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Colouring the ChameleonOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

Paper-DeepTreasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

Fins and FangsThe Fresh and Salt Water Fishes of the World, Edward C. Migdalski and George S. Fichter, illustrated by Norman Weaver (1977) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Olivier by Philip ZieglerOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

It’s difficult to be objective about big artistic names, so it’s good when you can admire them unaware. I once heard a song called “Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, not expecting much, was surprised by how good it was. I didn’t know then that it was by the Beatles. I was pleased when I found out, because I knew I had judged them on their merits, not on their big name.

Something similar happened to me with Laurence Olivier (1907-89). I was watching Spartacus (1960) and was struck by the skill of an actor playing a Roman general. Kirk Douglas is fun to watch, but the other actor was on a different plane. I had no idea who it was, so I watched for the name in the credits. And there it was: Laurence Olivier. Again, I was pleased when I found out and for the same reason. Olivier really was as good as he was said to be. And it’s almost frightening to think that Spartacus isn’t one of his best performances in what wasn’t his best medium:

Orson Welles remarked that Olivier was the master of technique and that, if screen acting depended only on technique, he would have been supreme master of the medium. “And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of the electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the cinema seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper – who knew nothing of technique at all?” He might equally have cited Marilyn Monroe; a woman who barely knew what acting was yet who, twenty years later, was to outshine Olivier in every scene [of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)]. (ch. 3, “Breakthrough”, pg. 52)

Why does the camera love some people and not others? It’s a mystery. But so is acting in general. Those who witnessed Olivier play Othello at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s heard the “hum of mighty workings”:

Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Desdemona from Maggie Smith. “It was like being on stage with a Force Ten gale,” she said. He himself realized he was achieving something altogether extraordinary, which he could scarcely comprehend. One night, when he had given a particularly spectacular performance, the cast applauded him at curtain call. He retreated in silence to his dressing room. “What’s the matter, Larry?” asked another actor. “Don’t you know you were brilliant?” “Of course I fucking know it,” Olivier replied, “but I don’t know why.” (ch. 19, “The National: Act Three”, pg. 284)

The pagans might have explained it as literal inspiration – entrance of a spirit – by something divine. In other roles, perhaps Olivier was the medium for something diabolic:

Olivier had concluded from the start that the relish with which Richard III gloats over his villainy was always going to contain something of the ridiculous … But though his [performance] raised many laughs, they were uneasy laughs; it was Olivier’s achievement to be at the same time ridiculous and infinitely menacing. Never for a instant did the audience forget that it was in the presence of unadulterated evil. (ch. 8, “The Old Vic”, pg. 129)

The critic Melvyn Bragg suggested that Olivier’s initial “reluctance to take on the role” was from the fear that it might permanently affect his psyche. If it was, Olivier overcame his fear. But he often did that: he was courageous not just in the parts he chose but in the physical risks he took with leaps, jumps and falls. For Olivier, acting was a sport, not just an art and craft. He tried to master every aspect of the profession, from performance to direction, from voice-projection to make-up.

The photographs reveal how good he was at make-up and the facial control that complements it: it’s remarkable how different he looks from role to role. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize him, which helps explain why Ziegler chose to begin the book with these two quotes:

“I can add colours to the chameleon;
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;
And set the murderous Machievel to school…”

Henry VI, Part Three.

“Rot them for a couple of rogues.
They have everyone’s face but their own.”

Thomas Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

But there was almost more make-up than man for Olivier’s leading role in one production of Macbeth, which prompted Vivien Leigh to say: “Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” The French director Michel Saint-Denis was the guilty party: “a fine director with a wonderful imagination”, said Olivier, “but he let his imagination run amok” (ch. 4, “Birth of a Classical Actor”, pg. 66).

Another guilty party isn’t named: the person responsible for putting a shot from The Entertainer (1960) on the back cover of the book. Olivier is in make-up as the failed and fading comedian Archie Rice. He doesn’t look good and it wasn’t his biggest or best role. But he did say it was his “best part”, according to Ziegler (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 321). He presumably meant the most interesting or challenging to play, but perhaps he was joking at his own expense. He often did that:

The graft [for playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night] was almost too much. Derek Granger at one point asked him whether he was enjoying the part. “Crazy wife, drunken old ham actor, don’t you think it’s just a little near the bone?” Olivier replied. “Some of us have lived a little, boysie.” (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 331)

