The Redgraves: A Family Epic 
by Donald Spoto.
Robson, 361 pp., £25, November 2012, 978 1 84954 394 1
Show More
The House of Redgrave: The Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty 
by Tim Adler.
Aurum, 336 pp., £20, July 2012, 978 1 84513 623 9
Show More
Show More

In the National Theatre’s inaugural season in 1963 Michael Redgrave played Claudius to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. Apart from Olivier, the theatre’s first director, Redgrave, then aged 55, was its greatest star. Known to the public from his many film roles, and having just been named actor of the year by the Evening Standard for his Uncle Vanya at Chichester, which one critic called ‘the highest level of acting the contemporary theatre has to offer’, he was good box-office. A tall man who sometimes suffered vertigo on stage, he was finding his stage directions tricky. For his first entrance, he had to walk down a steep flight of stairs and then sit down. In rehearsal, he often missed the last step. On opening night, he went down the stairs gingerly to avoid stumbling. The critics praised his performance. Olivier seems not to have agreed. ‘When you came on as Macbeth years ago, dear boy,’ Olivier told him, ‘it was as if you were saying to the audience: “Fuck you – I am Macbeth.” Now, as Claudius, you are just dim. Why don’t you shine?’

The season got worse. Redgrave’s next role was in Hobson’s Choice, a romantic comedy set in Salford in 1880. The Lancashire accent was completely beyond him, and distracted by the demands of the dialect, he found himself fishing for lines. Next came The Master Builder. As Solness, Redgrave, who was drinking heavily, forgot entire sections of the script. His daughter Lynn, who was also part of the National that year, recalled that ‘all of us in the company watched aghast as, again and again, Dad called “Line … Line … Line!”’ Redgrave himself remembered it as ‘a general nervousness’ that had taken hold. Every night when it was time to go on stage he began to shake. Eventually, to his great humiliation, Olivier announced that he would be taking over his part. Redgrave told his wife that it was ‘agony for me’ when Larry ‘thinks I’m no good’.

Such a public breakdown might well mark the end of an actor’s career, but while Redgrave never quite recovered the shine of his glory days, he continued to work. In 1965 he directed and acted in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country in Guildford opposite Ingrid Bergman. Reviews were not particularly enthusiastic but at least they were respectful. Changing tack, he directed Werther and La Bohème at Glyndebourne. He put in a powerful cameo in Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between in 1970 as the old man, Leo Colston, who recalls his summer as the little boy running between the secret lovers, Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Redgrave’s gaze in that film is watery and blank, which seems right for a man so psychologically traumatised by childhood memories that he had shut down his emotions. In retrospect, though, this had less to do with acting than with the Parkinson’s disease which was starting to affect both his memory and his voice – once richly modulated, now trembly. In 1971 he agreed to act in The Old Boys by William Trevor at the Mermaid; the crew fitted him with an invisible prompter attached to an earpiece. At the first public performance the prompter malfunctioned, sending out a loud hissing, leaving both Redgrave and the audience in a state of high anxiety. The next day he relearned his lines, discarded the prompter, and gave a performance one critic called ‘as rich and deep as those we remember from his earlier days’. As late as 1978 he and four other actors toured Canada, South Africa, the US, Europe and South America with a medley of scenes from Shakespeare. ‘His voice was quiet,’ Donald Spoto writes in his new study of the Redgrave family,

but still expressive, and his gait often unsteady, but audiences seemed to provide him with a shot of adrenalin, and spectators were invariably impressed by the presence of Sir Michael Redgrave, still tall and commanding the stage – even when, as occasionally, he had to ask his fellow actors to join him sitting at a table for the performance.

America has the Barrymores and the Fondas, the Douglases and the Baldwins. We have the actoriest of all acting families or, as Vanessa prefers to put it, the many ‘sprigs of a great and beautiful tree’. All three of Michael’s children with his wife and fellow actor Rachel Kempson – Vanessa, Corin and Lynn – became actors. Vanessa then married the film director Tony Richardson and gave birth to two more actresses, Natasha and Joely Richardson. The latter was born the same year as Corin’s daughter Jemma Redgrave, also an actress. Corin was named after the shepherd in As You Like It and named his own son Arden after the forest in the same play. Arden Redgrave is now a theatre director.

