Weekend interview: Dame Joan Collins

Dame Joan Collins has been in the public eye for the best part of seven decades. She was in her late teens when she gained her first professional job and at 85 (she turns 86 in May) she’s still working and still looks in incredibly good shape.

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2009 file photo, actress Joan Collins, right, poses with her sister, author Jackie Collins at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, Calif. Jackie Collins, died in Los Angeles on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, of breast cancer. She was 77. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2009 file photo, actress Joan Collins, right, poses with her sister, author Jackie Collins at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, Calif. Jackie Collins, died in Los Angeles on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, of breast cancer. She was 77. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

When she first walked on the set of the now almost forgotten British movie Lady Godiva Rides Again (it was a non-speaking part and she played, perhaps prophetically, a glamorous contestant in a beauty parade) did she ever imagine the success that lay ahead – being made a Dame, having homes around the world, 120 films and TV shows under her belt, and over 50 million copies of her memoirs and novels sold?

Dame Joan doesn’t even have to think about her reply. “That would have been a tiny bit of a jump, don’t you think? At that age I was determined to become what I called a ‘serious actress’. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my heroines, women like Flora Robson and Celia Johnson, even Hermione Baddeley, and to be on the stage, for that is where the true ‘artistes’ were. Don’t forget I’d studied at Rada and ‘being on the films’, as they called it there, was considered common and not for ‘real actresses’. It has all changed, of course, because nowadays some of the best acting work is on television.”

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Collins was at least well prepared for the acting world when she started out. He father was a well-known and respected agent and he seems to have given his daughters – Joan and her novelist sister Jackie – some sound advice. “He certainly warned us against predatory men”, she recalls, adding that she decided to take the bus or the Tube home from the studios at one point, because one producer kept offering her a lift – having made his intentions abundantly clear.

Later, when she was something of a “name” in the business, she was given two screen tests for the role of Cleopatra, in the 20th Century Fox film which had, back then, the biggest budget ever. A budget which kept spectacularly over-running. She did not get the part. Because, it is said, she rejected the attentions of a high-placed studio executive. The part went to her friend Elizabeth Taylor, who became notorious for her illnesses and absences from the set. Ever since, movie historians have speculated that, had Joan been the star, Cleopatra might have not become the financial disaster which brought Fox to its knees.

Collins was among that last generation of actresses who were part of the so-called Hollywood “studio system”, when stars signed up to long-term contracts that tied them in for years. “The studio system was a marvel of its time,” she says. “You were taught how to walk, talk, present yourself, and even who to go out with! It was a complete cocoon the moment you walked in there. They protected you but also bullied you. You were a commodity to be handled with care and yet bought and sold for their profit. It was inevitable that as times changed this would also no longer be a practical business model. But if you think about the big agencies nowadays that ‘package’ films with the directors, actors and crew that they manage, the business model seems to have come around again. It is a strange world that we live in.”

If she were starting out all over again, would she still have wanted to go into such a precarious business? “Oh, definitely yes. I would still want to be part of it. It’s a great profession when you have the vocation for it.”

Her private life hasn’t always been as smooth until, after four marriages, she met Percy Gibson. They married at Claridge’s Hotel in London 17 years ago. Percy is a few years her junior and asked if she was worried about this “age gap”, Collins quipped, “If he dies, he dies”.

So does she now know the secret of a happy marriage? “It’s simple and it is just two words – separate bathrooms! We seldom spend any time apart actually, as we work together on all my projects, so it’s is really very rare when we aren’t together. What is also rare is that we don’t get on each other’s nerves… at least, not most of the time!” She remembers with a laugh that when she was on her fourth divorce she received a note from Elizabeth Taylor. It read: “I’m still ahead by three!”

Collins is perhaps best known for playing the scheming Alexis Carrington in Dynasty and during her career she’s seen fashions come and go, but there are some things that still annoy her. “I don’t suffer fools gladly, that’s true”, she says, “and sometimes that gets me into trouble – especially when someone patronises me with that ‘haven’t you done well, little woman’ attitude. Bad manners, discourtesy and unpunctuality also annoy me.”

Collins is coming to York’s Grand Opera House next week with her solo show – Joan Collins Unscripted. It takes quite a lot of chutzpah to face a live audience and to invite questions. So has there ever been a question from the audience that has left her completely speechless? Indeed there has, she confesses. “I was once struck dumb somewhere in Scotland when someone in the audience asked if Percy was wearing anything under his kilt…” She declined to reply, she recalls.

Along the way, Collins has worked with some of the biggest names in the world of entertainment. But one icon she didn’t work with but would have loved to is Paul Newman. “He and his wife Joanne were great friends of ours and I was once tending to the barbeque at his house in California, when he started slapping various ingredients together to make the most delicious salad dressing. We joked that he should bottle it…” Famously, he later did, and went on to make another fortune.

Collins is justly famous for her natural sense of fun – and her put downs to impertinent questions are legendary. She once “fried” an impertinent interviewer live on TV. But what is it that makes Dame Joan Collins laugh? “Oh, that’s easy,” she says, “truly witty, spontaneous people. Original thought and response”.

These days she keeps on working. She was a memorable Crystal Hennessy-Vass, in the hit TV sitcom Benidorm, and she’s due to appear in American Horror Story. She is also tireless in her support for charities and has a lot of “other things” that she is considering.

So is she, time and opportunity being equal, up for anything?

“Everything!” she says, with a mischievous tone of “come on, just try me” in her voice.

Joan Collins – Unscripted, Grand Opera House, York, February 26. For tickets call: 0844 871 3024.