Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Olivier, by Philip Ziegler. MacLehose Press, £25

Despite efforts of biographers, says Nicholas de Jongh, Olivier, that  phenomenal shape-shifting actor,  is still an undiscovered country

Star-struck or scandal-prone biographers of Laurence Olivier  have already offered us portraits of the man behind the masks, of an actor whose disguises and surprises, physical and vocal transformations, have made him versatility’s epitome. From where did it spring, that fount of passion and power he brought in triumph to those Shakespearean fighting men, Richard III and Othello, Henry V and Coriolanus? Philip Ziegler, a judicious and official biographer of Top Persons from Edward VIII to Harold Wilson, comes late to the field in a book which spends far too much of its time on its knees in dazzled hero-worship.

This is no position in which to find such a serious biographer, and Ziegler’s state of dazzlement sometimes clouds his eyes and mind, leading him to fuzzy hyperbole. The biographer also admits to having “a lack of theatrical background”. He is not that sure of his foreground either. There are significant errors of fact and interpretation. Ziegler suggests Olivier seemed “resentful” in the 1970s that Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud “had struck up a working relationship as well as a friendship which was producing some spectacular performances”. In fact, that relationship had begun more than 40 years earlier when the two were at the Old Vic together in 1930, recurred later and was crucial in 1953 when both of them appeared in NC Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, and Gielgud was arrested for importuning.

The dominant theatre producer of the mid-20th century, Binkie Beaumont of HM Tennent (Ziegler mis-spells the name as Tennant), is described as eschewing the experimental and having “little use for any except the most popular of classics”. How wrong can you get? Beaumont’s impressive production list ranged from Medea, Otway’s Venice Preserved and TS Eliot’s Family Reunion by way of the London premieres of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

Having worked his way through 200 Olivier-related books, it would have been valuable if Ziegler had offered some fresh assessment of Olivier’s enigmatic character. “I don’t know who I am… I’m a hollow man,” Ziegler interestingly records him saying to his wife Joan Plowright in mind-losing old age. Now there’s a cue for exploration.

True, Ziegler’s biography conducts a workmanlike trek through the high-born career, with its three marriages, the second to the unhappy, bi-polar Vivien Leigh, and the triumph of the will that surely helped Olivier survive a cluster of late, horrible illness and continue working. It pays useful homage to Olivier’s extraordinary achievement in setting up the National Theatre at the Old Vic and minting the blueprint for its creation on the South Bank. Yet the fact that Ziegler was given first access to 50-plus hours of taped conversations that Olivier made with the writer Mark Amory yields no important revelations. We already knew all too well that the actor was prone to wild temper, addicted to jealousy, prone to insecurity and to a sense of gnawing rivalry that made him anxious about the few actors in his own rank, not to mention the promising young. Richardson treated Lord Olivier with chronic wariness. Gielgud, whom Olivier both admired and also stupidly wrote off as a melodious singer of Shakespeare, behaved with similar caution.

As late as 1975, when Gielgud was in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, he told me Olivier came to see him backstage. “You’re not going to play King Lear?” he asked Gielgud. “I told him I wasn’t - though there was talk of my doing so. I wasn’t going to tell him. I wanted to put him off. He’s so competitive.” 

A youthful Anthony Hopkins went to audition for Sir Laurence while he was playing his Black-and-White Minstrel Othello, and offered to perform the death scene. “You’ve got a nerve,” Olivier retorted, and took a cigarette exclaiming, “I’m so nervous in case you’re better than me.”

Sir Laurence could also be a perfect diplomat who played  at sympathy with whomever he needed to keep on side. Artfully, he kept fending off the interfering Chairman of the National, Lord Chandos, who was keen to get rid of  Olivier’s dramaturg, the indispensable but unwisely provocative Kenneth Tynan. 

That great director Tyrone Guthrie had told the young Olivier that he must always love the characters he played, however awful. Imbued with this spirit of empathy, at the Old Vic he brought in not only Tynan, but also as his deputies John Dexter and William Gaskill, left-wing directors from the Royal Court. Their avant-garde notions of the theatre left a man of his old-fashioned beliefs disconcerted.

Olivier’s National was, though, notorious for failure to secure the services of major actors from his own generation, aside from Michael Redgrave, who was already showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and soon had to leave. Gielgud appeared twice for Olivier - miscast in both cases. Ziegler defends Olivier on the count of wanting to keep his rivals out. His defence does not convince. Olivier’s successor, Peter Hall, coaxed in Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield and Gielgud again.

If only Ziegler had taken a more critical stance, exploring the complexity of Olivier’s character - with his chronic   yearning for omnipotence on stage, his mammoth vanities and recurring anxiety about his looks. “I can’t act with my own face. I have to be disguised,” he said. There was always a false nose or a false something with which he wanted to adorn himself. He worked on a role by imagining a character’s external looks before delving into the question of what made him tick. He had no time for Stanislavsky’s introspection.

Ziegler does suggest that Olivier’s childhood, during which his adored mother died suddenly and his father treated him with lordly contempt, caused lasting damage. In general, though, the narrative avoids any psychological diagnoses. Some biographers have made something of claims that there was an intermittent and secret gay aspect to Olivier’s philandering, but Ziegler briskly dismisses them with the distaste of a 1970s judge presiding over a distasteful obscenity case. I did, though, once interview a distinguished heterosexual actor who recalled how in the 1960s Olivier “had gone off with his new boyfriend”. I registered surprise. The actor assured me it was a definite feature of the actor’s life. I wonder. Olivier remains to some extent an undiscovered country; or, in his magnificent case, a continent.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road