In the mass media calendar, 1985 looks likely to be the year of Mountbatten. The spring sees the long-awaited publication of the official biography of Earl Mountbatten of Burma by Philip Zeigler following exclusive serialisation in The Sunday Times. His exploits will feature in the summer's 40th anniversary celebrations of victory in Japan. And the autumn will bring the American premiere of a major TV series on his colourful period as the last viceroy of India. Since British audiences may have to wait longer, we preview Nicol Williamson's controversial performance as Mountbatten.
December 30, 1984
Report: George Perry

Casting Mountbatten for a $10 million international screen epic was not easy. Hollywood always prefers to have Robert Redford in everything--as a bankable asset. But even the American backers agreed that the last viceroy would have to be played by a British actor. Nicol Williamson (seen here with co-star Janet Suzman) was the surprising choice.

No stranger to controversy, Nicol Williamson has grasped the plum role of Mountbatten as the viceroy of India firmly and confidently, in the teeth of a certain amount of criticism, some of it informed, some ignorant and some downright malicious. For instance, said a fellow actor: "Nicol's main trouble is that he's got no neck. He's got the height, got the bearing--but no neck." It is undeniable. There was a fine patrician neck on Mountbatten, accentuating his filmstar good looks. He never looked anything but distinguished, whether in the full rig of an Admiral of the Fleet, or in gardening clothes. But Nicol Williamson's head sits firmly on his shoulders with scarcely an intervening inch of flesh; his collar buttons directly under his chin. Added to which, there has been a certain coolness in Mountbatten family circles. His son-in-law, Lord Brabourne, is a prominent film-maker and was recently heavily engaged in the production of David Lean's A Passage to India. Having bravely overcome serious injuries received at the time of the Mountbatten assassination, he has made no attempt to make a film about him.

But a figure as public as Mountbatten belongs to history, and there is nothing to stop anyone from having a go, if they can raise the money. The former boxer-turned-leisure tycoon, George Walker, and the ex-New York Metropolitan Opera singer, Judith De Paul, who produced the entire works of Gilbert and Sullivan for him, hit upon the idea in a memorable taxi ride. A partnership was struck with Mobil Oil to get it on American television, and so a $10 million six-part mini-series was born.

The period selected from Mountbatten's crowded life was its most spectacular--1947, when, with the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan, he was responsible for the granting of independence to 400 million people. Touched on briefly in Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, it was clearly a time worth looking at more closely. The way had already been oiled to get through Indian bureaucracy, and obtain permission to shoot in some of the official places such as the former viceregal palace, now the residence of the Indian president. Mrs Ghandi, who, as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s clever daughter, was a minor figure in the real drama, was greatly interested in the project. With tragic irony she was to die from assassin’s bullets only a few hours after the filming in India of Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy had finished.

Casting Mountbatten was not easy. Hollywood always prefers to have Robert Redford in everything because, although expensive, he is, as they say, bankable. But the Americans regarded Mountbatten as a quintessential Englishman, rather like Noel Coward or Rex Harrison. Even the Americans on this occasion would not have been happy to have had him played by one of their own. And apart from Connery, Caine, Roger and Dudley Moore, there aren't that many bankable British superstars.

Thus the role befell Nicol Williamson. His stage reputation is impeccable--Dundee Rep, Royal Court, Royal Shakespeare, a Tony award for the Broadway production of Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, which was also his first film part. He is a tall, short-fused Scot, born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire in 1938. In most of his films he has played excitable, paranoid characters, and in private he has been acknowledged as a lively party guest.

Inevitably, a tabloid gossip columnist on a thin day sought out one of the innumerable Mountbatten grandchildren in a Chelsea boutique, and got her to aver in shock--horror tones that not only did the plebeian Mr Williamson not look like her late grandpapa but, as he was known to be a bit of a so-called hell-raiser, he was also socially unacceptable.

That's the kind of thing that heightens Nicol Williamson's sense of purpose. "I should think," he said in India when he heard this item, "that there is apprehension that someone like me is playing this part. I should think that within the Mountbatten clan it will be regarded as a great misfortune. By and large, there will be people looking, lurking, waiting for me to fall over, which makes it even more of a challenge for me. In his family, and at Buckingham Palace there will be great discontent that some rather more society figure of an actor hasn't done it. But I don't think that that kind of guy could have pulled it off!

"Obviously, the reaction of the royals, the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, will be the most interesting, because they are the people who will know. If they can say 'That's Uncle Dickie!' then I will have succeeded.

"I've never played anyone famous in living memory before. But I've looked at the practicalities. Not as much is remembered about Mountbatten as it is of Churchill. Few really know what he sounded like in 1947. They only think of his later years. I saw a couple of newsreel snippets shot just before he went off to India. The voice was stronger and more solid. I felt I was beginning to see him."

The performance he likes to invoke when the question of physical differences arises is that of Martin Sheen as John F. Kennedy in last year's mini-series. Sheen triumphed in the face of far more palpable dissimilarities, which included a stature considerably shorter than that of his subject. But by skilful use of his voice and sheer presence, he was able to assume the Kennedy persona with conviction and plausibility. It is a target that Williamson has in his sights.

