genre of cyberpunk. Indeed, at one point, cyberpunk author William Gibson makes a cameo appearance in it. Set in a near-future USA, when an organisation called the Fathers – a sinister cross between a multinational corporation, the Scientologists and the Tea Party – holds sway, the show has Warner as Eli, the slightly Obi Wan-like leader of an underground resistance movement. The sequence at the end of one episode in which Eli and various sidekicks machine-gun their way into a clinic where Warner’s sickly son Chick is being held prisoner, in an abortive attempt to rescue him, is one of my favourite TV moments ever. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because of the quality of performers involved – besides Warner, the sequence has Kim Catrall and, playing Chick, Brad Dourif, who’s better known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play movies. Maybe it’s because The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun blasts away in the background. Maybe it’s because it all ends badly – tragedy being the most powerful form of drama.
In 2005 Warner was involved with the TV institution that is The League of Gentlemen, the famously-twisted comedy series written by and starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson. In fact, he didn’t appear in the television show itself, but in its cinematic spinoff The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse. Like many a film-based-on-a-TV-show, it doesn’t really work on the big screen, though its most effective scenes are definitely those featuring Warner as a 17th century magician called Dr Erasmus Pea. His character is rottenly evil but he’s very amusing too. For example, while Dr Pea uses a pan to fry up a hellish concoction (including two recently gouged-out eyeballs) from which he hopes to grow a monstrous homunculus, the camera cuts to a close-up and he shows a pretentiously-absorbed expression worthy of a TV chef like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.
Warner clearly gets along with Mark Gatiss, since he has also appeared in Gatiss’s radio comedy show Nebulous and in The Cold War, a recent Gatiss-scripted episode of DoctorWho. He also turned up as an interviewee in Gatiss’s 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, talking about – yes! – getting his head lobbed off in The Omen.
The past decade has seen Warner return to the stage, giving well-received turns as the venerable and vulnerable monarch in King Lear in 2005 and as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II in 2007. Let’s hope, though, that there are plenty of young filmmakers out there who grew up savouring his performances in the likes of Time After Time, The Time Bandits and Tron, who’ll offer him movie roles too and who’ll keep him employed for a long time to come.