Jl Where Did You Start Smoking?

Sir Christopher Frayling

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James Leavey's Corner
  By James Leavey

The former-smoker andcurrent Rector of the Royal College of Art in London – where he isalso Professor of Cultural History, and author of  ‘Sergio Leone –Something to do with death’, the definitive biography of the lateItalian cigar-friendly film-maker.

JLWhere did you start smoking"

CF: At boarding school,behind the pavilion, in time-honoured fashion, at the age of16…one’s or two’s, rather surreptitious.  I think I probably mademyself quite ill, to start with. By the time I was at university, Ismoked quite a lot, as an impoverished student, of ‘No. 6’, tipped,and then ‘Embassy’.  And there was always this joke, in 1968, in theyear of student revolution, “Advice to terrorists, ‘Light up anEmbassy.’” Plus it had coupons.

JL:Did your university have a smoking club, at that time"

CF: No.  It’s completelychanged its meaning, smoking.  It was sort of hip and cool and chic,in a way, and related to lots of images in the movies.  Whereastoday I think the great image of control is not smoking in themovies…Bruce Willis shows that he’s a cool man because he doesn’tsmoke.

JL: I’ve just flickedthrough the RCA’s Graduate Catalogue and noticed there’s not oneimage of smoking in it.  Why is that"

CF:  I don’t know -there’s no censorship.  These are the designers and the artists of5-10 years’ hence, and I suspect they think smoking images probablywon’t be a source of their living, because there probably won’t beany tobacco advertising, and probably this and probably that.  Ourstudents are quite canny, they go where the action is, and theythink that by the time they make their name there won’t be muchaction there, I suspect.   Sometimes it’s an Eco thing, when thestudents deliberately do an anti-smoking thing.  But I suspect theyjust don’t think that smoking’s where the action is, at the moment.

JL:  Perhapsarchitectural students should be considering including a permanentashtray in their plans for the front entrances of public buildings"

CF:  Yes.  There was awonderful plant in the RCA’s industrial design department about 3-4years ago.  A very picturesque plant that was also a smokeextractor, inside the plant.  You put it beside your table at dinnerand it purified the air and extracted the smoke, and it looked justlike a normal plant.  I thought that was quite clever. There wasalso a student, a few years ago, who did a satirical branding thing– they’re all very uneasy about advertising taking over the world –and advertised a well-known brand of medical products, only as anashtray, cigarette holders and all the rest of it, as a kind ofsatire on brands.   But, um, I don’t encourage that.

JL: What influence do youthink smoking has had on popular culture"

CF:   Well, there’s theimagery associated with smoking, the package design.  Some of thegreat graphic designs of the 20th century were thepackage designs for Lucky Strike, done by Raymond Loewy, and theCamel pack – they’re design classics.  It’s interesting.  When I didthe King Tut TV series in 1992, there was a moment in it where Italking about the impact of ancient Egypt on popular culture in the1920s, and we wanted to have the shot looking exactly like the Camelpack.  So I was sitting on a Camel and there was a pyramid on theleft and a palm tree on the right.  Or is it the other way round"Whichever.  Anyway, the idea was that I’d be sitting on this Camelsaying,  ‘King Tut had this huge influence on popular culture’, andthen the camera would pull back and the shape of the image was thesize of the box, and the whole audience would say, ‘Wow! It’s theCamel pack’, you see.   Then they lost confidence, as TV people do,and thought no, they may not get it, so, ‘Could you just light up aCamel, while you’re saying this.’  So here was I, talking about KingTut’s influence on popular culture and I pulled a Camel cigaretteout of my breast pocket and lit it up.  By the way, at this stageI’d given up smoking four years’ before.  And my advice to you isnever act with a camel, for each time I did this the camel didsomething silly, which ruined the take.  Take 1, it started eatingmy shoe.  Take 2, it walked off, got out of frame. Take 3, it letout an almighty fart, at which point the sound man and the cameramanwere laughing so much that it all went wrong.  In fact, they splicedthem together into one of those mad ‘It’ll be all right on thenight’ type reels.  So the result was to get this effect of lightingup this Camel, I lit up 18 cigarettes, and the following morning Igot up and I had fallen – I wanted a cigarette, and I took it upagain.  Postscript, in America, they don’t like presenters smoking,and they cut the shot out. So we went back to the original one of mesitting on a camel saying this.  So I actually took up smoking againin the service of my art, for no purpose whatsoever, because theshot never made the finished programme.  There we go.  Anyway, goingback to the impact of smoking on popular art in the 20thcentury.  There are wonderful film stills of people smokingcigarettes in different ways.  There’s classic moments in themovies, there’s some paintings – there’s a famous Sickert paintingof a guy in a Homburg hat, standing there looking like Edward GRobinson with a cigarette.  So there’s a kind of iconography, asthey call it in art history, of smoking.  I think it’s the graphicsof the advertising and the package design.  It’s the bigcontribution to visual culture in the 20th centuryculture from cigarettes, I think. It’s been a fantastically richarea, it really has.

JL: Do you think the timehas come for a retrospective look at the art of tobacco"

CF: Yeah.  I think itwould be quite interesting because when in the late 1970s youweren’t allowed to have a young person smoking in the ads, youweren’t allowed to have someone enjoying themselves, that theadvertising sort of legislated into abstract art, which is a strangesituation.  So Benson & Hedges started doing all theseMagritte-style surrealist raining cigarettes on to umbrellas, or abird-cage which has a cigarette packet in it and a silhouette of thebird – Magritte-type things.  Silk Cut just had a piece of silkthat’s cut. And it was abstraction, in the high street. People hadbeen trying for 30 years to get the British public interested inabstract art, without any success whatsoever, and suddenly, youwalked round the high street and every cigarette ad was a piece ofabstract art. And suddenly people began to understand howabstraction worked.  You don’t have to have people, you don’t haveto have a horse.  All you need is a visual joke, Silk Cut, that’sall you need, a piece of silk that’s been cut. So, yes, that wouldbe interesting, to look at the contribution of cigarette advertisingto the popular appreciation of Abstract Art. Discuss.

JL: You’ve written the definitive biography of Sergio Leone…

CF: Yes, there’s probablymore detail in it, probably more than most people want to know…

JL: Did Leone smoke"

CF:  He did.  He smokeddouble coronas, Havana cigars, which were almost as tall as he was.He wasn’t tall of stature, and he used to smoke these vast cigars. I remember my first conversation with him, which was at theDorchester, and he lit up this vast cigar and got a pawful of cashewnuts which he chucked into his mouth – he got a dish of cashew nutsand emptied it into his paw, in one go, the entire dish, and whaff! Puffing on his double corona…he was an astonishing sort-of Falstafffigure, with a big bellow and beard…he was larger than life.  He wasactually quite a timid individual underneath, I discovered,subsequently, and part of the book is that journey of discoveringit.  The double corona went with his image.  It was an Orson Welles-typeimage.  In some of these books about the cigar you’ll find a photoof Leone with a little disquisition about the joys of the doublecorona.  Latterly, he wrote articles about smoking cigars, as well.In the 1960s, the big thing was to write about the movies from thepoint of view of the director, and the director became the newcelebrity in the movies.  It started off with Alfred Hitchcock,instantly recognisable anywhere around the world. And I think Leonesort of created a public personality for himself, that went with hiscelebrity, so there was the beard, and being overweight, like aprophet he dressed in a sort of kaftan and smoked his doublecorona.  So he looked the part, he looked like the old man from theforest.  This was a larger than life character that went with largerthan life movies, so I think the corona became part of his image.

JL: Clint Eastwood smokedcigars in the Leone spaghetti westerns…

CF:  Yeah.  There’s agreat debate as to what kind of cigars they were.  The Italiansclaim that they were a cigar called Toscano, or Toscani in theplural, which are these rather evil southern Italian cigars of veryclosely packed tobacco, very dark. I had a go at them.  Wow, they’restrong stuff. If you notice in the movies, Eastwood is constantlylighting his cheroot and it keeps going out, I think deliberately,‘cos he didn’t want to actually smoke, he disliked smoking a lot. But Toscani do that as well, you keep trying to get them going andthey keep going out.  What people in Italy do is cut them in halfwith a pair of scissors or a razor blade, and then try and draw onthem – and it works a bit better. Some people claim they wereactually American cheroots, but I like the Italian version actually.

