Coup de Guinness

Robert Morley

  • Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness
    Hamish Hamilton, 238 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 241 11681 3

Alec Guinness got off on the wrong foot. Like a great many actors he had an unsuccessful childhood. In adolescence he tried to be someone else and after a time succeeded. He never forgave his mother for not telling him who his father was. He never forgave his mother – period. She did, however, care for Alec after her fashion and brought him up and sent him to boarding school, and even for a while provided him with a stepfather, who from time to time held him upside down over bridges, threatening to drop him into the running water to convince him that it was in his best interest to persuade his mother to disgorge part of his patrimony. The patrimony came from a mysterious source. Alec was convinced that part of it was a gold watch but never succeeded in obtaining possession from the solicitor who handed out the funds which were supposed to pay for his schooling and indeed did – until he was 18, when everything stopped except his continuing search for a father. His mother emerges as a feckless but not altogether unlikeable lady who conditioned her child to moonlight flits from hotels in the Cromwell Road, and who was constantly explaining to his chums, and everyone else, that she had mislaid her handbag and was short of a fiver. On one occasion, Guinness came home on leave to find Mother Courage had burgled his one-room flat and left a neat docket of pawn tickets on the mantelpiece.

Readers of Blessings in Disguise may sometimes feel that the book is Hamlet without the Prince, but the publishers are at pains to point out that this is not ‘the exercise in egomania purveyed by so many actors and actresses’. It is on the whole a fascinating account of some of Guinness’s fellow performers who fortunately did not possess his continuing thirst for ‘total simplicity’.

At the age of six, left alone in the dark, he had his first encounter with terror and a fellow lodger in a gloomy house in St John’s Wood.

She was old, shrivelled, big-nosed and very white, and she lay, propped up by pillows, under a frayed coverlet on a brass bed.

   ‘So you are the little boy at the top of the castle. I hear your footsteps on the stairs. Why do you always run? A young gentleman should walk, not run.’

   I was more interested in a brass knob on the bedstead, which wobbled as she spoke, than in what she was saying. She was an impoverished Miss Havisham who had lived in a different social world. There was no cobwebbed wedding-cake but under her bed she did have a partially-eaten rice pudding, which she presently asked for.

On a subsequent occasion she danced for him, in a flowered dressing-gown and fluffy slippers.

   ‘You will have to imagine the music. We are in a big theatre, Drury Lane ... Do you hear the fiddles?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘Use your imagination. Hark at the cymbals! And the tinkling bells. And here come the drums! You must applaud, boy. Clap your hands! I am a Persian Princess ... dancing in the Harem to please my husband the Prince ... When you are grown up you will be able to tell your children you saw The Great Deva dance.’

   Upstairs again, I picked up a waste-paper basket and whirled round the sitting-room ... ‘I am a Persian Princess,’ I said. ‘I am dancing in a big theatre. I am in my prime.’

His stepfather was not impressed:

‘The boy’s touched,’ the Captain said.
‘Oh, he’s only being a boy,’ my mother said.
‘Then why the blazes is he pretending to be a girl? Stop it this instant!’ he shouted.

A year later, while spending his summer holidays in comparative isolation in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, he learnt how to work the lift and made friends with an elderly White Russian who had been a champion pole-punter and long before the Revolution had performed on the tight rope before the Tsar.

A visit to the Coliseum gave him his first glimpse of Nellie Wallace. Afterwards he insisted on foregoing the ice-cream proffered by his hostess, to spend the money instead on flowers which he left at the stage door. He got the ice-cream as well, however, and spent a month in bed afterwards and was fairly ill on and off for a year. He received a bunch of yellow roses from Miss Wallace with a note which read: ‘I hope the little boy who sent me flowers gets better soon.’

We hear no more of Guinness’s childhood, but at the age of 16 he spent the last of his holiday pocket money on a seat in an empty theatre to watch the Cassons perform a play called The Squall. When he got back to his mean holiday digs he wrote a note to Sybil Thorndike.

 Dear Miss Thorndike,

      I saw you in the play this afternoon and I quite liked you. I did like the storm scene though. Would you please tell me how you made the rain? And do you have a thunder sheet? It is important for me to know as I want to be an actor. I am sixteen and a half.

Yours sincerely,
Alec Guinness.

