Shirley Anne Field interview
Shirley Anne Field was the beautiful queen of 1960s kitchen sink dramas, adored by moviegoers and desired by male co-stars and film directors. But as Brian Beacom discovers, there was only one person whose love she craved ...
THERE’S a scene in 1960 kitchen sink drama The Entertainer in which Sir Laurence Olivier’s fading comedian Archie Rice seduces beauty queen Tina in a tiny, run-down static caravan in Morecambe.
It’s a great metaphor for the decline of variety, a look through the dirty net-curtain into the reality of showbiz. However, a few hours spent in SouthendOn-Sea with the film’s beauty queen, actress Shirley Anne Field, reveals a life that’s been far more of a struggle than anything Rice had to contend with.
Field would go on to star alongside Albert Finney in the classic Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner in The War Lover and in a range of British films and TV series. Adam Faith was once a
boyfriend. She was courted by composer John Barry, Sean Connery adored her and she married a handsome racing driver. But that was the upside of her story. The full picture, in itself, is the stuff of motion picture scripts.
“You’re not going to make me out to be some sort of sad creature, and create hearts and flowers and sobs,” she says with a half-worried smile, when we meet in the bar of the quaint pie-and-jellied eels theatre, where she’s appearing in the touring production of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement In Stone.
I tell her no, because there is too much positivity – and fun – about her. A few days ahead of her 79th birthday, the light in those green eyes certainly hasn’t gone out. Nevertheless, her story is a heart-wrencher. Little Shirley Broomfield (named after Shirley Temple by her showbiz-struck mother) was just five when East London was bombed. Too young to be evacuated, she was sent to live in an orphanage run by Methodist Sisters. She didn’t see her mother again until she was 38.
“I kept crying and getting into a temper,” she recalls of the early months. “I kept saying ‘I’ve got a little baby brother, who is two years younger!’ I had two sisters as well, but they were old enough to be evacuated. Finally, the nuns brought my brother up to Bolton and he was put into a boys’ building on the other side of a field, which was full of cows, which I was terrified of. I only got to see him at special times.”
The family unit had been blitzed. “My sister, Sonny, was married four times by the age of 34 and had six children. She got cancer and died early. I didn’t meet my other sister Joy until I was in my 30s.
“My mother meantime had disappeared into the American south where she married an American serviceman, but not legally. Joy had been turned back at the ship. My mother’s ‘husband’ promised he’d come back for all her children and she went out there with that promise.”
Field only discovered all this much later in life. Her lorry driver father had meantime remarried; he didn’t visit the orphanage until his daughter was 13.
Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe her family background. Does that account for her personality’s edge of toughness and vulnerability? “Resilience,” she offers in exchange. “Your childhood sets you up for life. All children want is someone to put their arm round them. And I did miss my mother. I craved her. Even though she left us behind, she had loved us all so much and her leaving us left an indelible mark, so much so that none of the Sisters had a chance with me. One or two of them tried to be loving but I shrugged them off because I felt disloyal to my mother.”
Not all of the Sisters were loving. Field believes there was abuse. “There was one Sister that I think got sacked because of me,” she recalls grimly. “There was a system in place at the home if you were very lonely you could take your mattress and sleep in Sister’s bedroom.
“I was sleeping on the floor one night when she did something to me and I didn’t like it, so much that I wet the bed in anger. As a result, she threw me into the bathroom and under a boiling hot geyser and I was screaming in pain. Another Sister came in and stopped it, wrapped me in a towel and sat me on her knee. Two weeks later, [the first] Sister was gone.”
Freed from the institution at the age of 15, Field made her way back to London and into a Gas Board typing pool. “I was bored silly,” she recalls. After being talentspotted by a photographer, she took up modelling and her photos appeared in the likes of Reveille and Titbits magazine. She also took part in local beauty contests. (And became Miss London). But the teenager wasn’t chasing fame. “I hoped my mother would see the photographs and she’d find me and want me,” she says softly. “That was my dream.”
Mid-1950s London was a predatory world. “I did lots of pictures for a tenner a time, but I wouldn’t do nude or rude. Mostly I sidestepped the exploitation. Thank God I didn’t get caught up in sex and drugs and rock’n’roll.”
