London, WTuesday, April 18, 2000
Castle [picture not posted]: gets the glare
Catching the scowl of a racist
Channel 4 is to recreate the dramatic David Irving libel trial, JULIA PASCAL watches lead actor John Castle struggle with his role as a Nazi sympathiser
A TELEVISION monitor is wheeled in. John Castle, hot and bothered like everyone else, jerks his head away. He scowls at the figure on the screen: a broad-shouldered man with an intense blow-torch stare and an impeccably pressed chalk-stripe suit. "Do we have to have this?" he complains. "This is not at all helpful."
Castle, too, is in smart chalk-stripes. His features, too, can transform themselves into the most frightening glares. Those similarities are the very reasons he does not want to see the television pictures. On screen is the Right-wing historian David Irving. On the set in this film studio in Bromley-by-Bow, Castle is making his final preparations for his role in a Channel 4 special as the main player in the libel trial which ended last week in the High Court with Irving a ruined man, branded a "pro-Nazi ... anti-Semite and racist" by Mr Justice Gray.
The point is, Castle makes clear, that he is trying to act the role, not impersonate the man. "I can't pretend to be him. I can't imitate," he protests. The assistant director senses trouble. "You could go to your room for a while," he says.
Castle, purposefully but not angrily, leaves the set and heads for his dressing room. As he departs, director Leslie Woodhead gently mocks him. "I can only do it organically," he says under his voice.
We are in the Three Mills Studio, on a set that has perfectly captured what Woodhead calls the "Sixties' grammar school library" feel of Court 73 of the High Court. There is a faint whiff of oil, explained by assistant director Helen Kelsey: the chipboard dock and benches have been painted with creosote to make them look like oak.
Castle is smaller than Irving though he has the same thick grey thatch. "It's his first day," says Kelsey. "He is feeling his way around."
The other players in this courtroom drama are Jeremy Clyde, who plays the judge, Jacqui Webster who plays Irving's courtroom opponent Professor Deborah Lipstadt, and Michael Byrne, Lipstadt's QC, Richard Rampton.
Castle is rehearsing death-camp denial. "I do not accept that it was going to be used for mass killings by gas," he says, in character. He cuts off, to tell Woodhead: "I've had to learn this by rote because I can't understand it."
The actor is having problems identifying with his character. He moves on to the text where Irving details how much a human body weighs and how long it takes to incinerate.
All around, one can sense a collective anxiety. We are two weeks before the High Court verdict is to be announced and a question hangs in the air: what if Irving wins?
The studio heat is unbearable and there is a fine dust from the creosote which catches the throat. The actors are tired, and this is only day two. After a short tea-break, Castle returns. Woodhead becomes protective. "I am really anxious not to have the confrontation between the real man and the actor. Let the screen go dead," he tells his crew. The camera operator tries to change his mind. He wants Castle to watch Irving on video. "No," says Woodhead, "I'd rather preserve the actor's sanity and lose a bit of continuity." The rehearsal resumes. Byrne's Rampton comes into the attack on Castle's Irving: "Are you suggesting that the Jews deserved everything that happened to them?" They decide to go for a take. Woodhead whispers to Byrne: "Put your glasses on. You look even meaner wearing them."
The scene takes several attempts. Byrne keeps fluffing numbers of murder victims. One hundred and thirty seven thousand dead becomes 130. "I'm not surprised," says Woodhead. "It's the end of the day." Finally, it's over. John Castle leaves for his dressing room looking as if he has been hit with a cricket bat
London, April 18, 2000