There is a nineteenth-century saying: ‘What the fool does in the end the wise man does at the beginning.’ I was never sure in which category I belonged. There were times when I was an odd mixture of the two. Sometimes I faltered at the start and redeemed myself at the end; on other occasions the reverse was true. But I always learnt the lesson, even if I forgot it soon after. That, in brief, was the essence of my life – a long hazardous journey, punctuated by great moments of triumph and short periods of disenchantment.
My business career in banking and commerce followed a somewhat unconventional pattern, and 1975, a year of major diversification, proved true to form. Opportunities opened up and my agenda began to brim with new enterprises. Show business was one of them. I had become director of Paradine Co-Productions Ltd, a company formed with David Frost to produce a new film adaptation of the story of Cinderella.
The script, based on the French version of the folk tale written by Charles Perrault in the late seventeenth century, was to be a collaboration between Bryan Forbes and the song-writer brothers Richard and Robert Sherman.
Bryan was an experienced actor, scriptwriter and director who had worked on many successful films, among those he directed being Whistle Down the Wind and The L-Shaped Room. The brothers Sherman, whose previous credits included such hits as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, were to write the score, which would include twelve original songs. Bryan would direct. It was an ambitious project requiring a budget of two million pounds which was secured from an overseas source.
In May we announced the film was going into production. Richard Chamberlain, famous for his role as Dr Kildare in the television series, was to play the charming prince, with a relatively unknown young actress, Gemma Craven, as his Cinderella. Others in the cast included Margaret Lockwood and Kenneth More, Michael Horden and Dame Edith Evans.
An unusual amount of press coverage followed the announcement, focusing on my involvement. The journalist George Hutchinson, who had been a friend since my early days in England, featured me in his weekly column in The Times as ‘the one who intends to save the British film industry from eclipse… for which’, he added, ‘we would have cause to thank him’. Others took a more political approach, the show-business journal Variety heading its report ‘Palestinian Financier Invades Showbiz with Shangri-La Coin’, while the Jewish Chronicle asserted that there were ‘No Strings to Arab Film Money’. The film’s profile received a further boost when the Queen Mother, accompanied by Princess Margaret, visited the set at Pinewood Studios to watch Bryan Forbes directing his illustrious cast.
Since several scenes for the film were shot on location in Austria, I went with my wife Maria and son Ramsay, then aged eleven, to stay five days with the crew. It was a novel and exciting experience that left us with some vivid memories. Richard Chamberlain pranced around, looking rather effete in his costume and keeping to himself most of the time, whereas the rest of the cast were more sociable and warm. Kenneth More in particular displayed an affable humour and entertained us with some amusing stories. He had an immediate rapport with Ramsay, taking him under his wing throughout our stay to explain all the intricacies of film-making.
Kenneth closely resembled in real life the characters he had portrayed on screen in films like A Night to Remember, Genevieve and Northwest Frontier. He was a British actor of the old tradition, possessing a special quality of poise and charm all but extinct today. In his memoirs, Kenneth More or Less, he recollected the scene we shot in Southwark Cathedral by special dispensation of the bishop, Dr Mervyn Stockwood, when the aged Dame Edith Evans, who had only one line in the scene, ‘That girl ought to go’, kept nodding off. Every time Kenneth nudged her awake she immediately delivered her line, ‘That girl ought to go’, with impeccable professionalism.
All the signs for the film, given the title of The Slipper and the Rose, looked promising. Only a few days before the performance, on 24th March 1976, The Slipper and the Rose received its première at the Odeon, Leicester Square, having been selected as the Royal Command Performance film for the year. As I stood waiting to be presented to the royal patrons, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, the press-camera lights flashing all around, I felt I had entered a new world.
What a journey I had travelled since the early days of my marriage, when we lived in a small flat in Holland Park that did not even have its own bathroom. There, in sheer frustration, with my life still going nowhere, I once wrote a fan letter to my hero of the time, Marlon Brando – hoping to find a way into the film industry. Of course, I received no reply. But here I was now in this select line-up, among stars and show-business celebrities. The Sherman brothers, being American, were every bit as elated as I was to be waiting to meet the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The Queen Mother took everything in her stride. One of the brothers had a girlfriend in tow – a stunning blonde, dressed to kill and exhibiting a most impressive cleavage. The Queen Mother didn’t bat an eyelid.
Afterwards, along with David Frost, Bryan Forbes and Stuart Lyons, we partied till well beyond midnight and sent out for the morning papers to read the press notices and comments. Critics hailed The Slipper and the Rose as a shining example of what the British film industry was capable of achieving if given the chance.