JL:Leone’s western characters used to strike their matches in adramatic way…

CF: Oh yes, absolutely,on all sort of things.  They’d be riding past a gallows wheresomeone was hanging, and strike the match on the hanged man’s boots,or on your own beard, or with your teeth, or on Klaus Kinski’s hump– he was the hunchback in For a Few Dollars More – or on the seat ofyour pants – they must have wrecked their Levi’s.  Yeah, that wasall part of it.  And of course the cheroot was the epitome of cool,it was part of the style, the poncho, jeans, the sheepskin jacket,the faded blue shirt, the stubble  - the spaghettis inventeddesigner stubble – and the cheroot. And it was part of the personalstyle. And again it’s this thing of how things have changed in thepast 40 years. In the 1960s, this guy was in control, and he showedhe was in control by the way he handled a cheroot.  Today, ifsomeone smoked as much as Eastwood does, it’s someone who’s out ofcontrol, it’s someone who isn’t disciplined.  It’s completelychanged in the public image.  You just don’t get sort ofchain-cheroot smokers as the epitome of cool anymore – all the girlsrun away from them, really. But that was important. And Eastwood infact, when they finished the first film, A Fistful of Dollars, andtalking about the second film, For a Few Dollars More, he said,according to Leone, Leone told me that Eastwood said, “I’ll doanything you like for the second movie.  I’ll wear the same costume,I’ll do everything, but please, no cigars.” And Leone replied,“You’ve got to. The cigar’s playing the lead part.” And thenEastwood admitted, ruefully, “Well, yeah, puffing on these thingsput me in the right frame of mind – kind of a fog.” So later he sortof walked through his spaghetti western roles in a dizzy fog, with aToscano in his mouth, and he reckoned this was the right way tohandle the proceedings.

JL: Do you think images of smoking will one daydisappear into the ether, rather like the smoke from tobacco"

CF: No.  But I think itwill change its meaning.  The image of the smoker will meansomething different. It’ll still be there but maybe it’ll behistoric, maybe it’ll be nostalgia.  You won’t get the last momentof Now Voyager, when Paul Henreid placed two cigarettes in hismouth, lit them, and passed one to Bette Davis.  It was unbelievablycool, actually it was probably my second favourite movie moment. Then he says, “Why aim for the moon when you can have the stars.” Oh God, that’s so wonderful.  Smoking in the movies won’t mean thatanymore, it won’t be romantic.  It’ll be ‘addict’, ‘baddy’,whatever.

JL:  Some movie starslooked far more interesting when they smoked, than when they didn’t.Did smoking add to their allure"

CF:  Oh yeah.  Look atAudrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys – that hugely long cigaretteholder with the cigarette, with the jewellery, with the blackgloves, with the hair piled up – it was a fantasticallysophisticated image. That image of Audrey Hepburn staring throughthe windows of Tiffanys with a long cigarette holder helped methrough puberty.  This is just as a wonderful, wonderful image. They seemed very stylish, at the time. They don’t anymore, itwouldn’t work that way now.  Now it would probably be a terroristplayed by Alan Rickman, and you can tell he’s a baddie, because hesmokes.  That sort of stuff.

JL:What’s the most interesting doorway you’ve ever smoked in"

CF:  It’s not really adoorway, but I once smoked in one of the arches of the Colisseum inRome, in the late 1970s.  It’s not like The Third Man!

JL: If there was a button, that once pressedwould stop everybody smoking, would you press it"


CF:  No, I don’t think I would. It’s a matter offree choice, really.  But if I could press a button that meant thata) no one ever got ill and b) nobody ever puffed smoke in anybody’sface, I’d press that one.  But it’s not quite the same.

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