An Evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger follows a business model popularised by many science fiction conventions: fans throng around, several in costume, before being herded into a conference hall for a Q&A session and, afterwards, having the opportunity to have their photo taken with their idol.
Of course, this being one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, the financial stakes are somewhat higher: basic tickets started at £126.50, with a photo with Arnold only available to those paying £1575 or more. While the room at the Lancaster was full of people who obviously did not mind paying so much to experience an audience with the star of The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian and Jingle All the Way, one must still question whether the organisation surrounding the evening was of a level commensurate with the ticket price.
The seating arrangement within the long, thin hotel room was such that those at either end of the suite must surely have had to rely on the video screens, and appalling sound quality, to experience what their idol was saying. Producer Rocco Buonvino has presented similar evenings in the past at theatres much better suited for audiences: the venue here was found wanting, and its flaws never felt adequately compensated for.
After a series of delays – which host Rebecca Cooper struggled to deal with, at one point reduced to asking the audience if there was anyone in from London – and an onstage rendition of Brad Fiedel’s theme from The Terminator (which, while iconic, is hardly the most performance-friendly piece), moderator Jonathan Ross and the star, Schwarzenegger himself, made the wait worthwhile.
Not exactly a shrinking violet, Schwarzenegger is full of tales from his teenage years as both a bodybuilder and an incompetent tank driver during his years of national service, and of his affection for London, the city where he won five Mr Universe titles.
Throughout, the star displays a killer combination of self-deprecation and self-belief. Of his attempt to break into Hollywood, he laughs at how he was told his body was overdeveloped (“they thought, ‘Woody Allen – now there’s a sex symbol’”) and his accent would never work (“I’m still looking for my voice coach to get my money back”), before eliding into tales of how his breakthrough rôles, of Conan and the Terminator, relied on those very qualities. As a motivational speaker, they don’t come much better. Others could trot out lines such as, “Everybody fails. It’s the winners who get up again,” and come across as trite. But the 67-year-old actor/politician comes across as incredibly warm, focused and determined, making every aphorism a clear statement of his own beliefs.
While he has made a name for himself as a motormouth chat show host who often speaks more than his TV guests, Ross’s rôle here is to prompt Schwarzenegger from one long set of anecdotes to another, which is something the Hollywood star is able to do with ease. One of the most interesting such segments is his discussion of his relationship with fellow action movie star Sylvester Stallone. It started as a competition between the two, he says, because it was through contest that Schwarzenegger found the greatest drive and motivation. But there is always respect there – and when the man says of his Rambo-playing rival, “I hated the son of a bitch,” it is with the twinkle that knows that this too is part of the performance.
Before the evening brought to a close so that those paying for the privilege could get a snap with their idol, the floor was opened up to questions, most of which were predictably sycophantic. But the comedic highlight had to be one young man, whose nerves at talking to Schwarzenegger got the better of him, leading to him to ask just, “Have you seen Die Hard?” Quick as a flash, and with exquisite timing, Schwarzenegger responded, “Do I have to?
It is hard to imagine a world where this evening could be described as value for money. But that’s the world that Schwarzenegger inhabits, and for one and a half glorious hours, he let us in.