Some are born diffident, some achieve diffidence, and some have diffidence thrust upon them. The diaries of Richard Eyre, who ran the National Theatre for a decade (1987-97), are full of his natural shyness, his failing self-confidence and abashed reactions to criticism. An anti-hero at the helm of an arts flagship is a very British phenomenon, but it's not easy to love self-doubt as a literary tone. At times you long to give this self-deprecating director a good slap.
The cultural supremo puts in long hours, and moans about having to wear a suit and attend meetings. Anxiety levels rise as each opening night approaches; he gets depressed and takes Prozac. The high points - David Hare's trilogy, Arcadia, Angels in America, The Madness of George III, Guys and Dolls, Ian McKellen's Richard III and Ian Holm's King Lear - stick out like tasty plums in a dry pudding of quotations, celebrity anecdotes and barbed gossip.
Some legends don't survive. Daniel Day Lewis, who walked off in the ghost scene in Hamlet, was said to have seen his own father's ghost on stage. In fact, he couldn't take the strain. Equally interesting are John Osborne's bile against a version of his Inadmissible Evidence, and Michael Gambon on the NT's non-smoking policy ("The stage is like a war game and some wounded people have to smoke").
When Eyre arrives at the NT, it's crying out for reform. Nobody knows how much each production costs and the staff grumble ceaselessly. But although Eyre managed the transition from a dusty high-art theatre with worthy productions and poor box office to the glittering palace of novelties of recent years, you never get a good impression of how he actually did it.
After he decides to quit, the search for a successor begins, and the tittle-tattle increases. Like two virgins, Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry play hard to get, and miss their chance. Trevor Nunn quickly becomes next-in-line, proving his populist credentials by talking knowledgeably about footie.
National Service is a thinner book that Peter Hall's titanic diaries. If you want to know what makes Eyre tick, read his autobiographical Utopia and Other Places. The best passages in his diaries are about private life. When he describes the death of his father, Eyre brings an artist's eye to grief, contrasting his feelings of pity and loss with the beauty of a lovely day.
One entry from 1994 shows that Eyre may have influenced history in a dramatic way. He meets Tony Blair, who reminds him that, many years previously, Eyre addressed Blair's class at Fettes. Eyre met the boy Blair, shook his hand, and "made him want to be an actor". Could it be that Eyre's real "service to the nation" was inspiring Blair to act the part of sincere leader?
The reviewer is the author of 'In-Yer-face Theatre: British drama today' (Faber)Reuse content