HOW I admire the Japanese culture’s sensible approach to greeting people when they meet — a simple bow or nod of the head is enough, be it to friends, acquaintances or strangers. There’s no handshaking, hugging or, heaven forbid, kissing.
Unlike we British, they obviously know plenty about germs, especially as they are often swathed in gloves and surgical masks.
If only I could find them in silk and satin and swathed in Swarovski crystals! Because while I’ve long been concerned with germs, I’ve become even more wary following my recent experience with a terrible bout of influenza.
Where did I catch it from? It’s almost impossible to know, but I believe the deadliest germ carriers are other people’s hands and faces — which makes my life tricky, considering I work in a profession where hugs, kisses and physical contact are the norm.
Indeed, in the course of my career, some actors and directors have put my immune system under serious strain, so unnecessarily up close and personal have they become.
My flu virus struck when I was on a plane to Dubai as I travelled to perform my one-woman show at the opera house in December. In spite of having had the flu jab, which protects one from the virus’s deathly A-strain, apparently one can still succumb to the less serious but still awful B-strain, which I unfortunately contracted.
Regardless, the show had to go on, so I staggered on to the stage and managed to get through it, in spite of several coughing fits. Back in London I took to my bed like a Victorian lady with a case of the swoons — legs shaky as spaghetti, ribs aching from a hacking cough. Bed-bound for a fortnight, I almost felt that the end was near. (I’m an actress — you have to expect some drama.)
Ever since, I have upped my one-woman war against germs. A few weeks after my illness, on a flight from London to LA, I was adamant on blocking the airvent above me with duct tape and swabbing my seat and media screen vigorously with disinfectant wipes. I had armed myself with enough hand sanitiser, nose-blocking gel and baby wipes to stock a corner chemist.
I was protecting myself from the zillions of invisible germs that lurk inside aeroplanes, as they do on every surface from door handles to lift buttons and supermarket trolleys. Indeed, while I’ve long worn gloves as a fashionable accessory, now I wear them whenever possible to protect myself against virulent germs.
And, yes, I try to avoid shaking hands — instead offering my jaunty closed fist for a gentle bump, which is usually met by a puzzled expression unless the recipient is approaching puberty — much less this ghastly fad of kissing and hugging strangers.
The bane of my life is the bear hug followed by a sloppy kiss on the cheek from total strangers. As I was born and brought up at a time where you didn’t kiss or hug anyone except your family, and it was the norm to seldom receive much affection from your parents past the age of ten, this is a fad I can’t adjust to.
My mother was a germophobe long before it was trendy to be one. As her first-born, she wrapped me in cotton wool. When we went out in the pram, and because strangers would often coo over me and get far too close for her comfort, she felt compelled to have a sign printed, which she put on the blanket covering her little darling, stating: ‘Please do not kiss me.’
Unfortunately, I no longer have that sign, as it would be still useful. Yes, other actors and actresses seemingly relish sharing their intimate space with others, but call me cold and aloof — and I try not to be — I don’t willingly participate.
So these #metoo movements and mysterious unwritten laws that make it verboten to get too close to your colleagues suit me just fine, even though I generally am against the nanny-state these movements engender.
After the curtain comes down actors are no longer supposed to fraternise with each other and much less with the management and production staff. However, if those were the rules in 2000, I would never have been able to date my husband, Percy, when we met in San Francisco and toured the U.S. He was managing the company and I was playing opposite George Hamilton.
Luckily, George is not one of those actors who spray you with saliva when you have a scene in close proximity. Ever the gent, we worked together several times on TV and he has never parted his lips during a kissing scene.
Sadly, that doesn’t apply to a few other actors, who must have exposed me to more germs than I care to think about. As soon as the director yells ‘action’ during a love scene, these actors become full on with the hands, the mouth and the dreaded tongue.
Not to speak ill of the dead (but I will), I played opposite George Peppard in a little epic called The Executioner, shot in Greece. Unfortunately, he was an eager beaver in the amorous department. Wearing nothing but knickers and a sheet during our first love scene, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage as all 6ft 2in of him was splayed on top of me.
The wardrobe lady swiftly pulled the sheet away at the last minute and he came in for the kill. I tried a closed mouth screen-kiss, but he attempted the full-on Frenchie, and as I politely extricated his tongue from my throat for the fourth time, I became angry.
I protested to our director, Sam Wanamaker, while GP looked on in amusement as the make-up department tried to reconstruct both our lipstick-covered faces.
‘Just do it a little less forcefully, George,’ said Sam persuasively.
‘OK,’ he growled, ever the great star, and off we went again:
Sheet off; Peppard on; tongue in — ugh! Sam was finally satisfied and cried cut. ‘Did you enjoy that?’ smirked George.
‘No, I hated it and you didn’t have to be quite so “method”,’ I retorted as I struggled back into my robe, trying not to be the day’s cabaret act for the crew.
‘You’re a prude,’ he sneered. ‘Most actresses love it.’
‘Well, I’m not one of ’em,’ I said and stalked off speechless with fury. George became petulant and refused to talk to me, so we communicated only through our make-up people and during our scenes.
Another actor to perform inappropriate kissing on me was Gene Barry (otherwise known as Bat Masterson in the eponymous U.S. TV series). The details are hazy, but I was a wife pining for my estranged husband who appears to be a double agent, and Gene was the spy master trying to catch him out.
In the movie, Gene escorted me to my front door after a platonic dinner date.
He then tried what was supposed to be an avuncular goodbye peck on the cheek but out came that tongue again. ‘No, no, you can’t do it like that,’ I said struggling away. ‘I’m supposed to be grieving.’
‘For Chrissakes, what are you? Frigid?’ he demanded.
‘Yes, I’ve had two kids and two husbands, and I’m frigid,’ I replied, but Gene didn’t get the sarcasm. ‘I’m Gene Barry. I’m the hero of this picture. This woman’s gotta enjoy it. My fans will be disappointed!’
‘Well, my fans will hate it. Why don’t you go kiss them instead?’
We WERE frosty from then on, until he made a guest appearance in These Old Broads, which I starred in with Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, decades later. He recalled, not our fall-out on the set, but my subsequent appearance in Playboy Magazine!
Thankfully, neither of these saliva-filled interactions gave me a cold or flu. I wasn’t so lucky when I experienced another distasteful kiss on legendary producer Sam Spiegel’s super-yacht, moored in a gorgeous bay outside Cannes.
I was with Roger Moore and David Niven and their respective wives, looking forward to a birthday celebration for some other Hollywood big-wig. Twenty of us were seated on deck on a long table. Roger toasted the birthday boy, then added: ‘And it’s Joanie’s birthday today too!’
‘Congratulations, honey,’ beamed Spiegel, ‘And have I got a present for you, little lady.’ He lumbered up to me and plonked a tonsil-probing smacker, complete with snake-like tongue, on my lips. Roger thought it was hilarious.
I sat there gobsmacked with a sickly smile on my face as the table whooped with glee and I surreptitiously wiped my mouth on my napkin.
The following day I came down with a virulent strain of flu and had to spend days in bed.
So, dear reader, if I don’t accept your kisses, hugs and handshakes, it doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It just means I don’t want to catch your germs.