Theatrical Mus(e)(ing)

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 1st July, 2001

A Bit of Self-Indulgence

What, as I have asked before, is the point of writing a weekly column if you can't be a little self-indulgent on occasion? I am sure that you, dear reader, will forgive my occasional foible.

Although whether you'll forgive that last sentence's pretentiousness I am much less certain!

I am not normally a reader of biographies, whether auto- or otherwise. However, when Hodder and Stoughton published Sheridan Morley's biography of John Gielgud - and no one offered me a review copy! - I went out and bought it. I have a friend who devours theatrical biographies by the ton and so I thought that, if I find I can't work my way through it, I can at least give it to someone who will appreciate it.

Well, he hasn't got it yet. I'm still reading. In fact, I've got as far as 1953 - just about to get the juicy details of the cottaging scandal of that year - and I confess I'm not finding it as hard going as I expected.

I was never a great fan of Gielgud, to be honest. I could - I did, and still do - admire that mellifluous voice, but I always felt that it made his performances sound mannered and distinctly pre-War - very dated. It is interesting to learn from Morley's book that, in later years at any rate, he too was a wee bit ambivalent about it and I found the description of his first experience of working with Peter Brook fascinating, as Brook worked to free him from the shackles of the style which he had built up over the years.

It was interesting, too, how he was the last of the great classical actors of his generation - Olivier, Redgrave, Richardson - to move into film. Yet again he recognised that his style was not appropriate to the medium

One of the reasons I am not keen on the majority of theatrical biographies is that they tend to be apologiae pro vitis suis - self-justification. There is almost always the most favourable gloss put on the subjects actions, thoughts, relationships. This is most common, but certainly not restricted to, autobiographies, and Morley's book on Gielgud is not free from it. However the book is not a fulsome, uncritical paean of praise for its subject, so I find it more readable than most. I shall continue to the end!

The West End

I wonder what Gielgud would think about the West End now? As a boy and a young man he tramped every inch and knew it intimately. I don't know it so well: it's a year all but a week since I was last there and I have to say that I was more than a little disturbed about the general dirtiness of the place. Recently such West End luminaries as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh have been very vocal about the area's decline, comparing it to the Times Square/Theatreland area of New York before the Giuliani clear-up. They describe it as dirty, sleazy, dangerous.

Dirty it certainly is, but go into the centre of almost every large British conurbation and you'll find it equally filthy. Litter, I'm ashamed to say, is a British disease. Having just returned from Germany a week or two ago, I am very aware of that. On a Saturday night in the Düsseldorf Altstadt, everyone takes to the streets to eat, drink and enjoy life. Not only were there no gangs of scary yobs on the rampage (the weekend curse of every English town centre), there was no litter either. Nor was there any at the Barmen Live! street festival in Wuppertal, even though there was a large number of food stalls in the one street in which the festival takes place.

You don't need to go to a comparative British event to see the contrast: just walk down any city centre street on a Saturday evening and you'll be up to your knees in discarded food wrappers - and worse.

I don't know about street crime, but the West End certainly needs a clean-up!

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