Book review: Did I Ever Tell You This? A Memoir by Sam Neill (Penguin Books, 2023)
tl;dr: Not for everyone, but definitely fun for fans.
For over forty years, Sam Neill’s name has been a reassuring mark of quality. With starring roles in hit movies like Dead Calm, The Hunt for Red October, The Piano and Jurassic Park, Sam’s work has taken him from arthouse to blockbuster, and from cult classics to TV hits like Peaky Blinders. Few actors have proved as versatile, nor so well-loved.
Born in 1947 in Northern Ireland, Sam emigrated to New Zealand with his close-knit family at the age of seven. At school in Christchurch he discovered he was hopeless at sport, but loved acting.
Following a breakthrough role in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career in 1979, Sam found his way, sometimes by accident, to his own brilliant career and Hollywood’s A-list, working alongside a stellar list of actors, writers and directors. In Did I Ever Tell You This? he invites you in, sharing stories from an extraordinary life with charm, honesty, good humour, and a wry appreciation of the absurd.
Moving and often laugh-out-loud funny, this is the inspirational story of a man who, when life knocks him down, stands up again.
When some people get cancer, they put their lives on hold. Sam Neill decided to put his life on paper and wrote what ended up becoming a memoir, a collection of stories from his life. From the early years in Northern Ireland to his present life in New Zealand and Australia, and it’s a wild ride.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of having a rather bizarre dream that turned me into a Sam Neill fan. Went to bed liking him as an actor, woke up with a hyperfixation. Like you do. It meant I’ve seen a lot of his back catalogue, which comes in handy for reading the man’s memoir. This isn’t just reminiscing about Jurassic Park, there’s anecdotes from Plenty, and even things like Death in Brunswick gets a mention, along with everything else. Or, at least, nearly.
While he’s almost astonishingly forthcoming about his life, he’s also really tight-lipped about his personal life. I could just about suss out how many children he has, but there are only hints to suggest how old they are, for instance. A lot of things go unsaid, so anyone looking for hot gossip about his relationships won’t really find that here. The gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, which is one of the reasons I like him as a person. He will give his unfiltered opinions on people he’s worked with over the years, which has a few surprises – some of which various news outlets have already written articles about. The funniest one (for me) is the one about John Gielgud, the most surprising Judy Davis.
The few poor ratings I’ve seen about this book complain about his politics – he’s not shy about firmly being on the left of the political spectrum – and how the book jumps all over the place. It follows two main timelines (his life and his cancer) while also containing a lot of asides and how he’ll be telling you about one thing, which then reminds him of something else, and it turns out some people aren’t into that because it’s “disorganised” and “confusing”. As someone whose brain does that kind of thing naturally anyway, it didn’t bother me. In fact, it meant it always kept fresh.
Did his never-ending self deprecation get a little over the top at times? Admittedly yes, but it’s funny too. There’s a lot of humour in these pages, just like you get to see on his social media, and in the “Cinema Quarantino” shorts he did with friends during lockdown. There’s a bit of curmudgeonly grumbling too, but when you’re in your 70s and you’re writing down your memories of a long and illustrious acting career to distract yourself from cancer treatment, I think you’re allowed to go a bit “old man yells at cloud” at times, you know?
Is there any hot gossip from film sets? There’s a bit behind the scenes of various films, naturally, but that’s not really what it’s about. You get to see him reminisce about being a squatter in his youth, living somewhere in the remote parts of Bali for a while, his school days, how the family moved from the UK to New Zealand, his grandparents, how he got started in winemaking, how he ended up acting and how it brought him to star in his first film. Sam Neill has definitely lived his life to the fullest, yet he still remains modest. He’s acted with silver screen legends, yet he remains humble.
I was a fan when I started reading this book, and if anything my respect and admiration for the guy has only deepened from reading it and learning more about him and his life. But I will agree that this book is perhaps an acquired taste. It’s definitely not for everyone, especially if you don’t like the not-exactly-linear “narrative” or don’t like to hear why someone might have an issue with Brexit. But for someone who has been a Sam Neill fan for the past 20 years? This is a treasure.
And now I want to re-watch a bunch of films I haven’t watched in a very long time. Some are DVDs I haven’t even watched once. I should remedy that.
4.8 out of 5 Nigels.