Still on fire
To coincide with the Olympics, Chariots Of Fire has been re-released to a new generation of cinemagoers. Here, two of its stars, Ben Cross and Alice Krige, tell The Lady what it meant to them to be part of it…
Based on the true story of the bittersweet 1924 Olympic competition between the two outsiders, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the film Chariots Of Fire was a runaway success. Its Oscars included Best Picture for producer David Puttnam, Best Original Score for the haunting soundtrack by Vangelis, and Best Original Screenplay for Colin Welland. The list goes on…
Played Harold Abrahams
It’s 20 years since Ben Cross last saw Chariots Of Fire. The reason is perhaps surprising. ‘I was frightened that it might open up an emotional Pandora’s box,’ he says. ‘Every frame is a memory for me. And yet, when I was making it, I had no sense that I was caught up in what turned out to be something so special.’
So it casts a long shadow. Nor is it an experience Ben will forget. ‘Physically and emotionally, the first week of shooting was the toughest of my professional life – ending with backto- back scenes with Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson. And this was pretty much my first film. On the Saturday night, I got home, fell into my wife’s arms and bawled like a baby.’
He trained for three months before he was finally offered the role. ‘I was fit as a flea when filming began,’ he says. Ben was 32 at the time, but he portrayed Abrahams from the age of 19 to 24 throughout the course of the film. And nor is Ben Jewish, a birthright that was essential to Abrahams’s psyche, not to say chippiness (Ben’s origins are Irish Catholic).
But ask him if Chariots remains the jewel in his professional crown and the answer is ambivalent. ‘Yes, it does, and very often to my considerable annoyance. I must have appeared in 90 films, none of which has been as successful. I wish it had been otherwise. But initially, of course, it had a very positive effect on my career.’
By his own admission, though, he did not take the unfamiliar acclaim in his stride. ‘I think at that stage I could have been perceived as not being a nice person, that this huge success had gone to my head. I gained a reputation for being difficult on set – not because of any ego trip but because I became quickly intolerant of what I felt was a lack of professionalism in others.
‘For a decade or so after that, I longed for a role that would lay the ghost of Harold Abrahams to rest. But I’ll be 65 at the end of this year. You change, you mellow. That movie was half my life ago. I’ve moved on. I feel much warmer towards it now.’ So, was it a milestone or a millstone?
‘Truly,’ says Ben, ‘a bit of both.’
Although he has worked constantly down the years ever since, the next time there was a huge flurry of interest was when Ben was cast as Spock’s father in the 2009 Star Trek film, a prequel to the original television series. ‘So it took a pair of rubber ears to bring me to a whole new audience – and I’m grateful for that.’
Other favourite roles? ‘I loved playing the baddie opposite Sean Connery, Julia Ormond and Richard Gere in First Knight, and I enjoyed The Potato Factory for Australian TV, and Robert Ryland’s Last Journey, in which I was cast as William Franklyn’s terminally ill gay lover.’
Trim and toned, he visits the gym as often as he can. ‘Once you turn 50,’ he says, ‘you have to exercise every day.’ He’s often in the States. So where’s home? ‘I’m still looking. To be honest, I know where I am on a film set or on a stage. That feels like home to me.’ He has two children (Lauren, 34, and Theo, 32) from his first marriage to Penny, which ended in divorce in 1992, as did his second, to Michelle, in 2005.
To tie in with the Olympics, Chariots Of Fire is being re-released. How does he feel about that? ‘I’m planning to attend the premiere,’ he says. ‘And I hope it will make me feel incredibly proud. I’m ready now to embrace the movie with all the love in my heart and take that with me to my grave.’
Played Harold’s wife, Sybil
In her final year at the Central School of Speech & Drama, having moved from her native South Africa in 1976, Alice Krige was cast as Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night in Richmond, Yorkshire. While there, she struck up a friendship with one of the other students, a girl called Samantha, who was in charge of costumes.
‘The following March, Sam called me. She was assisting her aunt, Esta Charkham, who was casting for a new film called Chariots Of Fire. They were looking for someone to play Sybil, who eventually becomes Harold Abrahams’s wife. Would I be interested in sending over a photograph of myself?’ One audition and one screen test later and Alice, now 58, landed the plum part.
