John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star

It's no accident that the generation born just after the turn of the 20th century produced the last and most influential of the great actor/ managers. Ralph Richardson was born in 1902, John Gielgud in 1904 and Laurence Olivier in 1907. Theirs was a lucky generation, too young to have their lives destroyed by the First World War and too old to have their youth blighted by the Second. They rode their luck, and we are still reaping the benefits. Without their vision, the National Theatre might not have been built just before Thatcherism arrived to snuff out the idea that the state could produce anything worthwhile.

Of the three, most people now would say that Olivier, the National's first director, was the greatest, yet it was not always so. Richardson was the leading figure, with Olivier, in the postwar seasons at the Old Vic that laid the ground for the National Theatre. And up until the mid-1940s it was Gielgud, not Olivier, who was seen as the pre-eminent actor/manager of his generation.

All three were wonderful craftsmen. It was Olivier's drive and political skill that enabled him to edge into the lead. Olivier knew a trend when he saw one. He rode the crest of the new wave, changing direction in 1957 to go to the avant-garde Royal Court Theatre and play the top role in The Entertainer, the new play by the young John Osborne. Gielgud did not climb aboard until many years later, entrancing a new generation in 1968 as Alan Bennett's backward-looking headmaster in Forty Years On.

Jonathan Croall seeks to re-enthrone Gielgud, and at least partly succeeds. Few biographers get a second chance at one subject, but Croall, after publishing Gielgud: a Theatrical Life shortly after the actor's death in 2000, was handed hundreds more letters and offered interviews with people who had not spoken before. He has now produced a huge new over­view that will surely become definitive.

The book is not a hagiography, however, as Croall has a sharp eye for his subject's faults and weaknesses. Of these, the best known is his tendency to say appallingly rude things. A celebrated example is his remark, at lunch in the Ivy, as a man passed his table: "Thank God he didn't stop - he's a bigger bore than Eddie Knoblock." Then, remembering the identity of his lunch companion: "Oh, not you, Eddie."

Croall's contacts have enabled him to unearth many equally glorious faux pas. Directing Much Ado About Nothing, he called out in rehearsal: "You, girl, move to the right. No, no, not you. The ugly one with the big nose." This was Jill Bennett, who dined out on the story. He once called across a crowded dressing room to the actress Phyllis Calvert: "Goodbye, Phyllis. So glad the hysterectomy went well."

Yet Gielgud was not unkind or cruel. He was simply largely unaware of other people. Croall quotes Alan Bennett: his weakness as an actor was a sort of gentility. He didn't have the animal vitality of Olivier and Richardson.

But what stopped him having the influence of Olivier was not his faults or his weaknesses. It was partly happenstance - he could have been working with Richardson at the Old Vic in the 1940s, and Croall thinks that team could have created the National Theatre earlier. It was partly a contempt for politics. "I don't like Ramsay MacDonald's face. Is he a good prime minister?" he once asked a friend. On important things, however, he knew where he stood: he was on Equity's executive committee and defended the union's closed-shop policy.

Far, far more than that, it was because he was gay when homosexuality was illegal. That's why he was knighted later than Olivier and Richardson; and then it almost ended his career when, in the early 1950s, the police started setting traps to catch gay men, and caught Gielgud.

An especially stupid Conservative peer, Earl Winterton, said that Gielgud should be stripped of his new knighthood and horsewhipped in the street. Olivier thought he should not open in his latest production, at the Haymarket. The conductor Malcolm Sargent came backstage to see Sybil Thorndike but refused to meet her co-star: "I don't think I can; you see, I mix with royalty." But the audience cheered Gielgud. His public loved him, and so does the author of this thoroughly readable biography. l

Francis Beckett's most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?" (Biteback, £12.99)

John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star
Jonathan Croall
Methuen Drama, 736pp, £30

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide