Deliverance from the past... for John Boorman
John Boorman, the acclaimed film director who has lived in Wicklow since the mid 60s, talks about how he never got over the death of his daughter Telsche, the effect his mother's affair with a man had on him all his life and how his new film is an act of catharsis
Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30
The last image in Queen And Country, John Boorman's new movie, is of the main character, based on young Boorman, disappearing beneath the water. In 1958, Boorman's daughter Telsche disappeared beneath the waters of a pond on Emery Down in Hampshire. Her 11-month-old body was discovered lifeless. Pondweed hanging from her mouth, Telsche's heart appeared to have stopped.
More than 50 years later, her father is recalling how that morning he had glanced, completely by chance, at some literature on his desk about a new method of resuscitation and thus was able to blow into his baby daughter's mouth several times, and bring her - miraculously - back to life.
"Babies have the ability to trap oxygen in their brain if the heart stops beating," he says now, "a mechanism, that can sustain life during birthing if the lungs do not immediately function, Sometimes when a baby is born before it can breath itself - its mother's oxygen is cut off because the tube is broken - the baby can seal off the oxygen in the brain and it can survive for 10, 15 minutes."
Sadly, in 1997, his beloved Telsche died of ovarian cancer - "an attack on the very source of life," he says. She was 39. John wrote in his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, "And sometimes still my little mermaid calls to me but her voice is drowned out by the wintry waves that roar on the rocks, and my life flounders too."
"I go. . ." he says now before pausing. "She is buried in Cimetiere de Montmartre. I go there every year for the anniversary. She died on the 12th of February. We buried her on the 14th of February, Valentine's Day. When I go over there, people often say to me, 'Oh, does love bring you to Paris?' I say, 'Yeah, it does, but not the way you think.' Telsche was living in Paris. She was married to a French man." Boorman makes it clear he didn't like him.
"When I revived her from the drowning incident," he continues, "it definitely created a special bond between us. She always said, 'I was born twice. Once by my mother and once by my father.'" Boorman says he will always grieve for her. The look etched on his face seems to say how suffering underlines the human condition. Her daughter Daphne, who was seven when Telsche died 18 years ago, is getting married in October. She has asked Boorman to conduct the ceremony in Morocco. "So I am going to be one of these priests I despise!" The internationally feted director is planning, he says, "oh, a very simple thing. An exchange of rings with a ribbon tying them together!"
Daphne, he adds, has certain traits that remind him of Telsche. "She has the same laugh." In fact, Boorman and Daphne were having lunch in The Roundwood Inn in Wicklow last year when a woman came in who was a great friend of Telsche's. Daphne had her back to the woman, recalls Boorman. "Then Daphne laughed at something or other. And this woman burst into tears. She recognised the laugh. I knew her, of course, when she was friendly with Telsche, but Daphne didn't know her at all. So the laugh she certainly inherited from her mother."
I ask John Boorman is the final image of Queen And Country him - in perhaps his last ever film - going beneath the River Thames to meet his little mermaid for the final time in a watery place of eternity. He nods his head.
His eyes well up with emotion, trying, perhaps, to express the inexpressible. He half smiles and says nothing. It is like that Samuel Beckett line about words leaving a stain on silence. I apologise if I have upset him. He says there is no need to apologise as he likes to talk about Telsche. He says the last shot of Queen And Country is about him in a way going to Telsche. He adds that her death is something he has never got over, because it is not possible to get over. "I lost my eldest daughter. Part of me died with her. I've never been the same since. I never had . . . I never had that feeling of utter joy and pleasure - there's always that weight that holds me down."
Is that why he never left Annamoe, the mansion he lives in alone in county Wicklow, and which he bought in the Sixties? He says yes. In 2002, the last time I met Boorman (he wrote me a lovely letter after the meeting), he recalled playing tennis with Telsche on a glorious day in Wicklow. Suddenly both their eyes were drawn to a birch tree beside the court - a mysterious wind "stirred" from somewhere, and "a shower of leaves fell about it like confetti".
Boorman explained it all by quoting the esteemed Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to the effect that perhaps God exists in the space between two people when they share a revealing moment. "Yeah, yeah, I am surrounded by trees [in Annamoe]," Boorman says adding that he as much surrounded by memories of Telsche in Annamoe.
