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9 April 2016

Joan Collins shot me an anxious look and demanded: “Tell me what to say”

It hadn’t dawned on me that some actors expect their every public utterance to be scripted, and I felt a strange wave of sympathy. 

By Mark Ellen

On a crisp spring morning in 1999, I was outside the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly waiting for a limousine. The Empire film awards were just beginning. Kate Winslet was safely inside, as were Bob Hoskins, Guy Ritchie and Spike Lee. All we needed to get the paparazzi going full speed was Joan Collins, still riding high as a vengeful tycoon-wife in the TV series Dynasty.

And here she came, a slash of crimson lipstick, shimmering from the kerbside in her silver-grey suit and white leather gloves. My job as her chaperone was to point her at cameras, watch her prod a medallion of pork in a medley of seasonal vegetables and loudly applaud any onstage pronouncements.

I soon realised that she had two main operational gears: perfectly charming with fellow celebrities, clipped and impatient with her lowly aide. A cheery wave for Ritchie, a sunny smile for Spike, a hissed aside for me – “Where’s the table? I need to sit down.” A hug for Kate, a pose with Hoskins, a cold communication for the humble minder – “I said still water, not sparkling.”

But as speech-time approached, the ice started to melt. She turned the menu over, took out a pen and shot me an anxious look.

“Tell me what to say.”

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“Why don’t you say, I don’t know, that it’s great to be here, thanks for asking me . . .”

“It’s great to be here. Thanks for asking me . . .” she was writing down every word. “Here we are, witnessing the glorious rebirth of the great British film industry . . .” Scribble, scribble. It hadn’t dawned on me that some actors expect their every public utterance to be scripted, and I felt a strange wave of sympathy. Beneath this carapace of control was a tangle of insecurity, a desperation to do the right thing, and she flipped between the two, one minute poised and all-powerful, the next needy and suggestible.

Still, I was on a roll. I took another gulp of the head-splitting Chardonnay. I could get away with anything here! “And I’d like to thank Empire magazine for its part in . . .”

Pen down, a dark look. “I’m not just taking dictation.”

Post-speech she was back to her high-handed old self but then suddenly softened at the mention of goodie-bags, unable to hide that desire in all of us to get something for free. There was only one left and it had been looted badly. Even the hand cream was gone. And the boutique discount card and the box of pink and purple macaroons.

I handed her the tattered receptacle containing a Titanic soundtrack CD, a miniature of vodka, a book of high-end matches and a baseball cap bearing the legend “stevenspielberg.com”. She took it briskly, winced, gave a watery smile and was gone.

This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war