Modesty of a supreme master of his craft
Lifelong admiration is felt by a whole generation of theatregoers in this country for Sir John Gielgud. For the whole of my own adult and professional life,
since I saw the first Gielgud
"Hamlet" (at the Old Vic and the Queen's in 1930) my ad 'miration has kept pace with the steady growth of this scion of the Terry family to fulfilment of his theatrical heritage as the premier actor of England. There was that thrilling young season at the Old Vic, with his Romeo, Mark Antony, Macbeth, Benedick, his first Prospero in "The Tempest" "Richard II" and "King Lear" — at the age of 26.
Then came the romantic medievalism of "Richard of Bordeaux" by Gordon Daviot. Nor was his career ever confined to Shakespeare and characters of history, but flourished in the heart of the West End.
He enjoyed his first youthful successes as Noel Coward's un derstudy in "The Vortex", and as Lewis Dodd in "The Constant Nymph" before going on to fashionable hits with Marie Tempest and Edith Evans. There were three distinct productions of his "Hamlet" between 1931 and 1940.
During the war he entertained the troops in all accessible theatres of war with mixed fare from Shakespeare to sketches with Beatrice Lillie and Elizabeth Welch.
After the war in "The Lady's Not for Burning", the modern verse verbal fireworks of Christopher Fry, spoken by this master of Shakespearian diction, gave fresh fillip to the Gielgud career.
The career wasn't even confined to the theatre. In early days he was lured into the film studios and looked like becom ing an equally glamorous young British film star. I remember how intelligent and elegant he seemed in Hitchcock's "Secret Agent", with Madeleine Carroll, how refreshing and endearing as Inigo Jollifant, Priestley's conventional juvenile lead in "The Good Companions", with Jessie Matthews and a pleasing singing voice.
After that he seemed to vanish from films, except for an appearance as Disraeli in "The Prime Minister" which was made at Teddington in 1940. He has been playing the same part in the television production of Edward VII.
Years went by without our seeing Gielgud again in movies until his masterly Cassius in Joseph Mankiewicz's "Julius Caesar" in 1952.
This showed again that the great stage actor could still hold his own with such cinema specialists as Marlon Brando and James Mason as easily as he could weep instant tears, the gift of which he inherited from his great-aunt, Ellen Terry (a veritable fairy godmother's gift to an actor).
This year has brought back Gielgud once more, at the age of 70, to the screen in a quartet of inimitable and gleeful character cameos. Strangest of all perhaps is the paradox that it is in Gielgud's elder years, in his sixties, that his work has become more deliberately frivolous.
After the Cassius triumph he made a few films in well-chosen parts like King Louis VII in "Becket," Clarence in Olivier's "Richard III," Warwick in "St Joan" and the Pope in "Shoes of the Fisherman''.
But it was after his marvellous Lord Raglan in Tony Richardson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" that Gielgud began to relax for the camera and at the same time to give those beautiful comedy performances on the stage in "Forty Years On" as an ageing housemaster; and in "Home" with John Mills at the Royal Court Theatre.
It was the exquisite mischief of his performances in "Harrowhouse," "Gold" and "Murder on the Orient Express" which gave me the urge and pretext for this interview.
Sir John received me graciously — and I mean graciously, with courtesy, consideration and no hint of condescension — between the shows at the Royal Court on the last night of "Bingo," Edward Bond's strangely titled play about the last years of Shakespeare.
He was still in his make-up as the venerable Shakespeare, but talked with some relish of his small second spring in movies even if they tend to impose on him a slightly sinister image.
"I enjoy it much better now", he said. "I don't suffer nearly as much from the terrible selfconsciousness that used to afflict me before the camera, when I was a juvenile lead.
"I used to think I'd played a scene quite carefully with Madeleine Carroll or Jessie Matthews, only to realise when I saw the rushes that it was her scene, and there would I be with the back of my head to the camera."
He doesn't seem worried by the mock-sinister image of him projected as a figure of Big Business or the Establishment. " 'Harrowhouse' was considerably jokey about my part", he recalled. " 'Gold' was not. So from my point of view that made 'Harrowhouse' a better film than `Gold'." From mine too.
He was a little more embarrassed over "The Truth About Frankenstein", and quoted a fellow-critic: "Alexander Walker said Ralph (Richardson) and I should be ashamed of ourselves for doing it. But we never knew it was going to be shown in England. We thought we were making it for American television.
"If we had ever thought it was going to be shown in England and as a film, probably neither of us would have done it." I think Sir John must have been happier about his part in "Murder on the Orient Express", as the gentlest of gentlemen's gentlemen.
He told me how his first great comeback to films as Cassius had happened by chance. He was appearing in his own production of "Much Ado About Nothing", with Diana Wynyard as Beatrice, and Paul Scofield as Don Pedro.
