Christopher Lee (with Tony Iommi): A Knight's Tale

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Tony Iommi is in his hotel room overlooking Hyde Park. Surveying the scene, he says: “This interview... I have to admit I’ve never been so nervous in my life about anything!” Tony Iommi. Founding father of metal. And he’s nervous. About what? About meeting a giant, a man whose career started long before Tony first picked up a guitar. An icon, the star of over 200 films, a knight of the realm who has played some of the most memorable monsters in history: from Dracula to Frankenstein. Fu Manchu to Saruman. He is meeting Sir Christopher Lee.

So, why would Metal Hammer care about this 88-year-old thespian? Because he’s just released a stunning symphonic metal album called Charlemagne, and this is no gimmick. Nor is it his first encounter with metal, having worked with Manowar and Rhapsody Of Fire before. And, as we shall find out, he does actually like metal!

The location for this historic meeting – and bringing these two legends together is the epitome of history being made – is a private club in South West London called Number 11. This is where Sir Christopher prefers to conduct interviews. Ensconced in an atmosphere of polite privacy and deference, with unobtrusive service.

It seems appropriate to turn this into a Mecca of metal for the afternoon. Because the genre always has a sense of occasion.

Tony turns up first, dressed appropriately all in black and with a pensive look frozen on his face. For all his stature, he is reduced to an almost childlike awe at what is about to happen. Sir Christopher arrives several minutes later, looking every inch the gentleman and commanding figure we so want him to be. He’s courteous and generous, shaking hands warmly with Tony and, given the nature of the latter’s surname, greets him in Italian. The guitar god looks nonplussed. “Sorry, I can’t speak the lingo,” he admits, a little shamefaced.

Both share a self-deprecating sense of humour. Later on, when Hammer photographer John McMurtrie suggests Sir Christopher holds the crucifix Tony has round his neck, the former responds with mock vampiric horror: “Oh no!”

Sir Christopher settles in a corner, sipping a lapsang souchong tea with a touch of milk and no sweetener, adjusting his position to suit a back problem (“I can’t play golf anymore,” he sighs; all those years doing his own stunts taking a toll). Tony sits opposite him. So, with an audience of assistants, photographers and editors looking on, and with a video camera whirring to capture the occasion, we prepare for one of the most fascinating conversations any of us has ever witnessed.

What follows here can only bring you a taste of the atmosphere and the rapport. Three dimensions of necessity reduced to two, if you want. In the words of the cliché, you had to be there…

And, as the blackness of the oncoming evening appropriately thickens, we start with a man who connects the pair – Manowar bassist Joey DeMaio.

Sir Christopher Lee: “Joey got me working with a band called Rhapsody [now known as Rhapsody Of Fire]. That was a few years ago [2004, on the album Symphony Of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret]. Joey was very involved, in fact he was in charge.”

Tony Iommi: “I know him very well. He worked for us for years as a roadie.”

Sir Christopher: “What I remember from those sessions was that everyone else was singing, and I was being left out. So I told them that I’d like to have a go. You can imagine the reaction. Not another actor who thinks he can sing! But I did it, a song called The Magic Of The Wizard’s Dream, and I think I can safely say I proved I could carry it off.”

Tony: “So, was that the first time you heard any metal?”

Sir Christopher: “Oh, certainly not. In fact, it was years earlier. I used to play golf with Alice Cooper, who was really good at the sport. I heard some of his music, and it strangely interested me. Of course he had all that incredible stuff going on live – hanging himself and so on. I also nearly did a project with David Bowie, who was a delightful young man; I’m sure he still is. But we couldn’t see a way to combine his style and mine, such as it was, so the project never happened. However, I did see him live. But he was just so loud that everything distorted.”

Tony: “I’ve played rooms where the sound folds back on you and you can’t hear anything.”

Sir Christopher: “When I go to see a good concert from a metal band, it’s exhilarating. Like nothing you’ve ever heard before! But when it’s overly loud it can hurt.”

Tony: “That’s what affected me over the years. When we first started out, nobody used to wear earplugs onstage, and that damaged my hearing. That’s why I have a hearing aid now!”

Sir Christopher: “At your age? You’re no age at all! When you get to my time of life you start to find that things don’t work as they should do. I still have my mental faculties, but it takes me longer to get going in the mornings. The body’s less resilient.”

Tony: “I know how you feel. The same’s happening to me now – and I’m only 28!”

Sir Christopher: “You? But you’re a young man. I could be your father. Seriously, I’m old enough. But you are the emperor of metal. The man who started it all…”

Tony: “No, you started metal!”

Sir Christopher: “Seriously, I’d love to know how you did that.”

