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20 November 2019

BBC Radio 4 heads behind the curtain during the early days of the National Theatre

By Antonia Quirke

I once tried to buy Vivien Leigh’s wig at an auction. A bleached, bedraggled do that she’d worn as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and that Laurence Olivier had been meticulous about in the days when they were a vaunted couple. It turns out that he’d overseen the wig’s design for the film.

Such infinite care for the details of Leigh’s success (she won the Best Actress Oscar), and the curdled guilt that Olivier felt over the end of their marriage in 1960, struck a powerful note in the first of three plays about the early days of the National Theatre (19 November, 2.15pm). Robert Glenister was discreetly Olivierish (bar a glorious pronunciation of the word the-AY-ter), and John Heffernan snarky as his artistic adviser, the critic Kenneth Tynan. They wrangled and snapped over the sorts of plays to cherish. “No the-AY-ter can flourish unless there’s an umbilical cord between what is happening on the stage and what is happening outside!” mourned Olivier, backing Tynan’s passion for Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. (“Abortion! Suicide!) Enjoying the work wasn’t really the point. (Actual enjoyment at the theatre being a bonus.) Generally speaking, nobody had fun. “I’ve eaten nothing but sandwiches for a month,” grumbled Olivier.

Whenever Tynan entered a room, we heard the sweet strike of a chain-smoker’s match. There was only vague reference to Tynan’s “complicated” love life, and no mention of his famed devotion to S&M (maybe episode two?) – although there was a nice (and accurate) sense of someone who might, eventually, age into America and booze. Tynan: the perfect example of a brief period when a handful of people in the British arts seemed to know absolutely everything about everything.

Ultimately, mention of “a talented new writer called Tom Stoppard” assured us everything would be OK. But whenever the phone rang it seemed to be bad news about Leigh – at just 53, her health and sanity were fading. Might Olivier pay a visit? Was it too late? Glenister had such remorse in his voice, I admit I shed a tear. But possibly it was the memory of that sorrowful wig. Which, incidentally, the V&A bought. Damn them. 

Drama: The National
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over