Nothing to it, old boy

After three years' absence, Sir Alec Guinness is returning to the screen as an academic faced with an old people's home. A touching parallel for the octogenarian actor? Not a bit of it.
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The manager of a sheltered home for the elderly is boasting of the facilities she has to offer her tenants: "We have a little library bursting with westerns and thrillers and Reader's Digests, and Christmas parties with a conjuror." As she comes to the end of her wearisome list, a potential inmate, a small, dignified old man in a tweed three-piece and a deer-stalker, replies with an immaculately straight face: "There's no bingo at all, then?" Only the ironic twinkle in his eyes betrays his true feelings.

This scene from Eskimo Day, a "Screen One" showing on BBC1 next Friday, demonstrates once again that, with Sir Alec Guinness, the eyes have it. This may be his first film since A Foreign Field in 1993 and he may now be in his 83rd year, but the mischievous, darting, ocular presence is in no way diminished. Jack Rosenthal, who wrote Eskimo Day, confirms that "Sir Alec's eyes are very expressive. They have an innocence on some occasions, an absolute twinkle on others, and a great sadness on yet others. He's also exemplary at something close to my heart - the ability to say a line which is on the surface comic and at the same time touching. He knows how to perform that exactly."

Piers Haggard, who directed the film, a moving comedy about the need for parents to let go of their children, points out that "over the years, he's had this wonderful sense of irony. In this role, he has a naughtiness, a scallywag quality, which is so nice in a parent rather than a child."

He has the same sparkle off-screen. Rosenthal calls it "the aura of just being Alec Guinness". Giving his first newspaper interview for some years, he invited me to lunch at the Connaught in central London on the day after he finished filming Eskimo Day. Immaculately turned out in a greeny-brown suit, check shirt and red tie, he is much shorter than you'd expect (isn't it funny how the screen plays tricks? You would have thought that the Oscar-winning stiff-upper-lip Colonel from The Bridge on the River Kwai was about six foot two).

Ever the gentleman, Guinness insisted on paying for the meal and displayed such old-fashioned courtesies as holding the restaurant door open for me (a person more than 50 years his junior) and offering me the salt and pepper before serving himself. He was most concerned that my main course was not substantial enough (it was). Rosenthal recalls that Guinness received a box of expensive Belgian chocolates on the set of Eskimo Day and proceeded to hand them round the whole crew.

If you can unlock his veneer of reserve, Guinness is a rich store-house of wisdom with shelves containing stories from as far back as1933, when he had a walk-on in Victor Saville's Evensong. Much of his language is overlaid with an appealingly thick surface of self-deprecation, but delving beneath that, what he says possesses the sensible perspective that only true maturity can bring. Throughout the meal, it was hard not to feel like Luke Skywalker receiving life lessons from Obi-Ben Kenobi.

On screen, he has always been known as a "master of disguise"; indeed, a recent biography of him by Garry O'Connor bears that title. The man himself pooh-poohs the tag. "There have been a number of films where I've worn no make-up - including this one and Little Dorrit. That whole thing was a pure publicity gimmick that the Rank Organisation put out. I was under contract to them for four pictures and they didn't know how to use me because I obviously didn't fit into any juvenile or handsome leading man category. Just after the War at the Old Vic, there was a great fashion - really started by Olivier - for huge disguises. There were false noses and beards all over the place. It was all rather painful. All that stuff - like the `Man of a Thousand Faces' - it's such rubbish, isn't it? There's such a lot of balls talked about it."

Despite this modesty, it is fair to say that Guinness submerges himself in a role, so that all that remains visible is the character; think of his bravura performance playing eight very different members of the d'Ascoyne family (including a formidable matriarch) in Kind Hearts and Coronets. "He likes to disappear into characters," avers Haggard. "He's a very shy man - not all actors are loud and blustering. From the Ealing comedies through the Graham Greenes to Star Wars, he's made an enormous contribution, always with a very distinct sense of character. He loves getting inside unusual characters. He's truly a character actor in that he makes himself into the character - unlike John Gielgud who makes the character into himself."

