Brief Encounters

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Gielgud's Letters edited by Richard Mangan
    Weidenfeld, 564 pp, £20.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 297 82989 0
  • Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave by Alan Strachan
    Weidenfeld, 484 pp, £25.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 297 60764 2

Norman Tebbit announced the other day that Tony Blair’s government had made both obesity and Aids in this country much worse by doing ‘everything it can to promote buggery’. Aside from anything else, this comment might cause us to reflect (buggerishly) on the England beloved of bigots like Tebbit and to see it as a land not only of warm beer and cricket on the village green, but also, more significantly, of generations of excellent buggers performing on radio, stage and television, warming the cockles of English hearts and occasionally laying down their trousers in pursuit of their genius.

Poofterism has a very grand tradition in England, and though the subject failed to catch the attention of George Orwell, it might have been a nice thing if it had, given its place in England’s emotional life at every level and in every class. Orwell was an old Etonian, so he knew all about that, but he also spent a certain amount of time in the vicinity of Wigan Pier, where a succession of drag artists have kept working-class audiences howling into their tumblers for years. To someone like me who grew up thinking Kenneth Williams was the perfect English gentleman (and imagining Russell Harty and Lily Savage to be the perfect Northern blokes), the words of Norman Tebbit are not just mad in the way you’d expect from him, but also profoundly at odds with something outrageously British. People have been paid to camp it up in this country since the time of Blondel, which might explain why all the great institutions – the Royals, the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Church of England – would be as empty as Tebbit’s head if the gay players were suddenly sent to Paris to live out their afternoons cackling and drinking absinthe, a fate, one suspects, very much worse than death in the mind of the ageing Eurosceptic Tory.

We know who John Gielgud was – the greatest English speaker of his generation, the lyre of English verse – but his letters tell a story of who he was underneath all that, or perhaps because of being all that. At 23, we find him writing to his mother from Newcastle about ‘the physical perfection of our British workmen’, before developing the particular snobbery of the English theatre that is forever struggling to keep its place a few feet above the heaving scum on the other side of the footlights. The story told by his letters has to do with a courageous and petted individuality set against the demands of the common throng. His mother taught him well, and for her trouble she got a John quite comically aristocratic, always about the business of raising himself and hiding himself, and, from a young age, brilliantly observing Britain from the top of his nose and the summit of Parnassus. From Blackpool in 1942:

The best thing about this place is the potted shrimps one can buy for succour between performances! Not really a holiday attraction, of course, and the wonder is that as many people (hideous and common as they all seem to be) come in at all. They are obviously impressed and possibly edified in their moronic Lancashire way, but it’s not much fun.

And from Glasgow: ‘Here it is Holiday Week – half the shops shut, no drink left anywhere and vast crowds of hideous people thronging the streets and bus queues.’ There’s an old-fashioned, white-gloved, Bowes-Lyon kind of superiority to all this, and reading Gielgud’s letters makes you realise how theatrical the business of class often is in this country.

It is of course perfectly English to hate people at bus stops, but also English to romanticise them, and for actors to romance them, too, when chance allows. Gielgud emerges from his own correspondence as an audience in thrall to the working-out of his own desires: you smell the resin of the rehearsal studio and the bacon on the stairs of the bed and breakfasts, but also the whiff of a narcissistic captivity that only his acting talent can make bearable and eventually triumphant. Gielgud is fascinating thanks to his ability to be himself in never quite being himself: he has the arch-thesp’s ability to recognise the vitality that can exist in the character of another, hiding himself among thousands of evenings and matinees of Hamlets and Henrys, but also finding a version of himself in the act of performance and the rigours of success. Gielgud could play the part of the great actor better than any other role: he had worked for that, and his letters show a wonderful man in tandem, loving his own enlargement but also the massive opportunities it could afford for the diminishment of those less fortunate at the business of being themselves than he was. If the homosexual tendency in English art could be understood to be nothing more threatening than a complication of selfhood, then Gielgud – with his busy mother, his important sensitivities, his mimetic impulse and his constantly imaginative resentments – might be taken for a modern hero of a culture whose health we now take for granted.

In later years Gielgud was famous for the brio he could demonstrate when getting things wrong, but he has plenty of brio when getting things right as well. ‘I did meet Lord Alfred Douglas on two occasions,’ he writes in 1994:

He came to see me in my dressing-room after a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest during the early years of the war, but I was very disappointed, finding him quite without charm – and when I asked him to give me some details about the way the play had originally been produced and acted, he merely insisted that most of the best lines in it were his, and that he had stood over Wilde when he was writing it.

Of course Douglas had quite lost his looks and I thought that must have been a great tragedy for him.

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