RICHARD KAY: Goodbye to the Great Gambon

RICHARD KAY: Goodbye to the Great Gambon – His rich voice lit up a string of classics from the Harry Potter movies to the Singing Detective. But behind his enigmatic public persona was a complex double life with a wife in Kent and a lover in London

For those who like their screen heroes larger than life, Sir Michael Gambon, who has died at the age of 82, fulfilled an awful lot of fantasies.

From the bedridden crime writer in The Singing Detective whose naked body is slathered in lotion by an alluringly beautiful Joanne Whalley to the all-knowing Dumbledore — be-whiskered headmaster of the wizarding school Hogwarts in the Harry Potter franchise — and sadistic crime boss Eddie Temple in Layer Cake, his roles were as complex and obscure as the man himself.

He was the master of the disarming one-liner, telling one interviewer who wondered if it was difficult to play the homosexual author Oscar Wilde for a TV film that it was easy since he used to be gay himself. After a theatrical pause he added: ‘I had to give it up. It made my eyes water.’

Such light-hearted dissembling, along with playing practical jokes on everyone from fellow actors to his own devoutly Catholic mother — who believed his story that he once appeared on stage with the future Pope John Paul II — was all part of Gambon’s near-obsessive preservation of his privacy.

One reason, perhaps, was the double-life he led. On the one hand there was Anne, his mathematician wife of 61 years, and their son Fergus, a ceramics expert who has appeared on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, and who were both at his hospital bedside when he died following a bout of pneumonia.

Sir Michael Gambon, who played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series, has died at the age of 82

Sir Michael pictured with his wife of 60 years Lady Anne Gambon as they walk in the garden of their home in Gravesend, Kent

Sir Gambon’s roles were as complex and obscure as the man himself. Pictured in Brideshead Revisited 

And then there was set designer Philippa Hart, 25 year his junior and with whom he had two further children.

For some, maintaining such a complicated domestic life would be an impossible burden — but not Sir Michael, who was knighted in 1999 for services to drama. For more than a decade he played the dual role of lord of the manor at the £5 million marital home he shared with Lady Gambon near Gravesend, Kent — while also being an adoring father to his teenage sons Tom and Will at Philippa’s house in West London.

READ MORE: JK Rowling pays tribute to Sir Michael Gambon as Emma Watson and Rupert Grint share touching stories about their Harry Potter co-star

By all accounts, the arrangement — for Gambon, at least — was a happy one. ‘Michael was never happier than when his boys were on the set,’ Hetty Baynes, who appeared opposite him in The Casual Vacancy, told the Mail in 2015.

‘They were so sweet, and you can see he absolutely adores them. But I’m sure they run him ragged. Having a child later in life can be an exhausting thing, but it brings so much joy. But Philippa is amazing. She does an awful lot of the work and she’s absolutely delightful.’

Gambon was 67 when he became a father second time around.

This was a rare insight into the intensely private Sir Michael’s life.

His affair with Ms Hart began in 2000 when they worked together on the film Longitude, in which he starred as the 18th-century watchmaker John Harrison.

Within a year of their meeting, he was openly introducing Philippa, an attractive brunette, as his girlfriend to Dame Maggie Smith and other cast members on the set of his next film Gosford Park, in which he played a philandering aristocrat.

Starring as Philip Marlow alongside Joanne Whalley in the 1986 TV mini-series The Singing Detective 

Lady Anne Gambon his wife of 61 years, and their son Fergus, were both at Gambon’s hospital bedside when he died following a bout of pneumonia

Michael Gambon’s affair with Philippa Hart (pictured) began in 2000 when they worked together on the film Longitude

And while his wife was initially said to have been devastated by the news, with Sir Michael moving out of their village home, she seemingly came to terms with the arrangement, because he subsequently moved back in.

As his young sons grew, he divided his time between the two families, speeding between London and Kent in his selection of classic cars including a Ferrari, Mercedes and Audi R8 which, along with his passion for collecting antique guns, clocks and watches, were his pride and joy.

Indeed, his love of motoring saw him making an appearance on Top Gear in 2002. His drive in the famous ‘star in a reasonably priced car’ segment saw him take the final corner on two wheels, completing the then-fastest lap in wet weather. The producers were so impressed they named the corner after him.

Gambon became one of Britain’s most prolific actors on stage, television and film. But of his own life he was deliberately vague.

Asked about his wife, he once enigmatically replied: ‘What wife?’, before adding: ‘The less people know about you, the better. Ideally an actor should be a blank canvas.’

In many ways, Irish-born Gambon was an accidental actor. He left school at 15 with no qualifications, then took up an apprenticeship as a toolmaker with Vickers-Armstrong. By the age of 21, he was a fully qualified engineer but only worked for a year before giving it up to act.

He is said to have written to an Irish impresario including a CV with an imaginary theatre career. But with such an unusual back story, the challenge over the years has been establishing fact from fiction, not least because he made up so many myths about himself.

He told several interviewers that he used to be a ballet dancer (in truth, he wished he could have been) but had to give it up after falling off stage into the orchestra pit and landing on the kettle drum.

