(Preamble: David Lean’s strikingly exotic wife, Leela, told me that David had decided to cast me in his forthcoming film Lawrence of Arabia. "And it wasn’t because of my sifarish. David never listens to anyone’s sifarish", she stuttered.
A few days later my agent, Brian Mellor rang me up to say that he had received a firm offer. I learned that it was a small part. I was disinclined to accept it, but Brian told me not to be silly. He took me out to lunch at the ‘Ivy,’ and said, "Look here, you have made your mark on the theatrical world of London, but now you need international exposure. You mustn’t turn down this offer." Working with a director of the stature of David Lean, he stressed, would be highly beneficent for my career. Brian was more than an agent; he was a friend.)
I was flown to the camp, set up by the ‘Lawrence’ unit in Akaba, six weeks before filming started, in order to learn to ride a camel. Peter, who arrived before me, had already begun his training.
Akaba was a small military outpost of the Jordanian monarchy. The unit had installed two rows of tents not far from the sea. I was taken to mine. An Arab, dressed in a shirt and slacks, brought my luggage. I was told that he was going to be my ‘batman’. Peter was out somewhere riding his camel.
My batman, Gameel, stayed in the tent, ostensibly to help me unpack but, really, to size me up. He was a garrulous Palestinian who had been recruited in the unit, he claimed, because "I speak English very good." In my first encounter with him he tried to sell me a Rolex watch "for five bounds, very small price" but didn’t succeed.
Late in the afternoon, I was sitting in my open tent, brooding over the forthcoming ordeal, when Peter walked in with a welcoming smile. He was accompanied by his trainer, a burly ex-army captain whom he sometimes called Jock. "O that I were a glove upon that hand that I might touch that check," he boomed in the manner of the late Robert Atkins. The news that I had been cast as Romeo by the Royal Shakespeare Company had obviously reached him.
It was quite a surprise to see him. He had changed completely. He looked taller than when I had seen him on the stage in The long And Short And The Tall. Gone was his long, Cyrano-esque nose. He now had a most refined and chiselled nose giving him the looks of a matinee idol.
The next day he invited me to his well-furnished tent to go through our lines. We did so in between small talk. Around mid-day I suggested that it was time for a cold beer. He looked at his trainer, who had been present throughout the session as if to say ‘What are we to do?’ The trainer said he would see if he could organise something. He returned after a while bringing me a bottle of cold lager. "Go ahead", Peter said. "What about you?" I asked. He stroked his chin thoughtfully before saying, "I don’t think I feel like it."
I was taken aback. I had heard many tales about his drinking capacity. It was rumoured in the ‘Buxton’ that he could outdrink anyone. I felt a bit guilty sipping the liquid offered to me.
The catering people, attached to the unit, had installed a large tent which served as a mess. We dined there. David Lean and his Indian wife, Leela, sometimes joined us for dinner. The crew, the technicians and the administrative staff were served with beer, or wine if the Leans were present. Throughout our stay in Akaba, I never saw Peter take any of the stuff in the mess. His trainer, who shadowed him like a bodyguard, had apparently been instructed to see to it that he kept to his vow to remain on the wagon.
A barbed wire fence separated Akaba from Elat, the Israeli seaside resort. You could see plump ladies swimming or sunbathing on the sand. Peter would sometimes scan the scene through his field glasses. If he ever spotted a ‘tasty chick’, as he put it, he would lend his glasses to me to share the view. But that was before Sian, (his wife) arrived.
Camel riding is a bizarre business and very painful. For the first two days Peter and I took the same route with our trainers behind us. We were told not to use our reins and try to feel being one with the camel. We had to ride two hours in the morning and two in the late afternoon. After two or three days we were sent on different routes.
My trainer, a slim, lithe, leather-faced Bedouin, named Qais, rode his camel with the ease and grace of a hawk in flight. He could only speak Bedouin Arabic so I tried to understand his instructions through gestures. After a week, all I learned was how to trot -- and a few Arabic phrases. Peter was already claiming that he was about to acquire the knack of galloping.
By now there were blisters all over my bum. The Jordanian doctor, who covered my cheeks with thick wads of plaster, told me to rest for a few days. I didn’t. I was meant to be Lawrence’s guide, and his mentor as a camel rider; I had to be twice as good as Lawrence. I went ahead with my practice and paid dearly for it, but that is another story.
* * * * *
The dialogue coach, Hugh Miller, with his patrician looks, was everybody’s idea of a kindly uncle. He was engaged primarily to assist Peter with his diction. He had been on the faculty of RADA and when he was informed that I, too, had been to RADA he was courteous enough to allow me to be present when he conducted his initial sessions with Peter. Peter read out his lines and Hugh Miller interrupted him only when he felt that Peter was not inflecting the right word.
I was sitting next to ‘uncle’ Hugh at dinner one evening -- Peter wasn’t around -- and I asked him if Peter’s speech was far-removed from that of T.E. Lawrence. "mmm… No," he said "I wouldn’t say that, but he tends to flatten his vowels now and then, and we are trying to sort that out."
Peter worked assiduously with his coach. After dinner, other people either played cards or exchanged smutty stories but Peter would sit with his coach in his tent and be engrossed in the script. It was evident that he was more than determined to spend every ounce of his energy in building up "Aurance".
(to be continued)
Read the second part here