During my childhood in England, Christmas was never complete without watching a James Bond movie. Despite having the misfortune of growing up during the Roger Moore years, I was never put off by his acting, which was more wooden than the Trojan Horse: once the first bars of Monty Norman’s theme tune rang out, the holidays really got under way.
The rights to the Bond films were far too expensive for Greek state TV in the 1980s, so rather than watching 007 in action during Christmas in Athens, I spent my time acquainting myself with the wonders of Agent 000, as played by the exceptional Greek actor Thanasis Veggos. While Moore provided the thrills and spills, Veggos supplied the mirth and laughter in his surreal send-up of spy movies.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Veggos and his films, of which there have been more than 100. So it seemed symbolic that just a few days before this Christmas, Veggos, now aged 83, should enter the hospital for brain surgery for the second time in a year. It wasn’t just poignant on a personal level; Veggos’s frailty was a reminder of how Greek society’s health has deteriorated since the 1950s, when he made his acting debut, and how the country now also finds itself in intensive care.
What attracted me to Veggos as a child was his humor. At first it was the slapstick, farcical element to his acting, but gradually I began to appreciate the ability of his downtrodden and hard-on-their-luck characters to laugh at their predicament and at the absurdity of others who were more fortunate. I know quite a few people who have never taken to Veggos and his films, dismissing him as the Keystone Kop of Greek cinema, but this does him a great disservice. It fails to take into account the pathos of his performances, his ability to balance humor with sadness and even combine the two in moments of cinematic genius. In this respect, he was more Charlie Chaplin than Keystone Kop.
His adeptness at both comedy and drama gave Veggos unique respect among both his peers and audiences. His ability to embody the joys and fears of working-class Greeks, who in the 50s, 60s and 70s were the bulk of the population, made him a real everyman, a face and voice that everyone could identify and sympathize with. In his films, he represented a generation that didn’t have much but didn’t need much either. Contentment came from being respected by the people around you and being able to earn an honest living. His life reflected those of people who survived the hardship of war, the poverty of economic collapse and the brutishness of political intolerance. Veggos experienced all of these, as his father, a war hero, lost his job in the public sector because of his political beliefs. Veggos spent two years exiled on Makronissos for his own leftist political leanings. There, he met director Nikos Koundouros, who cast him in his 1954 film “The Magic City” (Magiki polis), launching the actor’s on-screen career.
Both on and off set, Veggos embodied the values of a people that knew what hardship meant. A couple of years ago, when picking up an award, he tearfully remembered how hard he had worked to survive (saying literally in Greek, “I had to row furiously”). It seems fitting that now he no longer has the strength to pull those oars, the society around him has also become weak, sapped of its energy and the moral underpinnings that were its life force. The weather-beaten faces and calloused hands of those challenging times have been replaced by the moisturized skin and expanding waistlines that came with economic prosperity and political stability.
In many of his films, Veggos rode around on Vespa scooters, addressing strangers as “My good man” (Kale mou anthrope), but by the 90s, when he was limited to cameos, Greeks had begun driving SUVs and blanking even their neighbors. Whereas decency and togetherness were once the pillars supporting each community, avarice and individuality became the buzzwords of the last couple of decades. Whereas humor was once derived from laughing at one’s own misfortune, more recently laughter was generated by the weakness of others – until the Greeks and their crisis became the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Then, the realization set in that over the years the country had lost much more than the billions needed to cover its deficit.
The transformation of Greek society from one driven by a working class that knew how to live within its means to one driven by a middle class for whom the ends justified the means is where the causes of many of today’s problems lie. It’s during this time that aspiration became linked to material possessions rather than personal fulfillment, it’s when owning a home became more important than making one and when Greeks learned to live off credit rather than earn it. This change in mind-set is one of the main reasons that all kinds of shady political and business practices became not only legitimized but encouraged. This gave to the neo-Greek who obliterated everything of value from his previous life his pursuit of what he thought would be a more precious one.
Businessmen who believed they would be safe in palaces built by easy money realize now that they were living in castles made of sand. Unionists who took it upon themselves to safeguard the benefits of the few now face the reality that they did a disservice to the many. Civil servants who ensconsed themselves in the public sector now discover that it’s not such a comfortable place to be. Self-employed professionals who refused to issue receipts or dodged their taxes are confronted with the cost of their actions. Politicians who gave the people what they wanted rather than what the country needed now find themselves exposed to the wrath of those whose interests they betrayed. As Veggos fights to recover after intensive care, these are just some of the Greeks picking up the pieces of their shattered illusions. The one thing that remains constant, however, is that those who worked hard and honestly continue to carry the country’s burden.
In one of his best-known movies, “The Man Who Ran a Lot,” Veggos approaches a man who has been stood up by his lover for more than an hour in the hope of selling him a watch. “It’s perfect for troubled lovers,” he says. “It’s always half an hour slow just to console you.” For Greece, looking back can bring only scant consolation: The values that Veggos and his like stood for have long disappeared. The country’s only hope is that time will also overtake those that replaced them.