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Sarah Miles, Star of Ryan’s Daughter, and her Outrageous Behaviour On and Off Set

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Ryan’s Daughter, directed by David Lean, was filmed in Dingle 50 years ago over an 18 month period. It starred Sarah Miles in the title role. Unhappy with her marriage to the local school teacher (Robert Mitchum) she has an affair with a British army officer. Sir John Mills played the fool or village idiot, Michael, who, watching mute from the sidelines, sees everything and is the first to sniff out the infidelity that forms the basis for the film. Both Miles and Mills won Oscars for their performances,  though the film shocked censors and clergy, and marked the end of David Lean’s epic career. Meanwhile the scandalous off set dramas titillated even the Hollywood set and are recounted in a new book by Irish author Paul Rowan. In this extract, we learn more about Sarah Miles …

Where do you begin with Sarah? Carefully, for a start, for she is still very much alive and in rude health, a walking advertisement, it could be said, for the benefits of drinking one’s own urine, of which she is a practitioner and advocate. Sarah claimed that she never really wanted to be a star, and her behaviour suggested as much. This highly talented young actress had a reputation for being difficult that caught up and consumed her as the flames licked around Ryan’s Daughter. Talk about life imitating art. 

Robert Bolt [Sarah Miles’ husband], a schoolteacher before he became a writer, had created a storyline where Mitchum’s character, the schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy, dolefully accepts that his wife Rosy, Miles’s character, is having an affair with a British army officer. Six months into shooting, with the film in the doldrums because of bad weather, the irony was not lost on the restless crew when word spread that Mitchum and Miles were intimate. Sarah found it hard to resist Mitchum’s ‘bearlike proximity’ and ‘animal magnetism’.

“Mitchum and I were soul-mates,” Miles later told her husband’s biographer, Adrian Turner. “We were very close, but we weren’t doing it. People always assume you are doing it and we both knew what everybody was thinking and I find that a bit tacky.” She would admit years later that she did have an affair with him, but only after Ryan’s Daughter, when she was divorced from Bolt. 

Growing up, Sarah reminded her siblings of the nursery rhyme about the girl who was very good when she was good, but had a horrid side as well. Her pet name at home was Pusscat, and Pusscat, Pusscat claimed, got blamed for everything. From her earliest memories, she fessed up to plenty of outrageous behaviour, like the time she tried to drown her second brother Martin in the pond at the bottom of the garden of their home in a well-to-do part of Essex after he had played a particularly unpleasant prank on her. It was an act of revenge, she later explained in her first autobiography, A Right Royal Bastard, that had brought up the ‘evil we all have hidden away, if we really care to look’. Her mother was a strict conformist and Sarah rebelled, seemingly right from the first breath. She adored her father, a highly successful engineer, and it seemed at times she wanted to be a boy, for she behaved like a tomboy, climbing trees higher than any of her brothers. She was hopeless at school and found it difficult to read and write; much later she would be diagnosed as severely dyslexic. Indeed, she seemed to communicate better with animals than with humans and loved tending to the family’s menagerie of domestic pets or helping the family’s gardener. 

Sarah was packed off to Roedean, an austere boarding school near Brighton that was devoid of trees, which Sarah had hugged from as early as she could remember. It was one of the most prestigious educational establishments in the country for girls, but Sarah hated it, a point she made to the Queen Mother when royalty came to the school, after curtseying respectfully. Sarah reckoned she was royalty herself, a lineage her family traced back to a bastard son of King George V. That didn’t save her being expelled from Roedean over a number of offences. Likewise, she was kicked out of a number of other schools she attended, once gaining revenge by setting off fire extinguishers and tearing up the dreaded ‘black book’ into which her name had frequently been written. 

She did have a talent, though, and it was brother Christopher who helped bring it out. He was a keen teenage film-maker and dramatist aided by some recording equipment his father had given him. During long holidays back in Essex, Sarah was on hand to provide animal noises and the like for her brother’s home-made movies, but Christopher and their mother quickly realised she was a talented young actress as well. That was her route into the profession, via her studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, which her mother forced her into as another example of her tough love. Typical of Sarah, part of her research involved peeping out of a cupboard while her flatmate – a prostitute – was involved in a masochistic sex act with a client on the bed in front of her. 

