Harwood is Smokin’

Harwood Smoking 2

Ron Harwood

Persecution

 Harwood’s work often takes place in the years during and around the Second World War. As an immigrant to Britain from South Africa in 1951, whose Jewish family in Europe suffered anti-semitism, it’s unsurprising that he’s sensitive to evidence of persecution and the vilification of minorities.

His plays, screenplays and books usually have a moral dimension – from Roman Polanski’s film about the Holocaust The Pianist, for which Harwood won his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, his screenplay of Oliver Twist, also directed by Polanski, to his adaptation of South African novel Cry the Beloved Country.

 His two new plays due to open in the West End this year – Collaboration directed by Peter Hall and An English Tragedy directed by Michael Blakemore – deal with conflicting loyalties involving country, family and beliefs. And he’s a former President of both English and International PEN, the literary and human rights organisation.

 Nightmare

 Harwood’s career takes him around the world and he has strong opinions about smoking bans – or lack of. “I went for the press junket in New York for the film Oliver Twist [in September 2005]. New York is the worst. I could smoke in my hotel suite but nowhere else. But it was lovely weather that day, thank god. But in the winter it’s a nightmare! I was there for a play of mine two or three years ago and it was vicious weather. And we had to stand outside and smoke because I can’t get through rehearsals without a cigarette. So it’s pretty terrible in New York.

 “Los Angeles is fine because you can eat outside,” he says. “It’s lovely weather. So I don’t mind going to Los Angeles. But I don’t go to Canada anymore. I can’t bear it.” As for Ireland: “I haven’t been to Ireland lately. And I don’t think I will.”

 He says that filming Oliver Twist in Prague was a blissful experience. “It was wonderful. They don’t smoke between courses in restaurants, they smoke between mouthfuls.” During the actual filming he says: “You couldn’t smoke on the studio floor but you could smoke in the corridors. You don’t want to smoke on the floor of the studio because of the actors and coughing and all of that so you go outside. It’s fine. It’s perfectly civilized and proper. And you could smoke in anybody’s dressing room.

Ridiculous

“In Paris you can smoke in any part of the restaurant. When I went into a very, very expensive restaurant to celebrate something with my wife, I asked if I could smoke and the response was ‘of course’ as if I was asking the most ridiculous question, and they gave us the best table in the house.

 “And you can smoke cigars in Paris restaurants. My two French producers who did The Pianist and Oliver Twist are both cigar smokers, as is Roman Polanski, and they smoke in [French] restaurants.”

 Harwood says he still finds London quite “civilised” though is not looking forward to a smoking ban in restaurants. “A total ban on smoking in restaurants is going to be tough on me because we go out a lot. I don’t understand it. Is smoking like incense and instead of blessing the food it curses the food? I don’t mind if they give us a smoking section. I’ll serve myself if they want me to.”

“Let’s have a huge smoke-a-thon”

 Speaking exclusively to FOREST Online, Oscar-winning playwright Ronald Harwood, a 50-a-day smoker and a member of our Supporters Council, talks to Marion Finlay

 WHEN Oscar-winning playwright Ronald Harwood cancelled plans to direct a play in Winnipeg last year because of Canada’s “draconian” anti-smoking laws, the response was overwhelming. “I received more emails about that than over anything I’ve ever done in my life!” he says. “From all over the world, these bloody emails came, saying ‘go for it’.”

Harwood was due to restage one of his best-known plays The Dresser in the chilly Canadian city. “The reason for going back on my word [to direct the play] is that I am a cigarette smoker,” Harwood told the Winnipeg Free Press at the time. “I have recently visited Canada and had to suffer the most draconian anti-smoking regulations in restaurants and public buildings. I had no intention of allowing myself to be forced out into the street in winter to partake of one of my great pleasures.”

 Smoking is certainly one of Harwood’s favourite pastimes. Safely ensconced in his elegant – and warm – Kensington flat, surrounded by artwork and books, Harwood puffs on one of 50 or so cigarettes he’ll consume that day. Sipping a cup of strong coffee – brewed from a machine given to him by director Roman Polanski – he says, “I love the taste of it. I think there is a drug effect that clears the head. And it’s very relaxing. There’s a comfort in it. That’s what I love about smoking – it’s very comforting.”

