Two words: Mon-ey, 1979

David (Jr), Fiona, Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven, 1979
David (Jr), Fiona, Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven,  Chateau D’Oex 1979. And yes, he was actually in the midst of his second novel.

“It takes a highly intelligent lady to stand me any length of time,” David told an interviewer in December 1978. “And in this case we both realise that if you think you’re giving 50/50 in a marriage you’re probably giving 10% each, which leaves an immense gap.” With David away on location for over 50% of 1979, the immense gap did not close.

Back in March 1950, Hjördis revealed David’s long-term career plans: “He says he will stop filming at the peak of his career, before he gets too old. It is possible that he may continue as a director.” Well, it was a nice plan…

Despite passing his 69th birthday in March 1979, David was filming as much as ever, and restarting work on the follow-up to his two hugely successful memoirs – whose combined sales had reached 10 million. On top of that, Kristina was still recovering from a serious car accident, and his health was beginning to deteriorate. His troubled marriage could only be pushed further aside.

Still shots

In late 1978, actor Michael York’s photographer wife Patricia was asked to take publicity stills for ‘A Man Called Intrepid’.

“David suddenly seemed to have aged so terribly, I think perhaps as a result of Kristina’s accident. [Or perhaps not.] We’d seen him a few times before this in Monaco looking marvellous, but now although he still sparkled on the set, when I tried to do some stills of him, I had to throw dozens of them away. No matter what light I got him in, he suddenly looked very old and fragile.”

In January 1979, David suffered from continual cramps in his right calf, and consulted Kristina’s Gstaad-based physiotherapist, David Bolton. Bolton’s approach encompassed mind and body, and he encouraged David to reveal his inner stresses and anxieties.

“He told me Hjördis made him very unhappy and depressed,” Bolton told Graham Lord, “and he never came to understand why she was like that.” Although Hjördis felt constrained by traditional husband and wife roles, it’s still a surprise that she did not spell out her issues to David – as Jamie had done back in 1970. Or maybe she did, but David simply did not or could not take them on board.

David, uncomprehending of his wife’s attitude, added her mystifying anger to his worries about how people viewed him. “David was a very insecure, sad, melancholy man and his self-confidence wasn’t very high,” David Bolton added. “He was forever questioning whether people really did like him.”

For someone who’s career relied on popularity, that’s a fair enough question, and the answer was a definite yes, absolutely. With the small proviso – as long as he hadn’t married them, and then kept them frustrated at home for thirty years, while heading out to have fun with other girls and women.

The virtual stranger

One thing that David did have not to worry about in 1979 was regular film work, despite it becoming more challenging both for him and the film makers. In April 1979 he travelled to play “a kind of London Godfather” in ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ – swayed by the fact that Berkeley Square was a short walking distance from his favourite London hotel, The Connaught.

The film’s director, Ralph Thomas, later said that the movie “didn’t do it as well as it should have done because by the time we started it David was already sick, and so we had to do the best we could as quickly as we could and it didn’t come off as I’d hoped.”

Even in full health, David found it difficult to work in front of the camera. “When I work on a movie I suffer from constant fear. The chief fear is not remembering the lines and doing it badly.”

“If he is such a unexceptional actor, why has he persevered for so long?” Woman’s Weekly’s Ian Woodward wondered.

“As the great Sam Goldwyn might have remarked,” David replied, “I can give you an answer in two words: Mon-ey. And of course the promise of a glamorous life.”

On 4th June, David used one of his ‘Nightingale’ breaks to throw an 18th birthday bash for Kristina at Lo Scoglietto. Guests included Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, who spent part of the day crawling around on their hands and knees when Kristina dropped one of her gifts, a pair of diamond earrings. There were also special visitors from the US in the shape of Jamie and his daughters. “He was a great grandfather, great fun,” Fernanda Jr told Graham Lord, “but Hjördis wasn’t a grandmother figure at all.”

Make It Smaller and Move It To The Left

David’s money worries pushed him to scrap hard for a better book deal, despite the fact that the new novel was both unfinished and not turning out to his satisfaction. Regular expenditure wasn’t helped by his Zürich lawyer taking care of everything down to paying his household bills. “I could easily do it myself,” David wrote, “if I wasn’t so lazy, or Hjördis could do it if she had any brain.” Or any will to do so.

In April, the novel-writing was still on ice: “I got stuck because one of my daughters had a terrible accident. It’s all over now, she’s back at school, totally restored and not disfigured, and no sweat. There was no way I could write a novel at such a terrible time. I suppose I’ll return to it again one day, but I don’t know when.”

He was interrupted by a phone-call from Hjördis, saying that she and the girls would be joining him in London the next day. If David was hoping for the same sort of encouragement that she’d given with ‘Round The Rugged Rocks’ back in 1950, he was going to be disappointed.

In June, David updated his journalist friend Roddy Mann on progress: “I’ve been able to start writing again, though it’s hard. I’m absolutely terrified of a flop. Only the other day Kristina said: ‘You know, Mother’s very worried about your book. She thinks it’s old-fashioned. All those bits about the war and everything. She doesn’t think young people will be interested.’ That set me back a bit.”

The book did at least have a title (albeit it temporary) : ‘Make It Smaller and Move It To The Left’ –  advice that David claimed to remember from his first Hollywood art class.

Rough Cut

David Niven filming 'Righ Cut' in London, 1979
David Niven filming ‘Rough Cut’ in London, 1979

In September, David was back in London for his second film of the year, ‘Rough Cut’.  Shortly after it was completed, David flew off to Delhi and then Goa for his third movie of the year: ‘The Sea Wolves’, with a group of old friends including Gregory Peck and Roger Moore. It was another veterans at war film, in the same vein as ‘The Guns of Navarone’, which David and Peck had worked on back in 1960. They had both been excluded from the 1978 sequel ‘Force Ten..’ as it was felt they were too old to convincingly play military veterans.

So, both could now thumb their noses at ‘Force Ten..’. David, however, was not so keen to take part in ‘The Sea Wolves’, and the movie’s director Euan Lloyd had to dip into his personal fee to raise David’s over the temptation threshold.

As David may have suspected, the movie and in particular its location proved too much for him to deal with. Roger Moore and Gregory Peck toughed it out on Christmas Day, with badly cooked turkey and a sand-filled pudding, while David successfully pleaded for some home-time in Switzerland. While there, he was photographed on the balcony of his chalet with Hjördis, David Jr, Fiona and Kristina. Gazing out across the valley was considered exercise enough – skiing was forbidden by the movie’s insurers.

[ 23rd May 2017. Rest in peace Roger Moore. Any man who turns down the role of Tarzan because he doesn’t fancy holding his stomach in for 26 weeks is due the greatest respect…]

Next page: Struck on the leg with a plank, 1980

One thought on “Two words: Mon-ey, 1979”

  1. A pleasure. I did wonder if it was Shirley-Anne Field! Just finished the blog today and it’s been fascinating. I only stumbled on it having watched Death on the Nile last week which is my favourite of the big screen Agatha Christie adaptations. I realised I knew very little about David Niven and had never heard of Hjordis. Gap in knowledge well and truly plugged! Well written, entertaining and funny – thank you!


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