Unlike almost everyone else in show business, including George Walker, Williamson never met Mountbatten. But he was immensely excited to be offered the part, and spent much time trying to learn about the man. When a camera-laden Lord Snowdon arrived on the set of his last film, Return to Oz, Williamson pumped him for firsthand information. "Tony told me that he couldn't really say very much, but that one of the things that really struck him were his manners--he had the best manners of anyone he had ever known, in the way he talked to and dealt with people. He was very strong and definite, a very imposing personality."

Filming began last summer at Luton Hoo which was standing in for Broadlands, the Mountbattens' Hampshire seat. The scripts by David Butler, as is often the way with television productions, filtered through at a late stage, which made Williamson uncomfortable.

"I'm not someone who is tremendously bright in getting hold of text quickly. I'm a very, very slow learner. I cannot learn parrot fashion. There has to be something spiritual about it, I must fully understand the sense, and how it is presented. The language, syntax and everything else has got to work. I more or less locked myself in the bedroom for five days in my house in Amsterdam. Everyone else had a wonderful time while I forced myself to get the shape of the story into my head. And when we were at Luton Hoo I worked all the time, in the car getting there, over lunch. I didn't really have lunch ‑ I just ate, drank, slept and thought the script, and concentrated hard on the changes that were made."

The fellow leading cast members include several other former Royal Shakespeare actors. Janet Suzman plays Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru is Ian Richardson. There was a demonstration at the GLC's County Hall when some filming took place there, it being felt by some of the Asians that having a Briton play him was inappropriate in the GLC's anti‑racist year. Strangely, in India his casting met with approval. It had come about because someone had photocopied the picture his agent had sent in, and left the contrast too high. His face had appeared in a dusky hue, and proved to be the spitting image of Nehru.

The Casting of Ian Richardson as Nehru caused dissent among some London Asians but general approval in India where his Royal Shakespeare background was greatly admired. His presence will assist television network ratings both in America and in Britain.

Directing the long shoot in Britain, India and Sri Lanka is Tom Clegg, a genial Yorkshireman, renowned for his efficient handling of actors and hundreds of untrained extras, even in the searing heat of an Indian afternoon. Williamson established a productive rapport with him. "I can work very well with Tom he's very down-to-earth, rational and sees things very quickly. He's the essence of the north countryma--phlegmatic, stubborn, can dig his heels in, but he has that wry good humour. He doesn't elaborate--he has an easy and good talent for quickly getting down to the heart of the matter."

Williamson is also, in spite of the devastating impersonations of her that he lays on in private, greatly impressed with the raven-haired producer, Judith De Paul, whose Fifth Avenue neatness even in the most dusty of Indian locations gave her a divine mysticism of her own. In temperatures of over a 100°F she would not even sport bare legs, testifying in the face of all logic that her panty-hose prevented her from perspiring. "She is like a great prima donna," said the admiring Nicol. "She looks after her people, she sees that they are all right. She's very fair like that. There's something about her that's tremendously energetic and good for this project. She and George Walker are alike in many ways, a bit like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

George is very ambitious, a great go-getter, a great puncher. I like the effort that he brings to it all. They have made me realise that as far as the script is concerned, if Ghandi is no good, or Nehru, or Jinnah, or even Edwina, it can still work. But if Mountbatten is no good the whole thing fails.

"One of the things about Mountbatten is that you have to humanise the man. Very little is known of his personal life, a lot about the public one. There are, of course, salacious insinuations. I'm not interested in that--you know, Edwina and Nehru and all that nonsense. If you are going to examine that then it becomes a different story from the one that we are actually doing."

The screenplay is in the line of many other successful history-dramas, in which the viewer eavesdrops on the closed-door conversations of those involved in great events. The period of Mountbatten's reign as viceroy was brief, but exacting, since he had arrived in Delhi in March 1947, succeeding Lord Wavell ("a change of bowling needed," said the ever-terse Attlee) and by August, against massive opposition, bloody riots and political schism, presided over the breakup of a gigantic, significant chunk of the British Empire, effectively ending it. Mountbatten was uniquely suitable for the task.

"Here, I thought," said Williamson, "was a man with a munificent personality, a modern hero in every sense. A past master at making people feel both relaxed and important. Not only did he epitomise the statesmanlike qualities of tact and diplomacy, but he was possessed of a genuine charm, not a coating. He was very good at asking questions, had a high intelligence, an absorbent mind and filmic looks. I had to play him!

"Alan Campbell-Johnston, who was his press secretary, was both useful and guarded about him, and said that he never lost his temper. He could give people a drubbing, but he never rubbed their noses in it. If they didn't come up trumps after that they were out. He didn't harbour grudges, and he didn't suffer fools. He had dignity and balls.

"He was very careful not to give away what he really was--there was a mystique which I think that I can understand.

"If you are good at what you are doing--which I hope yet to be, and I mean that quite sincerely, because I still have the feeling that I haven't started yet--you must also have preserved a sense of mystery about yourself, so that the audience, looking to be entertained, can actually get that same kind of electricity, that I can force from a good play. That's the quality that intrigues me--I think that it is more exciting than anything else. And it is something about Mountbatten that I think that I can understand, because he understood it.

"I'm doing it because I think that it is going to be terrific, an adventure--tremendously exciting and compelling, but it's also going to be hard work!"