I met Pete Postlethwaite for the first time around six and a half years ago. I’d been invited to visit the set of Criminal Justice, the BBC’s crime drama series shown over five consecutive nights in 2008. The show starred Ben Wishaw as a young man suspected of killing a girl and then remanded into prison and has to learn to cope with prison life as a vulnerable prisoner. Pete played the character of “Hooch” – an old hand on prison landings, who tries to help and guide Wishaw’s character as he learns how to survive the vagaries of wing life.
I had been a huge fan of Pete for a long long time, even before he played opposite Daniel Day Lewis as Guiseppe Conlon, Gerry Conlon’s father in the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. I watched that film in a high security prison which I guess gave it extra resonance. Pete had a way of connecting with people, the common man you might say, whatever role he played. You sort of knew from the all perceiving look in his eyes that whoever you were, he would have a kind word for you. I watched all his films and programmes whenever I could. From the Brilliant Brassed Off to one of my all time favourite films, The Last of the Mohecans – he brought his own individual shine to anything he did. I saw him in Sharpe and Aliens 3. I saw him in Amistad and in When Saturday Comes – he was in so many great films – one of his best and most enigmatic roles was as Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. That was my pal Big Rinty’s all-time favourite film. Pete was such a wonderful actor, a world famous superstar – I never thought I would ever meet him in person.
Otto Bathurst, the director of Criminal Justice had asked me along to the set to see if I could advise on the prison scenes. The set was an old military base in Surrey. The mock up prison was very good. Extras in prison officer uniforms were everywhere, so real-looking it took me a little while to relax. Otto allowed me behind the camera to watch how it all worked. It was fascinating to see a really good director working, getting great stuff from the actors. When lunchtime came Otto walked me to the catering van. As we walked we chatted about films and actors and it was then I told him that Pete was one of my favourites. “You know he’s in this?” said Otto. “No,” I said, “I didn’t.” I was surprised and then decided to chance my arm. “Don’t suppose there is any chance of meeting him is there?” I truly did not imagine there would be, but I couldn’t see any harm in asking. We turned a corner and the queue for the catering van came into view. “Yes, sure,” said Otto. “He’s over there. Come on I’ll introduce you.”
Pete had just joined the queue and we moved up behind him. Otto introduced me. “I read your stuff in the Guardian all the time,” said Pete. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe I was actually shaking his hand. “Loved your column,” he said. I was totally star struck – but Pete was about as natural as it’s possible to be. We collected our plates of food and settled down to eat and talk in one of the mobile dining vans.
We kept in touch, mostly by phone after that – and we met up occasionally for a beer. I loved his calls, usually out of the blue – just chatting about this and that. He invited me to a couple of places he was working but I never made it. Then it looked like he was going to be working on the remake of Brighton Rock. The film location was in Eastbourne, just down the road from where I was living at the time and I thought I’d see him there. In the end he didn’t do it – he said he couldn’t get insurance for the film because he’d had cancer – “I lost a bollock to it thirty years ago,” he said, “now it looks like its coming back.” I was shocked and saddened for him. I’d spoken to his wife Jaqui a couple of times on the phone, a lovely sounding lady. And he had talked about his children, Will and Lily. It was obvious he had a wonderful, loving relationship with his family.
Much as I loved being friends with Pete, I always felt totally unworthy of his friendship. He was after all universally respected in all walks of life. How could he ever be friends with someone like I had been? The fact is he just took me as he found me and as far as I could see, seemed to like me. My feelings of being unworthy of his friendship made it hard for me to just call him the way he called me – I don’t think he knew that. I never told him. When I was getting “outed” on the internet in 2009 and finally was forced to write my apologia in the Guardian in April of that year – Pete was the first person to call me. When the Mail on Sunday printed their “exposure” of me a couple of days later, Pete again called me – “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” he said. I so appreciated his solid loyalty. I know he had friends much much greater than I. But the esteem in which I held him was hardly less than theirs.
