The Last of the Titans

Evening Standard   5 September 1991

Olivier was the more powerful actor, says Sir John Gielgud. ‘I was always a little afraid of him.’ In his 88 th year, the last in a great line of actor laddies gives a revelatory interview to MICHAEL ARDITTI

Sir John Gielgud has recently recorded the role of God for a Radio Four dramatisation of Genesis. Although in the circumstances it may be presumptuous to speak of casting made in Heaven, it’s impossible to think of anyone else who better fits the bill. And in searching for an English Eden, it would be hard to find anywhere more perfect than the formal Buckinghamshire gardens where I visited him last week.

At the age of eighty-seven Sir John remains as busy as ever. Besides his radio apotheosis, he has just been awarded his first Emmy for his performance in John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease; his fascinating collections of ruminations on Shakespeare: Shakespeare – Hit or Miss, is about to be published; and his lifelong dream of filming The Tempest has finally been realised in Prospero’s Books.

This collaboration with Peter Greenaway is yet another example of his openness to experiment. Although he is often seen as the epitome of traditionalism and the last of the great ‘actor laddies’, in fact he has been an innovator all his life, from his first great success at the Old Vic which led to young actors being given their chances in major roles – ‘It was not thought seemly in Edwardian days. You had to win your spurs in smaller parts and played leading ones once you were your own manager and middle-aged’ – to his classical seasons in the West End which paved the way for the subsidised companies of today.

In later years he has continued to expand his range in the work of major contemporary writers such as Pinter, Bond and Storey, while showing a commendable ability to guy his own image – and far more effectively than any Spitting Image – in Charles Wood’s Veterans. In the classics too he literally slid onto the Chichester stage in Robin Phillips’ nursery production of Caesar and Cleopatra – ‘all that nonsense with beachballs’ – where, despite a lack of sympathy with the concept, he remained committed to the performance. Arid now he has repeated his definitive Prospero in one of the most innovative Shakespearian films ever made.

It is also by far the bawdiest. Greenway surrounds Sir John with a more varied display of genitalia than even in the recent film Dick. in fact he appears nude himself in the early scenes, calling to mind his somewhat tetchy remark to John Mortimer: ‘Tynan said I only had two gestures, the left hand up, the right hand up. What did he want me to do, bring out my prick?’ Well at the grand old age of eighty-seven Sir John does that too.

But above all he employs that voice, which Olivier once described as ‘the voice that wooed the world’ and Judi Dench as reciting a sonnet as though ‘it had been gift-wrapped at Fortnum’s.’ Olivier’s own Shakespearian swansong, the small- screen King Lear, was marred by vocal debility, but Gielgud retains a range and a virility, which makes him a convincing father to Miranda, as well as, in Greenaway’s happy conceit, Ferdinand, Caliban, Ariel and Miranda herself.

It is a voice which has defined English verse-speaking for seventy years since his one-line debut as the Herald in Henry V at the Old Vie ~ ‘Here is the number of the slaughter’d French’. And yet success has entailed its share of strain. I reminded him of the performance of King Lear in the early fifties when just as he was lifting Peggy Ashcroft as the dead Cordelia, he was heard to remark: ‘Oh God, I wish I’d never taken up the bloody classics’.

So could he ever have imagined becoming another sort of actor – a matinee idol like Gerald du Maurier? ‘Well I was certainly rather piqued that I wasn’t getting a West End salary. And I wanted to be a star – to have my name in lights – long before I wanted to be a good actor. But I tried to vary the parts I played and not just to play ones in which I could explore my own personality. The moment I played a character outside myself, the exhibitionistic side was redirected. Leon Quartermaine, Edith Evans, Ralph and Peggy always shunned the exhibitionistic side of themselves, which I’m afraid to say I rather enjoyed.’

That list of names is a potent reminder that Sir John has always been a leading member of the theatrical aristocracy, first through his Terry forebears and then from his own long ascendancy. There have been times of greater glory and times of disfavour. There has was even a voluntary abdication after the war when Olivier and Richardson proved to be successful rivals to his own company at the Haymarket: ‘That was the moment I began to yield my place to Olivier, which I hope I did gracefully. I always considered him to be a more powerful actor than me – as well as being so much better at all the tedious administration.’