Tony: “I began by playing blues in Birmingham. And went on from there to write my own songs. I worked in a factory at the time, and had an accident, which squashed two fingers on my right hand. I was told that I’d never play guitar again…”

Sir Christopher: “Something similar happened to me. I dislocated a finger having a fight after lunch one day with Errol Flynn. That taught me a lesson! But I interrupted you…”

Tony: “I refused to accept that I wouldn’t be able to play guitar. So, I melted down a Fairy Liquid bottle, rolled it into a hot ball, made tips for my fingers, then filed them down to a manageable size. That’s why I play guitar the way I do, because I had to adapt what I did, and therefore hit the strings harder. So, I came up with a heavier sound. Which is, I suppose, where metal comes from. As a band, Black Sabbath were influenced by seeing a lot of your movies…”

Sir Christopher: “The good ones, I hope!”

Tony: “We thought they were all good: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy…”

Sir Christopher:The Mummy… Being in that costume meant all you could see were my eyes. So, I had to use solely these to get across emotion – it was eye acting. Actually, with all of those macabre characters I played, I tried to introduce different things, to give them an extra dimension. So, my Dracula wasn’t like the Bram Stoker novel. And the Frankenstein monster – I tried to get across the fact that he never asked to be made. But playing these roles gave me a start.

“One thing I hate, though, is when people refer to these films as horror. I don’t like the term at all. Boris Karloff, my good friend and one-time neighbour, also loathed calling them ‘horror’ films. To me, they’re fantasy. They’re like fairy stories. There’s also a magic about them. People like to be taken out of themselves and go into a magical world, to forget about everyday life.”

Tony: “Yeah, but people like to be frightened, don’t they? It’s part of what’s made Black Sabbath work over the years. Our darkness provides escapism.”

Sir Christopher: “I don’t understand why anyone would want to be frightened. The most frightening experience I ever had was when I visited the infamous San Quentin prison [in Marin County, California]. I asked if I could visit, and the first thing I was told was that they couldn’t guarantee my safety – which was encouraging!

“They took me round everywhere, apart from the correctional block. I even got to see the gas chamber, which was very unnerving. I was taken through the whole process of how it worked. And I walked across the courtyard with 600 prisoners smoking and chatting…”

Tony: “Apparently, you don’t look them in the eye, because they don’t like that.”

Sir Christopher: “Well, I was asked for my autograph once or twice. Then I went to the lifers’ block and one guy, who was huge, asked if I’d like to see his cell. How could I refuse? So, we went in and it was about nine foot by six foot. And when we were inside, the door was shut and locked! Apparently, it was a way of testing how you reacted. One very well-known person, when it was done to him, screamed, ‘Lemme outta here!’ I just carried on chatting. But the whole thing was very frightening, and that is reality.”

Tony: “Some of the most frightening things which ever happened to me was meeting strange people in the early days of Sabbath. We had a reputation because of our name and also the rumours that we were into black magic, and that attracted odd characters.”

Sir Christopher: “I found that you have to be careful when you are well known. People associate you with a role you play.”

Tony: “Yeah, we did get a lot of fans avoiding us, because they think you must be a monster. There were magazines who wouldn’t interview us, and others refused to work with us.”

Sir Christopher: “I find now that most people who come up and talk to me are very polite and just want my autograph. I’m lucky in that after those Hammer movies established my reputation, I went to America in the ‘70s and got the chance to appear on the very successful comedy show Saturday Night Live. That stopped me from being too typecast. They do say that serious actors always want to do comedy, while comedians want straight roles. There’s also the one about being wary of actors who think they can sing.”

Tony: “I’ve listened to your _Charlemagne _album and you obviously can sing. Maybe we could collaborate in the future?”

Sir Christopher: “Well, if you’re prepared to let me… I remember doing an album in 1998 [Devils, Rogues & Other Villains] and one reviewer wrote: ‘Here’s another actor who thinks he can sing.’ The next line had just two words: ‘He can!’ I inherited my talent for singing.”

Tony: “You sound like a natural baritone to me…”

Sir Christopher: “Well, I can also sing bass parts. But if I do too much of that, it sends people to sleep after about 15 seconds!”

Tony: “Going back to Charlemagne, how long did it take you to record?”

Sir Christopher: “It took about two-and-half years to make. But, while I’m an essential part of it, the real credit should go to Marco [Sabiu] and the wonderful musicians he got together for this. Without them, none of this would be possible.”

Tony: “What attracted you to this in the first place?”

