Catherine Schell is probably best known in cult circles for her role as shape-shifting alien Maya in the second season of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 and as the urbane Countess Scarlioni in 1979’s City of Death, one of the best and most acclaimed serials of the ‘classic’ Doctor Who era. But her career spans decades of appearances in dozens of classic British TV series and starring roles in glamorous, big-budget feature films alongside the likes of Peter Sellers (who became a trusted confidante). Yet it’s her life away from the camera which makes her autobiography, A Constant Alien (the title a reference not only to her role as Maya but also to her slightly restless, bohemian lifestyle) such a terrific, engrossing read; showbiz memories and anecdotes nestle alongside a laid-bare, warts and all life story in which fact is very often much stranger – and much more interesting – than fiction.
Born of aristocratic Hungarian stock as Katherine Frelin Schell von Baushlott (she settled upon her stage-name after a considerable compromise), Catherine’s childhood was nothing if not traumatic. The Nazis requisitioned her parents’ estate at the start of World War II and the family fled to Austria where they lived in virtual poverty until 1948 before emigrating to the United States in 1950, where her father acquired American citizenship. Later in the 1950s the family returned to Europe and in Germany, Catherine became interested in acting and started to develop her skills in the Otto Falckenberg School of the Performing Arts.
It’s these early chapters of A Constant Alien, in which Catherine details the cold realities and privations of her early life, which really set the tone for her rivetingly-honest story. It’s a story about family and relationships, many of them forged in the fires of war and its aftermath, and the determination of a fearless, naive young girl determined to make her own way in a monstrously chauvinistic and single-minded (if not simple-minded) industry. Catherine’s prose is beautifully vivid and evocative and often unflinchingly-honest. It’s funny, too; her recollections of her first screen appearance in schlocky 1964 German-language adventure film Lana: Queen of the Amazon (shot on location, an experience she was lucky to survive) are hilarious because the circumstance of the film’s making is unthinkable in today’s health-and-safety first environment. But we’re there, up close and personal, with Catherine as her career starts to pick up steam and by the end of the 1960’s she’d joined that elite band of performers known as ‘The Bond Girls’ with her appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (she even had some dialogue!) and by 1975 she was staying in opulent French hotels and rubbing shoulders with Peter Sellers as she co-starred in The Return of the Pink Panther.
Fans of Space: 1999 and Doctor Who looking for behind-the-scenes secrets and salacious gossip will find slim pickings here – she has nothing but fond memories of the former and knew next to nothing about the latter so had no real preconceptions – and as her career progresses throughout the 1970s her personal life becomes more and more chaotic, her tempestuous and often violent relationship with actor William Marlowe, followed by unashamed flings with some quite well-known and extremely married co-stars. Eventually, she found happiness and contentment with director Bill Lyons but by the end of the 1980s, the industry having changed over the years, the work dried up for both of them and they eventually decided to ‘up sticks’ and move to France where they ran a small guesthouse together until Bill’s death in 2006.
Catherine now lives in contented retirement in France and her story – warm and witty, engaging and relentlessly honest – is the chronicle of an actress whose dedication to her craft, as she admits towards the end of the book “did not go deep enough.” It’s also a story full of life, love and passion – her devotion to her parents in their declining years is heartbreaking stuff - dotted with the occasional indiscretion, told with a real sense of joy and with absolutely no regrets for what might have been. Catherine Schell may be best remembered for her roles in Space: 1999 and Doctor Who but A Constant Alien tells the story of a life which amounted to so much more. An unforgettable and oddly life-affirming autobiography; recommended unreservedly.
A CONSTANT ALIEN / AUTHOR: CATHERINE SCHELL / PUBLISHER: FANTOM FILMS BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW