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4 October 2022

The cutting wit of Alan Rickman

In the late actor’s diaries, his merciless verdicts on showbiz idiocy are tempered by a deep loyalty and humanity.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When Alan Rickman died of pancreatic cancer in January 2016, the New Yorker ran a cartoon that was widely shared online. Two characters from two of Rickman’s best-known blockbuster films are seated at a bar: a bespectacled Harry Potter and Die Hard’s John McClane, muscles bursting from his tank top. They sombrely raise their glasses. The caption reads: “Here’s to the best damned antagonist a guy could ask for.”

It’s hard to imagine Rickman being flattered by the tribute. Though he played several of cinema’s great baddies – Severus Snape, Hans Gruber, the Sheriff of Nottingham– he detested both twee sentimentalism and typecasting. The late comedian John Sessions recalled that a child once asked Rickman, “Why do you always play villains?” Rickman replied, in his low, languid tone, with barely concealed irritation: “I don’t play villains… I play very interesting people.” In fact, his roles were varied: the charming lost love in Truly Madly Deeply; the stoic hero in Sense & Sensibility; the foolish husband in Love, Actually.

Reflections published after his death by those who knew him – from Neil Kinnock to Helen Mirren – conjure a loyal, sardonically funny and generous friend, unafraid to challenge those he loved. Perhaps this is what made his villainous parts so memorable: you sense his deep voice and penetrating gaze were powered by real intelligence, wry cynicism and a keen bullshit detector.

Rickman’s diaries – which he kept throughout his life and have now been edited by the journalist Alan Taylor – confirm such suspicions. The personality that emerges is clever, driven and sceptical – but kind, too. No entry is long: usually a few lines relating the facts of each day, with a sly observation or an exasperated aside thrown in. Taylor’s footnotes are minimal and, without context, some entries are confusing. But he allows Rickman to speak for himself, without editorialising. Rickman’s diary entries are alternately star-studded and mundane (“Breakfast and a solo-completed crossword. Amazing.”). Although rarely emotionally forthcoming, they are nonetheless revealing.

Rickman was born in Acton in west London. His father died when he was eight, and his mother raised Rickman and his three siblings on a Post Office salary; his upbringing formed what Kinnock described as Rickman’s lifelong “socialist convictions”. He originally worked as a graphic designer, attending Rada in his late twenties. The diaries begin in the summer of 1993, a few years after Die Hard (1988), Truly Madly Deeply (1990) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) made him famous in his forties. He has accepted his success, though it sometimes shocks him (paying a hotel bill, he thinks: “When was the moment crossed over into this territory of signing over this kind of cash”).

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Rickman was, evidently, deeply serious about his work – both as an actor and a director. He commits to projects fully, and is kept up at night worrying about the risk of succumbing to cliché or flimsiness. He turns a great number of roles down: it’s a “no” to Persuasion and to The Madness of King George.

For all his seriousness, he knew how to have fun – here he is, dancing with Emma Thompson, chatting with Kate Moss at an art gallery, drinking champagne on the way to Glyndebourne (“little Olde England still determinedly putting out its collapsible chairs… I kept thinking ‘someone with a machine gun will appear any minute’”). There is a turn-of-the-millennium glamour: lunches at the Ivy and the River Café sat close to Lucian Freud, parties at Ian McKellen’s riverside home.

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And yet Rickman harbours a total disdain for celebrity. He quickly grows frustrated with LA, where he can feel eyes on him always, sizing him up. After the 2008 Baftas he moans, “year after year these events are given embarrassing and engorged prominence. It’s the acting/directing/whatever equivalent of the duck’s neck. Force fed to make foie gras.” The Oscars are “embarrassing and pointless and indulgent”.

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Interviewers are met with derision. He says of one young journalist, “At some time I suppose this girl was at university and full of ambitions.” An invitation to appear on Question Time is “the very definition of ‘you must be joking’” – only topped by one from Celebrity Show Jumping and the offer of a CBE (all are declined.) He has little time for the hypocrisy of the arts: at a Rada council meeting in 2012, he notes dryly the “roomful of white middle class people talking about ‘diversity’”.

Rickman’s film reviews are a particular highlight. Forrest Gump is “horrific”. Of Trainspotting, he writes, “The film is an advert for drugs. A brilliant one.” About a Boy is, “The kind of depressing English film where single mothers and Amnesty workers are ugly people in oversized sweaters.” (He admits, “Mostly, I hate The Full Monty/Billy Elliot/Bend It Like Beckham version of Britain.”) But he loves a great many things too: John Lewis (“a temple to… common sense”) and, most enjoyably, Gogglebox, which he says “makes me love the British”.

