Anything Goes, the title of Anthony Powell's latest design triumph now running in the West End, could well serve as a title for his international career exploits. They include riding at 110 miles an hour behind Steve McQueen on his motorbike while filming Papillon in Jamaica. Or defanging a group of elderly English character actors on Tess. Or applying double-sided tape to Warren Beatty long before J.Lo and Versace discovered it.

Powell's film work includes everything from Death on the Nile to the last two Indiana Jones movies to 101 Dalmations, while his stage work ranges from Sunset Boulevard to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. No stranger to accolades, Powell has been nominated for six Academy Awards, winning three Oscar statuettes, one Tony, and Britain's Royal Designer for Industry. Hannah Kate Kinnersley recently spoke to the highly entertaining designer soon after he was thrilled to learn he is the recipient of the 2004 Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award, although his work in Europe and America may not leave much time to enjoy the trophies at home on his mantelpiece. You can also see some samples of Powell's celebrated sketches in Designer Sketchbook on page 32.

Hannah Kate Kinnersley: What prompted you to be a costume designer?

Anthony Powell: It's very mysterious. None of my family had anything to do with the entertainment business. I was about five, it was during the Second World War and I'd never actually been to the theatre; somebody may have given me a model theatre and I started making puppet shows and putting on shows. It wasn't until we moved to Dublin, Ireland that I started going to the theatre on my own when I was about 11.

I remember a production that Cecil Beaton had designed of Lady Windermere's Fan, which must have been roundabout 1946 or 47, which was unbelievably lavish; I mean I think we'd be pretty impressed now, but after seeing it as a small child it made just an indelible impression.

HKK: And then you ended up working with Beaton later in your career. What was that like?

AP: At the time I felt quite used because I used to ghost things for him. But now I realize how incredibly lucky I was.

He lived terribly grandly. When I went to meet him the door was answered by a butler in uniform and I was shown in to a crimson velvet drawing room where he was sitting on a sort of gilt throne, swathed in silk, having his hair cut.

He had been asked to decorate the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden for a state visit from Charles de Gaulle but he was going off to Hollywood to do a film and wanted me to ‘supervise’ it. He said, ‘I suppose you've done lots of this sort of thing before.’ I lied through my teeth and said, ‘Oh yes.’ I had 24 hours to come up with the designs for the visit and presented them to him while he was dressing for dinner with the Queen Mother. He said, ‘Nothing to worry about, it's only the Queen.’

Beaton came back the day of the visit and was given the Legion d'Honeur by de Gaulle in the interval.

HKK: And where is your Legion'd-'Honeur?

AP: Where indeed? But what an opportunity, and it introduced me to a world I would never have been part of.

HKK: It sounds like Beaton was quite a character to work with.

AP: There is a story about his work on the Noel Coward play Quadrille in the forties where he wanted to use one of those Edwardian printed silks. In England after the war there was only blackout fabric, but this marvelous woman, Lily Taylor [who worked with Beaton on it] was absolutely undefeatable. She managed to get permission to travel abroad and somehow got to France and Switzerland and went to all of the silk companies and pleaded with them to let her rummage around in their basements and attics. Somehow, miraculously, she found about 8 or 9 rolls of this amazing Edwardian silk. It was a major triumph. It was the middle of winter so she took all this fabric off the rolls and wound it round her body and then put her coat over it and smuggled it all back to London.

Cecil Beaton rarely got up before lunchtime, so you had to see him in his four-poster bed. Hot from her triumphs Lily went into see him and threw these lengths of silk down on the bed and said “There!” and Cecil looked at them and said “Lily Taylor, you're not trying.”

Years later I told someone this story in Hollywood; they repeated it and the story went all over Hollywood and became a catchphrase. If someone had done something absolutely impossible, and triumphed, people repeated this phrase without having the first notion of who Lily Taylor was or the origin of the story.

HKK: You had quite an auspicious debut on the West End.

AP: Sir John Gielgud's production of Sheridan's The School For Scandal was my first design job in London's West End (with Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Margaret Rutheford, and an all-star cast). It then played on Broadway, where I won a tony Award. However, by that time I'd returned to London, and if you can believe it, no one told me I'd been nominated, much less that I'd won! On the evening, a fellow Brit, Margaret Leighton, accepted it on my behalf, then lost it, and I didn't actually receive it until many years later, when she (sadly) died — and it was found at the bottom of a suitcase!

