BOOKREVIEW / Mad Major steals the scene: Utopia and other places - Richard Eyre: Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS BOOK is divided into two distinct sections. The first half is a compelling fragment of autobiography; the second consists of various articles Richard Eyre has written for newspapers and the texts of a couple of recent lectures he has delivered in defence of subsidised theatre. Good as these pieces are, it is the memoir that really claims attention.

In his substantial opening chapter, Richard Eyre recalls a paternal grandfather most people would be eager to forget. Major Eyre, who hated the 'bloody Germans', the 'bloody French' and the 'bloody Italians', cast a 'sepulchral silence' over family meals in his isolated house in Devon. He enjoyed provoking his son, and the violent rows that resulted from his taunts first attracted his grandson to the 'possibilities of drama'. He was infamous in the area around Bideford for his sudden attacks on motorists - with a horsewhip, no less. When he died, his relieved son observed: 'It just goes to show that there's a God.'

The psychopathic major had a mistress named Mrs de Las Casas, who got up during her lover's funeral service and left the church carrying a large shopping bag. The author's father, eschewing filial affection with ease, followed her back to the old boy's house, where he caught her filching the silver cutlery. 'He always wanted me to have this,' the obliging woman explained. It was surely the least she deserved, but she went away empty-handed.

In common with hundreds of others, Richard Eyre came close to his parents only when they were dying. His mother endured that cruellest of diseases, Alzheimer's, for 10 years, and his father suffered a stroke. 'I'm sorry if I made you unhappy,' his father remarked not long before his death. Then, as if to ward off any further expression of feeling, he asked what time the Gold Cup from Cheltenham was being televised.

Eyre's memories are all the more affecting for being so familiar. He writes sorrowfully, but not mawkishly, about wasted opportunities for love. When he turns to his early manhood and his short and blighted career as an actor, he becomes a little more circumspect. There are some amusing anecdotes, though. As Mountjoy in Henry V he had to say 'You know me by my habit', and noticed one night that the English army were pretending to masturbate under their chain mail.

The rest of the book is made up of tributes to Granville Barker, Olivier, the impish Ken Campbell, and the extraordinary Romanian actor, director and quasi-politician Ion Caramitru. Tony Harrison is saluted, and so is Peter Brook. Most moving of all is the short essay on Ian Charleson, who played Hamlet at the National Theatre a matter of weeks before his death from Aids:

He wasn't playing the part, he became it. By the end of the performance he was visibly exhausted, each line of his final scene painfully wrung from him, his farewell and the character's agonisingly merged. He stood at the curtain call like a tired boxer, battered by applause.