‘What larks!’

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‘Your very good health, gentlemen! And by the way, gentlemen, I am not an old queen . . . I am the Empress of Ireland!’

It’s mid-morning at the Turk’s Head in Belgravia and Brian Desmond Hurst, a tall, distinguished-looking elderly figure, is replying to a trio of Guinness-drinkers who have greeted his entry to the bar by hissing the words ‘Fucking old queen!’ Nothing abashed, Hurst orders his usual breakfast glass of champagne with fresh orange juice and offers the Guinness drinkers a refill, which they shamefacedly accept. A suitable introduction to the hero (or is he the anti-hero?) of Christopher Robbins’s uproarious The Empress of Ireland (2004) – a title I found irresistible when a friend showed me the book, which made me laugh as soon as I opened it and entertained me to the end.

Essentially it is the story of the friendship between Christopher Robbins, a struggling young freelance journalist, and Hurst, an ageing Irish film director who had already outlived his talents and gloriously continued to do so up to his death in 1986. For a delicious period of pure fantasy in the mid-1970s the two lived the life of Reilly together. When he first met Hurst the young Robbins was in his late twenties and vainly trying to claw his way out of perpetual debt. The agent of his introduction was an enigmatic American hipster masquerading as a German count whom he’d run into in Spain, and whose expertise was ‘putting people together’.

The meeting took place as Hurst held court at a drunken lunch in his grandly shabby Georgian house in Kinnerton Street, Belgravia, through which passed an ever-changing stream of gay Guardsmen, artists, actors and social misfits, half of whom spoke in drawling upper class tones and half in barrow-boy cockney. Although it was ten years since Hurst had made his last film (The Playboy of the Western World, 1962), it seemed the near-octogenarian was looking for a screenwriter for a new film. He was anxious to crown his career with a masterpiece, ‘a Great Big Religious Picture . . . on the most important story of all. The events leading up to the birth of Christ’. Robbins was presented to him as a star, though knowing nothing of films or scriptwriting, and to his astonishment was immediately given the job.

But this is not a book about films or the making of films. Rather, it is an account of how a fixed idea can take over a person’s life and mind, and it infectiously conveys the atmosphere of fantasy in which films are conceived and created. Its storyline is the duo’s attempt to raise money for the new film, to find a suitable location for it, and lastly to achieve a script on what Hurst believes is a stunningly original subject: not the birth of Christ but ‘the events leading up to it’! We accompany the pair on three ‘serious’ trips abroad with these aims in mind – to Tangier, Malta and Ireland, the first being chosen for its plentiful supply of cheap extras (‘all of them dressed in easily removed djellabas’), and the second for its homely familiarity as the setting for one of Hurst’s best-known, or should one say today least unknown, films. The days are spent drinking champagne or fine wine (how this was paid for remains a mystery to the end). Hurst’s memory is prodigious, and reminiscences and anecdotes pour forth from him in the course of conversations tête-à-tête or with potential backers and eccentric old acquaintances from his starrier days.

It is indeed a strange friendship between the somewhat naïve, straight young English journalist and the old outrageously camp Irish film director. But Robbins is dazzled both by Hurst’s professional reputation and by the sheer heady irresponsibility of the life he leads.

Every journey undertaken, however insignificant, became a unique occasion promising glamour and adventure; even the deadly aspects of travel, such as hanging around airports and sitting on buses, were injected with a sense of fun. And no one enjoyed the experience more than Brian. As the taxi turned out of Kinnerton Street, at the start of each of our expeditions, he always said the same: ‘Goody, goody – we’re off!’ He would then turn to me, blue eyes shining with boyish excitement: ‘What larks, Christopher! What larks!’

Unsurprisingly, this routine does nothing to get a script started. After agonizing struggles, inspiration at last comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’, the note being struck by the opening line, ‘A cold coming we had of it . . .’ Staggering in from a hot day on a Mediterranean beach, Robbins writes an opening screen-piece with ‘visually powerful poetic images heavy with symbolism: sore-footed, bad-tempered camels collapsing in deep snow . . . sandalled feet kicking empty wineskins, as gnarled hands at a tavern door dice for pieces of silver’. Hurst thinks it masterly – even when Robbins admits that the images come straight from Eliot’s poem. The old film-maker doesn’t turn a hair – ‘Critics won’t notice because it’s not in the dialogue’ – and gives an impromptu reading of the scene, which Robbins judges ‘a bravura performance, subtle and nuanced, yet pure ham’.

Encouraged, the fledgling screenwriter next creates a diligently researched scene preceding Christ’s birth (‘The story was a corker . . .’). His conception centres on King Herod’s unfortunate relations with his wife, the Hasmonean Queen Mariamne, with whose family he seriously falls out, eventually ordering Mariamne’s murder. The Massacre of the Innocents occurs as one result of this family feud. But the increasingly overloaded plot won’t come together, and nor will any backer’s money. The carefree spirit in which the quest for the latter is pursued is made plain at an important meeting between Hurst and a potential investor, a merchant banker whom Robbins has painstakingly cultivated after meeting him at a dinner party. The banker duly arrives at Kinnerton Street but before the meeting has a chance to take off, Brian is overcome by an irresistible urge to puncture the man’s pomposity and casually suggests he take his clothes off, whereupon the outraged banker immediately leaves the house. It’s one of the rare moments when Robbins loses his cool.

Hopes of progress are briefly raised again when Sir Michael Redgrave, apparently an old friend of Brian’s whom he has earmarked for the part of Herod, unexpectedly comes to lunch but only, it turns out, in order to arrange the delivery of a large wad of cash to ‘Big Freddy’, one of Brian’s unsavoury contacts, who is blackmailing Redgrave by threatening to ‘go to the papers’ about his private life. The innocent Robbins is bemused.

‘What? And tell them Sir Michael’s queer? As if they didn’t already know?’ Brian looked at me searchingly, and seemed to be considering whether to continue. ‘There are a few “in” jokes about Sir Michael in our circle. “Sir Michael Redgrave, I’ll be bound,” and “Sir Michael is unable to come to the phone just now, he’s all tied up!” Do you understand?’

Robbins gets the point but protests, ‘It’s a bit rich – I mean, you owe the milkman God knows how much, I’ve been arrested for non-payment of rates, and here’s Big Freddy getting away with blackmail . . .’ to which Brian replies: ‘Crime pays. Life’s not fair. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer – it’s all a bleedin’ shame.’

So much for Brian’s view of life. But what, in fact, was the true life-story of Brian Desmond Hurst? He gives Robbins a version of it at various points, as it becomes increasingly clear that the great religious epic, aka the Box Office Blockbuster, is never going to be made, and Robbins suggests replacing it with another project: the Big Bestseller, the story of Hurst’s life as told to Robbins. We hear from Hurst of his father’s career as a metal-worker in the Belfast shipyards, where both his father and brother worked on the Titanic; and we have his horrific account of his wartime experiences at Gallipoli which must have left a layer of nightmare at the back of his mind for the rest of his life.

As to Hurst’s professional career, though pretty well no one I have met has ever heard of him, and some of his claims are hard to credit, between the 1930s and 1960s he was Ireland’s most prolific film director, working with many of the great screen actors of his day and with thirty films to prove it, including Malta Story, Dangerous Moonlight and Scrooge with the inimitable Alastair Sim. After his death he seems to have been totally forgotten, except for a brief moment in 2011 when the Directors’ Guild of Great Britain installed a blue plaque to him at the Queen’s Film Theatre in his native Belfast.

The flesh-and-blood figure behind these professional facts seems to have been somewhat in the mould of another legendary figure, the late Gerald Hamilton, a ‘notorious and wonderfully wicked’ old reprobate who was the model for Christopher Isherwood’s endearing conman and spy Alfred Norris in Mr Norris Changes Trains, and who served prison sentences for bankruptcy, theft, gross indecency and posing a threat to national security. Though Hurst never troubled the courts, he shared some of his friend’s underlying characteristics. In his heyday he had been a powerfully magnetic and politically incorrect character. When we encounter him, entering his eighties, he retains all his wit, cunning, gay appetite and preposterous charm.

The Empress of Ireland is a rum story, full of obsession, delusion, wit and hilarity but with pathos never far away – the story of a folie à deux which inevitably turns to tragedy as the scales gradually fall from Robbins’s eyes and the balance of power between the two of them shifts. Its appeal lies in the Don Quixote-Sancho Panza-like relationship between Hurst and his young amanuensis, with Hurst’s impossible dreams and exaggerations seen through the eyes of his somewhat bemused chronicler. He may have been forgotten by the world, but in the pages of this comic masterpiece the unapologetic yet irresistible old rogue lives again, unforgettably.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Antony Wood 2020
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51: The Empress of Ireland


About the contributor

Antony Wood enjoys impossible projects. He is the founder of the small literary press Angel Books and attempts to translate Pushkin’s verse. A selection of his Pushkin translations has just been published by Penguin Classics.

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