The story you tell about the Redgraves depends on where your sympathies lie. Do you side with Lynn, the comic outsider, the podgy author of diet books and star of that piece of 1960s zeitgeist, Georgy Girl? Or with Corin the Trotskyist, who inherited the Shakespearean gifts of his parents, at the age of 11 learning the whole of Richard II by heart in six weeks? Or with Vanessa, the best actor of them all, whom her father called ‘divinely mad’ with a conscience the ‘size of Grand Central Station’? Of these two books on the family Spoto’s is by far the more serious and conscientiously researched, but that isn’t saying much. A tireless workhorse of film biographies, Spoto has published 26 books, including a famously and unconvincingly negative life of Hitchcock, along with near hagiographies of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. His many years of friendship with Michael’s widow, Rachel, with whom he would have ‘late afternoon cups of strong tea at her flat in Flood Street, Chelsea’, incline him to say such things as ‘it is no exaggeration to assert that the Redgraves defined and extended the possibilities for actors in every medium for over a century’ or that ‘the most commonly used word critics have employed to describe the collective art of the Redgraves is true.’ There is less reverence and more gossip to be had from Tim Adler’s The House of Redgrave, which describes Vanessa wrapping a napkin around her head and singing ‘Edelweiss’ at Natasha’s wedding, accompanied by Rupert Everett. On the other hand, Adler has a curious obsession with Vanessa’s second-rate film director husband, making this Tony Richardson’s story more than anyone else’s. He also thinks Belgrade is in Hungary, and his various errors make it hard to know how many of the amusing anecdotes you can trust. In his telling of the Redgraves they come across rather like characters in a Wes Anderson movie (The Royal Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom): all unusually talented in their different ways and incestuously close, yet somehow closed off in their own little worlds.

Occasionally, Redgraves have shown a desire to move away from the beautiful tree and do something different. But not that different. As a teenager Joely Richardson spent two years at the tennis academy in Florida where Martina Hingis later trained. Her father was a tennis nut who, according to Adler, ‘told his daughters that tennis was life: it showed you who you really were’; it was ‘a mirror you hold up to yourself, magnifying every fault and virtue’. But once she’d seen who she really was Joely gave up tennis. She married the film producer Tim Bevan (who presided over Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which her uncle Corin plays the unlikeable Scottish husband of the Andie MacDowell character) and later starred in several series of the American TV show Nip/Tuck, about Miami plastic surgeons. The role of her mother was played by Vanessa Redgrave. In Anonymous (2011), a conspiracy theory film based on the notion that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford, Joely plays the young Elizabeth I and Vanessa plays the old version. Later this year, Joely’s 21-year-old daughter Daisy Bevan will appear in her first feature film, The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith. (The casting director has claimed to have been unaware of who she was, even though the film is being produced by Working Title, Tim Bevan’s production company.)

Lynn said there was a gene running through all the Redgraves with a proscenium arch attached, but Corin and Vanessa vigorously disagreed, as they disagreed with most of what Lynn, the youngest sibling, said. Natasha – who was married to the actor Liam Neeson and died after a skiing accident in 2009 – disliked talk of a dynasty. ‘It’s like coming from a family of carpenters or plumbers who work in the family business, generation after generation.’ Just so: if carpenters or plumbers appeared endlessly in public together and wrote memoirs and spoke of their ability to saw a plank or stop a leak as the ‘divine gift’. No plumber’s birth has ever been announced, as Vanessa’s was, by Laurence Olivier (him again) rushing onstage after a Saturday night performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic to tell the audience (accurately enough) that ‘a great actress has been born: Laertes has a daughter.’

Michael Redgrave’s mother, Margaret, expressed the view that at six foot three he was ‘too tall’ to become an actor. Then again, it wasn’t so surprising that he should have thought of becoming one, when both she and his father, Roy Redgrave, acted. Michael first toddled onstage at the age of two in pursuit of Roy, shouting ‘Daddy!’ to wild applause – a moment which became part of Redgrave lore. Margaret (then known as Daisy) Scudamore and Roy Redgrave met in Brighton repertory theatre in 1907; a year later they were married with a child. It used to be thought – by Michael Redgrave’s children, among others – that the marriage was bigamous, but Spoto has done the archival research to prove otherwise. At the time of their wedding, however, Roy did have one ex-wife (an actress), three children and a pregnant girlfriend (another actress), so the circumstances were not ideal, especially since Roy was a hard-drinking gambler who didn’t pay the bills. After an unhappy time in Australia – where the toddling onstage incident occurred – Daisy returned home with her son and they never saw Roy again: he died in Sydney when Michael was 14. On the boat home Margaret met a rich middle-aged entrepreneur, James Patrick Anderson, known as Andy, who effectively became Michael’s father, paying for holidays abroad and a private education at Clifton College in Bristol, though according to Spoto they remained ‘strangers’ to each other. Before he went to boarding school at 13, Michael mooted the idea that he might join the school drama club but his parents expressed disapproval. Like Margaret, Andy did not want Michael to be an actor: it wasn’t an appropriate profession for a man.

