Saint and sinners

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am

Time is almost up. The most prolific of the six official James Bonds has been a model not just of his trademark decorum and charm: remarkably, he has proved to be a ribald jester with a stage comic's timing and a stockpile of verbal weapons of mass distraction, such has been the hilarity in the room.

But then ... a storm blows across the imperial countenance and outrage gathers in furrows.

'Why didn't you do your own stunts in the Bond films?' 'I did. I did do them,' shoots back a riled Roger Moore. 'I kissed Grace Jones. That's a bloody stunt isn't it?' This is the man eminent enough to have been lampooned in latex, ridiculed in rubber, on satirical British television show Spitting Image. Moore considered his puppet, whose acting skills were confined to the manipulation of a small stratum of facial hair, 'very, very funny', but protests: 'I'm known as the one-eyebrow actor, which is not true. I've got two.'

The anger is sham, the equanimity genuine in a screen luminary who at last, after years of cajoling, has published his autobiography. Written with Gareth Owen, My Word is My Bond is a riotous run-down of a life spent playing marquee roles or opposite the deities of the entertainment world: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Harris, Tony Curtis, Christopher Lee, Lana Turner, Stewart Granger, the Spice Girls ... And when he wasn't working, it seems, he was playing: Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Joan Collins, David Niven and many more bill-toppers were graduates of his Hollywood gang.

This is the screen idol knighted in 2003 for his work on behalf of children's fund Unicef who refuses any deferential address. At the second such salutation he leans across the table and insists: 'It's Roger, by the way. Not 'Sir Roger'.'

The personification of debonair detective Simon Templar in British 1960s television series The Saint and the incarnation of the world's most famous secret agent in seven Bond films - almost a third of the recognised stable - is in Hong Kong to reminisce and sign, as it turns out, innumerable books. He is also here, on a mission as a goodwill ambassador, to earn money for Unicef, speeches and fundraising dinners now taking up a large wedge of his working life.

'Unicef keeps both of us travelling, together,' says Moore, who is accompanied by fourth wife Kristina. 'She doesn't trust me out of her sight [chuckling from across the table]. I don't trust her either - Swedish you know, you can't be too careful with the Swedes.

'We make field trips every year, to a country or several countries. There is a lot of travelling in Europe and America for fundraising and on awareness programmes. We've been involved with the creation of Checkout for Children [a Unicef-Starwood Hotels donation project] and Change for Good with British Airways, and I've done appeals with Cathay Pacific. And a donation is made with sales of the book.

'There is great satisfaction in showing donors how the money is spent. We'll take a number of them on a trip to a country where we're engaged. The first time was to the southern Atlas Mountains in Morocco. We showed them what happened when Unicef built a school for five villages - and a water supply to feed them. That meant the girls as well as the boys could go to school because the girls no longer had to carry the water - and there were separate toilet facilities. Donors see what Unicef money does and that it isn't handed out piecemeal,' he says.

Unicef has also brought Moore into contact with the men who, perhaps, he most admires and despises.

'Nelson Mandela putting his arm round Kristina's shoulder at the United Nations and saying the work we were doing was important was ... was ... He is the most extraordinary man. Within the same day we saw the most evil effing bastard in the world - Mugabe. We were at a Children's Week concert at the UN, with an orchestra and 200-child choir, in an enormous marquee. In came Mugabe and his henchmen - it was as though the door of a deep freeze had been opened. You could feel the entire audience [shivers] ... it was awful. You had all the good in the world and all the evil.'

Moore recently turned 81 and as usual the celebrations were liberal. 'Kristina always throws enormous parties for me on various continents, so I get to see all my friends. So we saw Maurice Micklewhite [Michael Caine] a few weeks ago; Sean [Connery] I've been friends with through the years - I met him just after Dr No.

'The last birthday was wonderful because it extended into getting the Dag Hammarskjold Award in New York, presented by the Secretary-General. He said [arch voice]: 'My name is Moon ... Ban Ki-Moon.' They're allowed a few moments of relief at the UN. With Unicef you find so much humour in dire situations; it's an escape valve. Because I have a mind stocked with filthy jokes I'm needed out there in the field. Bring on the comedian.'

Various autobiographical anecdotes reveal Moore's humility to be a rare commodity in a Hollywood leading man.

