My Pop Life #9 : Ballade #1 in G minor – Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

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Ballade #1 in G minor  –  Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

there are no words

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La Coupole, Montparnasse

1989 Paris.   Hugh Grant and I are sitting in La Coupole on Montparnasse, yards from our hotel, eating oysters, drinking bubbly. And why not? We’ve been given great wads of ‘monopoly money’ (or French francs)  as per diems, expected to feed ourselves with it since we’ve been cast in a film called Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan, directed by her husband James Lapine and filming in Angers and Paris for seven weeks.  Hugh and I decide there and then to sample all the great brasseries of Paris over the ensuing weeks, with all their proudly preserved Art Nouveau splendour, piles of ice and shellfish, tarte tatin and cheese to savour, a white-aproned garçon and maitre-d to patronise us, and quite frankly, the finest wines available to humanity to evaluate at our leisure.

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Brasserie Flo, Cour des Petites Écuries

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Bofinger, Rue de la Bastille

Blimey, I thought, I’m on the gravy train.  Who wouldn’t ?  I wasn’t, as it turned out, but just for a few weeks there, oooh I so was. We ate at Bofinger, Lipp, Brasserie Flo, Au Pied De Cochon, La Coupole and Terminus Du Nord.   And others.  Monopoly money.   The film – Impromptu – concerned the affair between Polish genius Frederick Chopin (Hugh) and French novelist Georges Sand (Judy Davis) in the 1830s (the Ballade #1 dates from 1831) and particularly an enjoyable weekend with their friends Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), Eugene Delacroix (me!) and Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) at a pretentious nouveau-riche chateau and their hosts (Emma Thompson and Anton Rodgers).

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Bernadette Peters and Georges Corraface completed the cast as spurned lovers.  It was a gas.  Too much to relate in a blog to be honest, (you should be so lucky!) but as Hugh and I weave our wicked way through the highways and often the byeways of Paree, he often had to take time off to learn how to play the piano like Chopin.  Had a little keyboard in his hotel room to practice on.  For my part I had to visit Le Louvre, study the Delacroix masterpieces such as Victory Leading the People and then go away to art lessons and learn to paint and draw like our Eugene. He was good at animals.

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Victory Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix

 It’s rather typical of me that my takeaway from working on this wonderful film with this gang, about this extraordinary group of artists wasn’t the wonderful work of the character I was portraying, and believe me I immersed myself in Delacroix.  By the time we came to shoot I could actually draw a horse.  But I haven’t drawn a line since we finished.  No it was the music that captured my heart.

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Hugh Grant, Ralph Brown, Georges Corraface

I’d never really been exposed to this music before and it was simply overwhelmingly beautiful stuff.  Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano, (four piano concertos notwithstanding) : waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, scherzos, ballades.  They are to my ears – and indeed to Georges Sands’ and even Liszt’s – the pinnacle of all music.  I bought a CD of Artur Rubinstein playing the Greatest Hits – and trust me there’s not a duffer on that LP.   I’m only partly joking.   I used to play it over and over.  I still do – although since then I’ve bought the giant box set of Rubinstein playing everything Chopin wrote.  I’ve heard many many other people playing these pieces – Pollini, Kissin, Horowitz, Ashkenazy are all great, but I always come back to Rubinstein. Maybe it’s because he’s Polish as well, who knows, maybe it’s because he doesn’t stick to the beat, there is a delicious hesitation before he lands on certain phrases.  It is all exquisite.  But most likely it’s because that’s what I heard first.

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Eugene Delacroix in his studio

Richard E Grant joins us one night because he is filming across town doing Hudson Hawk I think.  His dear wife Joan Washington has been helping us with our various accents.  All the French characters are doing English RP, everyone else has to do an accent.  I distinctly remember the phrase “velvet flaaars“…  Hugh hates doing the Polish accent and vows never to change his voice again for a movie.  Four Weddings & A Funeral is in the can and he has high hopes for it.   He can do all the accents on earth, a lot of people don’t get that he is a mercurial actor but chooses not to be.

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Delacroix self-portrait

Liz Hurley Hugh’s girlfriend turns up (I’d worked with her earlier in a Dennis Potter film Christabel) and after a few more brasseries we move to Angers in the west of France (Loire Valley white wines are the finest known to humanity:  Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, Vouvray, Savennieres)  where Kenneth Branagh arrives one afternoon to see Emma.  Then Ken, Hugh and myself play a round of (very poor) golf one afternoon.   Ken very sweetly asks me to join his company but I decline, favouring the wide open unknown spaces of my uncertain future (was I on the gravy train?…)”

It was in Angers that I played my sex scene with Emma – the Duchess.  She was a model of professionalism, funny, warm and very kind, ‘don’t worry if you get an erection’, that kind of thing.  ‘I might fart’.   One night after work driving back from the chateau to the hotel our driver runs over a rabbit and he brakes hard, jumps out and disappears.  “Has he gone to see if it’s all right?” asks Em.  We hear the boot open then close with a small thud. “No I think that one’s for the pot” I reply.  She isn’t happy.

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Georges, Judy, Mandy, Bernadette, me, Julian, Hugh

We had a laugh.  When Judy Davis’ husband Colin Friels arrived we went out in Paris to one of the aforementioned brasseries – this one was in the St Germain area, and when the posh and oh so pompous waiter came to take our order, Colin had us laughing into our napkins as he went full 10 Aussie “bring me some cow and burn the fucker“.

When the film came out in England it had all the distribution wrong – it was on at the Curzon Shaftesbury Avenue, a huge anonymous place with too many seats.  Impromptu was a Renoir film, an Everyman film, and Electric cinema film.  It was there to be discovered.  It wasn’t made for blockbuster screens and sank without trace.  An early lesson that having fun and making arather good film does not equate to success.  Went I went to Hollywood a few years later at least two casting directors remembering Eugene stared at my shaved head and asked me where all my hair had gone.

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24 years later I’m working with people like Jodie Whitaker, Harriet Walter and Lex Shrapnel in Vilnius, Lithuania on a TV show (The Assets) and sitting on my own in a trendy coffeeshop with book-lined walls,  a dog and a piano.  A young man walks in, sits down and proceeds to play Ballade number 1 in G minor on that piano while people ordered coffee and surfed the internet, came and went.  I filmed him on my phone. He made a couple of mistakes.  It was kind of perfect.  So perfect that I’ve lost the wee film.  Ah well, there’s always Artur Rubinstein