Despite their disapproval, the boy threw himself into the school plays at Clifton, excelling in female parts. As Lady Mary Lasenby in J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, the 15-year-old Michael wept plausible womanly tears. As the social-climbing Mrs Hardcastle in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer he proved he could do comedy. But it was his Lady Macbeth that stood out. One critic who visited the school to see the production marvelled that the role ‘could receive such a brilliant interpretation at the hands of a boy. His movements, grace and gestures were entirely feminine.’ Even Margaret – whose own career both in London and at Stratford was flourishing – was moved by his sleepwalking scene. She offered him some director’s notes, something that Redgraves have always done for one another. ‘You bowed your head at the end of the scene and your head seemed to drop as if you were tired to death. It was a lovely bit of business.’

Clifton was also where Redgrave had his first gay relationships, embarking on a ‘grande affaire’ with another boy from the drama club, various physical liaisons with other boys and a ‘deeply amorous but platonic relationship with the assistant chaplin’. At Cambridge, where he was a fixture at the ADC and schooled in spoken verse by Dadie Rylands, he had a passionate two-year affair with a ‘scholar and athlete’ called Michael Garratt. He had affairs with women too. After Cambridge he tried being a schoolteacher for a while, but his time at Cranleigh School was marked mainly by the plays he staged, all directed by and starring himself: as Lear, Samson Agonistes, Prospero. London critics came to see the productions of the Cranleigh Drama Club. ‘His Hamlet,’ Spoto writes, ‘was considered ferociously regal and better than most of those recently seen in the West End.’ It was only a matter of time before he ditched teaching for acting, starting at the Liverpool Repertory in 1934 for £4 a week. Now that he was a professional Redgrave had to act opposite women rather than being them. Cast opposite the beautiful Shakespearean Rachel Kempson, he feared she was too short. ‘I shall have to go down on my knees to kiss her!’ He was pleasantly surprised to find that she was in fact quite tall, and they started sharing luncheon, and then sleeping together.

The great unanswered question is why Kempson chose to marry someone who was – predominantly – gay. Yet dazzled by his ‘golden and handsome’ looks and his ‘enormous sensitivity’, she pursued him and indeed proposed to him. He was honest with her, confessing that ‘there were difficulties in his nature and that he felt he ought not to marry.’ Kempson later said that she’d been sure ‘I could overcome his difficulties,’ but just a few months after their wedding he recorded numerous visits to the Turkish baths in Liverpool. Nor does he seem to have made a secret of these excursions – ‘I went to the Turkish baths after some debate with R,’ he noted in his diary. ‘Rachel seems vaguely put out,’ he wrote on another occasion. She would remain vaguely put out yet complaisant and forever worshipping of his divine gift for nearly fifty years of marriage, only ended by his death.

She endured much. While their own finances were often stretched and tax bills went unpaid, he lavished hotel rooms and expensive meals on his lovers. In June 1941, Redgrave was called up to the navy. His wife had hoped, she said, ‘to spend the last night with Michael before he went down to Plymouth’. But he chose to spend it instead with Noël Coward, with whom he was in the midst of a wild romance. The night Vanessa was born, when Larry announced a daughter to Laertes, Redgrave cried with joy and kissed everyone, as members of the cast crowded into his dressing room bearing flowers. He rang up the grande dame of the theatre Edith Evans, with whom he was having one of his rare heterosexual affairs, to say how happy he was: ‘God bless Rachel and Vanessa always.’ He then celebrated some more at Le Moulin d’Or in Soho before repairing to Edith’s Belgravia flat. The playwright Robert Bolt, whose work was performed by many of the family (Corin made his mark in the film version of A Man for All Seasons), expressed bafflement that Lady Redgrave put up with it:

He seemed to want everything – some of it for his reputation, much of it for his own satisfaction. He wanted his wife, his lovers at home, his boyfriends here and there and also, by this time, rough trade. He was the most tortured man I ever knew. But when he was good at his work, he was brilliant.

Kempson succeeded in bearing it partly because she herself had an affair stretching across decades with the Shakespearean director Glen Byam Shaw. This added still more branches to the tree, as Byam Shaw frequently directed Rachel and other family members on stage. On a spring holiday from school, Corin gave a ‘wordless cameo’ as a court page in Byam Shaw’s production of Saint Joan.

In the fearful climate preceding the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Britain in 1967, Redgrave’s sexuality was anxiously hidden from his children. After the birth of Corin’s first child Redgrave finally confessed ‘that I am, to say the least of it, bisexual’; his son sympathised with the burden of guilt and shame that he lived with ‘vis à vis my mother and us children’. Yet his other life had not been entirely concealed from them. Redgrave’s longer-term boyfriends became honorary family members, entertaining the children with pony rides at the beach on summer holidays. Their parents seldom picked them up from school or got them up for breakfast: these jobs were done for a while by Bob Mitchell, Michael’s ‘friend’, an American with the whitest teeth Corin had ever seen.