Meanwhile, Field was taken on by an agency that found small movie parts for young women. “The girls protected each other,” she recalls.
Field endured five years of “wolves”
trying to take advantage, pressuring her to have sex, offering glamorous holidays. “I didn’t go on them because I didn’t want to be tested. I was afraid I might enjoy that world,” she says, frankly. “Meantime, I had a steady boyfriend, who was loyal and very nice.” She smiles. “And a bit boring. But since then, I’ve often chosen the wrong men.”
TOWARDS the end of the decade, Field began to land good roles. She appeared in teen rebellion film Beat Girl alongside future pop star Adam Faith. “At the time I was also being pursued by John Barry [the film’s composer]. Adam was the trainee wolf at the time.” She dated the trainee. “I was never too serious about him. But I remember him taking me home to his mother’s council flat in Acton. She said she liked me because I was so ordinary. Adam, said, ‘Gawd, mum, she’s not ordinary. Look at her!’ His mum said: ‘Yes, but listen to how she talks’.”
Field’s working-class accent helped her land a life-changing role alongside Lawrence Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. She was 19. “I turned up to casting in a room crowded with young women, all looking the same except I was a bit younger. So I let the pony tail down, took the hoop out of my petticoat and read the lines in my best RP, as I’d been taught to do.
“Director Tony Richardson was dismissing me with a ‘Thank you dear’ but he later told me that as I walked away, he’d noticed the scuff marks on my heels. It must have sparked a thought in his head because he called out, ‘Can you say the lines in a northern accent?’ I was furious, and I yelled [in strong Lancastrian tones]: ‘I’ve spent five years bloody trying not to.’”
The northern accent was exactly what the role called for. Field was in. “I loved it,” she says of the film company. “It was a safe world for me. Although married to Vanessa [Redgrave] Tony had his boyfriend around at the time as well.”
Sir Larry, initially, wasn’t a joy to work with. He made Field feel small and insignificant. But she told him off and refused to finish the big caravan scene until he apologised. “The children’s home had taught me to be strong.” Afterwards, when he saw the rushes and realised what the teenager could do, the pair became good friends. In fact, he invited her to join him at the Old Vic. “I declined. I didn’t have the confidence.”
Ironic, perhaps given Olivier’s performance in the film as a music hall comedian was no great shakes. “I agree,” she says. “He had grabbed at the part.”
Field went on to shine however, and in 1960 she had three films playing in Leicester Square at the one time: Man In The Moon with Kenneth More, The Entertainer and Richardson’s Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.
In the latter film, Field played Doreen, who is desperate to marry Albert Finney’s character. She certainly wasn’t playing herself. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a Doreen and have a conventional life.”
But although Field was now taking the industry by storm, her motivation was never about being a film star. “It was always about hoping my mother would come and get me,” she says. “But there I was, all over the place, and she didn’t see it. I discovered later she’d heard I was in films, and for a while thought I was Jacqueline Bisset or Lesley Anne Down.”
FIELD’S longing for her lost family saw her take LSD at controversial Scots psychiatrist RD Laing’s Tavistock Clinic. “I wasn’t famous enough for RD Laing to treat me,” she says, indicating humility, or perhaps Laing’s self-importance. “Another doctor did. He’d given it to my brother under the National Health, and it was very destructive for him. But I wanted to see how it affected me. It was said to take you back in time. After taking it, I remembered being in bed with my mother, while she gave birth to my brother. At least I think I remembered it.”
Field didn’t take the drug again. “I felt worn out. We were given champagne that morning before the LSD. I don’t drink champagne to this day.”
Playing alongside Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner in The War Lover, she discovered that McQueen was as complex a creature as she’d met in RD Laing’s clinic. “He was a fantasist,” she recalls. “He’d tell me all sorts of crazy things.”
McQueen split her lip in one scene. “I was doing a love scene with Robert, who wasn’t confident, but Steve, who did fancy me I guess, began pouring a glass of beer over an extra’s head off camera. I looked at Steve and told him off. He was stealing the focus.”