Sir Christopher: “I am someone who likes to try different things. And this is new territory for me. But Joey DeMaio reckons I have a good career ahead of me in symphonic metal! Actually, it was Joey who persuaded Johnny Depp to give up music and become an actor. Johnny had a band in Florida called The Kids. Joey told him to forget being a guitarist! So he doesn’t give out praise lightly. The other thing is that I am apparently a descendent of Charlemagne. But then, everyone in Italy thinks they are…”

Tony: “Yeah, he’s probably my ancestor as well. My family comes from Naples. So, you and I might be related!”

Sir Christopher: “What I am most proud of with this album is that it’s historically accurate. He was a fascinating character: great king, great warrior, a father, devout Christian. But he had to be tough at times. He invited all the tribal chiefs of the Saxons to meet him, and then chopped off their heads. That’s a story we relate in the song The Bloody Verdict Of Verden. He did it to protect his own kingdom. In my time I’ve executed two monarchs…”

Tony: “Yeah, and a lot of people have done you in as well!”

Sir Christopher: “Ha, true. How unfair. Right now, we’re thinking of turning _Charlemagne _into a musical, and there’s also room for a second album. I also want to turn the story of Don Quixote into an album, and possibly a film. I’ve asked Spaniards if they’d accept me playing the role, and they appear positive. He is a Spanish icon, so that acceptance is important.”

Tony: “It’s amazing that you’ve got so much work behind you – something like 280 films – and yet you still carry on…”

Sir Christopher: “I have six more films ready to come out, although some of them only involved one day’s work. I recall David Niven once telling me that he got very nervous about a week before the end of a movie project, because he didn’t know where his next job was coming from. And he was a great star. I think all actors worry about where work is coming from. Even at my age, it concerns me.”

Tony: “The same applies to musicians. You’re always worried about what’s around the corner. Musicians and actors are alike in many ways. In fact, when I go onstage I’m acting a role, really.”

Sir Christopher: “That’s the way I approached the Charlemagne album. I was acting within a musical context. I think I’m very lucky in my career, in that when I started people saw my films, then the next generation watched them on TV. Since then, videos and now DVDs have kept them in the spotlight for each generation. And, of course, Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings mean I’m known to the very young, so people across five decades recognise my work. But metal, that’s for the young really, isn’t it?”

Tony: “I think it’s for everyone. We’ve noticed that these days you’ve got families – grandparents, parents and kids – coming to gigs. It doesn’t have a generation gap. So, there’s hope for both of us!”

Sir Christopher: “Perhaps we should think of working together?”

Tony: “I’ll write a song and send it over to you, see what you think and we’ll go from there.”

Sir Christopher: “I have to warn you that I can’t read music at all. But then some great opera singers can’t either.”

Tony: “Neither can I. So that’s one more thing we’ve got in common!”

SCARE TACTICS

SIR CHRISTOPHER LEE’S GREATEST MOVIE ROLES:

The Curse Of Frankenstein, 1957

In which Sir Christopher played the monster with a balance between uncomprehending rage and fatalism. His rapport with Peter Cushing, who played the baron, crucially started a longtime, classic partnership.

Dracula, 1958

While Bela Lugosi established the template for Dracula on screen, for many it was Sir Christopher who became the most famous of those who’ve played the legendary vampire.

The Mummy, 1959

Sir Christopher proved it was possible to express emotion through his eyes alone. With this he completed the cycle of playing all the great movie monsters, apart from Wolfman.

The Brides Of Fu Manchu, 1966

Playing the seminal oriental villain, Sir Christopher brought the touch of a James Bond nemesis to the role, and gave it a fresh dimension for the 1960s.

The Devil Rides Out, 1968

One of those occasions when Sir Christopher is on the side of good. His character, Duc de Richleau, battles against satanic forces to save the souls of two innocents.

Count Dracula, 1970

This is regarded as the film which has come closest to capturing the essence of the Bram Stoker novel. Sir Christopher gives Dracula pathos as well as devilry.

The Wicker Man, 1973

Brilliant, albeit low-key, film about pagan rites. Sir Christopher’s role as Lord Summerisle is not so much the embodiment of evil as someone doing what’s necessary to protect his people.

The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974

Sir Christopher plays one of the most memorable of all James Bond villains: the cool, suave Francisco Scaramanga, an assassin with three nipples and a lot in common with 007.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, 2001

Sir Christopher made the character of the scheming Saruman his own, with an interpretation that transcended the effects of the movie. He gave Saruman humanity, making him even more eerie.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, 2002

Amidst the detritus of what was regarded as a disappointing film, Sir Christopher’s portrayal of the sinister and bitter Count Dooku gave the Star Wars franchise one of its most memorable villains.