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Honor Blackman on Pussy Galore - `It didn`t occur to me I was playing a domineering lesbian`

18-Jun-2004 • Actor News

Honor Blackman tells Allan Brown from the Sunday Times that her character Pussy Galore was no pushover — and neither is she.

Just for the record, Honor Blackman would like it known that she doesn’t consider Charles Kennedy sexier than Sir Sean Connery, despite what the Liberal Democrat leader has been claiming.

Three years ago the actress, a staunch Liberal since 1962, was on the stump with Kennedy in Kingston upon Thames when some mischievous voice from the crowd quizzed her on the respective manly allure of the former 007 and the small, gingery man sitting next to her.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Blackman averred she would go for wee Charlie every time, a recommendation he now cites proudly whenever his gingery smallness is referred to.

But Blackman, recently named by a panel of beauty experts the 90th most lovely woman in his- tory, mouths a pronounced, head-shaking “no” when asked whether Kennedy’s claim to sexual superiority remains justified.

“What was I supposed to say?” she asks, slightly scandalised. “Was I supposed to tell the truth? Oh dear no. It really was very awkward. I do have a fondness for Charlie, though, not least because one of my grandchildren has the same colouring.”

It is the way of the world that Pussy Galore would by now have grandchildren. Forty years on from her career-defining role as the fearsome aviatrix in Goldfinger, the third Bond movie, Blackman retains most of the traits that made Pussy the high priestess of the Swinging Sixties: the cheekbones that could be skied off, the full mouth, a strangely knowing English rose quality that hinted at predatory decadence. If a certain high-born kinkiness is what you’re after, Blackman has been your woman since before the Beatles were on the go, and she can still pull it off.

The reason for our meeting is the fact she is providing the narration for An Evening with Bond . . . James Bond, conducted by Carl Davis, and part of the RSNO Proms. Blackman is receiving us in an office in a west London business centre.

In this sterile setting she is still something of a disquieting presence, stridently exotic amid the flip charts and swivel chairs, with much flamboyant eyebrow work and that voice still sounding like minor royalty after a night on the tiles.

As with all actresses, there is some uncertainty about her year of birth, variously given as 1926 or 1927; certainly she was several years older than Connery when they made Goldfinger together. (“My, how charming you are. Thank you for pointing that out.”) At the time, Connery was drawing flak for his claim that women as wayward as Pussy often deserved a good slap.

“Sean was lovely to me, but I never expected a colleague to say anything so stupid,” says Blackman. “I mean, it was idiotic. He came from the sort of background, I think, where people do say that kind of thing.”

As a Bond star, Blackman was also unusual in that she got to bed the secret agent twice, most famously in the hay. Despite being a sexually ambiguous vamp who ran a flying school of Identikit blonde, cat-suited popsies (before being “cured” of her sapphism by Bond), Pussy Galore represented the high-water mark of the secret agent franchise, the point at which a challenging female foil could finally be embodied. (“I must be dreaming,” says Bond when informed of her name.) After her there were many years of simpering bikini birds tending to the hero’s every need.

“It didn’t really occur to me that I was playing this domineering lesbian,” says Blackman. “We didn’t discuss roles much in those days and certainly I don’t remember analysing the part with the producers.

“We were all very innocent then and Pussy’s orientation might have complicated things too much. It was all so quick. I was a hot property in those days. I was a television star, I did judo, I was dead-ringer right for the role so in I went, wham bam.

“I guess I must have known what Pussy was at the back of my mind. The girls in her flying school all had strangely androgynous names. I didn’t try for anything when playing her, but you can’t help being a bit butch when you’re running around with guns.”

It was Bond producer Cubby Broccoli who was nervous on Blackman’s behalf. He planned to change the character’s name to Kitty Galore until, at the film’s premiere, Prince Philip complimented Blackman on her performance. The royal seal of approval ensured Pussy’s monicker survived.

To some extent, though, the basic work on Pussy Galore had been performed during Blackman’s previous assignment, playing the sexily formidable anthropologist-turned-spy Cathy Gale in The Avengers, another role that traded on Blackman’s innate hauteur.

On her 15th birthday her father gave her the choice of a bicycle or elocution lessons and, feeling that her voice was becoming over-Cockneyfied, she chose the lessons. Ironic, then, to think that Blackman’s name appeared last year on leaked government documents naming celebrities who had refused honours, as Blackman did when she turned down a CBE in 1992. “Well, I’m a republican. I couldn’t have gone to Buck House and done all that nodding and bowing.”

She was put under contract to the Rank Organisation in 1948 but was never, contrary to general assumption, part of its famous charm school, from which demurely aspiring thesps emerged with poise, deportment and a curious habit of speaking like Princess Margaret.

“Oh dear no,” she sniffs. “The charm school was for girls from the fish queue. I was too busy doing plays in the West End to go there. I was on £100 a week, whereas the charm school girls were on a tenner.”

She pauses for more eyebrow-work: “I think Joan Collins went.”

Unlike Diana Rigg, her successor in The Avengers, Blackman’s instincts as an actress were strongly commercial. A post-Bond stint in Hollywood to make the thriller Moment to Moment (“Her loneliness, his hunger . . . so vulnerable, so violent it could only be lived moment to moment!”) proved fleeting. “It didn’t turn out to be a very good film,” she admits, “which is a pity because I was terrific in it! It’s awful if you’re in a film that doesn’t work, but you’re very good.”

At heart there was always something very homely to Blackman’s naughtiness, something safely domestic in her vampishness, qualities that in recent years have allowed her to play a succession of glamorous and coquettish grannies in television sitcoms or the film of Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Her ageless nimbus of posh deviance is also exploited in her long-running touring show Dishonourable Ladies, a survey of femmes fatales through the ages.

In her latest movie, Colour Me Kubrick, with John Malkovich, she plays a character known simply as Madam.

“These days I have to believe I was as beautiful as I was but, then, I never believed it,” she says. “The way I was brought up I’d say to my mother, ‘Do I look all right?’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, you’ll pass in a crowd’. Later, men would say wondrous things about me but I never believed them. I wish I’d appreciated my looks at the time.”

Blackman nods slowly and firmly when asked whether embodying possibly the most memorable character in a Bond movie has made her a magnet for hobbyist bores.

Though happy to play along with the Bond association for the sake of thespian goodwill — she has appeared in six 007 documentaries since 1995 — the series clearly isn’t her kind of thing. For a start she has seen only two of them: Goldfinger and The World Is Not Enough.

“Don’t tell Carl Davis I’ve seen only two or he’ll kill me!” she says. “In the show I discuss the highlights of the films and Carl and his orchestra play the appropriate piece of music. I’d love to see the face of the man in the video shop if I marched in and asked for one of those giant box sets. I really must, though.

“There are some details I can’t seem to remember, because I don’t know the films. I think I saw one with a lot of water in it starring Roger Moore, but I don’t know what it was called.

“Who’s the character who strangles men to death between her thighs?” Xenia Onatopp, in GoldenEye, played by Famke Janssen. “Yes, her! I just can’t remember the woman’s name for the life of me.”

Blackman also takes particular exception to being described as a Bond girl. “I hate it!” The character is one she would have been happy to play in any genre, she says, not just a Bond movie.

“Pussy didn’t just swoon when she clapped eyes on the guy. She had a strong moral sense the audience didn’t expect. Whereas Bond girls are ten-a-penny, with Pussy she couldn’t be too young. How many young popsies have air forces of their own?”

The RSNO ScottishPower Proms: An Evening of Bond . . . James Bond is at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, on Tuesday, June 22.

Thanks to `Tim` for the alert.

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