‘Sex? I’ve fallen off that horse.’ Terence Stamp on love and life

No wonder women fall for Terence Stamp. He’s a handsome devil with impeccable manners and a gleam in his cornflower-blue eyes, even at the age of 79. But the legendary actor, who romanced Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie and the supermodel Jean Shrimpton (and recently had a wife less than half his age) has to admit he is slowing down as a lover. ‘The fact is I am past my best. I’ve still got wonderful relationships with women but I’m not looking to get s***ged four times a week,’ says Stamp with that gruff, East End-turned-posh drawl of his. How about once a month?

The laugh in response is long and hearty. I’ll take that as a no. ‘My feeling about sex is that I’ve finally been tossed from the saddle of a horse that I’ve been clinging on to for the past 60 years. So it’s a kind of relief really.’

Slim and graceful, with a laurel wreath of white hair, Stamp is wearing a bottle-green linen suit made for him in Rome in 1968, at the height of his fame. He was nominated for an Oscar for his first film, Billy Budd, and starred in classics including Poor Cow and Far From The Madding Crowd.

That was when he had dark hair and brooding eyes and Oscar judges, film directors and beautiful women were falling at his feet – and before Jean Shrimpton broke his heart by leaving him. Stamp dropped out of fame for a while after that, fleeing to the ashrams of India at the end of the Sixties for a spiritual awakening, as described in his fascinating new book, The Ocean Fell Into The Drop. The title comes from a quote by his Indian guru. ‘I wrote it after being challenged by my publisher, who said: “Do you still feel the need to be an enigma?” That took my breath away because, in truth, that’s the way I’ve stayed afloat for 55 years. I’ve never really let on exactly where I’m at until now.’

Most of the time Stamp is honest and direct. Eye-wateringly so when asked if he is still in the dating game, having been married just once

And he’s not going to hold back today, even revealing what really happened between him and Princess Diana. Her biographer Andrew Morton claimed they were lovers, but Stamp has never discussed this publicly before. ‘I met her at some function,’ he says dismissively, but actually it was the 1987 premiere of Wall Street, in which he plays the British tycoon Sir Larry Wildman – a character he based on the real-life millionaire Sir James Goldsmith, who at one time was rumoured to be Diana’s true father. ‘The relationship came about because my friend Oliver Hoare, the art dealer, knew her. I said, “I’d love to have a proper chat with her, why don’t you ask her if she’s up for it?” He asked and she said yes. We got on amazingly well. And because I wasn’t trying to s**g her we just kind of opened up to each other.

‘I saw the sadness in her because she’d gone into her marriage believing – she was a believer in the marriage and all that. And it didn’t turn out the way she expected it to.’

By this time Diana’s relationship with Charles had broken down. Stamp was single and enjoying a glorious second half to his career, after coming back from obscurity to appear in the first two Superman films. His grace and inner stillness worked well for evil General Zod.

Stamp was renting an apartment in The Albany in Piccadilly, one of the most prestigious addresses in London. When Diana came over for the first time he made mushroom risotto and wrote HRH in black and white with two tubes of truffle paste he had brought back from Italy. She laughed. ‘The time I spent with her was a good time,’ he says.

OK, but Diana was considered one of the most desirable women in the world, so to be bold – since he put it this way himself – why didn’t he want to ‘s**g’ her?

‘It wasn’t like that. I thought that was the last thing she needed, really. She just wanted somebody to talk to that was a guy, who would give her objective opinions.

‘It happens with age. I guess that the only thing that changes with age is that you have a shift in understanding really. Because of your own values, you understand what young women are. You let go of things.’

Stamp was in his 50s at the time, while Diana was still in her 20s. And it wasn’t just dinner, he reveals. They met often. ‘It was over a period of time. But it wasn’t a formal thing, we’d just meet up for a cup of tea, or sometimes we’d have a long chat for an hour, sometimes it would be very quick.’

He is unusually willing to discuss their friendship today, perhaps because it’s around the anniversary of her death, but when I ask if he has any thoughts on the tragic events of August 1997, Stamp closes down. ‘I don’t have any thoughts on that,’ he says with a tight jaw, looking away to the middle distance. Maybe not, but the feelings are obviously still strong.

Most of the time Stamp is honest and direct. Eye-wateringly so when I ask if he is still in the dating game, having been married just once. He married Elizabeth O’Rourke in 2002 after meeting her in a pharmacy in Australia. She was only 29, he was 64. They divorced after six years. So is he looking for love again?

‘Not really. I was conned into going to a function and a reporter came up to me and said: “We can’t print anything you say here, it’s one of the reasons we’re allowed to come, so I just want to ask you, person to person, are you still interested in women? There’s a couple of my friends and they’d like to know.”

‘I heard myself saying, “Look, I still have have orgasms, but I’m not toujours pret – always ready – the way I used to be.” I said it in French, I thought it sounded better. And their jaws dropped. They couldn’t believe I said it. The shock was wonderful. They couldn’t write about it, those were the rules. But yeah. That’s the fact.’

