One mid-morning in the mid-Fifties, I came across Ken Tynan on Fleet Street, hurrying towards the Evening Standard offices, then around the corner in Shoe Lane. I tagged along as he explained, between puffs, that there had been an unfortunate misprint in a piece he had written about Orson Welles. Luckily, he had spotted this in the first edition and now was on his way to ensure it was corrected for the rest of the day’s run. While he was inside, I bought the paper and read his article in the pub over the way. I could not see the error that so agitated him. It seemed a brilliant sketch, containing one phrase I particularly admired, envied even. When Ken returned, he stabbed his finger at the page. ‘That’s it! What I wrote was: “Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of poetry.” ’ I could not bring myself to tell him that the compositor’s slip had been, for me, the most penetrating insight in the essay. In the first edition, it had read: ‘Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of perjury.’
I became conscious of Orson Welles when I was knocked out by Citizen Kane in a great hangar of a Sunderland cinema in 1941. I stayed on to see it round again, partly because I was too overcome to move, partly because I needed a second chance to eavesdrop on all that overlapping dialogue, much of it drowned out by the rattle and thump of tipped-up seats as the audience escaped. Next time it was much quieter on my side of the screen. Nobody came at all. Yet this was the most impressive showing of any film I can ever remember. I was totally alone, centre seat five rows back, in an auditorium that could have accommodated a touring version of the Nuremberg Rally. Behind me echoed emptily the now forgotten hierarchy of centre stalls, back stalls, grand circle, upper circle and balcony. To left and right, glossy wooden backs and arms that ought to have been blotted out by sitting customers reflected a frieze of silvery, dancing ghost images. There was nothing between me, the 15-year-old schoolboy, and Welles and Co, the Great Orsino – at 25 already an aging prodigy, the Mozart of celluloid, putting himself and his troupe through the hoops with self-conscious bravado. He irradiated the entire project with a glancing mockery that might have reminded a bookish provincial lad of Don Juan or the Dunciad, but of nothing he had previously encountered, or expected, in the cinema.
At least where I lived, these were the days when art – that is, something shaped, polished, individual, original, impassioned but controlled, encompassing ideas and emotions – was found on film only in certain carefully labelled and segregated cans. It might arrive in italics, guaranteed foreign, with subtitles, all the more picturesque for our not understanding the words, the acting all the more physical for our missing the nuances of speech. And it was only available on a once-a-quarter visit to the metropolis (Newcastle). Otherwise, among the regional intelligentsia (mainly educationalists of some sort), ‘the pictures’ were regarded as culturally respectable only when based on some classic text, preferably Shakespeare; when involving some OK modern author, H.G. Wells, Maugham, Greene, Huxley or the like; when starring players famous in the legitimate theatre, Olivier, Richardson, Laughton: or when wrapped in a European reputation, such as Garbo’s or Dietrich’s.
Citizen Kane may not have been the first film to break through this cloying curtain of snobbery, self-satisfaction and ignorant parochialism, but never had an American movie so brashly demonstrated that Hollywood could now no longer be a dirty word. Here at last was the cinematic equivalent of an author like Hemingway, proclaiming in what we thought a very ‘Yankee’ fashion the therapeutic value of vitality, impudence, rhetoric and high spirits. ‘Perjury’ in those days would not have been accepted as an improvement on ‘poetry’. Apart from garbled rumours about an all-black Macbeth in Harlem, and a documentary version of Wells’s War of the Worlds which panicked the US Eastern seaboard, this film was all we knew of him, and it hit us out of the blue. But even then, I recall my friends and I detecting a whiff of the brilliant mountebank, a flash of the fairground juggler, the gall of the top-level con-man, the suppressed excitement of the gambler so sure of his luck that he has discarded the aces up his sleeve. We swore allegiance to him all the more willingly because our elders appeared confused, irritated or bored by him, classic reactions of age to the heroes of youth.
Robert Carringer’s sharp-eyed, dispassionate post-mortem on what actually happened in the making of Kane, and Barbara Leaming’s almost embarrassingly intimate monitoring of the variations in the maker’s oft-told tales during what turned out to be the last five years of Welles’s life, finally extinguish the myth that the newly-made master-piece was an instant and complete flop. It had many, indeed mainly, enthusiastic, perceptive, admiring reviews when first press-shown. The box-office in the big cities was good without being sensational. It was among country audiences that it failed to engage enough people, becoming for a while the common man’s synonym for highbrow gibberish. What is more interesting is the way it vanished from the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world for almost a decade and a half. Carringer, checking the cinema announcements in the New Yorker from January 1950 to February 1956, could not find a single screening of Kane. In 1952 when Sight and Sound published a poll of leading critics for the best films of all time, it was not in the first ten. (Bicycle Thieves was top.) By 1962, Kane was number one, and was still there in 1982.