He is at his most piercing in the Harry Potter years – Daniel Radcliffe isn’t “really an actor”, “switches off when not speaking” and walks with “the Dan awkward shuffle”. Emma Watson’s “diction is this side of Albania at times”. Helena Bonham Carter appears “cleavage to the winds”. He is frustrated with a tick-box approach to film-making: “Running in, pointing a wand. Expensive Dr Who stuff. Maggie [Smith] and Michael [Gambon] really beginning to tire now – as in join the queue – of this monumental waste of energies.”

You feel he got the measure of everyone. Hugh Grant is “snappy, sharp, acid” and competitive, arriving at parties uninvited. Ewan McGregor is “self-involved to a jaw-dropping degree but like a child, so it’s somehow not repellent”. Kate Winslet is “sweetness and steel”, but “there is never a moment where she finds out anything about her fellow actors”. His friendships span a thrilling mix of circles: he is invited to a premiere with Isabelle Huppert, and sends her off with his old chum, Poirot’s Hugh Fraser. He and his wife host a dinner for Katharine Viner, Ed Miliband and Miranda Richardson, and Rickman is tired and stressed and they eat too late: “As we closed the door… we said with one voice ‘nightmare’.”

Tony Blair appears several times, including at a dinner in Chequers when he was prime minister. (“Real sense of the shiver of history going through the gates.”) The 1997 election is “the Sunniest Day”. He is insightful about the death of Diana, weeks later: “A light has gone out. A legend begins.” Of the 9/11 attacks in the US, he writes: “That plane was like watching a knife go into butter.” Like so many, Rickman becomes gradually disillusioned with Blair. When he resigns in 2007, Rickman notes, “he could have saved himself a great deal of time by just reprinting the lyrics to ‘My Way’”. During the 2008 London mayoral election, “anti-Boris Johnson abuse falls from my lips”. When Barack Obama is elected, Rickman is thrilled that “52 per cent of the US had a supreme act of imagination”.

He saves a special mix of affection and irritation for his oldest friends, who are often women. Ruby Wax features most often: coming to him for advice; receiving him at her place “in her pyjamas with hair full of wet dye and silver foil”. Of her interview with Madonna, he writes: “But who’s doing all the talking? Guess.” Later, Wax “fesses that she’s doing Celebrity Show Jumping. Plus ça change.” But he marvels at the charm of “Wax en famille”: “Ruby sits laughing amidst it all – a great advert for Prozac.” Emma Thompson is “schoolmarming” and “likes to be the Boss”, though he loves her “nattering (the perfect word and she’s easy, warm and lovable with it)”. When Rickman is dying, she brings cushions and a lamp to his hospital room. Fiona Shaw is “one great Yes to life”.

When his friend Natasha Richardson dies in a skiing accident in 2009, he is bereft. He sees her lying in her coffin: “She looks like something from a shop window – incredibly shiny, hard and made-up.” Reading Antonia Fraser’s book about Harold Pinter, he notes “she calls her diary her friend. Mine or my relationship with it is often more resentful. A pity and wrong. It would have been great to find something specific and personal [in it] about Tash…” This is one of the few times he breaks the diary’s fourth wall – another is after his mother died in 1997. “Writing in retrospect… I have tried to rehearse the inside of my head for months now and as I write this I don’t know how much I have accepted.”

And then there is Rima Horton, his partner of more than 40 years, whom he met as a teenager. Reading Simon Gray’s diaries, he notes they are “suffused with his love for his wife, largely because he mentions her only glancingly”. Rickman, too, mentions Rima sparingly, with something like relief and gratitude: “Rima, blessedly and unsentimentally, with me.” When he is diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, he writes: “Thank God for the one loving constant.”

In April 1994 Rickman and Shaw attended the Tate’s Picasso exhibition. The pair walked around in awe, “ashamed of our little lives and minute aspirations”. Rickman was struck by Picasso’s “endless invention, humanity, passion”. One imagines him pausing, reading back what he has just written. “On the page those are just words – in the exhibition rooms they are all tangible.” So much of Rickman’s character as it was preserved on screen cannot be captured in words – his unmistakable voice, his towering presence and charisma. But on the page, six years after his death, new parts of him can be found.

Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries
Edited by Alan Taylor
Canongate, 496pp, £25

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!