Culture: Bonaparte's Holm from Holm; Mike Davies Gets to Clothes Quarters with Ian Holm

The Birmingham Post (England), January 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

Culture: Bonaparte's Holm from Holm; Mike Davies Gets to Clothes Quarters with Ian Holm


Byline: Mike Davies

At 72 you tend to expect any conversations about the body's failing mechanisms to centre around things like loss of hearing, poor eyesight, or rheumatism.

You don't usually anticipate discussing a diminished sex drive. However, it is to these medical shores that we have managed unexpectedly to stray in chatting to Sir Ian Holm about The Emperor's New Clothes, in which he plays both Napoleon and a man who impersonates him.

Prior to the interview it was suggested that questions regarding his cancer diagnosis a couple of years back be given a wide berth. Fair enough, personal is personal. However, when Holm says that he'd not worked for 18 months following the Johnny Depp film From Hell, a casual enquiry whether that had been because of health reasons prompts a perhaps rather more detailed and candid response than necessary.

'No, health was just a hiccup,' he offers casually. 'I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I started out with an enlargement of the prostate, which happens to most men, then I woke up one morning and I couldn't pee -which I don't advocate at all, it's horrid. I phoned my neurologist who said 'come in now, you're lucky you're not in Guatemala!' 'So I rushed in and they found cancer. They dug out a lot and my doctor advised me to go to America where the treatment is more aggressive. I had radiotherapy and they give you these pills which completely destroy your testosterone. It's a very strange experience and it doesn't do a lot for your sex drive!'

Mercifully the publicist is nowhere within hearing as he leans forwards and confides, 'you grow breasts too and have hot flushes. My own doctor suggested having testosterone injections but the Americans said that while that might be good for my sex drive it would be no good for the prostate. Basically it came down to whether I wanted to have sex or stay alive.'

By this time any no-go areas have been patently demolished, so I can't help asking how this all affects his sense of masculinity.

'It takes away the performance,' says the three time divorcee bluntly. 'You can still look at beautiful women and get the desire, but you're impotent! I've tried Viagra and it does have a sort of effect (he makes a half mast gesture), but not much. It's just very frustrating, though in a way at my age I suppose it's rather good.'

Given Holm's film it's hard not to think of Napoleon's legendary 'not tonight Josephine', which vaguely brings things back to the real purpose of the chat.

Directed by Palookaville's Alan Taylor and based on Simon Ley's novel The Death of Napoleon, the film is an improbable romantic fiction about what might have happened had Napoleon had escaped from St Helena leaving a double in his place only to find himself stranded in Paris unable to convince anyone of his identity.

It is, as Holm enthusiastically puts it, 'a stonking great role' in 'a sweet gentle film about ordinary things happening to great men.'

It's also the third time Holm -who on his own admission is physically well suited ('I'm a small stumpy guy') to the part -has played Napoleon, firstly in the TV series Napoleon In Love and then in Time Bandits.

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