Notes from Ian McKellen on WALTER. Part Three of Five.
After the death of his father, Walter is cared for and educated by his mother - a plain thinking, godly woman whose love is expressed sternly. On her own death, the new orphan waits for God to collect her up to heaven, tending the corpse in a bedroom filled with the pigeons who are his only companions. Poor Barbara Jefford, who is mildly allergic to birds, had to suffer three days of shooting, prone on a bed that was diligently fouled by the hundred squawking pigeons that fluttered around her.
In contrast, I enjoyed the reality of the situation, even when the social workers broke in and dragged Walter screaming and sobbing from his mother's side. The claustrophobia of the little bedroom mirrored the confinement of his inner life.
David Cook, himself a bird-fancier, had trained, from the egg onwards, a young grey pigeon called Albert who was always happy to sit on my shoulder and nibble at an ear lobe.
Stephen Frears, as usual, assembled a hugely talented group of actors, many of them playing small supporting parts. Apart from Sarah Miles (June), Barbara Jefford (Walter's mother) is one of England's major actors, whom I admired in a series of Shakespearian heroines at the Old Vic Theatre in the 1950s. Jim Broadbent (later Buckingham in Richard III and Academy Award winner for Iris) filmed for a day as a senior nurse in Walter's mental hospital and David Ryall (stalwart of the Royal National Theatre) brought his characteristic naturalism to the two-scene role of Walter's sympathetic but bewildered employer. It is one advantage of film over theatre, that major actors are prepared to work on a film briefly and thus support and add to the efforts of their peers in the leading parts.