HKK: You won your first Oscar in 1972 for Maggie Smith's outlandish costumes in Travels With My Aunt. Tell me about that project.

AP: Undoubtedly one of my most enjoyable experiences was working with the film's director, George Cukor, an amazingly cultivated man. He had the most beautiful manners and he treated me as an equal. I always remember once preparing the leading lady for a big entrance in furs and jewels. I was in her dressing room and the phone rang; Cukor said, “I'm just setting up the scene and we're lighting it at the moment. Would it be better for you if the camera was on the right hand side of the staircase or the left hand?” I was so taken aback that I just couldn't think and I said, “Oh thank you very much, the right side,” and of course it should have been on the left and you saw absolutely nothing!

HKK: You also have Oscars for Death on the Nile and Tess. How did you approach designing those period pieces?

AP: Well, for Death on the Nile, there were about a dozen stars and I felt I needed to talk to them all before I put pen to paper. So I did this sort of round the world trip to talk to each one before I started designing anything. One of the most extraordinary encounters was with Bette Davis. I was petrified of her reputation, but she was absolutely charming. She'd baked cookies and taken a lot of trouble to put herself together for our meeting.

She said, ‘Well first of all you might as well know what the problems are,’ and even though we'd just met five minutes ago, she whipped her dress over her head. There she was, virtually naked, and she was nearly 70 at the time. It was quite startling.

She explained to me afterwards that in the 30s and 40s, contract artists with the major studios in Hollywood would be put in a swimsuit and placed on a revolving platform in a soundstage in unforgiving lighting; all the key creative people — the camera men and the makeup people and costume people — were sitting with clip boards making notes of every single defect. She said it was one of the most terrible experiences to go through, but in the end it paid off because you knew that you would never be seen at a disadvantage on screen.

She was right, because I could see the good parts that one could feature and celebrate those that one could discretely draw a veil over. It was enormously useful to me.

Working on the Roman Polanski film Tess was also terribly satisfying. We shot in Normandy and Brittany in France and used local farmers as extras. I had done a lot of research and found photographs of how people looked in the 19th century in England and these weatherbeaten French farm workers looked exactly right. Unfortunately the English character actors didn't. I realized what it was: the French extras didn't have any teeth and there faces were sort of fallen in, so I asked our elderly English actors if they would agree to take their dentures out. The minute they'd done that they fitted in exactly and were absolutely convincing and real.

HKK: You must enjoy designing for Roman Polanski, having worked with him not only on Tess but also Pirates, Frantic and The Ninth Gate, as well as several theatre projects.

AP: Oh yes, he's a perfectionist. I've just done a play in Paris with him, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, but it turned into a total nightmare because in London I was scheduled to do Cole Porter's Anything Goes with Trevor Nunn. But then the dates were changed and the two premieres were actually on the same night — one in London and one in Paris — and I went like a ping-pong ball between London and Paris for weeks and weeks. It was a killer.

HKK: The perils of being an international designer.

AP: I find I love working in the States too. A couple of years ago I did a musical in New York. It was called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and it was set in the 1840s. Sadly it only lasted for a couple of weeks, but it was the most enormous pleasure to work on because the costume shops in New York are some of the best in the world and so many of the people have become my friends. They hadn't made anything from the 1840s before and it was such a pleasure discovering how to recreate those clothes in an authentic way with them. They don't normally have the chance to do that sort of straight period costume.

HKK: Sometimes the design team appreciates things more than the audience, or even the rest of the crew.

AP: Oh, yes. In Ishtar, when Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Isabelle Adjani are disguised as Arabs, I put them in these genuine blue robes that I'd bought from Arabs. I was thinking how wonderful they looked trudging across the Sahara in these flowing robes billowing around them. Then suddenly Elaine [May, the director], says, ‘Anthony, what are you doing to me? There's a line in the script that says there's no wind in the desert!’

She made me weight all the costumes down with lead weights, but of course the costumes filled with wind. They looked like balloons floating across the desert. So in the end we had to stick their costumes to their bodies with double-sided tape. There is a close up of Warren Beatty where absolutely nothing is moving except his eyelashes flying in the wind.

THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT ANTHONY POWELL:

  • He was born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, near Manchester, England, but moved to Dublin, Ireland as a child.
  • He has an Honorary Doctor of Design, (HonDDes) from the University of Greenwich and originally trained at the Central School of Art in London, England.
  • On the film Papillon, his job description included clothing Steve McQueen on and off screen — even down to his underwear.