'It was I who said that about the eyebrows,' he says, 'and my agent said I should stop saying bad things about myself. I tried saying I was good, but I wasn't very good at saying I was good, so I thought, take the p*** out of yourself, it's much better.

'David Niven was a great chum. I remember he was in France, I was in Hollywood. Patrick Macnee brought me the Daily Mail, in which [columnist] Lynda Lee-Potter reported that Brando wasn't signing autographs or posing for pictures. [Theatrical producer] Binky Beaumont said, 'There are artists who give their all in the theatre, why should they do anything off stage?' Lynda wrote that the only two actors who made the profession at all bearable were the self-deprecating David Niven and Roger Moore. So I said, 'Christ, I'm going to send this to Niven'. When I got home from the studio there was the clipping, sent by Niv. Across the top he wrote: 'It pays to be a c***'.'

As unaffected off screen as he is dashing and lordly on it, Moore, despite the crystalline English accent, hails from modest south London origins. The feeling lingers that he will be forever grateful for the fortunate break that saw an out-of-work animator, as he was, become a film extra in the 1940s. His training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art notwithstanding, he had struggled to land parts and might have been destined for a life of advertising toothpaste and modelling knitwear - a distinction for which Michael Caine christened him the Big Knit.

Now, he admits to having 'very little ambition as an actor. I never wanted to play King Lear or Hamlet. I couldn't play them: [whispers] not that good.' Among his few regrets, he says, is that, 'I never worked with [director] David Lean and it's too late, I never will. I would have loved to have done Lawrence of Arabia.' But mostly the memories are sunny, not least of Hong Kong and Macau, where Moore partly shot his second Bond outing, The Man With the Golden Gun, in 1974.

'Fond memories? Absolutely. Macau I remember particularly because we were introduced to Chinese gambling. While we were setting up the roulette sequence [producer] Cubby Broccoli and I were running over to a blackjack table. I was always fascinated by Cubby's generosity with the crew. He wouldn't let them draw their whole salary while they were on location, but then he would go round all the casino tables and give them chips. A good man.

'Here I remember Britt Ekland coming out of the doors of The Peninsula with thousands of people standing looking. We had to get into a little sports car and Britt said, 'Orr, ah do lark being a fulm star, all these purple watching me'. So funny.'

What does Bond three think of Bond six? 'I saw Casino Royale, I haven't seen Quantum of Solace yet, but I thought Daniel Craig was terrific. I knew he was a good actor, but I was delighted the film was so good. The cold, ruthless spy is what [Ian] Fleming was after. My Bond was a lover and a giggler. Daniel is a different type of actor to me ... he's an actor.'

Modest Moore claims not to be proud of his work as 007 or The Saint. And although he may cite locking lips with Grace Jones and sending up himself and Bond villain Blofeld in the caper Spice World - 'I'd like to do another Spice Girls movie for the money they gave me for one day' - as career highlights, he has always made a point of professionalism: remaining on set for as long as it takes where other stars would abscond; being available to deliver off-screen lines where others might stay in their suites.

But pride bursts through when talk returns to The Saint and thence Val Kilmer, who starred in the eponymous 1997 film - in which Moore's voice was heard on Kilmer's car radio. 'I saw Val in Cannes about a year after the movie,' says Moore. 'He said, 'We really f***ed that up, didn't we?' I said, 'Yes, but why do you tell me now?' And he replied, 'After we finished filming I read all the books - they're wonderful stories'. So Val will probably play The Saint in the new series, which could very well happen next year - and which my son is going to produce.'

Dapper to the points of the handkerchief folded in his blazer top pocket, Moore says the groomed image has long reflected his personality. 'My children say relax, but if I'm going through an airport, for instance, I have to wear a tie. I'm a crease-in-the-trousers type, clean shirt - that's the way I was brought up. It comes from the time I was slightly overweight. I remember my father pulling on the belt of one of those awful blue English schoolboy raincoats and saying, 'You're like a sack of s*** tied up ugly in the middle'. That meant 'pull your socks up'.

'And I've never understood why they took the p*** out of me for wearing a safari suit in Live and Let Die. 'The camp Bond'. They were good looking. Go to southern Africa and everybody wears a safari suit.'

Like Mugabe?

'No, he wears a collar and tie that arsehole. I'm hoping it'll be a rope.'