My wicked, wicked ways

KNIGHT ERRANT: Memoirs of a Vagabond Actor by Robert Stephens with Michael Coveney, Hodder pounds 18
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The Independent Culture
AS THE year came to a close we lost two great classical and comic actors before their time, and both went out with memoirs written in the shadow of a slow and painful death. But the tone of each was as different as they were themselves: while Paul Eddington left us a graceful, tactful, somewhat clenched account of a life well spent, Robert Stephens went raging into that good night with a Falstaffian volume which takes us roistering back to the days when stars like Errol Flynn would routinely title their auto- biographies "My Wicked, Wicked Ways", or "Too Much Too Soon", thereby forecasting the doom and disaster which we readers were gleefully certain lay just around the corner of the next triumph.

As one of the very few actors to have been a founding member of both the English Stage Company at the Royal Court and Olivier's National Theatre at the Old Vic, Stephens was in fact uniquely placed to give us a solemn history of plays and players across the last 40 years. But he chose instead to go the tabloid route; having seldom made the money he should have in his life, it was surely understandable that he would wish to make a profit out of it, if only for his widow.

As a result, we get the affairs rather than the artistry. Indeed the wonder is that with four wives, plus Antonia Fraser and Margaret Leighton and Vanessa Redgrave, he had any time for acting: one could probably still hold a small backstage cocktail party for those mistresses not mentioned here.

But this is not just "my secret life with the stars". Stephens' book opens, for instance, with a touching and very funny essay by his Boswell, as Michael Coveney starts his journey around the actor by going to visit him in a nursing home surrounded by other old players, few of whom are certain of who they now are, let alone whom they once played. The tone here is that of Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings, and absolutely right for that autumnal moment in Sir Robert's long farewell to greatness.

But the book then leaps ahead, with Stephens rendering scattershot verdicts on those he has worked with: on a single page we get Albert Finney as Hamlet ("very bad"), Albert Finney as Macbeth ("ghastly"), and Albert Finney in The Cherry Orchard ("made a balls of that, too").

Right then, what about Laurence Harvey? "Appalling man, and what's worse an appalling actor." Tony Richardson? "Useless and unpleasant." Like a bull in a theatrical china shop, Stephens dismisses in a couple of syllables any performer or performance he hasn't cared for, and quite a few of those he has. There' s not a lot of context here, and a good few of the verdicts are, to say the least, questionable, while the backstage stories inevitably have only one-sided value.

Yet, although you might not always gather it from these memoirs, Stephens was most often a loving and lovable man, the great Falstaff of his age and perhaps also the Lear. Nobody since Redgrave, as Coveney remarks, has ever been better at wasted majesty or poetic wrecks; he was also a gossip and a serial womaniser who just happened to be one of the most charismatic players of the post-Olivier generation.

To some extent these memoirs do not do him full justice: yet the stories are wonderful. Where else, in all the thousands of words written about Olivier, would you have come across him standing in front of his dressing- room mirror, totally blacked up for Othello and muttering mournfully to Stephens: "How tragic that such a great actor should have such a very small cock."

Stephens was, at his best, a unique and ribald diarist, but this is really just the gossip-column sketch for the full biography which I hope we shall now get elsewhere: he deserves to be set in the full context of his theatrical times, and we need to know about him from others, especially now that he has told us so vividly what he thought of them, either in bed or on the boards.

! Sheridan Morley is writing the authorised biography of Sir John Gielgud.