Sybil acceded to the request, inviting him to a matinee of Ghosts and hoping he liked poetry. Dreaming that he would be allowed to recite ‘Dangerous Dan McGraw’ and that, just possibly, he would be engaged on the spot as a member of the company, he sat through Ghosts without understanding much of the dialogue. Afterwards he made his way backstage where he was entertained by Lewis and Sybil with a lengthy demonstration of how to manipulate a thunder sheet and a rain-making machine. The two worked hard for a few minutes and their guest was merciless, never asking them to stop. He for his part was not asked to recite. Nor was he invited to share the boiled eggs awaiting Sybil in her dressing-room. His portrait of the Cassons includes Sybil’s assessment of the acting profession. ‘I know some of them are silly. Perhaps there are some nasty ones, but I don’t know them. Our people are good.’ ‘Her own goodness,’ Guinness remarks, ‘was deep inside herself: it appeared to cost her no effort, yet to say that,’ he adds, ‘is perhaps unintentionally to diminish her.’

It was Gielgud who advised Guinness to take acting lessons from Martita Hunt. Working at the time in advertising, he had set his sights on obtaining a scholarship to RADA. She agreed to coach him at a pound an hour, but after six lessons all but gave up.

     ‘Your money is over there, dear boy,’ she said. ‘All ten pounds of it. Take it and go away, there’s a good fellow ... Try some little amateur group. Forget all about the professional theatre.’

But Alec was perhaps in some way already a member of his profession. He prevailed, and later won a scholarship to the Fay Compton Studio. More important, he won Martita’s lasting friendship, but here as elsewhere he cannot resist the Coup de Guinness. There is a sad and rather sordid account of their last meeting, with Martita drunk and grubby, drooling over oysters and inviting him to bed.

I could have wept except that she was cheerful. She suddenly referred to the maid she employed for a few hours each week and her maid’s husband.

   ‘Isn’t it disgraceful? The poor girl! Her husband doesn’t take off his pyjamas when they have sex. Now that’s not sportin’!’

Towards the end of the book Guinness boasts that he is not aware of ever having lost a friend, so it is perhaps fortunate that so many of them are dead and have thus been spared the account of his last meeting with them. Here he is on the great doctor:

Tyrone Guthrie was the true enfant terrible of the British theatre of the Thirties and Forties, and quite the tallest enfant terrible to be found in the English-speaking world – standing six foot four in his socks. His height, his military haircut ... and everything, except his sandals and old grey cardigan, suggested a gentlemanly sergeant-major who had slipped into something loose after a vigorous day of putting a bunch of rookies through some tough and complicated square-bashing ... New recruits were always treated with the utmost kindness and encouragement, the very old or incontinent with sympathy, but anyone in between, particularly if they were well-known personalities, was likely at some point to be verbally humiliated or reduced to anger or hysterics ...

   One day, cashing a cheque in a London bank, he spied a cherubic face behind the grille, a man quite unknown to him, to whom he said: ‘What are you doing in a cage? Come out and be an actor.’ It was a call from the Sea of Galilee. The young man left his money-changing and took up a career in the theatre, not perhaps a tremendously successful one but at least it was a happy life.

‘In the long run,’ opines Guinness, Guthrie ‘did more than anyone to revitalise the English theatre; and probably, through his pale imitators, did more lasting damage than any ... The rash of drab concrete piles of car showrooms which now so uninvitingly pass for theatres can be laid at Tony Guthrie’s door, though I am sure he would be horrified if asked to acknowledge them.’ There then follows an account of the probable origins of the new theatres in Stratford, Ontario, in Minneapolis, at Perth in Australia, of the Playhouse at Sheffield, the Festival Theatre at Chichester and the Olivier. ‘The idea of an open-stage theatre must have been on his mind ... for years ... but the determination and enthusiasm to put such ideas into practice came to him, I am sure, during a night of terrible storm in June 1937, in Denmark.’ The first night of Hamlet, to be attended by all available Scandinavian crowned heads, had suddenly to be transferred from battlement to hotel ballroom.

Tony quickly marked out a circle in the middle of the room, which would be the acting area, surrounded it with little gilt chairs, leaving two or three avenues for entrances and exits ... The company was given the briefest instructions: ‘Suggest you use the platform for Claudius and Gertrude in the play scene. Get rid of the piano. I love the palm ... Use any entrance you can find. Be polite to Kings and Queens if they get in your way. Alec, make your entrance as Osric through the French windows ... Arrive wet. Very dramatic. Polonius, use the service door.’

Elsewhere Guinness’s account of his patron can be tinged with a curious resentment. Perhaps Guthrie was never forgiven for exposing him as Hamlet at too early an age. There are exceedingly squalid descriptions of the Guthries’ insensitivity over household hygiene, and a sad little account of staying with them at Anna-ma-kerrig where, having been subjected to Judy’s choice of post-office claret, he returned their hospitality with a case of vintage wine and realised he had deeply offended.

The receiver clicked down ... I could hear them saying, with pinched lips: ‘Film Star’s got above himself. Fallen for the flesh-pots. Needs pulling down a peg.’