1956 was the year the tide turned. Then Citizen Kane became available on TV, and was re-released in the cinema to coincide with Welles’s return to the Broadway stage as King Lear. In America especially, the era of the art-house, the film-society circuit, film magazines and film schools began. Andrew Sarris launched the cult of the auteur. His key thesis was Citizen Kane: The American Baroque, in which he described Kane as ‘the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since Birth of a Nation’.
If you regarded film as the modern art, and were searching for its Leonardos and Michelangelos, the all-round Renaissance creators, film-makers more famous than their stars, more fascinating than their films, then Orson Welles was your man. He was not only a writer-director, he was a star, and not only in his own films. Acting for other directors, he often seemed to insinuate himself, at least in spirit, behind the camera, so that something of his style soaked onto the celluloid whenever he appeared. He was not only his own star, he may even have been his own film masterpiece. Every time I see Citizen Kane, I sense how it appears to fit his own career more and more closely, as though by some occult intelligence he had foreseen the pattern of the future. Did he also die with a ‘Rosebud’ on his lips?
That seems unlikely, if Ms Leaming’s revelation of the secret behind the secret is correct. Even those who have never seen the film will know that ‘Rosebud’ was Kane’s famous last word, and one of the tasks of the questor, piecing together the past as in a Medieval romance, was to find its meaning. He never does. The people inside the story are left baffled while we, the audience, share it with the film-maker. I have not myself ever been entirely satisfied with the explanation that it was what he called his childhood sledge.
This too much resembled the familiar Philistine gibe of the time that Freud was the sort of mind-doctor who would prove that you had been in love with your rocking-horse. Perhaps Welles intended such a joke. I could believe almost anything rather than what Welles advised his biographer was the real joke. He told her something, when and in what terms her otherwise detailed notes of sources do not specify, that more than accounts for the hysterical fury of William Randolph Hearst, seen by almost everybody (including himself) as the original of Kane. Imagine sitting through the fictional-factual story of your life waiting to see if the film will tell the world that you died pronouncing the pet name you used for your mistress’s genital lips. Even worse, perhaps, finding that at the last possible second it has been metamorphosed into a child’s toy.
Such was Welles’s claim, printed so far as I know for the first time in Barbara Leaming’s biography. But who would be able to prove or disprove the story? Welles’s first wife, Virginia, later married Charles Lederer, the scriptwriter nephew of the mistress, Marion Davies. The couple spent a lot of time at Hearst’s castle, San Simeon. Herman Mankiewicz, who shared the script credit on Kane (rightly, according to both books), and who so feared that Welles would try to deprive him of this (wrongly, according to Ms Leaming) that he asserted it was all his own work (wrongly, according to both), was a caustic and talkative figure. Part of his case that he was the only one with sufficient inside knowledge of Hearst depended on being able to show that he had been the tycoon’s guest. He had observed Marion, like Susan in the film, knocking back the booze and fiddling with a giant jigsaw puzzle, and had even taken part in those elaborate safari picnics. None of these people, nor anyone else, no letters or diaries or memoirs, make any mention of this meaning for Rosebud – except Welles, almost forty-five years later.
It sounds very like an example of history passing through the hands of Mr Welles and acquiring its touch of perjury. As time goes by, the clues in Kane become projected in larger and larger close-up. So many of the roles he chooses, typecasting himself for lavishly paid cameos in others’ films, take on the character of the hoaxer and the trickster – Cagliostro, Cesare Borgia, the Great Orsino, Harry Lime, Mr Arkadin, Hank Quinlan. Quite often he is a magician, on screen as well as off. In F for Fake, he provides both critique and demonstration of forgery in action, the nature of illusion, the twinning of lies and truth, the original and the copy. He tells us that everything in the first hour is true, counting on us not looking at our watches as he moves into the untrue. Could he have decided that after the first 65 years no man need be on oath to his biographer? I suspect that, encouraged by the luxury of a Boswell in waiting, a Professor of Theatre and Film Studies to whom the past Orson was now more real than he had become to the present Orson, Welles paid off a few old scores. What a revenge on Hearst ... si non e vero. We will all repeat it anyway.
