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Director John Boorman: A life of love, loss and film

Acclaimed director John Boorman talks to Barry Egan about his new film, the death of his daughter and the affairs that shaped his life and work

Published 20/06/2015

John Boorman at his house in Annamoe
John Boorman at his house in Annamoe

The last image in Queen And Country, John Boorman's new movie, is of the main character, based on young Boorman, disappearing beneath the water. In 1958, Boorman's daughter Telsche disappeared beneath the waters of a pond on Emery Down in Hampshire. Her 11-month-old body was discovered lifeless. Pondweed hanging from her mouth, Telsche's heart appeared to have stopped.

More than 50 years later, her father is recalling how that morning he had glanced, completely by chance, at some literature on his desk about a new method of resuscitation and thus was able to blow into his baby daughter's mouth several times, and bring her - miraculously - back to life.

"Babies have the ability to trap oxygen in their brain if the heart stops beating," he says now, "a mechanism, that can sustain life during birthing if the lungs do not immediately function. Sometimes when a baby is born before it can breathe itself - its mother's oxygen is cut off because the tube is broken - the baby can seal off the oxygen in the brain and it can survive for 10, 15 minutes."

Sadly, in 1997, his beloved Telsche died of ovarian cancer - "an attack on the very source of life," he says. She was 39. John wrote in his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, "And sometimes still my little mermaid calls to me but her voice is drowned out by the wintry waves that roar on the rocks, and my life flounders too."

"I go. . ." he says now before pausing. "She is buried in Cimetiere de Montmartre. I go there every year for the anniversary. She died on the 12th of February.

"We buried her on the 14th of February, Valentine's Day. When I go over there, people often say to me, 'Oh, does love bring you to Paris?' I say, 'Yeah, it does, but not the way you think.' Telsche was living in Paris. She was married to a French man." Boorman makes it clear he didn't like him. "When I revived her from the drowning incident," he continues, "it definitely created a special bond between us. She always said, 'I was born twice. Once by my mother and once by my father.'" Boorman says he will always grieve for her. The look etched on his face seems to say how suffering underlines the human condition. Her daughter Daphne, who was seven when Telsche died 18 years ago, is getting married in October. She has asked Boorman to conduct the ceremony in Morocco. "So I am going to be one of these priests I despise!" The internationally feted director is planning, he says, "oh, a very simple thing. An exchange of rings with a ribbon tying them together!"

I ask John Boorman is the final image of Queen And Country him - in perhaps his last ever film - going beneath the River Thames to meet his little mermaid for the final time in a watery place of eternity. He nods his head. His eyes well up with emotion, trying, perhaps, to express the inexpressible. He half smiles and says nothing. It is like that Samuel Beckett line about words leaving a stain on silence. I apologise if I have upset him.

He says there is no need to apologise as he likes to talk about Telsche. He says the last shot of Queen And Country is about him in a way going to Telsche. He adds that her death is something he has never got over, because it is not possible to get over. "I lost my eldest daughter. Part of me died with her. I've never been the same since. I never had ... I never had that feeling of utter joy and pleasure - there's always that weight that holds me down."

He takes solitary naked swims on the river on his land. "I've got a diving board. I dive in there! But I've only been in once this year so far; it's been so cold. I'm 82 and I still have all my marbles," he laughs. "I can still get around."

Perhaps the reason why John Boorman has kept his marbles is that he has dealt with his past through his movies. Making the autobiographical Queen And Country - a follow-up to 1987's Hope and Glory - was an act of catharsis. A deliverance from his pain ... "Directly or indirectly to put out the stuff that has bothered me or affected my life helps," he says. "It helps." His mother's affair with another man is in Queen And Country as is the fact that young Boorman knew about it. "That was something very significant in my life," he explains, "because as you see in the scene it is either betraying my father or betraying my mother. And I think it made me very secretive in my life. I eventually - I hope - got over it, but it was always, always a little bit secretive."

I ask him did he ever tell his father that he knew. "No, no, I didn't. What happened was that he knew about the affair, my father did, and so that caused a certain amount of bitterness, obviously, but when the lover was dying" - Herbert, the lover Boorman is referring to, died in 1950 - "my mother [played in Queen and Country by Sinead Cusack] nursed him. She stopped pretending and there was a sort of radiance in her face. This dying man had given love. It was rather wonderful. I think my father eventually got over it. But that was a big thing. Probably it was the reason I was so attracted to the Arthurian story because of that triangle with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot."

"It crops up in a lot of my work really," he says referring to Excalibur with Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren in 1981. "Point Blank," Boorman adds, referring to the 1967 classic with Lee Marvin, "was the same story. His wife betrayed him with his best friend. So it obviously went very deep."

Boorman adds that his mother, around the time he made Hope And Glory (with Sarah Miles playing his mother this time), got run over by a car. "She didn't break anything but she had bruises all over her body. I used to go to her flat, undress her and lift her into the bath-tub and wash her and wrap her in a sheet to dry her off. It was extraordinary. She said, 'I did this to you so many times. And now you are doing it to me.' Because she was nude, we were incredibly intimate and we could talk about anything. In those evenings, I learned more about her then than I had my whole life."

I ask him what they talked about. "The lover," he replies without hesitation, "which, of course, I had never spoken to her a lot directly at all. Then she talked a lot about her own father. It was fantastic. I probably would never have known any of those things. I learned a lot."

His mother's war-time illicit hanky panky was, he continues, "an awkward thing. My father was in the army and he was away. The friend [Herbert]... they had been in the army in India together in the First World War. They were very close friends. They both wooed my mother. My father had a job and the other guy didn't. "I think he was always her love, really. And so my father had to kind of live with that. The thing that complicated it for me was that I liked him very much, the friend. In fact, I kind of preferred him to my father in a way, which I felt guilty about. So there was a lot of stuff going on there."

The emotional resonances of all these pivotal events are evident in Boorman's adult life, courtesy of his parents (his father died at 81; his mother at 95). He writes in his autobiography about a young woman with whom long ago he shared an agreement that as long as they weren't having sex they wouldn't be "betraying" their marriages. One night at a party, they finally kissed. When they looked up from their clinch, however, the woman's husband was standing there. The following morning he sent Boorman a note."You are a s**t," it read.

"He and I are good friends," he explains now. "I never consummated my affair with her, but I have been in touch with her always. Actually, it is a wonderful relationship, because there is a kind of purity about it. She is a very beguiling woman. We've been close friends all our lives."

Boorman has been married twice. In 1990, he separated from Christel, his wife of 39 years, and the mother of four of his children (Katrine, Charley, Daisy and Telsche). In 1995, he married his Brazilian lover of some years, Isabella Weilbrecht, who is the mother of Lola, Lee and Lili-Mae. Would Boorman recommend marriage? "Would I recommend marriage? I don't know. I've always had great need of having a woman in the bed."

So, is he romancing young maidens all over Wicklow now? "There is the occasional lover," he laughs.

Boorman was born in 1933 in Surrey, in a snowstorm - his father had gone to get the midwife, and by the time they negotiated the elements, "my head had already ventured into the world", he is unforgiving with regard to the great truths he is supposed to have accumulated about life at his age. "Oh, none. Absolutely none. This whole idea that you get wisdom when you get old is nonsense. I think, when I was young I knew everything. Now I have mostly only doubts. I am much less wise and knowledgeable than when I was younger."

Belfast Telegraph

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