BOOK REVIEW / What Larry was like as a dad: My father Laurence Olivier - Tarquin Olivier: Headline, pounds 16.99

THIS is a curiosity: a Life by a son who barely saw his father but who adored him from afar and treasured every scrap of conversation, every fragment of correspondence. The prevailing note is almost unbearable pathos.

Olivier had already fallen out of love with Tarquin's mother, Jill Esmond, by the time he was born in 1936. Though Tarquin omits to tell us this, we know from Donald Spoto's biography that Jill Esmond was a lesbian and the marriage only fleetingly consummated. Olivier, with typical insensitivity, took his new love, Vivien Leigh, to visit mother and baby in hospital (and later asked Jill Esmond if he could have Tarquin's pram back, for the baby Vivien was briefly, unsuccessfully, expecting). Tarquin's childhood knowledge of his father was therefore confined to occasional weekends, and even more occasional parental visits to school. There is a particularly harrowing account of waiting anxiously for his father to arrive for the Fourth of July, watched by other boys: when Olivier finally came, hours late, Tarquin was near tears.

Most of Olivier's paternal advice, such as it was, seems to have been about sex - the snares and dangers and delusions thereof: 'Just recognise that all the romantic ecstasies, all the rosie reveries . . . are basically, simply and solely wicked Old Nature's cold-blooded calculated bribe, to bring children into the world.' Not surprisingly, he worried that Tarquin would become gay: he insisted on urinating beside him, presumably to check appearances. (According to Tarquin, Olivier also had an obsessive interest in the female genitalia and 'seeing over and over again the designs of nature which were dedicated, among other things, to the enjoyment of men. His enthusiastic exposure to matters which his conscience had denied ever existed replaced his unnatural dread with a healthy deference.')

Later, when Tarquin was 20 and Olivier's marriage to Leigh was breaking down, they went on holiday together (the only time they ever did) and on the way back, Olivier watched a middle-aged woman crossing the road: 'See her?' he exclaimed, 'That woman? She's my age to the very day. Fifty: and who wants her? Where's the sex in her?'

Olivier said in his autobiography that he was always embarrassed by Tarquin and one can appreciate why: his son's adoration must have seemed a constant reproach. Even as an adult, Tarquin burst into tears when he learned that Joan Plowright was expecting a baby which would deprive him of his exclusive filial role, meagre though that had been. Thereafter he saw even less of his father than before, and Olivier even refused to read a travel book he wrote on the grounds that he was 'too busy'.

Squirm-making though this book is in so many ways, and arch and irritating in style, it gives a more vivid picture of Olivier offstage than either his own autobiography or the Spoto tome. Tarquin captures his father's gaiety, his rococo speech, his shameless showmanship, his rude remarks about other actors (especially Gielgud), and his schoolboy humour. It is a footnote to biography rather than a biography in itself, but not without a certain sickly interest.

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