 Hypochondriacs

 At 71, he says he isn’t worried about his health. “I never read medical articles – ever. They are a kind of obsession – columns for hypochondriacs. You are going to die of something. Besides, I’ve had a very good time and if I drop off the perch tomorrow it’s fine.”

 But do you do anything to ‘keep healthy’? “I used to play a lot of tennis but I’ve got an arthritic ankle and can’t play anymore. I was good tennis player, loved it and used play twice a week. If the medical establishment spent as much money on finding a cure for arthritis as they do on anti-smoking campaigns, I would be dancing the light fantastic.”

 What he IS worried about are increasingly virulent anti-smoking campaigns. The unfailingly polite and gracious host suddenly becomes angry. “I think it’s a really anti-democratic movement because one of the main aims of a social democratic government is to protect minorities,” he says. “Tobacco is not an illegal substance yet they are persecuting a minority. And I think it’s a disgrace in a social democracy.”

 On the the growing anti-smoking movement he says: “It’s sort of a fascist impulse that’s taken hold. Started in America of course. Actually it started in Nazi Germany. The first government that tried to outlaw smoking were the Nazis. And that tells you everything.”

 Persecution

Harwood’s work often takes place in the years during and around the Second World War. As an immigrant to Britain from South Africa in 1951, whose Jewish family in Europe suffered anti-semitism, it’s unsurprising that he’s sensitive to evidence of persecution and the vilification of minorities.

His plays, screenplays and books usually have a moral dimension – from Roman Polanski’s film about the Holocaust The Pianist, for which Harwood won his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, his screenplay ofOliver Twist, also directed by Polanski, to his adaptation of South African novel Cry the Beloved Country.

His two new plays due to open in the West End this year – Collaboration directed by Peter Hall and An English Tragedy directed by Michael Blakemore – deal with conflicting loyalties involving country, family and beliefs. And he’s a former President of both English and International PEN, the literary and human rights organisation.

Nightmare

Harwood’s career takes him around the world and he has strong opinions about smoking bans – or lack of.  “I went for the press junket in New York for the film Oliver Twist [in September 2005]. New York is the worst. I could smoke in my hotel suite but nowhere else. But it was lovely weather that day, thank god. But in the winter it’s a nightmare! I was there for a play of mine two or three years ago and it was vicious weather. And we had to stand outside and smoke because I can’t get through rehearsals without a cigarette. So it’s pretty terrible in New York.

“Los Angeles is fine because you can eat outside,” he says. “It’s lovely weather. So I don’t mind going to Los Angeles. But I don’t go to Canada anymore. I can’t bear it.” As for Ireland: “I haven’t been to Ireland lately. And I don’t think I will.”

He says that filming Oliver Twist in Prague was a blissful experience. “It was wonderful. They don’t smoke between courses in restaurants, they smoke between mouthfuls.” During the actual filming he says: “You couldn’t smoke on the studio floor but you could smoke in the corridors. You don’t want to smoke on the floor of the studio because of the actors and coughing and all of that so you go outside. It’s fine. It’s perfectly civilized and proper. And you could smoke in anybody’s dressing room.

Ridiculous

“In Paris you can smoke in any part of the restaurant. When I went into a very, very expensive restaurant to celebrate something with my wife, I asked if I could smoke and the response was ‘of course’ as if I was asking the most ridiculous question, and they gave us the best table in the house.

“And you can smoke cigars in Paris restaurants. My two French producers who did The Pianist and Oliver Twist are both cigar smokers, as is Roman Polanski, and they smoke in [French] restaurants.”

Harwood says he still finds London quite “civilised” though is not looking forward to a smoking ban in restaurants. “A total ban on smoking in restaurants is going to be tough on me because we go out a lot. I don’t understand it. Is smoking like incense and instead of blessing the food it curses the food? I don’t mind if they give us a smoking section. I’ll serve myself if they want me to.”

Problems

Working in the West End has caused problems: “You can’t smoke in London theatres anymore,” he says. “Even the actors in their dressing rooms aren’t allowed to smoke.”