This submersion of self into character has led some to ask who the real Alec Guinness is. More mercurial than Laurence Olivier, he never achieved the same acclaim or sex-symbol status. Guinness has also been criticised for "opaqueness". But that unknowability serves only to enhance his allure, as Sir Peter Ustinov commented in 1994: "His elusive nature sees to it that however well one knows him, one is never without an ardent desire to know him better."

Guinness's response is characteristically down-to-earth. "The mystique lies in the fact that actors are adolescents who have never grown up. We're emotionally underdeveloped, there's a childish side to every actor. If one is going to be high-falutin about it, you're playing with your own psyche, mixed with a certain amount of calculation."

He is noted as the consummate professional on set. He sustained a hernia stretching for something up a tree during the shoot for Smiley's People in 1982 and carried on filming without telling anyone. Haggard reveals that he accepted notes on his performance in Eskimo Day without any huffiness. "He's the British ideal of a completely disciplined team player."

Guinness could not be described as a Method actor - "I like not wasting time," he says, tartly - but is still meticulous in his research. He is known to have prepared for roles by observing animals at the zoo. Doing background for the part of Lawrence of Arabia in a play by Terence Rattigan, he visited Lawrence's cottage in Dorset, where the caretaker recalled Lawrence's "curious duck's waddle". "I thought, `that's the sort thing an actor likes to hear'," Guinness chuckles, "and never stopped that waddle from then on."

Perhaps Guinness's greatest skill, though, is to act as a still small voice of calm in a storm of over-acting. The theatre director Matthew Francis once opined that "he is not a flamboyant actor, but you can't help but watch, because everyone around him suddenly seems to be doing far too much. It's an active stillness."

Haggard takes up the theme. "He can play reserve and ambiguity very, very well. For instance, you never knew what was going on with Smiley [the spymaster in both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People]. That made him very lethal as well as searchingly intelligent. Sir Alec knows how to draw the eye by doing very little. He can focus his power so he takes possession of the screen very naturally and without wasting time. He has this clarity which means that whatever he has to offer is produced through a burning glass, in white heat."

That calmness helps to give Guinness's performances an air of authenticity. "People always say the essential ingredient is truth," Rosenthal reflects. "When you see a truthful performance, it reverberates within your own experiences and you immediately recognise yourself. When that happens, you know it's the real thing. Has Sir Alec ever given a bad performance?"

Like John Major a couple of years ago, Guinness's mantra is "back to basics". "I could never be called pyrotechnical," he observes. "I remember Olivier got a bit suspicious of me when I played the Fool to his Lear. I was just still, I did absolutely nothing - which is what I enjoy doing - and he couldn't believe it. I love simplicity - in whatever form, in prose or painting. Of course, there are times when one enjoys something elaborate and fantastic, but my own taste is for simple, clean lines. I don't know how to cope with the other. Noel Coward used to say `just learn the lines and don't bump into the furniture - that's all that's required of you.' My reaction against some of the pretentious stuff that's going on is absolutely with Noel on that.

"You can tell immediately whether it's a good performance," he continues, hitting his stride now. "It's not if you're conscious of someone acting. People who think they are rather sophisticated say, `oh, I so admire his or her technique'. What's that? It sounds a bit creepy. You go and see Maggie Smith and she makes you laugh and you don't know how she does it. Or with Edith Evans, you don't see the wheels go round because you're too absorbed in her performance."

How many times have audiences over the last 60-odd years found themselves absorbed in Guinness's performances? He is as close as you can get to embodying the cliche of "the living legend". Yet he looks back with characteristic self-effacement over perhaps the richest CV in cinema history, one containing two Oscars and three Baftas. "All the roles have been challenging," he avers. "Now it's a challenge just to be able to stand upright."

He still turns down lots of offers; he is adamant that in particular "I won't have anything to do with outer space. Presumably drawing to the end of one's life, I don't want to be suspended on wires".

Ever lively, though, he has certainly not ruled out the possibility of further work. "I hope Eskimo Day is not the last, because too many taxi drivers are asking me, `Oh, have you retired, governor?'," he says. With a twinkle in his eye.

n Eskimo Day, part of Screen One, is on BBC1 at 9.35pm on Good Friday