When it came to shooting with McQueen, he threw Field across a couch and she battered her face. Later, when they had to kiss, the actress got her own back. She bit him. Hard. “When I met him later in life in London, he was much nicer. But he was always looking for ‘action’ as he called it, even though he was married.”
In 1963, Field appeared in Kings Of The Sun, with Yul Brynner. “Another fantasist,” she recalls, smiling. “He told me he was a Mongolian orphan.”
Hollywood turned out to be as fickle as her co-stars. Needing to work, she found herself in less challenging roles than her Doreen, playing an eye-candy nurse to Leslie Phillips in Doctor In Clover and a nurse again of whom Michael Caine’s Alfie 1965) declares ‘It’s amazing what you can get on the National Health.’
Meantime, the “dull” steady boyfriend was dumped and she married the rather unsteady but dashing former RAF pilot turned racing driver, Charles Crichton-Stuart. They had a daughter but divorced a few years later. “He also had a very damaged past himself. You tend to be attracted to the same, but you don’t know it.”
Love has escaped Field since. “It’s hard getting looks and intelligence.” She pauses and adds: “One of the most important people in my life was [barrister and Rumpole Of The Bailey creator] John Mortimer. John wanted marriage, but I didn’t find him attractive physically. Yet, I loved his brain and his stories.
“In every relationship since marriage however I seemed to be the breadwinner. But I’ve never earned big sums of money and I struggled to save money. I still have a mortgage on my flat [in Primrose Hill]. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this play, to stabilise myself financially.”
Field finally met her mother, and her extended family, in 1978. But she didn’t look back in anger at the lost years. “I understood how her head was turned,” she says. “And I was told she’d later tried to find me, putting ads in the News of the World. She didn’t know I’d become Shirley Anne Field.”
Field’s career continued. She had a role in 1980s American soap opera Santa Barbara. “It was a graveyard for actors,” she says. “It was like going to the office.” She later held roles in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette  and Hear My Song  and in British TV drama.
Right now, Field is enjoying playing the caustic housekeeper in the touring whodunit, A Judgement In Stone. “I’m a bit slower thanks to the hip replacement, but I’m getting there,” she says stoically.
While some might be surprised to find a Hollywood star of her calibre still schlepping around the country at this point in life, Shirley Anne Field is certainly not bitter about life. She enjoys work because she loves to connect with people. “And to explore characters.”
A lovely bi-product of a life in showbiz has been the chance to meet all sorts of fascinating stars. She speaks fondly of the late Roger Moore, but says of another James Bond: “Sean Connery used to be nice but he’s turned into an angry person. Always seems to be arguing. And he became a bit tight. He would take me to lunch when he came to England and we’d go to Scott’s in Mayfair and he’d say, ‘You’ll only want one course.’ But I’d say, ‘I’ll eat everything on the menu if I like!’ But he still talks about being poor and sleeping in a drawer as a child.”
Adam Faith remained in her life – until her daughter Nicola turned 15. “He wanted to take her to tea at the Ritz,” she says, her voice darkening. “I knew what he was like. I wasn’t going to have that.”
Field is great company, but there’s a vulnerability about her. “I’ve always been so insecure,” she says. “The Royal Court was my favourite place to work, with talents such as Lindsay Anderson and John Osborne, and I felt protected there.”
Regrets? “I do have some. I had the chance to work in films with Elvis but my management weren’t sure it was a good idea. I’d like to have known him before he became too famous and too fat.
“And I regret I didn’t have more children. Yet, my sister Sonny had so many. The first £300 I earned, I sent £100 to her. But I couldn’t have films and more children.”
Field even sees a positive in her orphanage experience. “My career began in the head of my five-year-old self,” she admits. “That’s when I decided that all the people who had rejected me would find me. But it didn’t really work out that way.”
But her career has produced many positives. There’s a line in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning in which Doreen declares; “I want to go where there’s life and there’s people”.
“At least, I’ve done that,” she says, smiling.
Shirley Anne Field, third left, in A Judgement In Stone
Field at the Variety Club of Great Britain luncheon at the Savoy Hotel, London in 1960. Left: Saturday Night And Sunday Morning