Actor Damian Lewis dropped in to Newcastle University this week to research his part in a new Werner Herzog film about County Durham-born explorer Gertrude Bell.
In Queen of the Desert, Nicole Kidman is cast as Bell, the doughty writer, traveller, archaeologist and administrator who is remembered for her role in establishing and administering modern Iraq.
Kidman stepped into the role when Naomi Watts dropped out. And if that seems rather odd casting, it was said of Bell that she had “reddish hair and piercing blue-green eyes”. She was not, it seems, devoid of glamour.
Lewis, best known these days for his role as Brody in Homeland, is cast as Charles Doughty-Wylie who was killed during the First World War in Gallipoli in an action which earned him the Victoria Cross.
He was a married man but exchanged love letters with Bell from 1913 up until his death. It is said their affair was unconsummated but clearly it is to be an important element of the film, which is being made in locations including Morocco and is due to be released next year.
Lewis’s trip to the North East took him to the Robinson Library at Newcastle University which holds the Gertrude Bell archive.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie was born in Suffolk and graduated from the Royal Military College in Sandhurst. He served in the Boer War and later commanded a unit of the Somaliland Camel Corps.
He was also honoured by the Ottoman Empire for his work during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 when he served with the British Red Cross when it was helping Ottoman military forces.
Damian Lewis has been to Newcastle before. He came to the city with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1997, performing in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Ibsen’s Little Eyolf.
In an interview at the time, the affable Old Etonian said he had also visited the city a couple of years previously to rehearse a part in the play The Devil Is An Ass. “I bought a very expensive shirt there, the most expensive shirt I’ve ever bought,” he chortled.
Lewis spoke of his screen acting ambitions, having just shot a film about Robinson Crusoe with Pierce Brosnan in which he appeared for “about a minute and a half”.
He said he was content to learn with the RSC and would “get into movies when they can’t think of a single better actor for the part”.
Any new Werner Herzog film is big news. One of Germany’s most famous directors, he is lauded for films such as Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Queen of the Desert promises to be another landmark for all concerned.