Sarah’s career, and her personality, flourished. It was once said of her – by the Daily Mail writer Lynda Lee-Potter – that ‘she both ensnared and alienated people with her wanton exhibitionism’. No surprise, then, that the newspaper was obsessed with charting every twist and turn in the life of this extraordinary young woman and actress. She landed prime parts alongside Laurence Olivier in Term of Trial (1962) and then in Joe Losey’s film The Servant (1963). Lean had considered her for the role of Zhivago’s sweet and understanding wife, Tonya, but Bolt thought she was ‘too hard, too sure of herself’ and the director cast Geraldine Chaplin instead. 

Soon after, she met Bolt for the first time at a party in London where her agent planned to introduce her to Warren Beatty, who wanted a leading lady for his film Kaleidoscope (1966).  Bolt was 17 years older than Sarah and had a son about the same age as her from his first marriage, Ben, who considered her a ‘gorgeous, wild girl’. Some of Bolt’s friends were alarmed when the couple then got married. The joke went around that Bolt had found his nut. 

In one of her interviews after she met Bolt, she had told people that her mother had encouraged her to have numerous lovers at the age of 16, a comment that her mother described as ‘pure fantasy’; mother had merely pointed out that she shouldn’t date someone just to marry them. What titillated some people further, and offended others, was that Sarah could be very stiff-upper-lip one moment, reflecting her wealthy background, and the next be cursing like a Billingsgate fish wife in her cut-glass accent. She was considered a 1960s swinger, but reckons that was because she had taken her clothes off in most of her movies rather than what people read in the gossip columns, for she preferred the company of her dogs and horses at home rather than venturing out. When she was in unfamiliar company she tended to blurt out things from a sense of nervousness then carry on, leading to Bolt’s description of her on first sight as a ‘debauched Alice in Wonderland’. 

The swinger label followed Miles to Dingle, and there were double standards at work on Ryan’s Daughter. While Miles was frowned upon by some for her behaviour and language, Mitchum was ‘a bit of a lad’ or ‘a rascal’. However, Sarah seemed to enjoy scandalising the neighbourhood, though not in the way you might imagine. Addo, the biggest of her dogs, was free to run around the fields worrying sheep, until one local farmer threatened to shoot him. In the meantime, Sarah was trying to load one sheep, paralysed by fear, into the boot of her Lamborghini in order to bring it to the vet. She was accused of sheep-rustling. All the while, of course, the farmer was flirting with her.  Another game she played was called ‘goosing the grips’ and the rules were simple. ‘Men would be standing with their back to her and she’d grab them from behind,’ explained the production secretary Maureen Whitty. ‘The men didn’t know how to behave with her.’ Yes, Sarah admitted, she did administer the odd pinch on the bum, just to keep spirits raised on set, and much worse was done to her down the years by lecherous producers who she had to fend off with a “knee in the balls”.

What evidence was there of this alleged affair with Mitchum? To those around her, Miles was clearly infatuated by Mitchum and his aura. Sarah was frequently in Mitchum’s caravan during all the downtime. She had also taken to spending much of her time around at Milltown House. Dorothy Mitchum came and went, sometimes accompanied by their youngest child, 15-year-old Petrine. She had heard similar stories, and worse, virtually since they were first married thirty years earlier. On at least one occasion, the local driver bringing Dorothy from Shannon Airport would give a knowing wave as a driver from Dingle came the other way, carrying one or two of Mitchum’s lady friends who were about to hop on the same aircraft from which Mrs Mitchum had just emerged. ‘The quality of most wasn’t particularly appetizing, some of them being no more than scrubbers,’ Miles remarked in her autobiography Serves Me Right. ‘Did Mitchum, like he’d have us all believe, really sleep with a different girl every night, or was it bravura PR?’

Regardless of whether Mitchum and herself shared a bed together in Dingle, the attraction was clearly mutual. ‘Robert Mitchum really liked Sarah and why shouldn’t he?’ asked Michael Stevenson, who took the relationship on face value. ‘Sarah was a very attractive woman. Lots of energy. Funny. Witty. Clever. Strong. Strong personality. And I always thought she was a good actress. She worked extremely hard on Ryan’s Daughter, was always up for it and never complained.’

Making Ryan’s Daughter – The Myths, Madness and Mastery by Paul Benedict Rowan, published by New Island Books, €17.95, is out now.

All location photographs by Ken Bray, courtesy of Bayley Silleck

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