Kiss and Tearle

Robert Morley

  • Godfrey: A Special Time Remembered by Jill Bennett
    Hodder, 186 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 340 33160 7

In Godfrey; A Special Time Remembered Jill Bennett tells how she braved the sacred portals of the Garrick Club to continue a row with her lover Godfrey Tearle, how the old actor came down a flight of stairs two at a time absolutely furious, how he took hold of her wrist, sat down and, putting her across his knee, spanked the living daylights out of her. Then he threw her into a taxi, saying: ‘Go home and learn to behave yourself.’ Fellow members who witnessed the incident might have admonished Godfrey in similar terms. The Garrick only officially admitted ladies on Sunday. Nowadays in Garrickland, as in most Gentlemen’s Clubs, when after dusk the ladies predominate, he would undoubtedly have been set upon by members’ wives and mistresses and forced to desist.

Except for this one example of lustful passion, the book is extremely reticent on the more intimate aspects of the affair, which may or may not have been consummated on a deserted airfield somewhere in the Midlands after Tearle had disappointed himself and the critics equally with his performance as Macbeth at Stratford-on-Avon. Miss Bennett was similarly unhappy in her roles as Fleance and as a ‘bloody phantom’, and unhappy, too, with the necessity of taking two baths nightly backstage, first to deal with the blood and then the bole. One doesn’t quite understand why she couldn’t have added the one to the other and only bathed once, but then there is a good deal in this book which remains rather obscure.

Despite all her efforts to bring Godfrey Tearle to life, he remains a stage character fashioned by Pinero and bearing an almost uncanny physical resemblance to the late President Roosevelt. The actor turned gentleman is never a reassuring performance. Miss Bennett is more at home in describing her hero long before she knew him, when he returned to the theatre after the war in The Garden of Allah. The plot tells of a monk who falls passionately in love and breaks his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – and, if I remember rightly, silence. He marries the woman he loves but his conscience and faith will not let him be happy. He gives her up and returns to the monastery. Godfrey, she noted, was ideal casting. He had purity, masculinity and physical passion. He had a good deal of poetic suffering to do and a ten-minute soliloquy. As for the production, it had everything a theatregoer’s heart could desire. There was a baby camel, a desert caravan and howling dervishes. There was also a real standstorm, which on the first night covered the elegant audience in the first twelve rows of the stalls from head to foot in sand. Audiences are always good sports and even the sandy ones roared their applause, springing to their feet to shout: ‘Tearle, Tearle.’

To be a star in the Twenties was very social and Godfrey enjoyed his success and his rich life. Chow dogs were fashionable, so the Tearles had two which Godfrey walked round the park every day – they needed a lot of exercise. In the evenings after the performance, he, too, needed exercise and went to Ciro’s, the Embassy, the Four Hundred. Girls wrote letters begging him to marry them. This was the time when diamonds and pearls hurtled onto the stage at his feet.

‘It must have been fun,’ Jill told him.

‘It was,’Godfrey replied.

At the height of his pop-star fame he met a girl called Stella Freeman. She was in a play with him, playing what he called a ‘tennis part’. So after twenty years there had to be a divorce from his first wife. It cost a great deal of money and some hard feelings. He was President of Equity then, and due for a knighthood. To be divorced in those days, Miss Bennett avers, put you beyond the pale: it certainly kept you out of the Royal Enclosure. Sadly, after four happy years together, Stella dies: his third marriage was not a success, which may have been the reason he only once thought of marrying Miss Bennett. In the permissive society of their time, there still seemed to be resistance to unmarried couples. Godfrey always asked if he might include her in the invitations he received, but when this was not forthcoming went alone. The role of a little bit of fluff hardly suited her: moreover she was often insulted and once physically assaulted by his household staff – the last not while he was alive, of course. On the night of his death Matron asked her to leave the nursing-home as soon as possible.