Perhaps the strange atmosphere Michael Redgrave created in the household, the moodiness and semi-secrecy, was a good education for an actor. Corin’s first wife, Deirdre, was struck by the extent to which the mood in the house was set by Michael. When he was cheerful, all was joyous and festive, with everyone singing songs from musicals round the piano; when he was withdrawn or sad, they all became worried and guarded, as if responding to his tacit direction. Lynn remembered dramatic farewells, hugging and kissing even if they were just popping to the shops, but also coldness and distance. She was sad that ‘Daddy never comes to concerts or school recitals’ and seemed to show so little interest in her. In his diary, however, after watching Georgy Girl, he recorded that her performance as the frumpy wallflower ‘makes me weep with laughter and affection. I love that girl.’ Corin claimed that Lynn ‘grew up to astonish him in a way neither Vanessa nor I ever could’.

Vanessa and Corin survived their childhood by retreating into their own private fantasies. For several years during the war they didn’t see their parents at all, having been evacuated to the country to stay with a cousin, where they played endless games in the garden. Michael said that, ‘like the Brontës’, Vanessa ‘lived in great islands of imagination that were entirely her own creation’. And she and her brother continued to create their own shared reality. When Vanessa visited Corin at Cambridge they went for a stroll with his friend the actor Ian McKellen. Corin observed that a certain tree was an oak, at which McKellen showed him one of the leaves, which wasn’t the right shape for oak. But Corin insisted that it was ‘an unusual type of oak – one you haven’t seen before’. Corin and Vanessa’s political beliefs had something of the same quality. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, actors working with Vanessa would be given Marxist leaflets and sermons (Michael, watching from a distance as Vanessa gave an anti-nuclear speech in Hyde Park, thought that ‘she was perhaps more persuasive as an actress than as a public speaker’). In the 1970s, Corin and Vanessa were prominent members of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Simon Callow described seeing Corin, dressed in a trench coat and sitting at a trestle table under a naked light bulb, shouting that the government was on the point of surrounding Heathrow airport with tanks, as a prelude to a coup. In 1975 the Observer reported that Irene Gorst, a 28-year-old sitcom actress, had been subjected to a seven-hour interrogation by the Redgrave siblings and accused of being a Special Branch spy. Vanessa sued the Observer for libel but the High Court jury brought a unanimous verdict in favour of the newspaper, despite finding that some of the words in the article were defamatory and false. Vanessa and Corin were ordered to pay £70,000 costs.

Vanessa said that no man could ever live up to Corin, and when you look at photos of the young Tony Richardson, he bears a striking resemblance to her brother, with his fluffy hair and lantern jaw, but in his way of life Richardson was more like her father – bisexual and highly promiscuous. The 33-year-old Richardson fell in love with 24-year-old Vanessa when he saw her playing Rosalind in As You Like It, a performance praised by one critic as ‘not acting at all. It was living, breathing, loving.’ Like her mother, Vanessa knew that her lover had a sexual past involving numerous men, but she married him anyway, thus ensuring that her own children would suffer some of the same confusion she had felt. Tony also resembled Michael Redgrave in his merciless critiques of the performances of family members. The first time he saw Natasha act, ‘he proceeded to tell me, for about two hours, what I’d done wrong.’ After Michael first saw Vanessa act, he sat with her in long silence in a pub. Vanessa’s marriage lasted three years. The only surprising thing was that it was an affair with a woman – Jeanne Moreau – that broke it up. As with the older Redgraves, faithlessness in matters of sex did not break the more important bond. In 1976, with the divorce behind them, Vanessa made her Broadway debut under Richardson’s direction in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (a role their daughter Natasha would later excel in, followed by her sister Joely just last year). The play isn’t Ibsen at his most convincing, and during rehearsal Vanessa started to find it clumsily constructed. Her performance, even so, received rave reviews. The ‘divine gift’ of her father was still there. Peter Hall, who watched her in the role, was troubled by its sheer brilliance:

You could see right through the skin to the emotions, the thoughts, the hopes, the fears underneath. But here’s the paradox. What Vanessa says politically is, to me, insane, and I believe that to her, lies are truth if they support her ideology. So how can she express such truth, such sincerity, such lack of hypocrisy in her art? In life, which is true, she is false. In art, which is false, she is true.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 35 No. 14 · 18 July 2013

In her discussion of the Redgraves, Bee Wilson casually refers to Tony Richardson as Vanessa Redgrave’s ‘second-rate film director husband’ (LRB, 6 June). But if one were to list the best British films of the 1960s, A Taste of Honey and Tom Jones would surely be near the top.

Julia Prewitt Brown
Boston University

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences