MAURICE Roëves is no D H Lawrence fan, but how could he not play the likeable Italian who was the template for Lady Chatterley’s Mellors, he tells Jackie McGlone
TO A Nottinghamshire village, for lunch with Lady Chatterley’s lover, who is not a gamekeeper called Mellors but a flirtatious Italian army officer and erstwhile Fascist, Angelo Ravagli – and, mamma mia, he’s a gigolo. “But not just a gigolo,” says the distinguished actor Maurice Roëves, who assumes the persona of the raunchy Ravagli in a new one-man show, Just a Gigolo.
The play reveals that Constance Chatterley, the bored, aristocratic, eponymous heroine of D H Lawrence’s scandalous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover – the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, although a work of literature – was based on the writer’s own wife, Frieda, whose passionate affair with her Latin lover, Ravagli, inspired the sexually explicit book, first published in Italy in 1928. It was 1960 before the full, unexpurgated edition came out in Britain, when the publisher, Penguin, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity.
At the trial, prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked the jurors: “Is this a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?”
“I’ve never read it – and I don’t intend to,” laughs the Sunderland-born, Glasgow-bred Roëves, raising an eyebrow in an ironic quotation mark. “So I have no idea whether I’d wish my wife, Vanessa, or my servants to read it.”
So he wouldn’t echo Tom Lehrer’s Smut lyrics about “dirty” books: “Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately/I’ve got a hobby, re-reading Lady Chatterley”? “Definitely not!” exclaims the spry 75-year-old.
Roëves began his career at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in the 1960s when, tights-clad in The Merchant of Venice, he became a heart-throb overnight, mobbed at the stage door by screaming, weeping girls. “I thought, what the hell is going on? I mean, I was doing Shakespeare, for God’s sake.”
Despite a long, acclaimed career in theatre, film and television, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as guitarist Vince Driver in John Byrne’s blackly comic 1987 TV series, Tutti Frutti, about an ageing rock band, the Majestics, “Scotland’s Kings of Rock”.
As Vincent, Roëves exited in a blaze of glory, dousing himself in the final scene with Polish vodka and setting himself alight. It is still regarded as an iconic television moment.
There’s nothing iconic about D H Lawrence in Roëves’s view, however. “I am deeply suspicious of him. I think he’s over-rated; I’m not a fan of his work – I have to confess that I’ve read very little of it. They are not my sort of books. I’m not really into Lawrence’s sort of fiction. Nonetheless, the story of Just a Gigolo is fascinating.” The only problem was having to learn to speak and sing in Italian and deliver lines in an Italian accent.
“Ravagli is great fun to play. Yes, he was a one-time supporter of Benito Mussolini, but he eventually saw the error of his ways. I find him a likeable, charming, cheeky character. A real ladies’ man, who liked to dance.”
Roëves and his second wife, Vanessa Rawlings-Jackson (who is producing Just a Gigolo) became intrigued by the Stephen Lowe’s play after living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the Lawrences and later Ravagli and Frieda lived. The Roëveses are planning to move there and he hopes to stage Just a Gigolo in Taos, where he researched the play, meeting women like the blushing centenarian who he thinks “knew” Ravagli.
“Stephen’s play was inspired by John Worthen’s biography of Lawrence, The Life Of An Outsider,” he says. “Lawrence and Frieda met Ravagli, a married man with a family, in 1925, when they lived near Florence. Lawrence befriended him and taught him English; then Frieda and Ravagli became lovers – Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis and was unable to have sex. He began to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover inspired by Frieda’s affair, which I think he encouraged.”
The story goes that Lawrence, who died in 1930 at the age of 44, once caught Frieda and Ravagli in flagrante. His plight mirrored that of Lady Chatterley’s cuckolded husband, who was rendered impotent by a war wound. Worthen researched his book, Roëves explains, by studying letters by Frieda and stored in the archives at the University of Texas. They were written in the 1920s to her mother, Anna von Richtofen. “The letters reveal Frieda’s frustration at living with an invalid and include details of her affair with Ravagli.”
Roëves admits he’s already suffering from stage fright at the thought of being alone in such a demanding role. “I’m having nightmares,” he confesses. After all, the last time he appeared on the Fringe he had a sack over his head in Gregory Burke’s 2001 play, Gagarin Way.
His most memorable Fringe appearance was 30 years ago, however, when he played a sensationally earthy, profoundly poetic Robert Burns in There Was A Man, which he regards as one of his finest performances.
Of course, he jokes, it may well be that his performance as Ravagli may not even get to be critically judged, for the play’s backdrop is a series of nudes painted by Lawrence, deemed to be pornographic and seized by police when exhibited in London in 1929.
Lawrence had to promise never to exhibit them again in this country. The nine paintings and the rights to Lady Chatterley’s Lover were left to Ravagli by Frieda – the couple married after Lawrence died and were together for 30 years. The play tells of Ravagli’s attempts to sell the pictures, which are still officially forbidden in the UK, to a restaurant owner. “Ravagli needed to raise money since he made nothing from the banned novel,” says Roëves.
“It would be good publicity, of course, if I were arrested for obscenity. Actually, the paintings aren’t very good – pretty mild by today’s standards.”
Roëves believes Frieda and Ravagli shared a great love, although Frieda instructed him that when she died, her ashes were to be placed beside Lawrence’s in the shrine Ravagli had built for them. “There was no room for him. Yet he rebuilt the dilapidated ranch in Taos and looked after her well, although I think they had a very open relationship, just as she had had with Lawrence, who cast a long, dark shadow over Ravagli, even in death.
“In the play, he says, ‘I put food on the table. But I’m invisible. Nobody sees me because the ghost of Lawrence is too strong’. I think he was cool with that – I admire the man.”
• Just a Gigolo, Assembly George Square, until 27 August. Today 3:20pm.