I can’t quite believe he has just said it on the record but there’s a serenity about Stamp that partly comes from half a century of meditation, focusing on the breath of life and being present in the moment. It’s also partly from having survived a near-death experience in 2015 while filming Bitter Harvest in Ukraine.

The stallion he was riding on the last day of filming reared up and threw him off. As he describes in the book: ‘I slid backwards over his rump and landed on the grass squarely on my shoulders. No pain. No harm done… then half a ton of white stallion crashed onto me.’

The impact was taken by his chest and pelvis, which fractured in six places. Two ribs were torn, so was his bladder and his rotator cuff. ‘I’ve always thought my last thoughts would be profound, but when I looked up and saw that the horse had lost his balance, my thought was, “When the tabloids hear about this the headline will be Middle-Aged Actor Killed By Horse’s A***.”’

His sister-in-law was not fooled by his joking. ‘She said, “I know you get laughs from it but the fact is your mind believed the horse was going to kill you and you can’t change that. You didn’t see angels, you didn’t hear voices, but you did have a near-death experience.” So that has changed me a lot.’

How so? ‘It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with acting, but I do view it differently. I think that is underpinned by the knowledge that death happens to everybody and it’s going to happen to me, and it could happen any time. Krishnamurti [his Indian guru] said something wonderful. He said: “Beauty is love and death, and neither can be known.”’

Is he afraid of death? ‘Fear is only thought. The acknowledging of it is the ending of it.’

OK, is he ready then? ‘Well it’s going to happen. I’m just hoping that when death is near it will be in one of those times when I am totally present in the moment. The trick is in the presence.’

Stamp doesn’t drink and follows a strict vegetarian diet as well as practising yoga every day. ‘I am in good health. My body knows how long it’s been here, though. It doesn’t matter how much yoga I do, the body has been here for a long time, it’s nearer 80 years than 70.’ He looks in terrific shape, so what’s the secret? ‘It’s pride and vanity that enables me to stay with a body not dictating to the mind. I know a lot of actors just can’t. They get addicted to the sherbet [an old East End word for booze] and to the food in the same way. And I feel those things, but I’ve always regarded my body as an Aston Martin.

‘My only ambition is to die healthy like a lot of the fakirs and dervishes I met in the East. They take their last breath consciously, and I think, “God, that would be a way to go.”’

His new book is an attempt to provide something of a legacy, which makes me wonder, does he regret not having children? There’s a very long pause. ‘I don’t really. But what I’ve noticed in the past ten years or so is that I’m really enjoying the kids of my nieces in a way that a grandfather would. It is a great joy to me. Since my brother Chris [a successful rock music manager who helped break The Who] preceded me in changing his cosmic address I have the feeling that his grandchildren look at me like they were looking at him when he was around. So no, I actually don’t have regrets, I don’t have regrets at all.’

The phrase ‘changed his cosmic address’ suggests he believes in life after death. ‘Yeah. I think we persist. When breath leaves the body, the body returns to clay. So I think there’s just a kind of vibrational change in us.’

For all his mysticism, I can’t help noticing that Stamp is beautifully dressed in his vintage suit, as well as a gorgeous pair of calf leather shoes created by George Cleverley of Mayfair in 1966. ‘You can see a patch, but I love that. The passage of time embellishes them in some way. I try to keep my old clothes, because I like what happens to them once they age.’

Terence was the eldest of five children born in Bow to Tom and Ethel Stamp, a taciturn tugboat master and a mother who loved music and the performing arts. They were poor but he inherited his parents’ knack for dressing in style anyway. ‘My mother took great pains to have us kept beautifully clean and dressed, because she didn’t want people to know how poor we were, so I got this feeling about clothes.’

Stamp became famous at a moment in the Sixties when working-class actors like himself and flatmate Michael Caine were all the rage. ‘Although it was a big shock at the time, once Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole and others had broken through, that was what people wanted. They didn’t mind if you had a real working-class accent or attitude, because those two did it on their own terms. You didn’t have to pretend that you were middle-class any more. Whereas nowadays the fashion has changed again. It’s changed radically.’

Is that because only the rich can afford to train and work for nothing as an actor? ‘Yeah, sure,’ says Stamp, who won a scholarship to drama school, the likes of which are rare now.

‘It’s probably because these days the fame is of first importance, whereas in the Sixties it was the craft that was of first importance.’

His career went off like a rocket at the start of the Sixties when he earned an Oscar nomination for his very first movie, as the doomed young sailor Billy Budd. The film was pivotal in other ways, too. Shooting the scene in which young Billy is hanged, Stamp had a transcendental experience – his mind emptied and he felt a new sense of oneness with the universe. ‘This otherness just came to me,’ he says.

