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