There is a similar sexual revelation, again unsupported and contrary to all other testimony, about someone he fancied had wronged him – Charles Chaplin. Orson’s view was that he had first thought of the comedy about the French lady-killer Landru, a modern Bluebeard, which in 1947 became Monsieur Verdoux. He had already described its essence in 1941: There is one tableau, and it is the key to the whole film. There is Chaplin, dapper and blithe, clipping the hedges, making his hands and the shears dance like sunlight, while out of the chimney in the background pour vast clouds of dense black smoke.’ So he would seem to have a point. The Chaplin tale turns on Chaplin, according to Hollywood folklore the wielder of an enormous member, possessing (in Orson’s eyes) ‘a little peanut’. And it is illumined with an anecdote, told by Chaplin, about losing his erection half-way through seducing the gospel evangelist Aimée Semple McPherson. Only by persuading her to don her wings again, Chaplin goes on, could he get ‘to thumb it in’.
Professor Leaming herself thumbs in an enormous amount of fascinating material – much of it new, not an undue proportion scandalous. Even where she overlaps with Professor Carringer, on the making of Kane, she is able to produce fresh ideas and overlooked evidence. She stresses that Welles was a stage brat, not a movie brat. Indeed, he had spent so little of his youth exposed to the silver screen that the studio boss felt he had to authorise the issue to him of a hand-made catalogue of stills illustrating every known cinematic technique. From these pages, Welles’s thumb pulled out many a plum.
Professor Carringer, however, supplies a great deal of previously unknown detail which must affect all future appreciation of how the images were physically constructed. Many of the most memorable will now be seen to stem not so much from Gregg Toland’s marvellous deep-focus photography as from the dazzling optical tricks performed on celluloid, outside the camera. Yet another glimpse of Welles the conjurer using the quickness of the footage to deceive the eye.
To turn from Welles to Milligan is to experience a distinct drop, a step on the stair that isn’t there. It can hardly be said that Spike Milligan has suffered neglect in his own country. According to the appendices of Pauline Scudamore’s life, he has published 39 books: one play, one novel, two volumes of collected letters, three of poetry, four of autobiography, six for children, 21 of humour. He has been regularly on radio and television since 1947. He has appeared in 28 films and on 78 records, 48 of them LPs. The compliments paid to him have been extravagant and impressive. Michael Foot sees resemblances to both Chaplin and Swift, describing him as ‘a comic genius’. The tribute is topped by Robert Graves, for whom Spike is ‘a great genius’. The Monty Python team are cited as finding him not just the original precursor of their style but a master comedian who was already doing brilliantly what they still only dreamed of attempting. We understand that the other members of the Goons, notably Sellers, Bentine and Secombe, all stars in their own constellations, each grant him precedence inside the show as innovator, inspirer, author and performer. Bernard Levin decrees that Milligan has done for television what Gluck did for opera – whatever that was. I am not much wiser when further on told this was to have ‘added a new dimension’, but apparently it is a Good Thing.
Who would deny such a man the right to a fat, authorised biography, respectful though not sycophantic, written by a so-far-non-professional writer, and friend of the family, as her first book? Surely someone who can be praised in the same breath as Chaplin, Swift, Gluck and Graves will deservedly attract many more lives? I wonder. It seems to me that British popular entertainment regularly follows this same trail. George Formby and the Crazy Gang were huge popular successes, attracted the admiration of Royalty, and even, in the case of the latter, quite a degree of middlebrow intellectual respect. Tommy Handley was also a Royal favourite, the darling of critics, essayists, gossip columnists. The list is easily extended.
The sign of the inexperienced biographer is the tendency to assume that all authentic and authorised material must be equally significant. All five biographies under review fall into this trap occasionally, Ms Scudamore deeper than most. For example, Spike takes two children on holiday to Winchelsea:
One of the places they visited was Hastings Castle. They lived in a rented cottage and were looked after by a kindly Australian woman called Elizabeth Wiltshire. Spike wrote in his diary: ‘She was like a mother to them.’
End of story. No further reference in the book to Hastings, the cottage or Ms Wiltshire.
To be fair to Ms Scudamore, her subject has already creamed off much of the most promising stuff in his seven volumes of reminiscence and correspondence. But it may be that her inexperience results in our being told, not only more than we need to know, but more than he would want us to know. Can either realise what a bleak recital we are given?
I was once present when an unprepossessing, arrogant (and straight) young show-off was introduced to Noël Coward with an aria of praise ending in the proclamation: ‘He is a genius!’ Coward looked him up and down, observing as he turned away: ‘He’d better be.’ Tracking Spike Milligan through his 67 years, we register in the foreground the sunbursts of charm, the bouts of high invention, the impulsive generosity. But we cannot miss the constant groundswell of belittlement of women, his anti-semitism and racist use of ‘nigger’ and ‘wog’, his inability to delegate much except blame. We encounter self-indulgent egotism which permits him to jettison authors’ lines, to ad lib others and to collapse at his own jokes, which rarely knows when to stop, finds it hard to accept collaborators as equals, asks, ‘What did they ever do on their own?’ and insists on the right to drop out, arrive late, take control as it suits him while assuming that he does all the work. It is like a parody of an Orson Welles that never was.