But let us return to happier days, when his only other love was his boat. Godfrey dressed her up so that she looked like an old-fashioned advertisement for Halibut Liver Oil and rapped out orders as he hoisted the sails and expected her to jump to it and swab the deck. ‘I was no longer the welcomed guest, the girl he was fond of, the one who made him laugh, I was the cabin boy.’ They would sail up to Truro, change into evening dress and dine at the best hotels, change back into oilskins and return by moonlight.

There was a time for loving and a time for telling. She learned about his early years, as a boy actor endlessly on tour with his father Osmund Tearle, an actor-manager with his own company in the English provinces, a leading man loved by his audiences and convinced that London was of no interest whatsoever. The centre of the world for him was Carlisle. It was not to be so for Godfrey or his half-brother, Conway, who ran away to America and eventually became a film star. Godfrey remained in his father’s company till the former died, but offstage they were never close. ‘I don’t believe in his whole life my father ever kissed me,’Tearle told her.

There were times, of course, when she was aware of the great disparity in their age and theatrical clout. Nothing, however, quite explains the unease he seemed to create among her own contemporaries. She tells how on one afternoon at Stratford, after Godfrey had played host at luncheon, she and some girlfriends persuaded him to take them to a swimming-pool. On the drive she was suddenly and unexpectedly aware of how much older Godfrey was and that he was not really looking forward to swimming so soon after luncheon. She was proud of her expensive swimsuit, but when she came out of the changing-room her old man had changed into very brief burgundy-coloured shorts. Without his clothes he looked more than ever like a gorilla – he was covered with hair. He climbed up to the top diving-board, stood for a moment, then dived in without a ripple. He swam one length, climbed out of the water and rolled a cigarette with one hand, a famous party trick. Nobody wanted to swim much after that, she adds. One is tempted to ask: Why ever not? And how without a dry pocket did he manage the cigarette?

Tearle once asked my ever discreet father-in-law Herbert Buckmaster where he and Jill could go for a quiet holiday. Buck recommended Fuengirola. Godfrey wanted to know if there was a good hotel, by which he meant a splendid one. Perhaps because of a youth spent in theatrical lodgings he shared Dirk Bogarde’s passion for expensive hotels. Reassured, he took both Jill and her mother, and found the hotel rather empty except for a few Spanish families. Although she doesn’t say so, I think the old actor rather enjoyed being stared at with his child companion. ‘It would be nice,’ he remarked, ‘to stay on a few days.’ He telephoned Laurence Olivier, who had engaged Miss Bennett for a season at the St James. Would it be possible for Jill Bennett to be two days late for rehearsal? he asked, using his most charming manner. The answer was brief. No.

Their last holiday together was spent in Madeira, and started disastrously with a nearfatal heart attack on the plane. Various doctors called – one said on no account to drink, another recommended whisky, a third told Jill the truth. Senorita, your friend is dying. Miss Bennett said she knew and thanked him for coming. By now her friend was too ill to sail in the bright sea or swim or play tennis: he could only look on. ‘You’ll be glad when it’s time to go home?’ ‘Won’t you?’ he replied. When the train finally drew in at Waterloo he picked up the suitcase and ran down the platform. ‘I suddenly feel better, thank God we’re back.’ Miss Bennett landed a film part with Alan Ladd, Godfrey was doing a commentary for an Alec Guinness film. Robert Hardy came to see him one evening while she was still at the studios and scolded: ‘Godfrey, you’re very lazy sitting about like that. You know what you should be doing? Preparing to play Lear.’ ‘But I didn’t know,’ Hardy said to her later, ‘that Godfrey was preparing to die.’

Death when it did come was something of a relief for them both. When he was very ill, she had thought over and over again: Oh I wish he’d hurry up and go, I wish he’d go. He had been so brave and he so hated it. His strength had been used up and there was nothing left.

It is not Miss Bennett’s fault that we only catch glimpses of Mr Tearle. By the time she knew him he had been on stage for nearly sixty years, on the screen for forty. Save for that one moment when he up-ended her in his famous club, his passion was well-nigh spent. But Miss Bennett has succeeded in what she surely set out to do: to make us want to know more about this great knight of the theatre, whose roles exceeded two hundred, whose father never kissed him and whom his public and Miss Bennett never stopped loving.