When he told me he definitely had cancer I was so distressed for him. I know that life isn’t fair – but sometimes you just think, “Why?” I asked him how he would feel about appearing on film for the Prison Reform Trust – PRT were filming a number of influential and well-known people about their views on prison life. Despite his condition Pete agreed immediately. “When do you want to do it?” he said.
We arranged a date and the film-maker Charlotte Rowles and I travelled up to his farmhouse in Shropshire to spend a couple of hours with him. We drove up separately. Pete met me in the car-park of one of the cattle markets in Bishops Castle, a couple of miles from his home. He’d told me on the phone, “You’ll never find it on your own.”
I waited a few minutes and then Pete arrived in his old yellow Saab convertible. Even wearing his battered flat cap and jeans he was instantly recognisable. We had a hug. “You still look like you,” I said.
As we sat waiting for Charlotte we chatted. “I’ve brought you a present,” I said reaching into my back pocket. I pulled out a horse brass sporting the image of a runner. “The Hastings Brass,” I said. I’d run the Hastings half-marathon a couple of years earlier and it almost killed me. The first five or six miles were nearly all up hill and I had hardly trained for it. When I was trying to think of something that was special to me that I could give him, the Hastings Brass was the first thing that came to mind. He smiled when I told him why I wanted him to have it. “Thanks,” he said.
Suddenly there was a shout. “Pete!” We both turned and saw a tall, portly young man standing about thirty yards away. “Pete!” the young man shouted again. Pete squinted at him trying to see if he knew him. A woman appeared behind the man. “Come on love,” she said. The young man began ambling towards us excitedly and it soon became apparent he had learning difficulties. The woman followed him, trying to calm him. Pete was totally unfazed. When the young man reached us, he grabbed hold of Pete’s arm and then hugged him. Pete hugged him back. The woman apologised, “I’m sorry,” she said, “he’s always been a bit of a handful.” Pete shook his head and smiled reassuringly. “Mum,” said the young man, “It’s Pete Postlethwaite.” The woman seemed embarrassed. “I know love,” she said, “We all know who Pete is around here.” After a few minutes the woman thanked Pete for his patience. “That’s the happiest I’ve seen him all week,” she said. Pete just smiled again and said, “It’s a pleasure.”
Charlotte arrived and we followed Pete to his farmhouse where Jacquie and Lilly were waiting for him. We made our little film and then Charlotte left. Then Pete showed me around his house pointing out things that meant a lot to him including an amazing photograph of Nelson Mandela gifted to him by a famous film director and the crown he wore when he played King Lear. We sat in his conservatory for a while drinking tea and looking out over the beautiful Shropshire countryside that he loved so much and he signed the cover of a DVD I’d brought of The Usual Suspects – “Can you dedicate it to Big Rinty please Pete,” I said. He wrote – “To Big Rinty, Kobayashi to you!” and signed it. Then I noticed a book spread open on a window shelf. I knew the book well – it was The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A friend had sent me a copy from French Guyana when I was in Wandsworth prison during the first year of my life sentence in 1985. It took me 12 years to read it properly.
It was getting dark when I said I had to leave. “Stay the night if you want,” Pete said. I was touched by his generosity. But I had work in the morning and I really had to get home. We hugged. “I’ll be in touch Pete,” I said. As I drove down the track to his farm he waved until I was out of sight. I didn’t know then it would be the last time I’d ever see him alive.
I moved to the border country to build a house. As luck would have it the property was only forty miles away from Pete’s place. I decided once I was done I would get back in touch with him and invite him to mine for tea. But four years ago today I was digging a trench for a drain and listening to the radio when the news came on. “It has just been announced that the actor…” I knew before the newsreader said his name that it was Pete.
Like many of the people at his funeral I cried openly as I fixed my clutch of wild flowers picked from his farm, which had been laid on a tray nearby for the purpose by Jacqui, into his beautiful wicker coffin. By the time the congregation had paid their respects his coffin was festooned like a warrior poet’s head dress. A sad day for a great man and for everyone who loved him.
A Spectacle of Dust: Pete’s Autobiography