By Len Maynard
Have I ever recounted the story of my one and only meeting with Hollywood legend Stephen Spielberg? I don’t think so. As a working writer over the best part of half a century, I suppose the meeting of two giants of their respective artistic fields was almost inevitable. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think I need to fill in some preliminary details, to explain how such an historic encounter came about.
My first wife, unlike me, was not a huge film fan, but she did have a fascination with fame and celebrity and wanted to get as close to that world as possible. I think she had taken a long cool look at me and decided that I was not a passport holder to the lifestyle that appealed to her so much. If she wanted to mix with the rich and famous, she would have to take steps to elevate herself to the glitzy, glamorous world to which she aspired. The chance for her to do this came in late 1976 when she changed careers and went to work as a secretary in a high-profile firm of accountants based in Holborn. The company’s clients included firms very much involved in the UK film business, and the next year when it was time for the Royal Film Performance, which was staged each year to benefit the Film and Television Benevolent Fund, the company for whom she was working was one of the associated firms to be given a handful of complimentary tickets for the event. So, it was a delighted woman who came home one evening clutching two tickets for a film premiere to be held in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. And I would be on escort duty
Come the day of the event we travelled up to the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square not knowing what to expect. The film chosen that year was 84 Charing Cross Road, based on the book by Helene Hanff, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, which suited me just fine. I was familiar with the book, having read it some years before, and was an admirer of both Hopkins and Bancroft. What I wasn’t prepared for was the hoopla that went along with such events.
As ticket holders we were required to enter the cinema via a walk along the red carpet together with the film stars and celebrities attending the premiere, which we dutifully did. To my surprise…and mild alarm…I found myself being photographed by members of the crowd roped off from the red carpet. I wasn’t really sure how to react to this, so I lowered my head and hurried towards the entrance of the cinema.
Once inside, we were shown to our seats and invited to watch the Royal party’s arrival, beamed live onto the huge screen inside the auditorium. It was certainly an experience and one only a handful of people would ever share. And when the Queen actually entered to take her seat, the atmosphere in the cinema suddenly went from anticipatory to electrically charged. A quite remarkable phenomena, and one I would not have believed had I not witnessed it first-hand.
I watched the film and enjoyed it hugely, but then it was over. Her Majesty and party were ushered out of the auditorium and the ‘meet the stars’ presentation was again beamed in for the audience to watch. And then the Royals took their leave and we, the audience, were allowed out of the cinema. I found myself in the foyer, milling about with dozens of others who were awaiting taxis and others who were catching up with old friends and renewing acquaintances. It was also a great opportunity to play spot the star, although I can’t now remember a single famous face from that evening, apart from film director Michael Winner, who I had seen quite recently on the Michael Parkinson show. And there he was, in the flesh, puffing away on a huge cigar and as ebullient as he had been on Parky. On the way home I decided that if the opportunity ever presented itself to me again, I would pay more attention to the people I with whom I’d be hob-nobbing.
That opportunity presented itself the very next year when Empire of the Sun as chosen to be the royal film and my wife arrived home from work with the tickets. I knew little about the film apart from the fact that it was directed by Stephen Spielberg and based on a book by JG Ballard, who I knew as a science fiction author, but this was a semi-autobiographical account of his war-time experiences. So, I was looking forward to the night in a ‘don’t expect too much’ kind of way.
We arrived at the cinema and did the whole red-carpet thing again – this time hearing comments from the crowd as we passed. ‘Get their picture.’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘Dunno. Get it anyway.’ Flash! Flash! Flash! This year the performance was in the presence of Prince Charles and his beautiful young wife, formerly Lady Diana Spencer, who during the filmed introductions with the stars, flirted outrageously with all the male cast members, staring at them coyly from beneath seductively lowered eyelids. Everyone, myself included, was completely captivated by her.
Again, the film passed by in a flash and we were ejected out into the foyer to play spot the star again. Determined this year to actually interact with some of the famous people I was coming into contact with, I milled about outside the cinema, finding myself face to face with TV weather girl, Ulrika Jonnson who was fresh-faced, freckled of skin, and quite gorgeous. As I stood before her, mouth opening and closing like a cod trying to grab some air, she gave a hesitant smile and walked past me to speak to someone much more interesting and less fish-like.
From Ulrika my gaze moved through the crowd, passing over Michael Winner with his ebullience and the ever-present cigar, and alighted on Christian Bale, the thirteen-year-old star of the film. Now here was someone I could handle. He was a kid. “Great film. Christian,” I said. “Thank you,” he replied shyly, but then our attention was drawn to Cher and her entourage leaving the cinema under a barrage of flash bulbs as they headed to a fleet of limousines pulled up outside. When I looked again Christian Bale had gone. A near miss, I thought as I headed home.
“So, what was it like to meet Stephen Spielberg?” Mick, my writing partner at the time said.
‘I didn’t meet him,” I said.
“But he was there. I saw him the paper. You could have mentioned our stories, maybe pitched a few ideas to him.”
‘I came face to face with Ulrika Jonnson,” I said in a half-hearted defence.
“Did you pull her?”
The next year’s film was Madame Souzatska. Apart from literally rubbing shoulders in the foyer with the film’s star, Shirley Maclaine, and the fact that Michael Winner’s cigar was perhaps bigger that the previous year’s, there is nothing to report. So, we shall move onto the 1990 film performance of Always, another Stephen Spielberg directed film starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman.
I had made up my mind. After three years of wasted opportunities and near misses, this was going to be my year. I made the most of the red-carpet walk – this time stopping to pose for the odd Instamatic snap and roundly ignoring the professional paparazzi smudgers – well, they were ignoring me so, tit for tat I thought.
The only thing I really remember now about the film was that it was instantly forgettable and perhaps the worst Spielberg film I have ever seen. In fact, the whole evening was shaping up to be as forgettable as the film. My hopes were pinned on the after-show in the foyer and in Leicester Square itself. I found myself outside, with one goal in mind. I was going to meet Stephen Spielberg and I was going to make it count. And then I saw him, leaving the cinema through a different door…and I made my move, brushing past bloody Michael Winner and his everlasting cigar, I found myself eyeball to eyeball with the great man.
“Great film, Stephen,” I wittered untruthfully.
‘Thank you,’ he replied graciously and climbed into a limo waiting kerbside with the engine idling.
As I reached into my top pocket for the page of story ideas I had jotted down on the way here, the limo driver gunned the engine and carried Stephen Spielberg and my unspoken dreams away into the night.
There were to be no more film performances, Royal or otherwise after that one. My wife and I split up the next year, so my escort duties were dispensed with.
Any regrets? Plenty…but that’s for another time and another blog
Len Maynard has been writing for over forty years and publishing for about half that time.
He has recently reclaimed the rights to all the Jack Callum novels (https://mybook.to/jackcallum1) and will be re-publishing them under his own imprint. All books will be available in paperback and Kindle format. Should any readers prefer a different e book format then please contact Len and he will provide another file. email@example.com
To find out more about Len, his books and publishing, go to https://lmp-lenmaynardpublishing.com/