Philip Ziegler

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Philip Zeigler signing books at Edinburgh Book Festival Credit: David Chadderton

After writing biographers of politicians, monarchs and aristocrats for the past half century, Philip Zeigler turned his attention to the stage with this new extensive biography of Sir Laurence Olivier. Zeigler spoke to the Edinburgh International Book Festival at an event chaired by former Scotsman editor Magnus Linklater.

But Zeigler, now at the age of 83, needed no chairman as he spent most of the hour behind the lecturn speaking about the subject of his book.

The book, titled simply Olivier, is not an official biography but was written with the support of Olivier's family. He said that there are already far too many books about Olivier but none said what he wanted to say about him.

While he did work from documents, letters and personal contact with the family and those who knew the actor, the main source of information was fifty hours of taped conversations between Olivier and the journalist Mark Amory.The intention was for Amory to ghost-write Olivier's biography, but, as with so many other things, Olivier abandoned the collaboration and decided to complete the book himself (Zeigler said he had to control everything). Whatever he thought of his acting, Zeigler was rather scathing about Olivier's writing ability.

He spoke of Olivier as coming from a golden generation that included such stage luminaries as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft. He said that one of the few types of theatre he didn't try was pantomime, but he would have been the best Widow Twankey there had ever been. He was a perfectionist who believed that it was impossible to spend too much time in preparation, and once spent hours moving a chair backwards and forwards until he was satisfied that he had done it in the way his character would have done it.

It was inevitable that this perfectionist who wanted to be in control every aspect of his work would run his own company, and he set up home at Chichester before going on to lead the new National Theatre at London's Old Vic while the current building was created on the South Bank. He was acting and directing as well as running the company, and even if there was a leaving party for a stage manager it would be Olivier who organised it and made the speeches.

In his private life, he acted the role of husband and father, considering how he could have performed a conversation with his children differently to achieve a better effect just as he would a role on stage. When someone said to Olivier's third wife Joan Plowright that they never knew when he was acting, she replied, "Larry is always acting".

Olivier by Philip Zeigler is released by MacLehose Press on 12 September 2013.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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