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In Praise of Postlethwaite

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The outpouring of affection at the death of Pete Postlethwaite last January was quite remarkable. He was that rare and unusual paradox, a comparatively unknown actor whom everyone thought they knew.

So I was more than happy to channel this reaction, and collect my own thoughts and memories on the great man at the Chichester Film Festival yesterday afternoon. I tried to produce, in effect, a seventy-minute Postlethwaite show, comprising my own text interleaved with passages that I read out from Pete's own wonderful, posthumously published autobiography, helped along with a few film clips.

Thanks to Ellen Cheshire, who worked at the festival for several years and now runs the publicity and marketing for the new West Dean arts festival (starting this weekend), I compiled a CD of perhaps slightly unexpected clips -- from Alien 3, with Sigourney Weaver; his hilarious appearance in Richard Griffiths's television comedy series, Pie in the Sky; The Usual Suspects (the great pool room scene); Baz Luhrman's quite brilliant Romeo and Juliet, with a brand new Leonardo DiCaprio; and The Shipping News, with a wonderfully mis-cast Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench and a surprise pop-up from Rhys Ifan.

Pete's great performances in Brassed Off and In the Name of the Father are fully celebrated in screenings of those films in the festival itself. My contribution followed a showing of the BBC television film made within a couple of months of his death and featuring heartfelt and illuminating tributes from Ralph Fiennes, Alison Steadmam, Baz Luhrman, Miriam Margolyes, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, Sue Johnston and Stephen Tompkinson. So I was careful not to repeat or echo that material too closely.

The autobiography, in fact, contains many new facets of Pete's life, not least his devotion to friends and family, his spectacular exploits in Stratford-upon-Avon (on stage and off; "off" was mostly in the Dirty Duck), his curious hallucinatory breakdown during a summer season in Aberystwyth, and some wonderful, personal stories at work with Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg (who called him "the greatest actor in the world").

It's a marvellous phenomenon, the Chichester Film Festival, now in its twentieth season under the astute and enthusiastic directorship of Roger Gibson. The programme is astonishing: not just a Pete Postlethwaite strand this year (the festival runs until 4 Sep) but a Terence Rattigan retrospective, a Dirk Bogarde season, a Claude Chabrol tribute, an Ian McKellen retrospective and virtually unreleased films by Woody Allen, Betrand Tavernier and Spike Lee.

And it all takes place in a village-style scout hall five minutes from the Festival Theatre that is mostly used year-round as a fitness centre and amateur dramatics venue. I've been several times before as a speaker, and always enjoyed the ambience and the attentiveness of a small but appreciative audience in the studio space.

Michael Winner, of course, packed out the larger cinema completely last weekend, and talked non-stop for two hours, I'm told. Other speakers include Rattigan biographer Michael Darlow, David Hare introducing The Browning Version (a play he is complementing with his own new one-acter in Chichester very soon), Bogarde biographer John Coldstream, Ken Russell talking about his Mahler film (in a Mahler mini-season) and John Madden introducing his new spy thriller starring Helen Mirren, The Debt.

It's a privilege to be part of such a programme. I was joined by my friend and former Financial Times colleague Tony Thorncroft, who lives locally. After a drink in the cosy bar, Roger invited us to stay on for a screening of Pedro Almodovar's latest, The Skin I Live In, but Tony's car had conked out in a Waitrose car-park earlier in the day, and I had to catch a train home. Even after just a few hours, it was a wrench to leave.


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