Comedians are outstanding among entertainers for persuading themselves that the art of comedy is nonconformity, rebellion, rejection of conventional values, creative anarchy. Ms Scudamore observes of the first gathering of the Goons that ‘high rank impressed them not at all.’ Spike Milligan is quoted as epitomising his humour as ‘one man shouting gibberish in the face of authority’. It is, however, noticeable that, like almost all other artists in our society, they preserve a discreet appetite for honours and awards, are impressed by top politicians, and are proud of nothing so much as decorous domestic evenings with Royalty. Milligan is no exception, nor, it must be said, was Welles. Spike sets aside his campaign against blood sports to attend Prince Charles’s wedding, while Orson gloats when Princess Margaret in her eagerness to see him cuts Peter Sellers.
But are the rest of us any better? Perhaps the spate of books about, say, the Mitford family is also a symptom of an urge to become vicarious groupies, hobnobbers by proxy among the upper classes. You too can whistle the Music of Time. Is it because the Mitford daughters are so exceptional, or so typical, that there is apparently no end to the public interest? Certainly, there seems to be no end to Mitford anecdotes, many of them of genuinely superior character.
I heard one only last month over lunch with Jessica Mitford – part of a series designated as ‘Sheep Stories’. Several of the sisters, when children, had been encouraged by their mother to adopt orphaned lambs, bottle-feed, nurse and baby-sit them. After a few weeks, one of the girls went to her in a state of distress, crying and denouncing herself, afraid to make a confession too terrible to be repeated. After a lot of soothing and persuading, she agreed to tell all: ‘I hate my lamb!’ I cannot now remember which sister that was, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. It could have been any of them. Could it have been any of us?
I haven’t come across that one in print before, but then I haven’t read everything written by and about the Mitfords. It only seems as if I have. It is difficult to recall a time when they did not free-float in print through a classification Dewey never knew, between fiction and biography, partaking of an essence only Medieval schoolmen could isolate, veering at one extreme into the territory of the Marx Brothers, at the other into the land of the Seven Dwarfs. They are more numerous than the Groucho clan, for, even with Zeppo and Gummo, you can’t get more than five – though I sometimes believe in the Sixth Marx Brother, like the hidden Imam, a once-and-future Comic Genius, who will arrive when we need him. They are one less than Snow White’s attendants, being only six, though here too there is always one you can’t remember when you try to list them late at night. With me, it is Pamela, number two in the nursery, the most victimised of the Mitford Sisters, condemned to suffer not only dyslexia and polio but also a sustained pecking by her rival elder sister, subject of Selina Hastings’s biography, Nancy Mitford.
If you are a Mitford girl, you tend to get differentiated by your husband, and all the husbands turn out to be at least high-grade gossip-column material. Even Jessica, to my mind the most talented as well as the most sympathetic of the half-dozen, a radical, a humourist, and a deceptively mild-mannered muckraker, appears in this biographical round-up as the spouse of the subject of another biography, Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly, by Kevin Ingram. But then what else can we expect if they will marry a Duke of Devonshire (Deborah), Sir Oswald Mosley (Diana), the Communist nephew of Winston Churchill (Jessica), the inspiration of Waugh’s Basil Seal (Nancy) – not to mention a Platonic crush on the Worst Man in the World, Adolf Hitler (Unity). I have left out Pamela again – usually passed over as a nice, genteel countrywoman, of interest only to her friends. If so, how did she get to be the wife of someone about whom I never read much more than a few paragraphs – Derek Jackson, millionaire, Mosleyite, physicist, jockey, air-gunner, former owner of the News of the World?
Selina Hastings is hardly a rubber-necking outsider. She descends from a first Earl created in 1529, while the Mitford Girls’ Farve only became a second Baron in 1915. (The Hons Cupboard did not get the backing of Debrett until Nancy was 12.) Lady Serena is, however, also a familiar contributor to the Telegraph and does an efficient, if slightly hearts-and-flowers job, rather in the style of some up-market woman’s magazine – Lady’s Own perhaps. Was yet another instalment of the saga really necessary? Without going noticeably out of my way, I seem to have absorbed most of this already: from one angle, through Nancy Mitford’s own novels and those historical studies which are often only her novels in fancy dress; from another angle, through Jessica and Diana’s autobiographies and Harold Acton’s memoirs.