That would change his life. But in the meantime Stamp was sinister and sexy as the blade-whirling swordsman Sergeant Troy in Far From The Madding Crowd, with Julie Christie as Bathsheba. They became lovers, so famously at the time that many assumed Ray Davies of The Kinks had immortalised them in Waterloo Sunset as Terry and Julie, meeting down by the river every Friday night. Davies preferred to leave it a mystery, but the association stuck in people’s minds and remains to this day.

Stamp had many other lovers in the Sixties, some described in his new book, which combines spiritual musings with earthy memoirs. His encounter with Brigitte Bardot was awkward at first because neither spoke the other’s language very well. The actor was wearing a pair of period-style trousers he had stolen from the set of Far From The Madding Crowd, which had curious flaps on the front, as he describes in his book. ‘“What is zith?” she enquired, pointing to the flap of my drop-fall strides. Galvanised, I grasped her outstretched fingers. I drew them theatrically towards the flap. “I have a little mouse in here,” I said.’

There’s also an extraordinary scene in the book in which he is approached in the lobby of a French hotel by a glamorous stranger and taken immediately upstairs to bed. He was baffled, until Peter Ustinov’s wife later explained: ‘There is a unique class of women here… originally for royalty, aristocrats, but now a selected trade for huge fees.’

‘She never asked me for a cent,’ protested Stamp. Mrs Ustinov replied: ‘Well, it’s a great compliment for you.’

But the woman who captured his heart was Jean Shrimpton, the original supermodel, who left the photographer David Bailey for him. She was the love of Stamp’s life but he blew it, as he once admitted. ‘She left me because she saw I was a lunatic. I wasn’t ready for a twin-soul relationship.’

Stamp dropped out of acting and headed for India with a broken heart, looking for a way to understand that transcendental moment on the set of Billy Budd. That was the home of the guru who would have the most influence on him. ‘I was just winging it until I met Krishnamurti. Although I couldn’t really understand most of the things he was saying, the presence of the guy was not like anything I’d ever come across before.’

Stamp had always felt like a chancer, but now he began to discover an inner confidence and calm. ‘The balance of my life changed.’

Just as well, because for nine years he was more or less out of work. Then came a telegram summoning him to LA to play General Zod in Superman. Stamp soon found himself in demand again, culminating in a startling turn as a drag queen in 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

It was a very risky part for a macho actor to take and Stamp admits to a ‘kaleidoscope of fears about looking silly’. His book describes how his mind raced as he stood on a pub bar in an Australian mining town called Broken Hill waiting to perform Shake Your Groove Thing in thick make-up and a ra-ra skirt.

‘What are you doing here? You’re a middle-aged man. You were the benchmark Iago at [his stage school] Webber Douglas. The best-dressed man in England. You’re a closet philosopher. You’ve sat with wise men…’

Then somebody calls out: ‘Camera. Playback. Action!’ And, Stamp writes, ‘My mind stops. I sense my lips moving, syncing the words, my body gyrating…’

He is fabulous in Priscilla, which is loved by many. Having been seen as a bit po-faced or only fit to play East End gangsters, Stamp had shown he was good for a laugh, even at his own expense. More recently he was part of the flurry of films about older characters in the deeply touching Song For Marion.

These days Stamp is relaxed and chilled, wandering about town in the sandals he prefers to wear because the yoga has made his feet spread. Not everybody appreciates them. ‘I was asked to leave The Ritz last week because I had Birkenstocks on. They wouldn’t let me in. I wasn’t staying, I was just meeting somebody.’

He has been a terrific customer for the hotel, going back to the Sixties. ‘My brother Chris made a lot of money and at the height of his fortune he lived at The Ritz for about six months. I used to go there and see him. So I thought, “How ironic that I’ve been asked to leave because I’m improperly dressed.”’

What else was he wearing? ‘Not much really. The truth is I’ve got the most wonderful whistles [suits] and all kinds of shirts and everything but when I came back to England about ten years ago, I just suddenly realised it no longer meant a great deal to me to be beautifully dressed all the time. I’ve gradually got more and more casual.’

Didn’t he ask if they knew who he was?

‘No, course not. As I was leaving, the guy said, “Oh Mr Stamp, how are you sir?” And I thought, “I won’t be coming back here too often in the future.”’

Plenty of other people know who he is. ‘I’m very famous now, in a way that has only been true over the past ten years, in the sense that I get recognised a lot on the street.’

Why does he think that is?

‘The nice reason is that the British appreciate longevity. And the ordinary reason is a lot of my movies are on the box now.’

He used to be aloof, but not any more. ‘When people come up to me, it’s no longer a drag. They want to say hello. Guys want to tell their mums they’ve met me, because their mums love me. And other people say, “I really enjoy your work.”’

Terence Stamp smiles, a charming man at ease with himself at last. ‘Well it’s all kind of wonderful in a way, don’t you think?’

Originally published in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday, September 2017. 

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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