Secret Pain; One of Britain's Best-Loved Movie Actors Tells the Moving Story of His Wife's Six-Year Battle against Depression, Which They've Kept Hidden from Even Their Closest Friends

Article excerpt

Byline: LYNDA LEE-POTTER

LESLIE PHILLIPS bounds into the Ritz Hotel for lunch. He's 73 but working harder than ever. He's had eulogistic notices for his formidable performance as Falstaff in The Merry Wives Of Windsor for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and this year the Evening Standard gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

He's been acting for 63 years, since his mother answered a newspaper advertisement for boy actors. He played the wolf in Peter Pan, with Anna Neagle as Peter.

Next year he plans to write his autobiography about a life that has known much tragedy but has been centred on work. 'It's dominated my whole bloody existence,' he says. 'I've rarely been off with illness. My training was, you're only off if you die, or you can't stand up. Nowadays, kids are off for any stupid thing.

'I was brought up with ruthless, rigid discipline. I've been on stage with broken limbs. I buggered both my kidneys when I was working for Steven Spielberg. I was in and out of hospital, but I never stopped working. I've got tremendous discipline and that's helped me through.' In recent years, the man who became famous as a kind of upper-class lech, and did three Carry On films, has turned to the classics. Anthony Hopkins wants him to play King Lear and he's produced some of his finest work at a time of personal tragedy.

He's given a powerful performance and then gone home to care for his ailing wife. 'I'm rather adept at cooking. I've become very good at all sorts of things.' In 1982 he married actress Angela Scoular, who is 22 years his junior. His first wife was actress Penny Bartley, whom he married in 1948.

They had four children - Caroline, Claudia, Andrew and Roger - but divorced in 1965. Sadly, his beautiful second wife has been terribly ill for more than six years.

SHE had a nervous breakdown,' he says, 'and in the beginning she didn't get the right help. She had what appeared to be the best but I wasn't happy about it. It's one of those midlife crises and depression. It began in the spring, six-and-a-half years ago, and that's been going on through my incredible work period.

'I think it's the result of a lot of stress in her youth. She didn't really get on with her mother, who was very domineering as an actress, but then she was anorexic and the strain of all that, and various things that happened, hit her in middle age.

'She used to joke about getting me an antique wheelchair. She looked forward to the time when she'd be wheeling me along. In fact, it was the other way around.

'I've now found a psychiatrist who's responsible for helping her more than anybody else. He's absolutely stupendous. With depression, you never know where it's going to end - but she looks wonderful. She's got the most fantastic eyes and great strength and we're as solid as a rock. The only thing is, it's made me a little bit more withdrawn.

'I've not had as much time for other people as I would have done.

Sometimes I've been under great stress and people haven't known at all. I've hardly told anyone. Now she's so much better and wanting to work again.

She's still on medication and I suppose that might persist.' Leslie Phillips is a working-class boy with the chiselled features and high cheekbones of an aristocrat. On the surface he seems to be an easygoing, gregarious charmer but he's far more complicated. 'I have a loner streak: my family and my work is more than enough. I've loads of friends but a lot of them don't even know I've had a problem.

'Angie's depression goes back long before I met her. By nature, she's not confident and middle age isn't an easy time for actresses. She'd never really used her life, except possibly for work.' When they married Angela already had a young son, Daniel, born after an unhappy love affair with an actor. 'I think a big worry was always my stepson, Danny,' Leslie says. 'I inherited him at an early age and I've watched him very carefully. …