A week in books

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The Independent Culture
The oddest revelations in Garry O'Connor's much-touted life of Peggy Ashcroft involve the great thespian's passion for cricket. Playing Margaret of Anjou at Stratford in 1963, the grande dame of the stage tucked a radio transmitter into her bra during rehearsals so she could listen to the Test Match. She also organised a Lancashire-Yorkshire charity match: E M E Ashcroft, bowled Len Hutton, 16. Later, cricket chatter would sustain a long "chaste affair" with Harold Pinter.

Indeed, O'Connor's The Secret Woman (Weidenfeld, pounds 20) omits to notice that - if you ignore her first and last husbands, and the passing trade - Dame Peggy's now-famous roster of celebrity lovers makes up an eleven. This team bats all the way down, with a slight loss of sparkle in the middle: J B Priestley, Paul Robeson, Walter Sickert, Mark Dignam, Theodore Komisarjevsky, Michel Saint-Denis, Billy Buchan (John's son), Burgess Meredith, Tony Britton, William Devlin, George Devine. (Pinter could be the non-playing coach.) As a new twist to the showbiz bio, this has potential. Coming soon: Dame Edith Evans and the catenaccio defence.

After finishing O'Connor's book, you crave some escape from the stultifying limits of its genre. As a "property" as well as a text, it reveals what's gone wrong with the tacky trade in private lives. Extracted in the press for the usual handsome fee attached to sex with the stars, the mushy passages that name those paramours will become the book for most of its audience. Few will bother now about its critical lapses.

Before she died in 1991, Dame Peggy worked with Michael Billington on a sound survey of her roles, from Juliet to The Jewel in the Crown. Sex, in other words, is all O'Connor has to sell, as he can't quote from letters (the children refused him permission). Even so, he fails to build a solid bridge between the turbulent off-stage soul and the regal, even chilly star. And his syntax brings to mind a knitting-basket after the attentions of a pair of frisky kittens. We even learn that "Harriet Walter first met Peggy when she was 74" - bad news for Ms Walter. But who needs an editor when the papers will bombard you with big cheques for soft-centred tittle-tattle? The book is a meretricious muddle. And so is the publishing culture that wraps shabby goods in sensation-seeking hype.

Boyd Tonkin

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