Film Studies: There's nothing so suspicious as an upright Englishman

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The Independent Culture

Here comes Arena with another superb, silky revelation that one more masterly English actor was superb, silky and not altogether there. Perhaps before it perishes, Arena will find one great actor who was exactly and merely what the eye saw, straightforward, honest, a man's man... etc. Yes, I know, this boring stalwart will likely turn out to have been a wicked confidence trickster, a mole-ier Mole than Alan Bennett, who merely masqueraded as a great actor so that he could get close enough to the Queen to off her with knighthood's sword. It's more, perhaps, than a television film can accommodate - this eternal antagonism between the upright Englishman and the world's bitter experience that no other type is more reliably worthy of suspicion.

This year the subject is Alec Guinness, and the film-maker is David Thompson. Over the years this Mr Thompson has proved to be an impeccably decent and talented man who has stood up with great good humour in the face of misspelling and being regularly abused as that other dreadful DT. Yes, I am his friend, but trust me in this: I have so much psychic horror at misspelling our name that my opinion in asserting his merit has to be trusted.

You know you're on safe ground with Thompson's documentary from the moment some speculation over Guinness's mix of real and ghost is played over a sublime reaction shot taken from one of the actor's television interviews. Was there ever a face more level, bland and elusive? Was there ever a voice so cream-smooth, so much the hushed baritone of liturgy, and so steadily poised on the edge of teasing? It is quite clear now that Guinness the man and the emotional wreck regarded every interview as an opportunity to play his most testing role - himself.

Among the witnesses Thompson calls are Piers Paul Read (the biographer chosen by the family to uncover his most elaborate subterfuges) and John Le Carre, the creator of one of Guinness's best roles, spy-master George Smiley. But there are other valuable insights from friend and actress Eileen Atkins (she describes how impossible it was to take him to dinner - you had to let Alec take charge, preferably at the Connaught).

Read's book has uncovered the "facts" of this film already - the smothered homosexuality that seems to have lasted Guinness a lifetime; the mystery of his origins, and the way that uncertainty seems to have crushed his own emotional life. His mother, a Miss Agnes Cuffe, who liked to pass as Miss De Cuffe, was a saucepot who happened to be available at the Cowes regatta in 1913. Mercifully, only two gentlemen she encountered there had a chance of being the father, one a Guinness, one a Geddes (the man referred to as "uncle", and the likely payer of Master Alec's school fees). Eileen Atkins reasons that the mother was unsure which toff was the father, so she never told Alec. But she concludes that this had a most damaging effect upon the young man's emotional life.

This is all plausible, and there is enough material hinted at in this film to evoke a very odd, elusive, and even cruel man, someone whose sweet smile masked unhappiness in the way a Pope's gentle handshake might condone the slaughter of the innocents. Still, it's hard now to feel pity for Guinness - in contrast, the Arena film on Dirk Bogarde gave a more immediate impression of Bogarde's own anguish. The only thing unhappiness did for Guinness was to create the muddle that had to be cloaked in magnificence. Could he have been so successful without this woeful inner mess? Not to be facetious about this, but if you are in the position of an Agnes Cuffe (with or without the "De"), what are you going to do with your boy? Yes, we know that every manual on child-rearing will say be honest, be nurturing, in which case your boy may grow up to be captain of the school and opening bat for England. But opening batsmen usually disclose feet of clay. They also give up thick edges and leave bats hung out to dry - every give-away of lousy character.

But if you aspire to have a son who might be the best Hamlet of his time, eight D'Ascoynes in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the Colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai, George Smiley or Gulley Jimson, just lie to him, rebuke his urge for cuddling and generally behave like a self-centred saucepot. It's the only way to go.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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