‘I wasn’t in the least intimidated, although this was my first film role. That had something to do with my youth, I dare say. I saw it as the most astonishing adventure. I’m much more frightened now, but then over the years I’ve become much more aware of the pitfalls involved.’
She finished filming Chariots on a Saturday in June and started work on an American miniseries of A Tale Of Two Cities the following Monday. By December, she was in the US shooting the film Ghost Story.
‘So I missed the premiere of Chariots Of Fire in the UK.’ And by the time it was released in America, she was back in England at the Royal Shakespeare Company playing Cordelia to Michael Gambon’s Lear. ‘As a result, the Oscars’ success of Chariots somewhat passed me by.’
She has nothing but happy memories of the making of the film – and for more than one reason. ‘It launched my career, and it’s also where I met my husband, Paul Schoolman, who was a trainee from the National Film School. So, throughout the shoot, I was in a dream of love and, 32 years later, we’re still together.’
In the second half of the 1980s, Alice worked almost exclusively on various American TV series shot in Europe. However, in 1990, she and Paul moved to Los Angeles, only for her to be offered TV work back in the UK. For instance, she was in Scarlet And Black with Ewan McGregor and Rachel Weisz, and in Sharpe’s Honour with Sean Bean.
The couple might still be living in California but for an act of God that could have cost them their lives. In November 2007, a fire swept through the canyon in which she and Paul were living, killing two of their dogs and destroying their house – only a rescue dog called Skipper survived. Luckily, Alice and Paul were away working at the time.
Back in England, they were offered space in the top of a house in London’s Hampstead, which belonged to an elderly friend. A year later, he died and left them the property.
Ask her to come up with her dream scenario 10 years from now and she doesn’t hesitate. ‘I’d be very grateful still to be working as an actor and as a producer, too.’ She’s just produced her first film, which was written and directed by Paul.
And personally? ‘A friend from Malibu once told me about attending a weekend course, during which the Dalai Lama gave a lecture. At the end, filing out of the hall, my friend happened to fall into step with the Dalai Lama and confessed to him that he didn’t feel he had the strength of character to practise what he’d heard.
‘The Dalai Lama said, “Forget everything I’ve been telling you but remember one thing. Be kind.” That’s harder than you might think, as he discovered. But, in whatever time is left to me, my aim is to be kind. And, if I can achieve that,’ says Alice Krige, ‘I shall die happy.’
The digitally remastered version of Chariots Of Fire is on general release; it is also available on Blu-ray.
20 Olympian facts
Eric Henry Liddell
Liddell was born in China on 16 January 1902 and died there on 21 February 1945; some of China’s Olympic literature lists him as its first Olympic champion.
He is often called the Flying Scotsman, after the recordbreaking locomotive.
He was once described by a former headmaster as ‘entirely without vanity’.
Liddell captained his school’s cricket and rugby teams.
Eltham College named its Eric Liddell Sports Centre after him.
He studied Pure Science at the University of Edinburgh.
His Christian roots meant he was asked to speak for the Glasgow Students’ Evangelical Union.
He won Gold in the 400 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics but famously refused to compete on Sundays (the day of the Sabbath), so was unable to participate in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relay teams.
As of 2009, Liddell was honoured with a feast day, 22 February, on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA).
According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were: ‘It’s complete surrender,’ referring to how he gave his life to his God.
Harold Maurice Abrahams
Harold was born in Bedford on 15 December 1899 and died on 14 January 1978. He was the younger brother of the Olympic long jumper Sir Sidney Abrahams.
Before going to the University of Cambridge, Abrahams served as a lieutenant in the British Army.
He was President of Cambridge University Athletics Club.
A fan of music theatre, he was a member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society at university.
Although he dominated British long jump and sprint events, Abrahams was not expected to win his Gold medal in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
His athletic career was abruptly ended in 1925 when he broke his leg doing the long jump.
He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1934.
Abrahams wrote a number of books, including The Olympic Games, 1896-1952, and The Rome Olympiad, 1960.
In 1936, he reported at the Berlin Olympics for the BBC.
Abrahams and his wife Sybil Evers had one adopted son, and one adopted daughter.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918