Book Review: Once a Saint - An Actor's Memoir, by Ian Ogilvy

For a while, Ian Ogilvy was very famous indeed, a household name and recognised just about everywhere he went. That was when he played Simon Templar in the 1970s revival of The Saint on television. For the rest of his acting career, he has mostly been a busy and familiar presence, working steadily in film, theatre and television in a variety of roles and genres, with varying degrees of success. His career has ranged from murder mysteries and Noel Coward plays to farces, sitcoms and horror films.

Ogilvy's memoir, Once a Saint, begins with an arresting story about losing his virginity, as a shy 15 year old schoolboy, to a Jamaican club "hostess" in London. This was arranged by his eccentric father, in an unusual element of his son's education.

Having got his readers' attention with this story, Ogilvy then delves into his family background, including some of his relatives' wartime intelligence work and his upbringing as the son of a successful advertising man. It's clear from the early chapters that the author enjoyed a very privileged childhood. No matter how much he suggests that he was "poor" by the standards of other boys at his school, that school was still Eton, England's most famous public school. 

Developing an interest in acting, performing and generally showing off, Ogilvy decided that he wanted to become an actor, and preferably a film star. Acting ran in the family, as his father had also dabbled and his mother had enjoyed a successful acting career before World War II. She was also married at one time to the film star John Mills, before meeting Ogilvy's father. 

Having dealt with his childhood, school days and family life in its early chapters, the rest of the book focuses almost exclusively on Ian Ogilvy's acting career. 

After a brief period as a stagehand and then as a trainee stage manager, Ogilvy was accepted into RADA, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Britain's most prestigious acting school. 

His early career went well, there being work in repertory theatre in most British towns in the 1950s and early '60s, in the days before television took over as most people's main form of entertainment. Like many actors of his era, the author sees rep as excellent training for young actors, playing a variety of parts and taking on a new play every two weeks (and, in earlier days, a new play every week).

There are plenty of anecdotes about working in weekly rep and then in the West End, as his career progressed. This stage work ran the gamut from a lowbrow farce like the long-running Run for Your Wife, to Agatha Christie and the more sophisticated works of Noel Coward.

Among the more memorable experiences was playing opposite a roaring drunk Trevor Howard in Waltz of the Toreadors by Jean Anouilh. After the curtain came up, Howard's first words to the expectant audience were to shout "F*ck off!". After which, plenty of them did. Howard's performance went downhill from there, but he was determined to see the play through, despite his advanced state of inebriation. Ogilvy's wife was in the audience and told him that it was "one of the most extraordinary evenings she'd ever spent, anywhere". 

The section on the author's theatre career ends with a performance of a thriller in Aberdeen. There he suffers from a form of stage fright, where he can't remember any of the play he is about to perform. After that he has to give up acting on the stage.

Ogilvy's friendship with horror movie wunderkind Michael Reeves led to him acting in some of Reeves's amateur movies as a young man. It also led to him appearing in all three of the director's professional films, before Reeves's premature death from an accidental overdose in 1969. 

The first of these films was Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966), by all accounts a terrible low budget film he and Reeves made in Italy. Next, Reeves cast him as the young protagonist of The Sorcerers (1967), opposite horror legend Boris Karloff. Karloff played a medium who controls the mind of Ogilvy's young man, in order to experience vicariously the excitement he lacks in real life. 

Ogilvy was then cast by Reeves in his most famous film, Witchfinder General (1968), as a soldier in the English Civil War, whose lover becomes a victim of the notorious "witchfinder" Matthew Hopkins, played by an imperious Vincent Price. Witchfinder General was released as "The Conqueror Worm" in the US, in an effort by its distributor AIP to tie it into its own cycle of Edgar Allan Poe films starring Price. 

There's plenty of information on the making of this cult horror film, including Price's clashes with Reeves - although much of it Ogilvy experienced from a distance, as he was busy learning how to look heroic on horseback. Trotting past the star in his finery one day, he elicited the incredulous response from Price, who was reclining on a grass verge:

"Oh my Ga-a-a-ad, would you f*cking look at her? She's so pretty and she rides that f*cking horse so well. I hate her."

Who knew Vincent Price was so sweary, or so camp?

Ogilvy also relates the much-quoted exchange between Reeves and his unhappy star:

"Young man, I've made ninety-three films in Hollywood. How many have you made?" asked Price.

"Two good ones", replied Reeves. Which does show a degree of chutzpah, if not complete honesty.

Once a Saint also includes some background on the making of the 1970 Soviet-Italian historical epic Waterloo, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Ogilvy played one of the British officers in a starry cast, where he rubbed shoulders with Jack Hawkins, Christopher Plummer, Virginia McKenna and Michael Wilding - although Rod Steiger's scenes as Napoleon were filmed separately.

Most of this part of the book deals with the discomforts of filming in Soviet era Russia, where the crew heard the word "Nyet" (No) from the uncooperative locals so often that one crew member dubbed it "Nyetnam". 

Ian Ogilvy also made a couple of films for Hammer's horror rival Amicus, and is a little too dismissive of the second of these, From Beyond the Grave (1973), which is actually one of the best of the company's horror anthologies.

The last part of the book deals with the author's television work. In the days before reality TV, there was plenty of work for actors in television in sitcoms and dramas, and on British TV in televised plays. Ogilvy was busy in television in the sixties and seventies and had a recurring role in a few episodes of the period drama favourite Upstairs Downstairs and appeared in the BBC's I, Claudius, among many others. 