The “crazy wife” was the beautiful but unbalanced Vivien Leigh, whom Ziegler treats sympathetically but objectively. She was Olivier’s second wife and she does seem to bear the chief blame for the breakdown of their marriage. But not all of it, although when Olivier divorced her and married Joan Plowright, he didn’t stop his philandering. His “phil” never included “andros”, according to Ziegler, who says that Olivier didn’t have an affair with Danny Kaye, as other biographers have alleged:

[Olivier] could be extremely camp; he was by instinct tactile, quick to lay an affectionate arm around the shoulder of another man or woman; his epistolary style, even by luvvie standards, was extravagant – “Darling boy,” he began a letter to David Niven, ending with “All my love dearest friend in the world, your devoted Larry.” Nobody who knew him well, however, can have doubted that he loved women, lusted after women and would have considered a sexual relationship with another man a pitiful substitute for the real thing. (ch. 11, “Life Without the Old Vic”, pp. 166-5)

That’s Olivier as amorist; more interesting is Olivier as genius. It’s not as easy to judge genius in the arts as it is in mathematics or the sciences, but Olivier definitely had something extraordinary. The key to it lay inside a box of bone he is shown cradling to his cheek as Hamlet in one of the photographs. That was Yorick’s empty skull; in life, Olivier’s skull must have contained a very powerful and unusual brain. He wasn’t widely read or wide-ranging in his interests, but his memory was prodigious, his will adamantine and he could inhabit a staggering variety of roles, from Romeo to Toby Belch, from Uncle Vanya to Julius Caesar, from camp comedians to Nazi dentists.

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

If you’re looking for an explanation of his genius, I think there’s something significant in his ancestry, which was Huguenot on his father’s side. Olivier was a patriotic Briton, but his charisma wasn’t purely British. Ziegler dissects his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Brits Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who were great actors too. But they didn’t act with Olivier’s flash, swagger and fire. I also wonder about much more ancient genetics: Olivier looks elegantly handsome in some photos, but ape-ish in a few others, and before his hair was “refashioned”, a director said that it made him look “bad-tempered, almost Neanderthal” (ch. 2, “Apprentice Days”, pp. 33-4). That was decades before it was proved that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The genes we acquired then may have conferred some cognitive or psychological advantage: Neanderthals had inhabited the colder and more demanding environment of Europe for many thousands of years by then.

If those acquired genes were expressed more strongly than average in Laurence Olivier, perhaps they helped him become one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I also wonder whether acting extends to olfaction: can great actors control their pheromones as they control their faces, voices and gestures? If so, perhaps that helps explain why Olivier didn’t manage to reproduce on camera what he did during extended sessions on stage. I’ve not finished this book, because I got bored with the minutiae of Olivier’s later career and want to see more of what he left on film before I try it again. But it’s full of interesting stories and ideas and it’s already helped me better understand and appreciate acting and the theatre.

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Front cover of Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey by Wes ButtersWhatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press 2010)

Food was rationed during the war, so Britons couldn’t eat to excess. This is supposed to have made them very healthy. Something similar may apply to Charles Hawtrey and the Carry On films. You look forward to his appearances and savour them while they last, because they’re often very brief. He was rationed, so he couldn’t act to excess. That’s part of why Hawtrey is my favourite Carry On actor. He didn’t have Kenneth Williams’ talent or range, but he spent much less time on-screen and couldn’t outstay his welcome.

He didn’t have Williams’ desire to chronicle his own life either, so he left no diaries or long letters. In this biography Wes Butters has to rely on what Hawtrey left on screen and in newspaper archives and the memories of his fellow actors. Hawtrey was carefree and sociable on screen, so his “Oh, hello!” catchphrase delighted pantomime audiences – if he was sober enough to ration it. But off screen and off stage he lived up to the stereotype of the miserable funnyman. He centred his life on his mother and his cat, then on the bottle. After his mother died, he used her name as another way to keep the world at a distance:

Dear Mr. Alan Coles,

Thank you for your letter addressed to Mr. Charles Hawtrey.

Mr. Hawtrey is no longer available, his whereabouts are private, and no letters are forwarded to him.

