GROWING UP WITH AN ABSENT FATHER
What was it like to grow up, the daughter of a 4 Oscar winning father? Yes, it had its moments, very exciting and very different. One of my birthdays was spent, with a group of friends, visiting Shepperton Studios where Carol Reed’s musical ‘Oliver!’ was being shot. We watched as Mark Lester, playing Oliver, crept up to Harry Secombe’s Mr. Bumble, held out his bowl – and whispered, ‘Please, Sir, can I have some more?!
With my father working away so much of the time, most of my school holidays were spent visiting him on location. One of those summer holidays was spent in Spain, in Madrid, where ‘Doctor Zhivago’ was being filmed. Early one blazingly hot morning, heat already shimmering off the pavements, we set off from the cool, dark apartment my parents were renting to visit the unit filming on the other side of the city.
An hour later, I was standing, up to my ankles in snow, in ‘Kropotkin Street’ in Moscow. And it was still over 100 F! And there wasn’t just one street but several, with trams clanking up and down, even a cathedral and in the far distance the crenellated walls of the Kremlin – the Magician, as my father was known, and his team had been at work again.
Those are the positive memories. But there are many that are less so: the number of birthdays that were missed, my very unhappy and frustrated mother, the bullying at school because I was so ‘different’.
Things came to a head when my father was offered and accepted the role of production designer on David Lean’s epic ‘Laurence of Arabia’. He packed his bags and walked out of the front door – not to return for two years. I remember so well the puzzlement, the heartache, the tearful phone calls, the feeling that we all, my mother, my sister and I, the rest of the family, had been deserted.
And then it was Christmas – and he was coming home, just for a couple of days, but that had to be better than nothing. I stood there, five years old, trembling with excitement, staring out of the window, watching out for my father. And there he was, walking down the street, towards our house. I ran out of the sitting room into the hallway, wrenched open the front door, flew down the steps, down onto the street – and threw myself into his arms saying those lines which Jenny Agutter made so famous in the film The Railway Children, ‘Daddy, my Daddy!’.
But the magic moment I’d been dreaming about, better than any Christmas present, being hugged, kissed, burying myself in my father’s arms, didn’t happen. My father just stood there, shuffling his feet, saying nothing, doing nothing. And then my mother was there, pulling at me, apologising, saying she was really sorry, and I was being led back up the steps, through the front door, into our flat. This man wasn’t my father, he was a stranger, just a man walking down the street, my real father would be coming later. And he did, tall and suntanned, and rather glamorous, but rather aloof, mentally and emotionally- still out in Jordan, in the desert, drawing a line through the sand, for Omar Sharif to follow when riding into the well on his camel.
My mother threatened by father with divorce – and the films abroad stopped, at least for a while. And I had a father who was at home, not all of the time, but at least some of the time. And we did what other families did, going for walks together in the local park on a Sunday. To me, even now, the memory of my father’s hand gripping mine, him being there, with us, fills me with a mix of huge happiness – but also huge sadness. Not because of all the time he spent away, not being there when we were growing up. But because, when I was older, when I could spend more time with him and really appreciate who he was, he became the most supportive and most wonderful father – and my dearest friend.