Michael Culver INTERVIEW

Article text
Michael Culver
Actor and peace campaigner Michael Culver interviewed by Richard Keith Wolff

RICHARD WOLFF: Michael Culver you are best known as an actor, although you have also played an other type of role in recent years as a peace campaigner. You come from a theatrical background, your father Roland Culver was an eminent actor, indeed your mother a casting director, your former wife Lucinda Curtis was an actor, it is starting to look like acting is in the family DNA!

MICHAEL CULVER: First of all I am being a bit pompous now but I don’t believe in DNA passing on attributes to people, I think it is all to do with environment. I was brought up in an acting household and that is all that got talked about, that is all we knew about, and also I loathed the school I went to, and that is why I became an actor, to get out of the school and my parents’ house and get away and do my own thing. I happened to meet my first wife in Dundee Rep and she wanted to be an actress although there were no actresses or actors in her family, so I don’t think it is DNA, I think it is purely environmental, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

RICHARD WOLFF: Much of your work is weighty material dealing with disturbing issues, recent example: "Half the Picture" based on the transcripts from the Scott Inquiry into Arms to Iraq - the first play that was performed in the Palace of Westminster. What was it like to perform in Westminster?

MICHAEL CULVER: It was pretty weird, we changed in the broom cupboard. All the actors were herded in the broom cupboard. That was where they had to do their makeup, costume changes, and I was playing two parts. One an Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the other was Lyle. Yes, it was fairly peculiar. Needless to say the Tories stayed away and Labour all roared with laughter and Robin Cook asked some very pertinent questions. You see it goes back to politics. We were supporting Saddam for twenty years. We were supplying him with arms. Thatcher, Major, that appalling man Rumsfeld, they were all supplying arms, they were supplying him with gas that he gassed the Kurds with, if he gassed the Kurds! There is still a question if the Iranian gassed the Kurds because there was a battlefield all over that area, and nobody is quite sure who did what to whom. But let us say if Iraq did the gassing, in that case America and this country supplied him with chemicals to make the gas. So all this is political. I knew about a lot of this. I must say when Nick Kent (Theatre Director) said would you come and do "Half the Picture" which is the first one we did about Saddam and the Scots enquiry, I was absolutely intrigued and fascinated by the idea. What is interesting is Lordship Justice Scott did the enquiry, but then he allowed all the people whom he criticised in the enquiry to come in if they thought they had been unfairly criticised and rewrite it. William Waldegrave was allowed to come in and rewrite his statement. We protested, said this is pointless. It is ridiculous if Chilcot is going to allow people to rewrite their testimony, what is the point of these enquiries? They are absolutely useless, of course. That is why Brown agreed to allow one, because they are in fact the British way of shoving all the dirt under the carpet. Look how long the Chilcot Inquiry is taking! It was ordered in 2009 and still unpublished. And half the stuff he is not allowed to look at, or if he is allowed to look at it he is not allowed to publish. This is an enquiry, which is not really an enquiry, and certainly not a court of law, because if it was a court of law, Blair would be in prison.

RICHARD WOLFF: On other serious dramatisations you have been involved in, one is about the evidence given during Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence "The Colour of Justice". Another production is, "Tribunal Plays: Nuremberg", (A distillation of the 1945-46 transcripts). What are your thoughts about these productions?

MICHAEL CULVER: “The Colour of justice”. It happened because of the event; and after that we did Nuremberg. Again I thought this is ridiculous. Nuremberg was all about the breaking of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The reason the Nazis were tried. They broke The Kellogg-Briand Pact 1928, not because they gassed Jews. The Kellogg-Briand Pact which the US, France, Germany, the UK, and Afghanistan strangely enough all signed (and many other nations). This was a diplomatic agreement that they would not invade other countries unilaterally. The German broke it and the Germans were tried for it. Everybody said it was a victory for justice but in fact it was justice which was laid down before that act. So when people say Blair cannot be tried, why not? They also had to try most of the German judiciaries who had refused to do anything about Hitler, or reined him in or applied the laws that were existent in Germany at the time, that should have applied to Hitler, but they did not do anything about it, so they were tried in Nuremberg as well. Our judiciary should be likewise be tried for not doing anything about Blair, but it is our entire judicial system which is at fault, I do not know how you solve this. How humanity hold leaders to account! It is a problem which is truly vexing. Bush has not been held to account, Rumsfeld, none of them. They all want to invade. Is there any end? The Americans are wanting 12 massive nuclear aircraft carriers and 12 new fleets to position themselves in the South China Seas to contain China. It is lunacy.