For those who yearn for even more, this is undoubtedly the more-ish sort of more they want, providing, for instance, a definitive list of the pet names used by the family. Nancy was Koko at home, Pauline or Paul to her husband, Susan to her sister Jessica, who was also Susan to her in return. Jessica was always Decca, except when Susan. Deborah was usually Debo, though frequently also Nine (a reference to her supposed mental age) or Tiny Swine (rhyming slang?). Diana sticks mostly to Diana, though is addressed once in a letter (most of the new material is in the letters) as Bodley. Pamela is only the Woman. Unity, an oddly leftish forename, is never the more apt Valkyrie but Bobo, or Head-of-Bone, Heart-of-Stout. Lord and Lady Redesdale, Farve and Muv, are also the Birds. The significance of names is heavy in the Mitford group consciousness: Nancy at one point summons the little Unity, Jessica and Deborah to point out that their parents had planted in their middle syllables their true destiny – Nit, Sic and Bor. Now read on.
I read on, mainly lured by the trail of poisoned barbs, casually, almost accidentally, strewn along the way, which Coward or Waugh would not have disowned. Even Muv, a dedicated pro-Nazi before, during and after the war, was moved occasionally to criticise the Third Reich: ‘How sensible it is of H to put all Germans into uniforms as they have such terrible other clothes.’ Nancy’s anti-Americanism amounted to a form of racism: she claimed always to be ‘rather pleased’ when there was one less American in the world. ‘I’m sure God will send them to a different place from ONE & Lord Byron,’ she writes in a letter. When faced with the inconsistency of having some American friends, she protests: ‘But they live in Europe and have chosen freedom.’ Nevertheless, she deplores their presence there, always asking each other where they come from back home: ‘What possible difference can it make?’ There is no mistaking the seriousness underneath: ‘The fact is you and your compatriots are using your enormous power to spoil this world we live in & are doing so very fast,’ she writes to a distinguished American academic. And the root of her rift with Jessica lay in her sister’s not only having had a first husband, Esmond Romilly, who was ‘loathsome’ but having gone on to a second, Bob Treuhaft, who was American.
Rebel, a biography of Esmond, is the first work of Kevin Ingram, and written in that approximate style, words not quite wrong but just off-register, that is so common in modern publishing. Esmond comes across as very unloathsome – tough and intractable, perhaps, with that by no means rare combination of altruism and self-centredness, and a bullying charm which rebel leaders often need to cultivate. The story of his life is also rather too well told already – in his books, in his widow’s autobiography and her memoir of Philip Toynbee, in Toynbee’s memoir of Romilly – for the importance of his role in the world. The best of the book, for me, was the section dealing with Esmond in wartime aircrew and his farcical, bumbling attempts to remedy his inborn accident-proneness while in action in the air. Following him, in later and safer time of war, I noticed how often planes I was in were gripped by fits of hysterical, funny-frightening chaos. Only Esmond seems to have possessed the detachment and self-awareness to note it down. What a marvellous war book he might have written.
The author/compiler of The Mitford Family Album is Debo’s daughter, who had discovered many oddities and delights in her own and her aunts’ attics. For Mitford watchers, it is an opportunity to get so close you almost feel like a member of the indoor staff. Lady Sophia’s text, though badly written in a style it would be flattering to call girlish, adds to the feeling of historical authenticity. She slaps on any word hovering near the one she’s after – her parents’ return to Chatsworth, after the war, she dubs ‘a momentous task’. Her descriptions of people often turn out bitchily cryptic, though I am sure it is only a clumsy hand with the cliché: JFK’s sister, Debo’s sister-in-law, Kathleen, though ‘no beauty’, still had ‘hosts of admirers and was welcome everywhere. To the English, her Boston accent was very amusing as was her continued surprise at the English way of life. Part of her great charm was that she was very easily pleased.’ Lady Sophia uncritically accepts the official family version of almost everything. The Communists are to blame for Mosleyite violence, and she makes nothing of a wonderful cutting in which Derek Jackson condemns police brutality to ‘dismal little’ lefties and complains of his own treatment: ‘They did not speak to me in the way I am accustomed to being spoken to. They did not call me “Sir” or anything.’ The Mosleys’ wartime imprisonment is a cruel injustice – she does not appear to know that Aunt Diana had been shopped by Aunt Nancy, who made a personal call on the Home Office. The author’s attempts to learn why books such as hers continue to be published do not meet with much success with the family. Her Aunt Pamela replies: ‘Oh, darling, I really can’t imagine.’