After Guthrie died of a heart attack, his wife took to the grape and there is an inexcusable last account of her fishing brandy bottles out of the grand piano where she’d hidden them. This is not quite how the Guthries would like to be remembered by an old friend.

Guinness occasionally offends but he also makes up for it. The chapter on Edith Sitwell is wonderfully funny. A luncheon at her club when this tremendously self-important poetess, temporarily disconcerted by a bluebottle caught in the Venetian blinds, affected a swoon until the insect was dispatched is worthy of Lytton Strachey; as is the ceremony of her being received into the Catholic Church. A long telegram invited Guinness to the occasion, even though as Edith Sitwell had confided earlier to Max Adrian, ‘Alec Guinness is not a Plantagenet.’ He was asked to stay at Renishaw with his wife and infant son, but the latter had to be concealed from Osbert, who was allergic to babies. Dinner was interrupted by the butler’s announcement that young Master Guinness was in distress and screaming. Edith was not reassuring. ‘Nothing to worry about, my dear, I expect the baboon has been looking at him.’ The baboon was apparently an ancient retainer. In the event, Osbert took Matthew’s presence very well. ‘I assure you I do not mind in the least so long as you will excuse me from looking at him.’ Once Guinness found the courage to answer back. Edith arranged a small supper party after a reading of some of her poems. She resented the intrusion of a pianist playing Beethoven. ‘I am sure everyone will agree that Beethoven is deadly.’ Everyone did except Guinness. ‘Beethoven,’ he said, ‘will be played and loved long after everyone at this table has been entirely forgotten.’ Edith never spoke to him again – at least not ‘until she took the Pope as her guide’.

The other Dame Edith, Edith Evans, also occasionally caused him problems – not always on the stage, though here she could be touchy, particularly if actually touched. It worried him that on the occasions she asked him to supper at her farm on Sunday evenings there was always apple pie and never enough cream.

This eventually got me down and, rashly feeling I was more or less at home, I mentioned it. Unfortunately it was on the same day that I had sat, inadvertently, in her late husband’s special chair. ‘That’s Guy’s chair. No one is allowed to sit in Guy’s chair!’ Baleful looks had followed me for hours. By evening I assumed I had been forgiven and when the apple pie appeared I piped up: ‘Edith, do you think we could have a drop more cream? We are six and there’s not enough for one.’ ‘No,’ she snapped. ‘This is a farm. I’ve got to make it pay.’ We travelled back to London in silence.

Guinness’s war began with his rejection by a somewhat undersized colonel.

‘Drive a car?’ asked the Colonel.
‘I’m afraid not ... ’
‘Motor bicycle?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t do anything like that.’
‘Sport? Rugger? Cricket?’
‘Absolutely no. Sir.’
My niece says you act.’
‘Yes.’
‘Well, that’s that. I suggest you offer your services to the Royal Navy. Good afternoon.’

His Naval career very nearly ended when he arrived an hour early for the invasion of Sicily. He disembarked his troops and rejected a prisoner who complained he had been shot after surrendering and took off his shirt to prove it – actually he had been stung by a bee. Later in the morning, he was accosted by an irate Commander RN, who accused him of being late and asked what he had done in civvy street. Guinness told him. ‘An actor I was, sir, and an RNVR officer I am ... I beached at exactly the right spot at exactly the time I was told to. And you will allow me to point out, sir, as an actor, that in the West End of London, if the curtain is advertised to go up at 8 p.m., it goes up at 8 p.m. and not an hour later: something which the Royal Navy might learn from.’

I don’t think Guinness made many new friends in the Service, but he was sustained by a great many old ones in the profession. He lost a ship; only just escaped being blown up in a minefield; and on occasions when senior officers attempted to blow him up resolutely stuck to his guns. More stirring perhaps is his account later of winning Mexico back for the British at a film festival at which no one else had apparently bothered to learn the language. The speech he made in Spanish to fellow delegates and his performance in The Horse’s Mouth were so rapturously received that the Ambassador’s motor-car with only Guinness inside was lifted bodily into the air and carried along the streets. I confess – and hope I give no offence in saying – that I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Someone must have believed him. He got his knighthood soon after.

Towards the end of his book I couldn’t help thinking that Alec Guinness’s arm had been jogged by his publisher. ‘We need more; tell us about Ralph Richardson.’ Guinness, caught off guard, contributes a tasteless account of this great friend and considerably better actor permanently in his cups. He has written a book in which we learn little about the author which we didn’t know already but a great deal about the circumstances which made him what he is. This was, after all, the intention and we should be grateful that on the printed page he nearly always amuses and entertains us as he has in the past on stage and screen. He received many confidences, he betrayed a few, and he is always aware of the absurdity of the human predicament.