The fat man who can't afford to be thin
PATRICK NEWELL has the blameless air of a fat man who's got a perfect alibi. There's nothing guilty, furtive or nerve-wracked about Mr. Newell. No references to hereditary influences in the wife's cooking. Nothing, in fact, but the extreme satisfaction of a man who made a plan 18 years ago, stuck to it, and can now sit back and see it pay off.
His plan, quite simply, was to get fat. No-one looking at him today - a reckless 20st., standing 5ft. 11in. in his home-made moccasins - could say he'd fallen down on the job. No one would say, either, that he'd much in common with, say Gandhi, until you realise that it must have needed the same kind of dedication which made Gandhi thin, to bring Newell to his present self-proclaimed 50-50-50 statistics.
He wasn't an outsize child. He did tend to plumpness in his teens, but it wasn't till he looked around him at drama school and saw the lie of the land that he took his momentous decision.
"We were a bumper crop in my year at RADA," he explains. "Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney - and me. I looked at them and I saw talent. I looked at me - and thought fast. I decided it was a question of getting fat or going home to Suffolk for keeps."
He paused delicately. "As you may see for yourself, I chose the former course." Not the most orthodox way to theatrical distinction but a highly effective one. At 36 he's one of the best-known heavies in the business.
It's thanks to his girth that he won his contract as Mother, Steed's colourful, irascible boss in The Avengers.
When the Americans saw him in a preview of the series, in what was meant to be a cameo part, they delivered their ultimatum. "They said," declares Newell, drawing on a large, evil cigar in a silent film-type imitation of American Big Business, "we want the Fat Guy."
They got The Fat Guy. Newell got a contract that runs until next March and a chance to break into the American market.
But he nearly missed the whole issue because of the "Britishness" that attracted the Americans in the first place. ("Americans do so love seeing large, fat Englishmen in ridiculous situations," he sighs.)
In proper public schoolboy order he reacted like a nervous colt when he discovered the name of the cameo part he'd been offered by producer Brian Clemens. "A messenger came roaring up to my door with the script, threw it in and tore off on his motor bike. If he'd delayed for even a split second I'd have flung it back at him. Mother indeed! They just had to be joking."
They weren't though. When he'd stopped huffing and puffing and swearing complicated English oaths, he gave in and Steed got what a lot of envious civil servants may have felt was coming to him for a long time - a boss.
Invidious as Mother may have seemed to a red-blooded Englishman, the part does carry some mysterious benefits. On the set Newell gets the kind of respect reserved for the hard-working mothers of large families.
"Everyone on the set will sit in Steed's chair or Tara King's or the producer's, but they'll never sit in mine. And everyone calls me Mother. It's all rather sweet," says Newell doubtfully.
As an ex-TV villain (200 times) it came as a shock to find that jaws relaxed and eyes softened at his approach. What, he can't help thinking, would his sinister model, Sydney Greenstreet, say if he could see him now? And Charles Laughton. What would he think of the about-turn of his most ardent disciple? Would he ever call him Mother?
"I'm terribly impressionable," sighs Newell. "When I was at RADA one of my teachers over-estimated my common sense and made a fleeting reference to my resemblance to Charles Laughton.
"That was enough for me. A London cinema had a Charles Laughton season just then and for a whole week I went charging off to the balcony in a state of advanced hysteria every afternoon. On the Friday, the manager tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to step outside. He'd been watching me, he said, and he wondered if there was some way he could help. When I told him, he gave me a long look and a free ticket for Saturday."
That manager wasn't exceptional. Newell attracts long looks from practically everyone, including his wife Derina who shakes herself occasionally and tries to bring him back to our rather grey world. For someone small and fine-boned and slender, a terrier to his bulldog, she succeeds surprisingly often.
But he's a man who reaches a highly imaginative level of existence, and dragging him back to the cold light of common day isn't an easy assignment
His friend Robin Ray had a go on one historic occasion.
"A fellow I knew dropped out of Kismet - he was playing the Wa..[sorry, word obscured here] - and he suggested I should apply for the job. I did, and what's worse, I got it. I couldn't sing then and I didn't know the part. But I never doubted I could do it.
"I was floating down the street when I bumped into Robin Ray - he went pale when I told him I'd never seen Kismet in my life. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down to Chappell's, the music publishers. I went pale when I heard the record. It sounded like grand opera.
"I thought I was going to pass out but it was too late to do anything but buy the record, listen to it over and over again and hope for the best.
"The whole thing was horrific. I was so nervous I used to beat time with the toe of one enormous boot and send quivers through the whole theatre - they kept hissing at me to stop, to remember the microphones - but I couldn't."
His resistance to ludicrous situations is, he says, lamentably low. When he was seven, he spent a long winter day clinging grimly to an unwilling pony, whipping in hounds for a "95-year old huntsman in Suffolk."
"All the able-bodied men were at war. There was only him and me left to carry on. We lost the whole pack between us. I'll never quite get over the shame of it. Nowadays hounds just look at me and keel over."
With some of The Avengers proceeds he's going to buy a Rolls Royce. "I'm quite happy with my old Volkswagen but are the fans? Oh no! They look at me in my steady, respectable, middle-class vehicle and the clever ones yell: "Is that the best you can do then, Guv?" And you say, to yourself, that's a point. You go off and put yourself into debt and hope that by the time they see you in your Rolls, Minis haven't taken over."
From The TV Times, England, 1968.
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