Yours truly,

Alice Dunne. (ch. 11, “The Deal Years”, pg. 232)

Butters notes that the signature is in Hawtrey’s handwriting and that the letter is typed on the same machine “used for all those begging letters stored in the BBC’s Written Archive” (pg. 233). Hawtrey was begging for work in his early years, even though he appeared “pretty much weekly on their radio network” (ch. 6, “Desperate Times”, pg. 104). Perhaps he was trying to prove to the world that he existed. But acting, like alcohol, was no cure for his existential ills. Ernest Maxin, a television producer who worked with Hawtrey during the 1960s, says that:

I always felt very sorry for him, he was a very lonely man and odd in type. He was rather like a character that you read about in a comic, a drawing rather than a real person. I always felt that when I was speaking with him, with Hattie [Jacques] and Bernard [Bresslaw] I was speaking with real people, but with Charles it was more like a Disney character. … The only time I saw him walking was on the set! It was spooky in a way. I honestly don’t think there was a real Charles Hawtrey. (ch. 8, “Carry On Charlie”, pg. 155)

Maxin notes this elusiveness elsewhere in the book:

You never saw him go or arrive [on set]! It was amazing. You’d get in for early morning rehearsals … and he’d just appear like a ghost! Same too when he left, he’d never say goodbye. … After we did Best of Friends I often used to ask people if they’d seen Charles but no, and the strange thing is nobody ever spoke about him. It was almost as though he wasn’t a real person. (ch. 7, “On the Up”, pg. 131)

Other people thought the same:

Spencer K. Gibbons: We never ever saw him sign an autograph. I never saw him come out of the theatre. It was as if he disappeared, by magic! (ch. 10, “Drink! Drink! Drink!”, pg. 215)

So Hawtrey was both unhappy and elusive. He was also part of a famously English film-series. It’s no surprise that Manchester’s Most Miserabilist Messiah was a fan:

The normally publicity-shy Morrissey would go on to eulogise Hawtrey in the NME [New Musical Express] as “the very last comic genius. [He was] sixty per cent of Carry On’s appeal. By never giving interviews and, by all accounts, being unfriendly and friendless, Hawtrey’s mystique surpasses Garbo. I personally loved him.” (ch. 12, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, pg. 239)

It’s part of Smithology that Morrissey wanted to sing with Hawtrey, who had made records himself before the war. But Hawtrey never replied to his letter, so Mozza turned to Sandy Shaw instead. It helped revive her career and it might have done the same for Hawtrey’s. Or perhaps it was beyond revival by then. On film, it had stretched from silence to smut. He was born in 1914 and first appeared as a “waif and stray” in Tell Your Children in 1922. Five decades and a world war later, he was appearing in Zeta One (1969), a “soft-core pornographic tale” about a “race of topless, large-breasted women from the planet Angvia” (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 185).

In between, he’d had hopes of higher things: he had known Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton. But he was never able to match their success. And he resented it: like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, he disliked what had brought him most success and popularity, the fey and unthreatening character who appears under various names in the Carry On films. My favourite variations on his theme are Seneca in Carry On Cleo (1964), Big Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), the Duke de Pommefrite in Carry On – Don’t Lose Your Head (1966), Captain Le Pice in Follow That Camel (1967), Private Jimmy Widdle in Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968), Charlie Muggins in Carry On Camping (1969), Tonka in Carry On Up the Jungle (1970) and Eustace Tuttle in Carry On Abroad (1972), his last film in the series.

He acted in twenty-three of the thirty Carry On films that appeared during his lifetime. Loyal to the series, he didn’t publicly express his bitterness at how little he earnt or at the typecasting he thought he’d endured:

Let’s face it, the Carry On films aren’t like ordinary films. They’re an institution, a corner of comedy that will be forever England! [They] haven’t made me rich, but they’ve given me a world-wide identity. (ch. 1, “The Death of Charles Hawtrey”, pg. 27)

He was right: they didn’t make him rich. Wes Butters says he earnt “£46,000” from the films and the TV specials that accompanied them. It’s little enough for the pleasure he brought to millions and continues to bring. You can re-live some of that pleasure in the stills and lobby-cards reproduced here. Hawtrey played sunny characters but didn’t live a sunny life:

Sir Laurence Olivier: I was coming down the Pinewood road [and] I saw this pathetic figure in an old mac, with two brown carrier bags struggling along the road, and I was sure I knew him. So I lowered the window and called out, “Isn’t it Charles Hawtrey?” and the figure looked up and said, “Oh, yes, Sir Laurence.” So I said, “Come in and I’ll give you a lift.” He told me he struggles along that road every day, getting the Tube from Uxbridge, to film the Carry On pictures which must make a lot of money. Surely they’d provide a motor-car for him? (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 193)

No, they didn’t, but they did make him a famous face, if not a famous name. His last film was The Princess and the Pea in 1979, his last appearance in the children’s television series Supergran in 1987. He spent his retirement by the sea in Deal on the Kentish coast, hiring rentboys, being rude to local residents and pursuing “Drink! Drink! Drink!” He and his unhappiness are gone, but his comic creations shine on.

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