My lunch companion has been nominated five times for an Oscar. He has never received the nod from the Academy, most shockingly in the case of Southern Gothic tour-de-force Deliverance with Burt Reynolds in 1972, which the New York Times described as "a showcase for some of Mr Boorman's strengths - shimmering pictorial beauty, gliding movement, white-knuckle suspense."
John Boorman is more than a great film maker; he is a gentle soul full of humanity, wit, philosophy, stories. On Newsnight Review in 2003, the Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin noted that Boorman was "a wonderful visionary", before commenting on "the sheer goodness of the man". Add to that, the sheer hilariousness of the man. His late sister Wendy, who is also depicted in the movie, had "these healing powers. I used to always scoff." She lived in Cornwall and when she died, she was buried overlooking the sea. For years, Boorman had "this pain in my neck. And I probably was a pain in the neck!" he chuckles. The pain was so insufferable, however, that he used to wake up every night when he moved in the bed. "I had an MRI. Fundamentally, all the discs had degenerated. But, anyway, when we buried my sister in 1994, the pain in my neck completely disappeared. It never came back."
He has taken a solitary naked swim every day on the river on his land. "I've got a diving board. I dive in there! But I've only been in once this year so far; it's been so cold.
"I'm 82 and I still have all my marbles," he laughs. "I can still get around. My feet are f**ked but other than that ..."
Would he rather great feet and no marbles?
"I'd have to for the marbles," he smiles. Perhaps the reason why John Boorman has kept his marbles is that he has dealt with his past through his movies. Making the autobiographical Queen And Country - a follow-up to 1987's Hope and Glory - was an act of catharsis. A deliverance from his pain. . .
"Directly or indirectly to put out the stuff that has bothered me or affected my life helps," he says. "It helps." His mother's affair with another man is in Queen And Country as is the fact that young Boorman knew about it. "That was something very significant in my life," he explains, "because as you see in the scene it is either betraying my father or betraying my mother. And I think it made me very secretive in my life. I eventually - I hope - got over it, but it was always, always a little bit secretive."
I ask him did he ever tell his father that he knew. "No, no, I didn't. What happened was that he knew about the affair, my father did, and so that caused a certain amount of bitterness, obviously, but when the lover was dying" - Herbert, the lover Boorman is referring to, died in 1950 - "my mother [played in Queen and Country by Sinead Cusack] nursed him. She stopped pretending and there was a sort of radiance in her face. This dying man had given love. It was rather wonderful. I think my father eventually got over it. But that was a big thing. Probably it was the reason I was so attracted to the Arthurian story because of that triangle with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot."
"It crops up in a lot of my work really," he says referring to Excalibur with Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren in 1981. "Point Blank," Boorman adds, referring to the 1967 classic with Lee Marvin, "was the same story. His wife betrayed him with his best friend. So it obviously went very deep."
Boorman adds that his mother, around the time he made Hope And Glory (with Sarah Miles playing his mother this time), got run over by a car. "She didn't break anything but she had bruises all over her body. I used to go to her flat, undress her and lift her into the bath-tub and wash her and wrap her in a sheet to dry her off. It was extraordinary. She said, 'I did this to you so many times. And now you are doing it to me.' Because she was nude, we were incredibly intimate and we could talk about anything. In those evenings, I learned more about her then than I had my whole life."
I ask him what they talked about. "The lover," he replies without hesitation, "which, of course, I had never spoken to her a lot directly at all. Then she talked a lot about her own father. It was fantastic. I probably would never have known any of those things. I learned a lot."
His mother's war-time illicit hanky panky was, he continues, "an awkward thing. My father was in the army and he was away. The friend [Herbert]. . .they had been in the army in India together in the First World War. They were very close friends. They both wooed my mother. My father had a job and the other guy didn't. "I think he was always her love, really. And so my father had to kind of live with that. The thing that complicated it for me was that I liked him very much, the friend. In fact, I kind of preferred him to my father in a way, which I felt guilty about. So there was a lot of stuff going on there."