M-G-M were preparing a "Julius Caesar" to be directed by Mankiewicz, and sent a scout to report on the prospect of Paul Scofield for Mark An tony. "While he was here", Gielgud recalled, "a telephone call from Hollywood told him that Marlon Brando had made such a wonderful test that they had their Mark Antony but were interested in me for Cassius. So Scofield didn't go to Hollywood and I did.
"At first 1 hesitated. I was doubtful about filming Shakespeare. Korda had once offered to make "Hamlet" for me. He would have done anything. But I refused.
Sometimes I wonder if I was wrong. For then Olivier did the 'Hamlet' — though I never thought it as good a film as his splendid 'Henry V'." Six John gave me the feeling that his regrets, if any, were less for the "Hamlet" than for possible other Shakespeare films he might have done for Korda. I asked him whether he despised films. His protest of "No" gained conviction by the obvious interest with which he talked of the latest new German film at a new "art" theatre.
But he was too honest not to qualify his "No". He said: "But I suppose I do sometimes just read my own part and not the whole script of a film — and I would never do that for a play".
There are still things, however, that he would like to film: "I'd like to make a film of 'The Tempest'. But who would produce it? One would have to be very careful it didn't turn out like Disney."
He discussed several possible directors, usually coming back to Ingmar Bergman, though this was before Peter Hall's "Akenfield" opened the London Film Festival, and Hall was one of the directors Gielgud mentioned. But a film of "The Tempest" directed by Bergman and starring Gielgud as Prospero would surely be something to dream about. Over the years Gielgud had gone on extending the scope of his theatrical genius to become one of the directors most in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. He was responsible for some of the finest productions of Chekhov here, and con tributed to the British reputation for a special understanding of the way Chekhov should be 'interpreted. And I shall never forget his beautiful production of "The Cherry Orchard", with Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and Trevor Howard at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
He made a brilliant speciality of artificial comedy of various periods, from "The Way of the World" and "Love for Love" to Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Among his most successful productions were Mary Borden's "The Chalk Garden", with Edith Evans (later with Gladys Cooper) and another all-star comedy at the Haymarket, N. C. Hunter's "A Day by the Sea."
He went on to direct opera, including Covent Garden's historic production of "Les Troyens" by Berlioz.
Gielgud directed two successful productions of plays by Graham Greene, "The Complaisant Lover" and "The Potting Shed". He told me that more than once plans had been set afoot for him to film Greene's first play "The LivingRoom".
"I wasn't altogether sorry we didn't do it," Sir John admitted. "It's so very gloomy. Much as I like and admire him, I'd rather do something not quite so black. I've done another Greene subject for television, which I hope will be shown next autumn, from a short story called "Special Duties". This ig'in the Thames Television series "Shades of Greene".
Sir John evidently cherishes this as a "much more cheerful prospect" than Greene's blacker, more "guilt-ridden" plots. Gielgud's biographer, Ronald Hayman, writing of "The Potting Shed", comments that Greene evidently "seemed to be quite content to have an unbeliever in his leading part" — unlike T. S. Eliot who, Hayman records, thought Gielgud had not enough faith to play the lead in "The Cocktail Party."
Gielgud's Polish ancestry had made me suppose that he must have been brought up as a Catholic. But he corrected me: "It was my grandparents who left Poland after the rising of 1831. My grandmother was a very staunch Catholic.
"I don't know whether my father was ever a really practising Catholic. I think he always had a sort of sense of guilt as a lapsed Catholic — because of course they were all brought up Catholic. But they never urged us to any particular form of religion."
Hayman, incidentally, records that John's father "had been brought up as a Catholic but never went to church now except for an occasional visit to Westminster Cathedral to listen to High Mass as if it were a concert at the Queen's Hall." Then that John after (Anglican) school, for a time "found himself going to Brompton Oratory to smell the. incense" — in presumably the same spirit.
I learned, too, that SirlJohn had more or less lost active interest in his family's Polish family connection, though his late brother, Lewis, worked with General Anders in Italy during the war, and his younger brother, Val (a former Head of BBC Drama) still visits Poland.
When I saw Sir John, he was also involved in the turmoil of moving to a beautiful house in the country near Aylesbury obviously an upheaval for a lifelong Londoner.
The overwhelming impression he left on me was a fascinating combination of contrasts: on the one hand his gentleness and sweetness, courtesy and consideration and his appreciation of the same qualities in others — and a mellow maturity almost like that of the elderly Shakespeare he was playing, combined on the other with an absolutely youthful zest, and freshness of enthusiasm for his fertile immediate plans; and perhaps above all his lightning wit and concentration which enable him to be so on the spot at all times and places.