Lovely life of Victor Spinetti

He was good friends with the Beatles, snogged Raquel Welch, wined and dined with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and, in 1964, picked up a Tony award for a role on Broadway. As he prepares to meet fans in Norwich tonight, Jo Green enjoys a good gossip with the extraordinary Victor Spinetti.

Warm, funny, and very down to earth, Victor Spinetti is refreshingly honest about his life among the rich and famous.

His new autobiography, Up Front, has more stars in it than you'd find on an Elvis jumpsuit. Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Diana Dors, Richard Burton, John Lennon, they're all there, but despite working with some of the greatest names in film and theatre, and earning an impressive reputation himself as a comedian and actor, Victor remains delightfully matter-of-fact about himself and his famous friends.

Victor's enjoying a day off when I speak to him and is looking forward to visiting Norwich. He's been to Norfolk several times before, one time at a military base during the war, when the stage act he appeared in went so pear-shaped the cast had to be smuggled out of the gates before they were lynched by the audience.

Tonight, he says, he's looking forward to a rest, putting his feet up and watching I'm A Celebrity.

“Its about as much excitement as I can handle,” he chuckles.

Victor's down-to-earth manner is something he attributes partly to his upbringing in Cwm, a small Welsh valley town, where he was born to a Welsh mother and Italian father.

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“I've never been blasé about what's happened in my life but then there is something funny about this job. Talent's important but luck's important too,” he says.

“And it's absolutely true to say that right through my life I was always a sort of amused observer of people. And my career's given me a lot to laugh about.

“I think a lot of it came from my parents - they were always fighting and, as the eldest child, I had to parent them really. But there, it all worked out.

“I've always believed that whatever you want in this life you have to give it away and then it becomes yours forever. You want love, you give love out and it'll come back to you.”

In his book Victor talks at length about his early childhood in Cwm where his father ran a successful fish and chip shop. During the war his father Joe, who came to Wales looking for work, was arrested and interred for being Italian; his mother, who was born in the village, was given the cold shoulder by families she'd known for years. The experience made Victor feel like an outsider, a feeling that was underlined when he won a scholarship to a public school in Monmouth, where the masters and most of the boys, even those who were Welsh, spoke with English accents.

But school also taught him the value of books and experience.

By the time he'd reached his 20s he had attended drama school in Cardiff and set his sights on an acting career in London. It was an education on many levels.

One time, short of cash, he found himself dressing up in uniform and whipping a naked man in front of his wife, for the princely sum of fifty guineas. The book is packed with similarly juicy, funny and downright bizarre anecdotes. Like when he told Princess Margaret a dirty joke about Salvador Dali. She rang up the next day to be reminded of it, 'so I can tell my sister'.

Or his evenings with the Burtons, Hollywood's most famous couple.

“Elizabeth always looked after everyone. She was the leading lady and she put her pinny on and cooked for the cast. We'd have hamburgers.”

There's a slight pause.

“Though they were flown in from New York you know,” he adds and falls about laughing.

He did the usual bit parts and comedy sketches every actor does on his way to success. On the way he met and made friends with many other unknown actors - Sean Connery was one - and came under the wing of director Joan Littlewood who cast him in Oh What A Lovely War, the show that earned him a Tony award in 1964. And at this point he got his real taste of success. Victor went on to appear in over 40 films, including, famously, the Beatles' films A Hard Day's Night and Help. John Lennon, particularly, became a good friend, and he and Victor collaborated at one stage with Victor directing John's production In His Own Write.

“When we were on the plane going to film in the Bahamas you couldn't hear the engines, the screams were so loud,” he laughs.

“But when they were on their own, you'd usually find them just sitting around talking, like they were in their kitchen at home. That changed with Yoko. She never spoke to you, she'd sit there in her glasses and say nothing. It was like when one of the lads gets married and the wife says right, I don't want your friends hanging round here all day. But she made him very happy.

“People were very snobbish then about the Beatles. They got criticised for being interested in the Maharishi but if they'd been boys from Oxford, nobody would have thought twice.

“To me they were fantastic because they were just so curious, they wanted to find everything out. People sometimes said to me 'what on earth do you talk about with them?' and I'd say, 'everything'.”

It's been a rich life and a busy one. Now in his 70s, Victor's still working and still loving life. At Christmas he's back home in Wales visiting his mother who's 95 and the rest of the Spinetti family. There doesn't seem to be much in life that he hasn't done or had the chance to try. Does he have any regrets?

“When my friend and long-term partner Graham was told he was dying I wish I could have taken his hand,” he says. “But we couldn't, we were too uptight and it just wasn't done then. Apart from that, you know what, there's nothing. You know I can't really believe I'm still alive.”

Victor appears at the Forum, Norwich at 7pm tonight, November 22, for a talk and book signing. Tickets are £6 or two tickets and a book at £12.99. More details from Kulture Shock, St Benedicts, Norwich, tel 01603 625557.