‘He was so brave towards the end. After his death I wrote to Joan telling her that I regretted not having seen him so much in the final years; but I hadn’t wanted to burden him with my wellness when he was so ill. The truth was that I was always a little afraid of him. And she wrote back that he was always rather afraid of me.’ He allowed himself a contemplative silence, before adding that he hadn’t even known associates such as Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Ralph Richardson intimately. ‘That’s a feature of the theatre. We keep each other slightly at arm’s length, we need our defences to do our work.’

Sir John is the last of those theatrical titans left. A few years ago, when the memorial services for Marie Rambert and Kenneth More followed one another rather rapidly, he was heard to remark: ‘I sometimes feel as if I may as well stay on for my own. ‘ Happily that has proved quite unnecessary – ‘I’m very resilient. Although the loss of so many friends and people dying and incapacitated depress me a great deal.’

His single-minded passion for the theatre is no longer so intense. Of all contemporary actors he reserves his greatest praise for Judi Dench: ‘ Judi’s truly extraordinary. I admire her very much.’ He is however unlikely to return to the stage: ‘Too many farewells can be embarrassing.’ Although his artistry remains as great as ever: ‘I feel I can play anything now – but I don’t want to in the same way. I’m curiously detached from the theatre, which was always my dream home.’

He no longer enjoys large social occasions: ‘I had wonderful dinners at the Garrick for my seventieth and eightieth birthdays. But I’m more and more reluctant to turn up for gatherings of more than a few people. I’m increasingly intolerant of small talk. So I spend my time reminiscing, reading all my old books, playing records. I like being by myself for a certain amount of time every day; although I’m terrified of comparative idleness: having too much time to despair about the state of the world.’

He enjoys reading new biographies ‘although it’s odd to find out how many people one’s known and been a part of their lives. And then there are the meetings one missed – such as Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence and Diaghilev through Ottoline Morell and Margot Oxford. Lady Astor once invited me to visit Shaw when he was over ninety. I longed to talk to him about Ellen Terry, but I was worried how to break the ice. Besides there was the prospect of two hours in a car – each way! – with Lady Astor who was a highly formidable lady.’

A biography he has recently finished is that of EF Benson, and he admires the way that Benson, like Ellen Terry and Irving, was perspicacious enough to destroy all his correspondence so that his personal life remains a matter of conjecture. Whereas Daphne du Maurier ‘who took such pains to preserve her privacy is now the subject of scandal, which is so embarrassing for her family.’ But then of all the developments in contemporary life, it is this disregard for privacy which most distresses him.

‘One of the great difficulties of the modern world is that people want to intrude in the private life of celebrities. One has to be oneself all the time and not just on stage.’ He finds it all distinctly distasteful. ‘After Arthur, which had such world-wide publicity, they started five fan clubs for me in Germany. When I went to Berlin to do a few months filming, people laid in wait outside the hotel. I was pursued throughout the city. It was all most strange. ‘

Nor does he enjoy the process of having to sell his work and, while unfailing courteous, he clearly doesn’t relish giving interviews. ‘One’s terrified of becoming a club bore and trotting out the same old stories. Besides I’m sick of my own prattle. I refused to do Wogan and all that rubbish. We know Nell Gwynn sold oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre, but once she became the King’s mistress she no longer had to. Yet look at me!

He remains a man of his time. And while in recent years he has bravely acknowledged his own sexuality, he regrets the end of the old-fashioned code of reticence. ‘I’m a bit embarrassed by McKellen who keeps on asking me to join him in all sorts of demonstrations. It exploits that exhibitionistic side of one which should be kept for one’s acting.’

And when all else is done, it is his acting which will endure – in description, on screen and above all in the memory. I ask him if there were any part, he’d have liked to have played … ‘Iago: especially when I made such a frightful hash of Othello.’ But then he has found success and failure equally stimulating, and trusts that something can be learnt from both: ‘I was very gratified when Peter Brook told me that the Japanese Lear in which I’d been so unhappy had been the starting point for his own successful production.’

His chief regret in life is that he wasn’t called up in the war. ‘Because however bad a soldier I might have been, it would have been awfully good for me to have been with the man in the street. Good for my work too. I haven’t led a very wide life. It’s a rather childish, selfish, self-centred job.’ I make to demur; Sir John simply smiles.

In the final reckoning he would most like to be remembered as an influence. ‘Peggy’s greatest gift was her influence on a company. People who behaved badly suddenly behaved better in her presence … And in Ellen Terry’s words I hope I’ve always been a useful actor.’ Although when the history of the twentieth century theatre comes to be written, it is unlikely they will discover any more essential one.