RICHARD WOLFF: To return to your acting career. The range of your film work is varied, to say the least, from playing in James Bond movies to historical drama, romance, adventure, farce, science fiction, and more. One striking example was in 1980 your played Captain Needa, on the second Star Wars film to be released, "The Empire Strikes Back". These Star War films were immensely popular and imaginative productions. What was it like for you a Shakespearian actor instead of standing on a theatre's stage to find your self standing on a George Lucas spaceship headed into deepest space and well beyond?

MCHAEL CULVER: You must stop referring to me as a Shakespearian actor. I am not. I did 12 months at the Old Vic in London. I was an assorted spear carrier, and I think I had one line in Hamlet. I then did six month tour of U.S.A. and Canada which was extraordinary for a 19 years old right the way around America. We started in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, everywhere and a couple of dates in Canada which was a wonderful experience; but that is most of the Shakespeare I have done. You could say I was classically trained, as I went to Drama School LAMDA, and again for a very short period of time. I was in the so called 'advanced group' which was simply because they could not fit me into the normal two years schedule, for various reasons. First of all, I had to do my national service, which ultimately I did not have to do because I had flat feet, bad heart and a bad, dicky eye.

RICHARD WOLFF: Perhaps being a Captain in a Star Wars film counts as a form of national military service!

MCHAEL CULVER: As for doing the Star Wars I hate to disillusion people, but it was a week’s work. I never thought anything of it at the time, because I had not seen the first Star Wars film. My agent came up and said they want you for a week. What was extraordinary about it was that it was before all the special effects that we use now and I just stood and they put all the effects on afterwards. They built the set, out of hardboard, tacked, then painted it, and before every single shot the whole thing had to be cleaned so they was not a speck of dust on it. It was an incredibly lengthy process. I think I had 5 lines and it took a whole week to do. And I did not think much more about it. Now I have a little plastic model of myself and people consistently send me photos of me as Captain Needa. Irvin Kershner was a charming director and a very nice man. And I enjoyed the week.

I have done things which were more important, like "The Colour of Justice". Another example the TV production "Philby, Burgess and Maclean" (1977), in which I played Maclean with Derek Jacobi playing Burgess and Anthony Bate playing Philby, with a very good director called Gordon Flemyng. Acting is a weird business, one minute you are doing something and another time something totally different. I am not and never was a Shakespearian actor not in the way that Judy Dench or others are.

RICHARD WOLFF: But you could say you are a stage actor!

MICHAEL CULVER: Yes I have done a bit of stage.

RICHARD WOLFF: A bit of stage! You are credited with numerous stage roles.

MICHAEL CULVER: I have done some tours. I did a tour of "Blithe Spirit" (Noël Coward) which went to Sweden and Norway. I did a tour a few years ago of another farce, "Anything For Baby" it was called (by Talbot Rothwell & William Meyer). Yes, I have done stage and quite enjoyed it. I did "Howards End" a couple of times playing Henry Wilcox; but mainly my work has been in Television.

RICHARD WOLFF: Going back to film, then if not "Star Wars" I think David Lean's "A Passage to India" will be on your radar, in which you played a major role as McBryde. What was it like to work with the highly respected feature film directer David Lean, with an august cast to match?

MICHAEL CULVER: Yes, It was an incredible cast. My scenes with James Fox, then the outdoor scenes. When I was the prosecutor and I had to cross examine Judy Davis who was playing Miss Adela. David Lean I found absolutely charming. He likes to push his actors. I played the police inspector, who was meant to be a Scot and spent days and nights trying to get a Scottish accent. I worked extremely hard on it. I think I got away with it. Lean was a very nice man indeed. He likes actors to be stretched. Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, James Fox and Victor Banerjee were charming.

RICHARD WOLFF: Having notched up so many acting achievements, it might at this point be expected for you to relax and take it easy. However that is far from the case, because you have been active in regard to your peace campaigning work. When did this activity start? What sparked your thoughts in this direction?