Ogilvy's international fame as Simon Templar in Return of the Saint appears towards the end of the book and has been much trailed. Earlier chapters referred to it on and off and to his being recognised around the world. This even included a Bedouin village in the middle of the desert where, on spotting him visiting a ruined fort, one local began pointing and excitedly shouting "Saint! Saint!"

There's lots of detail on the making of the series and some of its problems. These included the attempt by an American producer, briefly brought in to help the series appeal to the US market, to have the Saint fighting against vampires. Ogilvy himself helped to thwart that one by calling in Leslie Charteris, the creator of The Saint

There was also a short-lived backlash against violence on US TV at this time, which led the series to tone down its own violence - only to find that the moral panic was quickly over and they were now left with an oddly bloodless series. 

Return of the Saint was produced by Robert S. Baker, the producer of its 1960s predecessor starring Roger Moore. Baker was a remarkably loyal producer, even bringing some of the old series directors out of retirement, including Leslie Norman, father of film critic Barry. Less successful was one of the newer directors, Peter Sasdy, who, as related by the author, had some strange ideas about how to shoot a car chase.

According to Ian Ogilvy, Lew Grade, of sponsor ITC, was not that enthusiastic about the series, partly because he thought it too expensive and partly because he was increasingly distracted by his ill-fated attempts to become a movie mogul. As a result, although it sold around the world, there never was a second series, something that apparently came as a shock to everyone involved.

Ogilvy himself seems to have been popular enough with audiences, if not with the critics, although he wasn't sure about the accent. The producer asked him to adopt a mid-Atlantic accent, something that he now describes as a "bad Cary Grant" impression.

Others had doubts about him in the role too. While filming in the South of France, he met a typically inebriated Oliver Reed, who expressed his incredulity at his casting: 

"You? The Saint? You're a poof! You're a f*cking poofter!" 

This almost led to fisticuffs, until Reed decided that Ogilvy, apparently prepared to face him in a fight, must be alright after all.

Ogilvy overheard another pointed critique while filming in London, this time from a teenage girl to her friend:

"Yeah, I suppose he's quite good-looking ... in that way my mother likes."

Ouch. It's the perfect backhanded compliment. But it does hint at one reason why Ian Ogilvy was never going to become a film star. He was just a little too clean cut, too well spoken and a little old-fashioned for the 1960s and beyond. His acting contemporaries who get name-checked in the book include his friend Simon Williams and Christopher Cazenove - two other rather old-fashioned types similarly afflicted by being born in the wrong era. These actors were made by RADA for starring in Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward plays, but were less well-suited to the world of "kitchen sink" realism and Play for Today

According to Ogilvy, although it brought him great fame for a few years, The Saint typecast him to such an extent that he couldn't get work in British TV, except as a guest on celebrity panel games. He is presumably exaggerating slightly, as he does talk a little about Tom, Dick and Harriet, a so-so sitcom he subsequently made with Lionel Jeffries and Brigit Forsyth.

This series came to an abrupt end after two seasons, following an incident in which Ogilvy and Jeffries were almost drowned. Required to drive a car into a lake, they were assured by the crew that the water was only a couple of feet deep. The pair then found themselves in 45 feet of water, with Jeffries trapped in a sinking car. Presumably, the series came to an end because Jeffries was reluctant to work with this crew again. 

When Return of the Saint was broadcast in the US, it inevitably hadn't made much impression in an unfriendly late night time slot. But this did mean that Ogilvy was not afflicted by type-casting among American producers. As many of the television offers he was receiving by the mid-1980s were coming from the US, in 1989 he left for Hollywood, hopefully to become a star.

That didn't happen, but he worked in various US TV shows and had a brief brush with Hollywood blockbusters in the black comedy Death Becomes Her, alongside Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis, in 1992. 

Other than that first sexual encounter described earlier, Once a Saint doesn't explore the author's private life, although the break up of his marriage, for which he blames himself and a mid-life crisis, isn't totally ignored. Otherwise, this is mostly a school and career memoir.

According to an After They Were Famous TV documentary, Ogilvy also struggled with alcoholism in the 1980s, but that doesn't get a mention here either. As offers of acting work have, as he describes it, largely dried up, he has turned to writing, with a successful childrens' series based on his boy hero Measle Stubbs. 

Once a Saint will probably appeal most of all to those who remember Return of the Saint from the 1970s - although that is surely a dwindling audience. The series was dumped in an unhelpful time slot in the US and, as far as I'm aware, has not been shown on British TV for decades, unlike the Roger Moore series which is a perennial daytime filler. [Update: The series did eventually appeared on a minor digital channel in 2022]

Even so, Once a Saint does contain much of interest for those familiar with British film, TV or theatre in the 1960s and '70s - although the book would benefit from an index, particularly given it's non-chronological nature.  

Ian Ogilvy comes across well in this book. Modest, engaging and, if anything, a little too self-deprecating and even disparaging about his career. Still, that is definitely preferable to the more usual alternative. He makes for a likeable narrator and the book is a good humoured and enjoyable canter through the mid-reaches of the acting profession. 

Once a Saint: An Actor's Memoir by Ian Ogilvy is published by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown & Co.


  1. Good review of a good book. I've read it twice and hope for a follow up.

  2. It's back on Forces TV on Freeview! SE1 EP1 was yesterday


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