I sat in the office of our University’s Director of Communications, clutching my mug of tea and enjoying the sea view over the spectacular West Sands. Over the loudspeaker I could hear the dialling tones as our long-distance call was put through. A few crackles later and the phone sprung to life. Before I could compose myself or gather my thoughts, it all began. ‘Listen, I apologise [for missing the earlier phone call], I was out on my bike…’
Those were the first few and perfect words uttered to me by Sir Sean Connery. We had caught him mid-morning from his home in the Bahamas, where it was obviously a glorious day. He apologised further for the poor telephone connection, and that he would be sorry if it were to cut off during our conversation at any point. His iconic and much adored voice, thick with a Scottish rugger, talked down the line to me softly and affectionately, almost as if I were his doting Miss Moneypenny calling to remind him of an important lunch time meeting.
In fact, Sir Sean was calling to oblige me in my request to interview him about the recent ‘Ever to Excel’ documentary-film, made and directed by his dear friend, Murray Grigor. I was keen to learn how he became involved in such a momentous celebration of our University’s 600th Anniversary. ‘Louise Richardson approached me about making a documentary, and asked if I would be interested in assisting. I have virtually retired, but I said ok, and recommended that she get in touch with Murray. We have a relationship that goes back, Murray and I – we did a documentary, we co-wrote ‘Being a Scot’, and we’ve always kept in touch.’ From his opening dialogue I could sense that Sean valued his relationship – both personal and professional – with Murray, and that it was with him that he wished (in all essence) to be hauled out of retirement with.
The film footage itself gathered much more material than anyone had initially thought: ‘If you go back [to the foundation of the University] in the story, it ends up being quite long… we had so much material and so much of it was valid that we stayed’. To me, it was immediately obvious that this was an undertaking that he was very much interested in, and fiercely committed to. Rather touchingly, he indicated the lengths he went to so that the footage remained unaltered and kept true to the story it was telling: ‘To protect it [the film], I insisted that Louise Richardson – the top banana at the University – had first and last say about anything’.
After talking at length to me about his involvement in the initial stages of the creative process, Sean rather playfully turned the tables on me, and asked about my opinion of the film: ‘So anyway, any complaints from you, my interrogator?’. I told him that I was momentarily shocked at my ignorance at so much of St Andrews’ history, but that my initial feelings were seamlessly overpowered by his simple and honest on-screen presence.
Sean whole-heartedly agreed, and repeated the sentiment that the film exposed one to a boundless lesson in Scottish history. Again I glimpsed the pride he bears in his involvement, and the patriotism that is often associated with his name was once again at his surface. He tells me of a conversation he had with Henry Kissinger of his disbelief that: ‘I’ve never met anybody, for all their knowledge about America, who knew that it was a Scotsman [James Wilson, who passed through St Andrews, and who was a Founding Father] who changed ‘We the States’, to ‘We the people’ [in the United States Constitution]’.
Sean knows St Andrews well, and recalls fondly his time spent here: ‘My history is linked to the golf club. I played every year, and I have quite a strong record in the club itself. It’s a seriously good game’. Delighted with our shared interest, I rejoiced in telling him that I played with the Ladies Club. Again, the mischievous interviewee turned interviewer, and he dared ask: ‘Have you got a handicap yet?’. I hesitated, and decided that I should probably tell James Bond the truth. I admitted to my horrendous handicap, to which he exclaimed: ‘Oh Christ! You’ve got a long way to go! I could beat you!’. I pretended to scold him, to which he apologised with an endearing laugh. I like to think of that passage in our conversation as grounds for an unspoken date, and that Sean will be sure to take me round the Old Course on his next visit to town.
Sir Sean’s loyalty to education is deeply rooted: “If there ever was a time, a need for education, a genuine education, it’s now.”
Swerving back on track as deftly as his Aston Martin in Goldfinger, I asked whether he had a favourite part of the finalised footage. Sean responded that he simply enjoyed the education that being involved in the project offered: ‘I’ve been playing catch-up because I left school aged 13…I have virtually no schooling’. I think that there is an apparent sense of pride on his part that the film not only educated him further, but that it gives everyone who watches it an incredibly rich and fulfilling experience. His loyalty to education is deeply rooted; his movie earnings from the Bond franchise were used to set up the Scottish International Education Trust, which is an organisation set to give financial aid to those unable to fund further education opportunities. ‘If there ever was a time, a need for education, a genuine education, it’s now’.
As my conversation with Sir Sean drew to a close, several thoughts crossed my mind. I think the most prevalent of which was the realisation of how generous he had been, in every sense of the word. He was generous with his time, as he talked at great length and humoured my inevitable side-tracking; and he was likewise generous with his content, and was both interesting and interested in his conversation. Despite being on the other side of the phone with my most favourite secret agent, I felt immediately comfortable conversing with him, and for that I attribute his incredibly kind manner.
Although I have yet to lose the smile which has been plastered over my face since the interview, I’ll let you readers into a little secret (one that I won’t have to kill you over): I believe that Sean enjoyed our conversation almost as much as I did, and I like to think that he is currently riding his bike in the basking midday sun, with a big old smile still stuck to his face.
Read Murray’s story here.
Poster credits: Sir Sean Connery and Murray Grigor
Photo credits: Teresa Monachino (Sir Sean in helicopter), Greg Bishop (Sean with car, Flickr Creative Commons), Murray Grigor (Sean and Murray)