Book Review: John Gielgud

By Peter Wells

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John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star by Jonathan Croall
Allen & Unwin hardback $89.99

Sir John Gielgud was committed to his craft. Photo / 	Royalty Free
Sir John Gielgud was committed to his craft. Photo / Royalty Free

This was an unexpectedly enjoyable book to read. Why unexpected? Well, the luvvie biography is a treacherous sea to navigate with vast waves of sentiment whipped up amid a cloying miasma of legend and piffle. Reality is usually the first victim, followed sharply by historical truth.

But Jonathan Croall has had two bites of the cherry. This is his second book on Gielgud and astonishingly, he found enough new to say to create a vast tome, weighing in at 720 pages (including footnotes). But once embarked, I found Croall a good navigator through the curious narrative of Gielgud's life.

Most people probably know Gielgud today - if at all - from his later films. The butler in Arthur, which a recent remake couldn't surpass, Providence with Dirk Bogarde and memorably as Prospero in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books.

My mental image of him was of a rather sour, prissy man with a velvet voice. I knew he was gay. Croall manages to round out his portrait with nuance, new information and a gusto that drives the narrative.

Born into the Terry acting family, Gielgud was generally regarded as the leading Shakespearean actor in the world by the 1930s.

Olivier came along and gazumped him but Gielgud managed to create a kind of ensemble of actors which presaged the National Theatre. He was knighted in 1953 and then, scandalously, was arrested in a public toilet. Olivier, his biggest rival, recommended Gielgud lie low for the odd decade. Vivien Leigh, feisty as Scarlett but more foulmouthed, championed his immediate return to the stage. She understood he had to hold his nerve or it would be lost forever.

His audience forgave him, remembering decades of magical performances through slump, blitz and war.

But the post-war world found him beached. The Daily Mail wrote of him: "This great actor's search has reached the stage of desperation. Next week: The Telephone Directory." He couldn't make the jump to the angry young playwrights and his day seemed over. (It was at this time he came to New Zealand with a one-man show, in which he memorably played various Shakespearean roles.)

Then, astonishingly, in a life of comebacks, he made the leap into contemporary theatre and film. It is a heartening story, partly because of Gielgud's own modesty and charm.

Dame Judi Dench talks of him introducing her to a room of people when he was the toast of New York, saying they had "worked together" at the Old Vic. He did not add she had a bit part when he was the star.

He had a sharp tongue and he was infamous for his gaffes. Unknowingly, he bumbled his way into people's sore spots, partly through malice, partly sheer emotional blindness, but most people seemed to forgive him.

But the larger story of a man with a mercurial talent, utterly committed to his craft, alive to instinct and nuance with a magical quota of talent, is well told.

Croall has a deft ability to conjure up bit-players in a few pithy lines. Marie Tempest, aged 75 and at the end of her career, is evoked as "a short and dumpy actress with exquisite diction and timing [but she was] also a martinet, a bully and a supreme egoist".

I passed many a winter night enlivened by the company of this book. One cannot say this of many luvvie biographies but this one deserves an encore.

Peter Wells is a Hawkes Bay-based writer.

- NZ Herald

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