Gambon was 67 when he became a father second time around. Pictured at The London Evening Standard Theatre Awards at The Old Vic Theatre in 2016

Dame Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Lady Antonia Fraser attend the press night of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ at the Duchess Theatre in 2010

In 1999, Sir Michael was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to drama. His son Fergus, right, is an auctioneer who is an expert on Antiques Roadshow

His mischief-making earned him a reputation as a compulsive theatrical prankster. On stage, this often took the form of ‘corpsing’ to test his fellow actors’ ability to keep a straight face. In one poorly attended matinee of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s work Uncle Vanya, Gambon took exception to the presence of a painter and his easel in the front stalls, doing a portrait of his co-star Greta Scacchi during the performance.

In one scene, Gambon’s Vanya has to pick up a heavy samovar filled with water and rush across stage with it. But Gambon unexpectedly went off-script, feigning a trip and emptying the samovar over the unfortunate artist — who fled, never to be seen again.

As he told the New York Times critic Mel Gussow, actors have to be childish because acting itself is a childish thing, showing off, dressing up and saying: ‘Look at me. I can’t think of any other reason why people do it.’

Acting did not run in the family: his mother was a seamstress while his father, a machine operator, moved to London after World War II to find work in the building trade. Gambon always maintained his mother never understood what he did: after once telling her he was playing King Lear, she thought he meant King Kong, or at least that’s the story he told. He also claimed that he once faked having a heart attack at the controls of his single engine light aircraft — he had a pilot’s licence for years — to wind up fellow actor Terence Rigby, who had a fear of flying. ‘I did the whole thing, gasping, collapsing against the side, then I said: ‘Just a bit of indigestion.’ He was furious.’

But that was in the future. His acting actually began with a spell as a stage-carpenter and set builder and his first role as ‘Second Gentleman’ in a production of Othello at Dublin’s Gate Theatre.

He claimed he then bluffed his way to the attention of theatre great Sir Laurence Olivier, who was recruiting for Britain’s new national theatre company as a spear-carrier.

The breakthrough that led the actor Ralph Richardson to describe him as ‘the great Gambon’ came with a performance in Brecht’s The Life Of Galileo at London’s National Theatre in 1980. The NT’s then-artistic director Peter Hall said he was ‘unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful’. He went on to win three Olivier awards for performances in National Theatre productions.

But while the theatre was his first love, it was his TV and screen roles that made him a household name.

Decades after appearing in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective in 1986, he confessed to attempting to seduce his glamorous co-star, Miss Whalley, who was 24 years his junior.

Rare pictures of Sir Michael Gambon and his formerly estranged wife walking in the grounds of their Kent home

The actor poses for a photograph in front of Canterbury Cathedral before receiving an honorary Degree from the University of Kent

Sir Michael with Sir Michael Caine at a press conference for their movie The Actors in 2003 

‘I tried it, but no luck. I loved Joanne Whalley. I got to know her quite well. I tried. Even Dennis Potter whispered to me when we were talking about her and he said: ‘Any luck?’ One scene featured Gambon’s character having lotion applied to his body by Miss Whalley’s nurse to ease the pain of his skin condition. The actor joked: ‘The greasing was good. We rehearsed it ten times.’

There was more success as the pipe-smoking French detective Maigret and appearances in arthouse films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover with Helen Mirren, as well as the spooky Sleepy Hollow.

In Layer Cake he starred with a young Daniel Craig — yet to be unveiled as James Bond — as a vicious drug dealer. But his biggest role was as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, taking over from Richard Harris after the latter’s death in 2002.

Fiona Shaw, who played Petunia Dursley in the films, told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: ‘He varied his career remarkably and never judged what he was doing, he just played.’

She said she would always think of him ‘as a trickster, just a brilliant, magnificent trickster’, adding: ‘With text, there was nothing like him. He could do anything.’

His other film work included the big-screen adaptation of Dad’s Army (he played Private Godfrey), Gosford Park and The King’s Speech, in which he portrayed George V, father of the stammering King George VI. He also starred in Brideshead Revisited with Hayley Atwell.

The star with Philippa Hart and their eldest son Tom at playwright Tom Stoppard’s 80th birthday party six years ago

Gambon pictured at the premiere of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in New York in 2009

One of Gambon’s most famous roles was Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. Pictured with Daniel Radcliffe, Gary Oldman, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint 

He lent his rich voice to many films such as Uncle Pastuzo in both Paddington movies and as the narrator in the George Clooney vehicle Hail, Caesar!

He was nominated for an Emmy for playing President Lyndon B Johnson in the TV series The Path To War in 2002 and appeared in the Kevin Costner’s western Open Range.

But abruptly in 2015 he had to give up stage work after revealing that because of memory loss he could no longer learn his lines. For a while his words were fed to him through an earpiece by a full-time assistant, but eventually that too no longer worked.

Happily, his catalogue of films and TV shows means that Gambon’s unmistakeable voice will remain part of our cultural heritage. But with his double life he will also remain something of an enigma.

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