The Man Who Never Was?

A BBC NI documentary about Hollywood actor Stephen Boyd leaves Hugh Odling-Smee decidely underwhelmed

Stephen Boyd was born in Glengormley, County Antrim, liked acting, went to London, got an acting job, went to Hollywood, starred in Ben Hur, didn’t do much else except to play golf, died with his putter in his hand.

That was the story of one man's life, as told by the BBC NI documentary Stephen Boyd - The Man Who Never Was, aired this week: a hesitant and unfailingly shallow portrait of a man whose career deserved a more thoughtful examination.

Boyd was a strange and enigmatic figure, one of the more interesting individuals in the elite coterie of Northern Irish actors who have made it big in the movies. Born in 1931 as Billy Miller, Boyd (who later took his mother’s maiden name for the stage), was a leading figure in the mid-1950s for the Ulster Group Theatre (UGT), before being persuaded to move to London to pursue greater roles and recognition.

By all accounts a serious and private man, Boyd created himself anew as a Canadian emigrant (tipping his hat to his father's nationality), in a bid to bypass the perceived casting embargo on those afflicted with our hard Northern tones (although, once established, he threw off his alter-ego to proclaim himself as Northern Irish as boxty and Ballymena).

Boyd's early years in Belfast were passed over quickly in The Man Who Never Was, sacrificed for the story of him being bizarrely chosen by Sir Michael Redgrave to MC an award ceremony in London. Whilst this was an interesting and presumably rare example of the recruitment methods utilised by English theatre royalty, an opportunity was missed to explore Boyd’s years as a professional actor in Belfast.

The makers of the programme interviewed James Ellis, a leading member of the UGT and close friend of Boyd at the time. Who mentored Boyd? What roles did he play? What set him apart from the crowd? Surely, there is someone alive who saw him act on the tiny Group Theatre stage?

The main focus of the documentary centered around Boyd as Masala in the Hollywood epic Ben Hur. The film was the most successful of its time, winning 11 Academy Awards (a feat unequaled until Titanic). The fact that a young Northern Irish actor just arrived in Hollywood was impressive enough to win a part in such a big budget affair speaks to Boyd’s talent and skill. The Man Who Never Was, however, remained firmly fixed on the surface of this story.

Curiously, the BBC ignored Gore Vidal’s oft quoted story that the homosexual subtext within his Ben Hur screenplay was played out by Boyd without his co-star, Charlton Heston’s knowledge. This was a key element in the film and proof that Boyd was a subtle, intelligent and mature actor, who could be trusted with the more complicated aspects of his character's role. Boyd was also married to Mariella di Sarzana, a movie executive, for 24 days, but strangely this was not mentioned either.

No, the rest of the programme was instead dedicated to proving that Boyd was ‘one of us’ (as if that isn't obvious), being a ‘folk hero in Carnmoney’ who bought his mother houses in Bangor, and stories of how Boyd failed to remain at the top of the Hollywood Tree, seemingly because he wouldn’t go to parties. His post-Ben Hur career was skated over, with only the bizarre Fantastic Voyage focused on: cue some dodgy inferences about Boyd getting his hands on Raquel Welch.

The almost melancholic tones of the last 15 minutes of the programme, with its constantly repeated shots of the beaches of southern California, belies the films that Boyd did make. Not masterpieces, perhaps, but isn’t it interesting that Boyd made The Black Brigade in 1970, which had an otherwise all black cast and featured a young Richard Pryor?

Predictably, The Man Who Never Was resolutely stuck to the classic Northern Irish script of early success leading to inevitable decline.

Yet Boyd’s last film, The Squeeze, is undoubtedly one of the best British crime films ever made. Sadly neglected in favour of the overrated Get Carter, The Squeeze is rarely shown on television. In the film, Boyd is a brutal and vicious criminal, revelling in lines such as ‘You wiped your arse lately?’, acting Edward Fox and David Hemmings off the screen. Here is an actor in his element.

Back in The Man Who Never Was, Boyd hid from Hollywood in his house and played a lot of golf. Unlike Michael Redgrave, the programme makers missed the point of Boyd - he wasn’t a star, he was an actor. Unfortunately, that story remains to be told with the skill and seriousness that Boyd demanded of himself.