Anyone who knows about the history of the British theatre will know about John Gielgud, perhaps the greatest actor of the last century. And anyone who knows about Gielgud will probably be aware that he was celebrated -- if that's the right word -- for his gaffes. I mentioned this in passing last year, when I reviewed Jonathan Croall's impressive biography of Gielgud, and this year a slim volume has appeared which is partly dedicated to some of these terrible, hilarious faux-pas, and also includes some of his witty perceptive comments on the people and events of his day.
This is not in any way an academic book, but it's very entertaining. My parents knew Gielgud so I was more or less brought up on the famous Eddie Knoblock story "He's the most frightful bore, just like old Eddie Knoblock -- oh, Eddie, I'm most terribly sorry". Evidently this was not the only occasion as he seems to have done much the same to Edith Evans, Athene Seyler, Clive Morton and several others. Most people seem to have dealt with this sort of thing very well, like Elizabeth Taylor, whose ex-husband Michael Wilding Gielgud had recently met:
'Such a charming man', he said. 'I can't imagine how he got mixed up with all those dreadful tarts'. Elizabeth said, 'John, I was one of them'.
He was evidently completely unable to see how insulting some of his comments could be: 'We have two very beautiful men playing Bushy and Bagot. You might make a good contrast' (to Peter Sallis); 'Get someone to teach you to act. Try Martita Hunt -- she'll be glad of the money' (to Alec Guiness); 'You girl, move to the right. No, no, not you. The ugly one with the big nose' (to Jill Bennett); 'Have you ever known an American who could play Shakespeare? Oh, sorry, Orson. I thought you were Irish. Or something'. But most people took this kind of thing extremely well, perhaps because, as Alec Guiness remarked, his gaffes were 'entirely forgiveable, because they sprang spontaneously from the heart without a glimmer of malice'. His private observations about his friends and acquaintances were equally perceptive, iconoclastic, and funny, and often summed people up remarkably well: 'Dear Ingrid [Bergman], she speaks five languages and can't act in any of them'; Lindsay Anderson was 'quite a pleasant little man. Rather short, wore a funny cap. I think gay, but not quite up to it'; Edward Albee 'looked like a surly pirate with his drooping moustache'; 'Isabel Jeans' walk splays outwards with a strange totter that suggests the cab horse about to slip on an icy paving stone saving itself by a valiant effort'. Laurence Olivier played Malvolio 'like a Jewish hairdresser, with a great lisp. He would fall off a bench in the garden scene, which I begged him not to do'; John Barrymore's acting was 'like a monstrous old make impersonator jumping through a hoop'.
I suppose what I liked the most about this slim volume -- it's less than 150 pages -- is the way it shows Gielgud's absolutely genuine innocence, sweetness and honesty. It must have been particularly hard for him to have to disguise his homosexuality in public, but he clearly made up for it in his private letters and comments to his closest friends. He loved silly puns, and often brought rehearsals to a halt by causing his fellow actors to collapse in giggles. He lived, of course, to be 96, rather regretting, as he said on his 90th birthday, that 'most of my friends seem either to be dead, or deaf, or living in the wrong part of Kent'. But he never lost his sense of humour, or his ability to keep dropping bricks -- as he said to Giles Brandreth when invited lunch at the House of Commons: 'I'm delighted to have been asked. You see, all my real friends are dead'.
This little book would make a great Christmas present -- highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a giggle, particularly when laced with a good swig of theatre history.