His play The Dresser was revived in London last year. “The actor Nick Lyndhurst, who was playing the dresser, was always outside,” he says. “He’s a smoker and we would go outside and have a cigarette together. And if the actors wanted to talk to me, they’d come outside.”

For those who do find it genuinely unpleasant, what would be his solution? “Go out of the room. Go outside when I’m smoking. At my 70th birthday in Claridges ballroom, I said to the guests, ‘The non-smokers, please, if you find smoking unpleasant please go outside while we smoke.’ And it got a huge laugh and a round of applause. And nobody went outside, nobody minded.”

What do you say to people who object to your smoking? “I say, ‘What would you have said if Winston Churchill wanted to come to your house?’ Then they usually let me smoke.”

Second hand smoke

As for pubs and restaurants: “Separate rooms or separate places for smokers in public places is a fair solution if people find it so offensive.”

His opinion about secondhand smoke is: “I think the whole passive smoking is rubbish, myself. It’s been exaggerated because without passive smoking the anti-smoking lobby wouldn’t have a case. Passive smoking IS the case.

“And it is extraordinary that the Government has recently extended the drinking hours and closed down on smoking. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who has killed another human being under the influence of a cigarette. It’s just incredible to me.”

So why does he think the Government is so willing to accept the claims of the anti-smoking lobby? “Because they think it’s a popular cause. Governments make decisions according to what they think is an acceptable view. Very seldom do they do really unpopular things. And they now think anti-smoking is part of the culture.”

Margaret Thatcher

When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister he used to go to 10 Downing Street for media and showbiz parties and dinners. “It was lovely in Mrs Thatcher’s day because Dennis Thatcher was a heavy smoker and there were ashtrays and cigarettes everywhere,” he says.

“I was once at a private dinner for about 12 and people smoked throughout dinner and she didn’t seem to mind at all. That was her life. She had been brought up around cigarette smoke. And she ain’t died of passive smoking.”

What about the argument that bar workers have to be protected? “Find bar workers who smoke,” he says. “It’s like anti-social hours. I remember J B Priestly saying to me, ‘There are always people who want to work during hours other people don’t want to work in. There are no such thing as anti-social hours.’ Some people want to work at night. And some people don’t mind working in pubs that allow smoking.

Smoking rooms

“I think it’s a fascist impulse. It has nothing to do with my health. And it’s nothing to do with the bar workers health. It’s to do their dislike of it.

“I wouldn’t mind if they had a smoking room, which they used to have in the old days. There used to be smoking rooms in private houses, in Victorian times. You didn’t smoke everywhere in houses. So if places introduced smoking rooms where you could have a coffee after dinner perhaps, I wouldn’t mind that. But if they ban completely I think it would be disgraceful.

“When I see a ‘Thank you for not smoking sign’ at restaurants, I want to carry a sign saying ‘Thank you for not wanting a tip’.”

Hypocrisy

Harwood thinks there is a lot of hypocrisy in the medical establishment about smoking. “My doctor asked me to give an after dinner speech at a doctors’ conference in Venice. When I went out on the hotel balcony for a cigarette at the hotel, five of them joined me. One was a senior oncologist at a big London hospital and he said, ‘Don’t tell anybody’ and puffed away.

“Another time, my wife and I were at the American Embassy’s residence at Regent’s Park to say goodbye to the ambassador who we happened to know. And he said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t smoke here. It’s American property.’ It was November and bitterly cold with the mist was hanging over Regent’s Park. So we went out onto the terrace, my wife and I puffing away, and a woman joined us and asked for a cigarette. We were chatting away and I asked, ‘What do you do?’ and she said, ‘I’m a senior consultant in anaesthetics’.”

Human rights

Harwood is vexed that smokers haven’t protested more about smokers’ rights being eroded. “What annoys me is that smokers have taken it so passively. They have been guilty of ‘passive protest’.”

When told that Johnny Depp – who’s due to star in one of the three films he’s currently working on – said about a potential total smoking ban in England, “I’ll come over and have a smoke-a-thon,” Harwood says, “Let’s do it. Let’s all turn up in Trafalgar Square and have a huge smoke-a-thon. That’ll show them.”

And with a mischievous chuckle he lights up another cigarette.

Filed 23/01/06

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