Shades of the green room

Sheridan Morley revels in a dose of theatrical gossip; Scratch an Actor by Ned Sherrin, Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 15.99 Sherrin's Year by Ned Sherrin, Virgin, pounds 16.99

It is going to be still more difficult than usual this Christmas to walk into any bookshop without stumbling over bits of Ned Sherrin: no less than five books out this month alone, of which three need not detain us long - two paperback reprints of his recent anthologies, an Oxford Book of Humorous Quotations (pounds 7.99) and Theatrical Anecdotes (Virgin, pounds 7.99), plus Remembrance (Michael Joseph, pounds 17.50), a collection of memorial service readings chosen and introduced by Sherrin in his role as The Oldie's memorial correspondent.

The other two books are new: his first novel, and a diary of 1996. The novel, Scratch an Actor, ("and you'll find an actress" is the other half of that Dorothy Parker quotation) is a backstage chronicle set in Coronation Year, full of showbiz gossip for which a fictional background has been chosen as Sherrin's only alternative to the libel suits.

But let's not forget that Sherrin's first great partner, Caryl Brahms, gave him a sharp training in the art of the comic theatrical novel and, 40 years later, her master-class has paid off. Sherrin has a precise wit and an invaluable green room recall: the ghosts of the Redgraves (notably Sir Michael's father Roy) and the shadows of Gielgud and many other Shaftesbury Avenue figures from the Fifties hover about this story of an actor-manager trying to cobble together a musical out of Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

But Scratch An Actor is more than just a fictional recycling of green room gossip: Sherrin is sharp enough to come up with a plot all his own, only using other people's half-told tales when they genuinely fit his narrative. All in all, this is one of the best comic novels of the theatre I've read, and just about the most accurate.

His diary, surprisingly for so careful a chronicler of stage stories, is sometimes a little less meticulous; some appalling proof reading gives us mis-spellings of Noel Willman, Benn Levy and George Stiles and a lengthy story about Paul Scofield and Gladys Cooper in The Holly & The Ivy might work better if either of them had ever appeared in it, together or separately: the play in question here was, ironically, Wynyard Brown's A Question of Fact.

On the upside, we get some wonderful examples of Ned's quixotic ebullience, the unbelievable information that Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth once starred in the South African Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and a daily log of footlights, first nights and other frolics which will be of infinite value to any 21st-century social historian trying to assess what it was like to be around the West End in the late 90s. Like Agate's Egos, the Sherrin diaries deserve to run into at least nine or ten volumes, so full are they of great gossip and surprising revelation: Ned here outs himself with commendably casual references to "feasting with panthers" (as Wilde always described his gay encounters) but he is closer to Chips Channon than Alan Clark in his private priorities. A good party, a good play, a good meal and only then, perhaps, a bit of the other.

It would have taken most of us five years to get through a diary like this and remain as buoyant at the end of it: and Sherrin is 65 and comes from a farm in Somerset, almost the only facts you won't discover in this revealing chronicle.

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