After a blackout on stage, Sir Roger Moore
insisted the show must go on. Michele Kirsch talks pacemakers
with an old pro.
I had just done a mad song and dance and was about
to deliver the next line, when I heard this bang, which was my
head,” says Sir Roger Moore, recounting the time he passed
out on stage when appearing in The Play What I Wrote, in New York
“Fortunately, my skull was protected by my enormous white
Marie Antoinette wig,” he says, his beautiful received pronunciation
betraying no trace of the absurdity of the situation.
Sir Roger, used to playing suave, daredevil characters in The
Persuaders, The Saint and, most famously, the James Bond films,
was in the role of the Comte de Toblerone: “Swiss, and a
little bit nutty,” he says. He fainted on stage in what
he now knows was a syncope attack, the medical name for a faint
or blackout. It is a transient loss of consciousness due to the
brain being deprived of oxygenated blood. It can be caused, as
in Sir Roger’s case, by an irregularity of heart beat.
The curtain went down. Sir Roger came to shortly afterwards,
disorientated. “They brought me a chair, I had a drink of
water and I said: ‘Come on, let’s finish it.’
It was a matinée and I agreed to see a doctor between houses.”
This jolly the-show-must-go-on account of what must have been
a frightening and embarrassing ordeal is characteristic. “Well,
I amjolly. I’m British,” says Sir Roger, a Unicef
goodwill ambassador. “I have an exceedingly stiff upper
lip.You can’t fool around with Bond, you know,” he
says, this time with irony.
“After the show, these two giant paramedics came into the
dressing room and starting shoving tubes into my arms and giving
me oxygen. I was still in costume when I went to the ER. The doctors
were running around, phoning my cardiologist in California –
like most film actors, I’d had to have one for medical checks
before shooting starts – and he said I need to have a pacemaker
put in, now. Then I thought: ‘Oh dear, this is rather serious.’
I knew my blood pressure was high, and you don’t get to
my age (80) without something that needs watching. If I had known
how serious it was before this happened, I would have probably
had another blackout and cardiac arrest from fear,” he jokes.
This is an allusion to a self-confessed, and possibly exaggerated,
hypochondria. He says it began after a childhood bout of suspected
appendicitis (it turned out to be constipation) exposed him to
seriously ill children in hospital. But since then, he’s
mostly enjoyed good health, which is why the fainting came as
such a shock.
Apart from a bout of shingles during the filming of The Spy Who
Loved Me, which laid him low for a few days, Sir Roger cannot
recall a time when he missed work because of illness. In fact,
even when he was about to be wheeled into surgery for his pacemaker
operation, he was “working” the operating room, chatting
to the surgeon about a fundraising gala he was hosting for Unicef.
“I did the pitch and it worked because when I was about
to leave the hospital the cardiologist gave me a cheque for $10,000
(£5,000) for Unicef,” he chuckles, adding: “He
told me he was more used to handing out bills after operations
Sir Roger plays down the emotional impact of the medical emergency.
But he admits it was a wake-up call that illness wasn’t
just something that happened to other people. “We all believe
that we are immortal, that someone else is going to get hit by
the No 77 bus. It was only seeing everybody running around the
hospital that made me think, ‘this is more than I thought
it was’. I had the pacemaker fitted and within a couple
of days I was making a presentation for Unicef,” he says.
“I was lucky.I was very fortunate. I happened to be in New
York, getting the right treatment.”
He stresses that not everyone is so lucky. As a goodwill ambassador,
he is very aware of those less fortunate than himself. “We
are all lucky to be born into an affluent society, to be healthy,
to be able to get medical attention. If you’ve seen a mother
who has had to carry a sick child for miles through the heat to
get to a medical centre where there might not be a doctor. . .
Now he has become a patron of Stars (Syncope Trust and Reflex
Anoxic Seizures), the UK charity supporting people who have blackouts,
who asked for his support after reading about his nasty turn on
“I moan when I am ill but only let my wife know I am moaning.
That’s what wives are for. You go into the theatre, feel
lousy and start putting on the make-up and that is the beginning
of the adrenalin rush that works for you when you have to appear
on stage and say things. We call it Doctor Make-Up.”
So when you put the make-up on, you are no longer the you who
is ill? “Possibly. I never think of it that way,”
he says. Nor does he think too long and hard about his pacemaker.
“It’s there; it works, despite the secondhand batteries
I got for it. I’m cheap. But it ticks away nicely. My father
had one for 15 years and he said: ‘I don’t think it’s
worth getting a new battery, son’.”
All this dry humour, the stiff upper lip during the health scare.
Does Sir Roger borrow from Bond to get though life’s trials?
“No,” he dead-pans. “He borrows from me.”
Fade to black . . . What exactly is a syncope attack?
Syncope, or fainting, is a brief loss of consciousness caused
by a temporary drop in blood flow to the brain, starving it of
oxygen. Usually, people recover consciousness within minutes after
an attack if they lie down. Raising the legs can help to increase
the blood flow to the brain and speed recovery.
It can be triggered by an abnormal heart rhythm, dehydration,
coughing, getting up too quickly, anaemia, or hyperventilation.
After an attack, the heart rate can quickly return to normal so
getting an explanation can be difficult. Further investigations
for an accurate diagnosis include an electrocardiogram to detect
heart rhythm disorders, or an electro-encephalogram, to detect
abnormal brain activity. Stars, the charity for people with blackouts,
has information on its website www.stars.org.uk.
It also has a questionnaire to help you work out the most likely
cause of a blackout.