The emotional resonances of all these pivotal events are evident in Boorman's adult life, courtesy of his parents (his father died at 81; his mother at 95.) He writes in his autobiography about a young woman with whom long ago he shared agreement that as long as they weren't having sex they wouldn't be "betraying" their marriages. One night at a party, they finally kissed. When they looked up from their tongue sandwich, however, the woman's husband was standing there. The following morning he sent Boorman a note.
"You are a shit," it read.
"He and I are good friends," he explains now. "I never consummated my affair with her, but I have been in touch with her always. Actually, it is a wonderful relationship, because there is a kind of purity about it. She is a very beguiling woman. We've been close friends all our lives."
Does he regret not marrying her? "No, no . . . look, it is very difficult. I had two marriages and each of them produced children. You can't, however much you might regret marrying those people . . . you can't regret the children they produced. She was very special, but somehow the purity of the relationship was never tested by living together or anything in a way that all sorts of problems come up."
Boorman has been married twice. In 1990, he separated from Christel, his wife of 39 years, and the mother of four of his children (Katrine, Charley, Daisy and Telsche). In 1995, he married his Brazilian lover of some years, Isabella Weilbrecht, who is the mother of Lola, Lee and Lili-Mae. Would Boorman recommend marriage?
"Would I recommend marriage? I don't know. I've always had great need of having a woman in the bed."
So, is he romancing young maidens all over Wicklow now? "There is the occasional lover," he laughs.
In 1951, he lost his virginity to a girl called Pat. Afterwards, she complimented him on his technique. "I'm so glad that you knew what to do," she told him."I hadn't a clue," he laughs now. He wrote in his journal: "I have lived my life outside the walls, and now the gates have burst open and I ride in triumph into the city, banners flying, drumming. The siege is over."
Are they still in touch?
"I haven't heard from her for 30 years," he says. "The last time I was in touch with her, she married a farmer and had four boys."
Over the course of a three-hour lunch in the InterContinental in Dublin, Boorman's conversation ranges from tennis to driving to death to director Terrence Malick ("he's fantastic") to Pat Shortt ("a brilliant actor" - he's in Queen And Country) to Stalin, Kim Philby, art and music, literature, religion, to his mate Paolo Tullio ("A beautiful man" - Boorman flew back from promoting Queen And Country in Manchester on Thursday to say the last goodbye to Paolo at his memorial service in Trinity College, Dublin), to his other late pal, Stanley Kubrick.
Boorman was born in 1933 in Surrey, in a snowstorm - his father had gone to get the midwife, and by the time they negotiated the elements, "my head had already ventured into the world", he is unforgiving with regard to the great truths he is supposed to have accumulated about life at his age. "Oh, none. Absolutely none. This whole idea that you get wisdom when you get old is nonsense. I think, when I was young I knew everything. Now I have mostly only doubts. I am much less wise and knowledgeable than when I was younger."
How does he think people see John Boorman? "Mostly," John Boorman smiles, "no one gives a f**k. That's true. You get film buffs who revere me, sometimes. But for the most part I think the world is not very interested. And that's how it should be. I've been enormously fortunate to have been able to make movies and also to make movies in such a personal way."
"I have two litters from my two marriages, he adds, "seven kids and they've all been pretty good. I haven't had a drug addict among them. The only thing that I'm proud of, really, in my life is that I think I've been a fairly good father. I've got on well with my kids. I have to say my father did have a playful side to him, which I inherited. I love being with the kids and playing around with them. I've always rather preferred children to adults."
I say to Boorman that he said earlier that he almost preferred the man his mother had the affair with to his actual father. And if one of his children said that about him, he would be horrified presumably? "Yes, I would, but, of course, the joy of having children is also that they're hostages to fortune."
A couple of years ago in Wicklow, Boorman adds, he got pulled over by an Garda Síochana who told him he had been changing lanes at great speed. When he asked for his driver's licence and looked at the name, the young garda's mood seem to change. 'Are you any relation to [the TV star] Charley Boorman?' When he said yes, the guard told him that he was free to go.
The waitress arrives with our bill. Boorman pays it, shakes my hand and gets up to leave.
See you in 13 years, I say to him as he walks almost cinematically out of the restaurant.
"Come to my funeral!"