MICHAEL CULVER: What motivated me was working at the Tricycle Theatre. I had never been a political person. In Vietnam, one was utterly aware, but I considered that this country was not involved in it (pause) or at least officially. Then I realised we were told a bunch of lies about what goes on, so I started looking at it all. Also Macpherson’s judgement on the police really triggered it, like an earthquake in my brain. If the police are institutionally racist, which is what Macpherson who was an ex-SAS officer, was saying, and the police are drawn from a cross-section of society, it must mean the society itself is institutionally racist. It cannot be only the police, so must be the whole society. Consequently, it will apply to your attitude to everyone and everything, and it is only then you start realising, in the Scott enquiry, that we have been selling all those weapons and arms. This is an accumulation of facts.

If you look at our invasion of Afghanistan, which was part of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Afghan people have never ever attacked, invaded, bombed, tortured or slaughtered the people of this country ever. We have invaded, attacked, bombed, tortured and slaughtered the people of Afghanistan four times in the last 200 years. We are in Iraq for the oil and the reason we are in Afghanistan is for the minerals. The trillions of dollars worth, everybody says Afghanistan is a poor country, so poor it has got trillions of dollars of copper, metal, oil, gas, you name it, it has got it all there. Plus they want to ring Russia with bases. It is all high politics and greed. So for me it was an avalanche of facts building up until you cannot deny the facts anymore.

RICHARD WOLFF: You have joined Brian Haw in Parliament Square on quite a number of occasions. Brian Haw campaigned for peace full time in Parliament Square from 2001 until he died in 2011. What was Brian Haw like and is almost ten years full time anti-war protesting a reasonable thing to do?

MICHAEL CULVER: Brian, he was one of the bravest man I ever met. In fact, the more I think of Brian, the more I cannot believe his bravery. To sleep on the pavement, opposite the House of Parliament, with the traffic going past him all day, is really quite extraordinary. Nobody has ever tried to do it. It was unbelievable. It eventually killed him because you cannot live in Parliament Square with all that traffic going past you. He also did smoke heavily, and in the end, he got cancer of the lungs and died. I did not support him as much as I should have. I should have done more, but I helped by doing lots of his banners, and one helped as much as one could, not as much as I should. And of course, that collection of banners (and placards) was turned into an art show and was put on at the Tate Gallery by the artist Mark Wallinger. Which was just as well he did it before the police ripped it to pieces just after the record was made of the whole thing. The exhibition at the Tate (BRITAIN) was called "State Britain". Brian himself was a one-off, a unique, very brave man. His daughter who came to see him was very proud of him.

RICHARD WOLFF: A few nights before the opening of STATE BRITAIN exhibition at the Tate Gallery the artist Mark Wallinger showed the installation to Brian Haw privately and his family. All his children were clearly immensely proud of Brian.

MICHAEL CULVER: Brian was exceptional. Brian had been all over the world. He had been to Cambodia, had seen the horrors that happened after Pol Pot. This was brought about by Kissinger’s bombings of the no-fly zone, since we now know, Khmer Rouge were a minor political party in Cambodia before Kissinger and the Americans bombed and killed a million Cambodians. At which point the Khmer Rouge said we must stop having anything to do with the West and get rid of all Western ideas so it all began. They purged anybody who could read or write. The trials are still going ahead in Cambodia, but the person who really should be on trial is Kissinger, but he won't be.

RICHARD WOLFF: What was it that motivated you initially to join Brian Haw's peace camp in Parliament Square?

MICHAEL CULVER: I joined Brian Haw originally because of the depleted uranium which Caroline Lucas (Member of Parliament) had brought back reports off in about 1998 of the effect of the depleted uranium on the children. And I could not believe we were doing this. That this country was actually using this stuff! I went down and there was Brian, I told him I agreed with him. I made him a teeshirt (with campaign message). Now the effect of the depleted uranium have started to come out and the European Convention is starting to say to stop using those weapons. I don’t know if anything will come out of it. Is the human race bent on suicide?

RICHARD WOLFF: Is that not going to far!

MICHAEL CULVER: I was born in 1938 and brought up to believe that this country stood for freedom and democracy. Most people would say I am exaggerating wildly, but all I can say is read the history books and start looking at what was actually going on.

Actor and peace campaigner Michael Culver interviewed at home by photojournalist Richard Keith Wolff. London 22/4/2014
Info & interviews