“The question mark is a very important aspect of living.” —Albert Finney, March 1982
Albert Finney lives in a cul-de-sac.
It is a tiny, quiet street of connecting houses, white and neat, with the odd tricycle obstructing the narrow footpath. Finney’s home is on the left, the one with the yellow window boxes and no name on the bell. He’s in, you can tell; the jazz of Johnny Hodges and Gerry Mulligan comes wailing through the heavy door, bursting the morning calm.
It is Sunday in Chelsea, and Albert Finney is dressed for an easy day, a day like the day before, a day without work. A time when he lives less dangerously, less intensely than when he’s otherwise engaged.
This is a comfortable setting for this uncomfortable man whose hands are too large, whose face proclaims its forty-six years without vanity or shame. It is a home for someone who doesn’t see why he needs a home, who can always call on room service in hotels, places where they’ll fix the leaking roof and you never have to phone the plumber. And yet he’s lived here for three years now, his housemate, Diana Quick, having decorated, knocked down walls while Albert was away, painted the living room apricot, put a gracious sofa across from the fireplace and an easy chair just beside the glowing hearth.
In this British household there is no stuffiness, no airs just a casual sensibility accented by Finney’s mellifluous Lancashire baritone, a voice unlike London in its smooth, musical tone. Though Diana, like Albert, has spent her life in theater (she’s best known in America for her lead in Brideshead Revisited), there are no mementos of the stage in evidence, nothing grandiose, simply things meant to be enjoyed. Like the embroideries from Machu Picchu, where they traveled last year, where Albert, as ever, was more interested in what the place did to him than exploring the ruins.
Finney is now setting the white marble-topped dining table, meticulous as ever, a pride of careful movements, wiping a wine-glass that looks fragile beside his imposing frame — economical gestures from an unextravagant man, Diana emerges from the kitchen. Albert arranges the last plate and snubs out a Marlboro. A switch from Bloody Marys to wine. It is dinner at the Finney household.
Four people consume an elegant fruit course, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, greens, vegetable purée and bottles of Orvieto, Bordeaux and champagne. Caramelized pears appear and disappear. Then, biting off the end of a fine Havana cigar, Albert excuses himself and descends to the basement, where he sprawls out upon a black leather couch to digest his meal before the TV, which was replaying the big football match at Wembley between Liverpool and Tottenham. It is Sunday in England, and men and boys are letting their roasts settle to the vision of youths kicking rubber balls. Tomorrow is the office, the factory, the routine. There is no lathe for Albert to turn on Monday, no movie or play or script that seems provocative. Tomorrow he’ll go see his horses.
By remote control, he switches back and forth between the soccer game and an old war drama, a bit of Forties flag-waving called Compass Rose, replete with every cliché endemic to its ilk. Albert is restless and sticks more and more to the movie. Acting as long as he has, he seems to anticipate each line, mouthing the likes of “I may never see you again, will I?” almost automatically. Across from him, diagonally across the room and to the right of the Sony, is a relic of Compass Rose‘s vintage: a chalkboard mounted on a pole, surrounded by brightly colored metal, with lettering that announces, Albert Finney, Bookmaker. It was his father’s betting board, his stock in trade, the symbol of the profession he failed to pass on to his son, the son who invited him from the north to the West End twenty years ago, the son who met him at the train station and walked him past the marquee for Billy Liar, the marquee with the son’s name up in lights. And when the son pointed and asked, “Well, Dad, what do you think?” the old man replied, “Not bad, not bad. I never thought I’d have my name in lights.”
Albert quits the film as the credits roll. He’s back to sport, but they’re already in the locker room. Enough of this. Upstairs. Let’s have some port, what do you say?