John Gielgud: The Authorised Biography

Sheridan Morley
Applause Books
(2017)

John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud was, at the very least, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and quite possibly the best of all. It is therefore pleasing to see that this magisterial, warts and all biography from 2001, which it is hard to imagine could be bettered, has been reissued by American publisher Applause Books.

While it is credited to Sheridan Morley, the author inherited the project from Richard Findlater, who completed much of the initial ground work but pre-deceased his subject. As Morley explains, this was a book that could not be published during the actor’s lifetime and so he ended up with his name on the front cover.

Today, John Gielgud is probably remembered by most under the age of about 70 as an elderly actor who did a great deal of high quality TV and film work.

As this book proves, there was far more to Sir John than this late impression might suggest.

Born in 1904, he was a member of the great Terry family, acquiring the mantle of great-aunt Ellen Terry after deciding to devote his life to the stage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this book is the waywardness of both his career and life.

A career on the stage was not a certainty in the early days, although very soon after professional debut, it became apparent that the young actor was going to be something special.

Gielgud worked with many of the great and the good in early days, establishing himself as a classical actor with a beautiful voice in many of the great roles, perhaps most famously playing Hamlet at the Old Vic.

He also became an actor-manager and one of the most highly sought-after directors prior to the Second World War.

By then, his associations and rivalries, particularly with the future Lord Olivier but also Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft, had been established.

Thereafter, his life and work went through some turbulent periods. Personally, Gielgud always tried to conceal his homosexuality, although, mixing with the likes of impresario Binky Beaumont and Noël Coward, rumours were always likely to leak out.

However, in 1953, just after receiving his knighthood, the actor was arrested for importuning and faced severe embarrassment, although the public rallied to his support.

Strangely, despite his fame, he often suffered difficulties in choosing the right work, leading to long periods where he was either acting in unworthy plays and subsequently screen productions or failing to find anything worthwhile on which to work, either for the benefit of his spirit or reputation. In these doldrums though he had the perfect solution, as he toured his Shakespeare solo show, Ages of Man around the globe during quiet periods when little else was on offer.

A dislike of film and TV also hindered his career and finances for many years, although this was eventually overcome in a long and fruitful late-flowering screen career.

By the later years, the great and hard-working man had become an acting institution loved by all, it seems including even the centenarian Queen Mother.

This wonderfully comprehensive book covers all aspects of Sir John Gielgud’s life and career going into incredible detail in 500 well-filled pages that present a perfect portrait of an actor from bygone days. As Morley proudly demonstrates, his history follows that of the 20th century, at least from the viewpoint of the stage and acting profession in the UK and far beyond.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher