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Alan Rickman: Two nights with an acting legend

So sad. Just days after David Bowie, Alan Rickman's death was a blow to wake up to.

Partly it was the delicious-dripping-with-irony-and-venom of his performances in so many memorable movies, including Die Hard, Truly Madly Deeply, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Galaxy Quest, Love Actually and the Harry Potter series.

But it was also that he was such a vibrant presence in Sydney just 10 months ago.

For two sold-out nights, the legendary English actor was in his element – telling colourful, self-deprecating anecdotes about his film and theatre career – during Fairfax Media's Spectrum Now festival.

He arrived on stage at the Cremorne Orpheum to a standing ovation on the first night, introducing A Little Chaos, the romantic drama he directed and starred in as King Louis XIV.


While it screened, he initially ducked into another cinema but ended up watching much of his own film from the stairs up the back.

Behind the scenes, Alan Rickman was surprisingly reserved. Even a little shy for an actor who had been in so many big movies and was famous enough that his voice – with a masterful use of pauses for dramatic effect – was instantly recognisable.

He recognised it was part of the job but was still wary about all the palaver of a red carpet and endless photos.

And he was definitely uncomfortable about a pack of whacky fans shrieking at him at the cinema door for autographs for Die Hard posters and Harry Potter DVDs, which he knew would be sold online.

During a question-and-answer session on stage, Rickman revealed how they shot villain Hans Gruber falling to his death at the end of Die Hard. In an age before digital effects, they just put him in a harness and dropped him from a height.

But in case it all went wrong, they told him they were leaving it till the last day of filming.

Another surprise: he admitted having to work hard to get that famous sonorous voice after being told at drama school that he sounded like he was delivering lines from down a drainpipe.

Given Rickman's screen persona was often somewhere between prickly (Galaxy Quest, Love Actually) and downright malicious (Robin Hood, Harry Potter), it would be easy to imagine him being tetchy.

While there was a little of that initially – "oh god, journalists always ask that question," he moaned at one stage – he became more comfortable and charming as he settled in.

On the second night, with no red carpet, photographers or professional autograph hunters, he was more relaxed.

Over Thai food and wine in a room behind the stage while A Little Chaos screened, he and wife Rima Horton, who has stood for election as a Labour candidate and lectured in economics, chatted thoughtfully about politics in Britain and wanted to know how Australia compared.

When I mention I'd be asking entirely different questions on stage – having taken his "journalists always ask that" comment on board – he winced and said that wouldn't be necessary. He'd quite liked the old ones.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 12:  Actor Alan Rickman speaks with Garry Maddox writer for the Sydney Morning during a Q&A after his moive premiere on March 12, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media)

Alan Rickman talks on stage during the Spectrum Now festival in Sydney in March last year. Photo: Christopher Pearce

When questions did vary, he skilfully worked his way around to telling the same guaranteed-to-get-a-laugh anecdotes.

After a young audience member mentioned he was her first crush, Rickman's response was brutally self-deprecating: "I'm old enough to be your grandfather!"

While he had the bearing and voice of a classically-trained Shakespearean actor, a delicious sense of humour was never far away.

"I got a lot of laughs when I played Hamlet," he told the Herald just before arriving in Australia. "It's not about gags. If you can get people to smile or laugh through recognition – something recognisable about human nature – then I think any part is fair game. But I'm not above a custard pie in the face or a pratfall, I mean, if it works."

That planned 45-minute question-and-answer session stretched to an hour, getting warmer and looser and funnier as it went on.

And when he finally left the stage, to another standing ovation, Alan Rickman was genuinely moved.

All this way from home, all these people, he had seen that he was loved.