This week's COUNTRY LIFE carries an interview I did recently with the actor Joss Ackland over a day with him at his rectory home in Clovelly, North Devon. It was a brilliantly sunny day as i drove from our farm near Exeter up the A377 and over to Clovelly.
Arriving early, I went to the Red Lion by the harbour and ran into Johnny Rous, Clovelly's owner, very smartly dressed as he was hosting a German film crew that day. I had anticipated spending an hour with Joss Ackland but what followed was a memorable day and lunch at the Red Lion.
As always, this is the rough version, but I think gets across the nature of the man. We talked a lot about 'White mischief' and he remembered Isabella Blow fondly. I am not able to recount his meeting with Sir Jock Delves Broughton's solicitor in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool where Broughton took his life. Suffice to say I now know, as ever I am likely to, whom it was who killed Lord Erroll.
His acting career has spanned seven decades and he was married to his beloved wife Rosemary for more than half a century, but there is nothing stayed or sentimental about Joss Ackland. Best known to a wider pubic for his lead role as Sir Jock Delves Broughton in White Mischief and CS Lewis in the television adaptation of Shadowlands, Ackland, now 82, (or twenty if you prefer, as he was a leap year baby) is a true actor in the old fashioned sense, able to turn his hand to any part in repertory, musicals or Shakespeare.
He was born to an Irish and often absent father in North Kensington in 1928. His stoic mother took in lodgers to make ends meet as they moved between rented basement flats off Ladbroke Grove, Stoke Newington and Kensington High Street.
“My earliest memories are of being hauled up a series of basement steps in my pram,” he recalls. His accounts of this time, the sheer austerity and privation of wartime and post war London, are told with great detail in his 1989 autobiography, ‘I must be in there somewhere.’
To meet Ackland today, at the Clovelly rectory in North Devon he bought (having seen it in Country Life) with Rosemary in 1989 is to enter the eerie of an albatross who has come to rest. He is surrounded by books, several striking John Bratby paintings and his desk, like Balzac’s at his home in Paris, allows him to face outwards with a large garden window behind.
Ackland has worked with ‘The Greats’ and, it should be said, they have worked with him. Whether in film, on stage, or as General Peron in the West End Stage musical of Evita, despite not being able to read music, he has always made the parts his own.
His heroes include Michael Foot and Harold Pinter and, one senses, his politics chimes with theirs. Yet it was playing John Jorrocks in the West End musical in 1966 that gave him his first big role. “I kept being asked to go hunting,” he recalls. “I wasn’t very keen so just told Rosemary to say that I had broken my leg.”
At the Oxford Playhouse he met Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and they have remained great friends. “I was always more keen on the ladies,” says Ackland. “I have twice resigned from the Garrick Club because I’m not very good in male company, but they keep asking me back.”
Having been accepted for the Central School of Speech and Drama at sixteen, Ackland embarked on a round of repertory. It was at Pitlochry aged only 22 that he met Rosemary Kirckaldy and it was love at first sight and they went on to have seven children. Their love endured until Rosemary’s death in 2002 from motor neurone disease. Shortly before she died, Rosemary told Joss that she had kept a diary since she was a teenager in Malawi, a childhood with her pony Gypsy and three day unaccompanied train rides from her family farm at Limbi to Salisbury in the then Rhodesia.
During the day I spent with Ackland at Clovelly, and a lunch of crab and white wine at the Red Lion by the harbour where he has become a treasured local, we talked of many things from meeting Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra by chance in a jazz club in San Francisco to playing opposite Lauren Bacall at Chichester. Even today, Ackland never forgets a part, place or person he has known and is a breathtaking mimic and raconteur.
At one point over lunch he plays an hilarious skit between Gielgud and Richardson, taking both parts. I am his only audience. Then, nonchalantly, he gets out his pipe and smokes out of the window. Walking one day down the Strand with Spike Milligan, the latter suddenly disappears into a funeral parlour. By the time Ackland caught up, Milligan is on the mortician’s table shouting ‘Service.’
All Ackland’s stories, like his life, are told without conceit or cynicism, the observations and anecdotes of a generous heart. His mentor was Paul Scofield. “He would never take a West End part if he could not be home that night with his family,” says Ackland. One thing, however upsets him. He was once reported as saying that Demi Moore, was ‘Not very bright.” “ I never said that but was not able to apologise to her as she luckily never got to hear about it.”
The light and brightness in Ackland’s life was Rosemary as evidenced in the recently published diaries ‘My Better Half and Me’. He spent six years editing them, a labour of true love. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep for forty years,” he says of their enduringly happy marriage.
Ackland is awake again now, but 41 grand-children come to see him regularly. And Rosemary is never far from his thoughts. Before I leave we visit her hewn grave in Clovelly church. “Isn’t this the most beautiful place on earth?” says Ackland, to eventually break the silence. And on the headstone, it says, quite simply: “Room for one more.”