The Quiet Man: Sir Alec Guinness is 80 next month. Friends and colleagues recall working with English acting's mildest master

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The Independent Culture
SIMON LANGTON, Director, 'Smiley's People' (1982)

I suppose it would be wrong to say that I didn't find it fairly alarming at first, working with him. I admired him intensely for all the films I'd seen. I was of a generation that was brought up on the Ealing comedies and there was also the fact that he'd created a precedent with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I met him in the Neal Street Restaurant. We had lunch and, I remember, talked about goats most of the time - his wife keeps them. I was sort of being vetted, and it went very well. He wasn't a man of temperament: he speaks softly and carries a big stick. One had to gauge his mood on a particular day by searching his eyes.

He was entirely professional. During the filming, he got a hernia. He didn't tell me. There was one moment when he had to stretch up for something in a tree and while he was stretching he felt it go. That was only a quarter of the way through filming, but he never made any fuss about it.

In Smiley's People we tried to find moments of humour. There was one scene that took place inside a girlie club in Hamburg. We took over a London nightclub and filled it with naked girls. I wasn't sure how he was going to react. He sat there with an enigmatic grin, but didn't protest in any way. It was such an incongruous thing to watch him sitting there, smoking his cigarette, with all these women around him.

We used to rehearse in one of those rehearsal rooms around London. Certain actors will come in and hail anyone they know across the room; you have to tell them to be quiet so that you can get on with the rehearsal. But he would come in and tiptoe round the outside of the room, and set himself down there, out of sight. He would have hated it if people had come in and said 'Hello'. The only reason you knew he was there, was a little curl of smoke . . . rather like a cat.

DAME WENDY HILLER, Actress

He's very shy. I was in my dressing room at the National (playing Mrs Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman, 1975) and I had my make-up half-on and half-off, and there was a knock and I opened the door, and there was Alec Guinness. He introduced himself. Of course I knew who he was. And we stood and looked at each other. It was difficult to know who was the more shy. Neither of us was any gift to social life. I think I asked him in for a drink, I hope I did, but he silently declined and went away. From those hesitating words I just gathered that he must have approved, otherwise he wouldn't have appeared, dear man. It's one of my most cherished memories.

MATTHEW FRANCIS, Director of Greenwich Theatre

Most actors act too much, he acts very little. He's 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. I saw Olivier play Shylock and it was the polar-opposite. He was a flamboyant, dandy Shylock. Guinness was equally telling, hardly doing anything at all. It added to the sense of the man's normality. It was all the harder to imagine him as a devil from hell. At its least impressive there's an opaqueness where you don't quite know what's going on. There's such a gimlet-like concentration. And the voice is like the purr of a very high-grade car. It's a very sleek engine.

ALEC McCOWEN, Actor

I was in the audience at a charity performance at the Old Vic, and the actors were sitting around in chairs (on stage), waiting to do their bit. It wasn't until Alec Guinness got up that anyone realised that he had been sitting there for about an hour. It's an amazing camouflage he has. When I think of Guinness I think of a face that is entirely a smile - like Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. One seems to recognise the humanity in his performances rather more readily than in most other actors. There's an instant recognition. It's almost Dickensian. There's a kindliness which is quite overwhelming. Those eyes seem to have seen everything - even as a young boy - and seem to have been amused. I think of him as a sort of straight clown. I always get a little nervous when he acts dignified. I had dinner with him once and he did say something that has echoed in my mind ever since - that an actor could only do one thing at a time. Whether it's true or not, I don't know. I always try and do two things at a time. But he said it quite fiercely.

EILEEN ATKINS, Actress

I was in The Cocktail Party (1968). He directed that as well as playing Reilly. People forget he's a very good director too. He taught me a lot. I was making all the points and spelling them out too obviously. He said, 'Terrific, but now you can just gather it up and say it. There's no need to make the points.' He's the best speaker of Eliot. He has the right timbre of voice and an extraordinary clarity. It's said so simply.

I was in Smiley's People too. He talks a lot louder than most people do when they are filming. Most people talk more quietly than people do in real life. I was amazed. I said, 'Why do you speak so loudly?' He said, 'I find you can get infinitely more variety if you speak loudly and the sound man can always take it down.'

The thing he does brilliantly, and he's the only person able to do it - except for Anthony Hopkins, who does it now - is to do absolutely nothing in a close-up, and you know what he is thinking.

IAN RICHARDSON, Actor

Sir Alec's masterly character creations can be likened to the artistry of that great painter Seurat, who built each detail of colour and shape on his canvas by a series of tiny dots, which blend with thousands of other tiny dots to achieve the complete visual interpretation. Such painstaking artistic creativity lies at the heart of his genius.

JILL BALCON, Actress and neighbour

He has such astonishing powers of observation. I do know how meticulous he is in study, even for parts he has eventually not played. He starts the research at once. Down to the finest detail. Which is how it should be. It sounds high-falutin', but his acting reminds me of Eliot in the Four Quartets: 'a condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)'.

We live in the same village. I learn something every time I see him, which is very, very often. If I want to know something I ring him up. He's a wonderful friend, so imaginative and limitless in his giving. I'm on the receiving end all the time. And all I ever do is give him an occasional pot of my home-made marmalade.

MARIUS GORING, Actor

We got to know one another in a play about Noah, Noe it was called, a rather bad translation of very good French play. It was at the New Theatre in 1934. The part Alec was playing was an animal, a wolf I think. I was a son of Noah, and Noah himself was John Gielgud. We were a rather young company, and we weren't quite sure about Alec - he looked so old, so very serious. We all decided he must be much older than we were. In fact I was astonished to discover later that he is only two years older than I am.

JOHN MORTIMER, Writer

As well as Voyage Round My Father (1971), I did a television play called Edwin (1984) that he was in. I think he's a wonderful actor, very understated. When he's preparing for a part, he goes and looks at animals in the zoo. He's quite difficult to get to know, but very loyal to his friends. My father was given to great rages, which Olivier (in the television version of Voyage Round My Father) was good at, being more of a sadist, while Guinness is more masochistic. He did say in his own defence, when it was pointed out to him: 'I hit my egg very hard in the breakfast scene . . .'

CHARLES STURRIDGE, Director, 'A Handful of Dust' (1987) and 'Foreign Fields' (1993)

Alec was intimately involved in the whole genesis of Foreign Fields. Originally it was assumed he would want to play the part eventually taken by Leo McKern. Two things particularly drew him to Cyril (the dumb, shell-shocked veteran in the play): he was attracted to the subject and he saw a chance to do something directly comic playing a more pantomimic part. I particularly remember how happy and at ease he was all during the filming. For most actors the set is a kind of dugout with lights. Alec is completely at home on a set. He forms very strong attachments to his crew, electricians, prop men and other actors. When we first worked together, in Venezuela on A Handful of Dust, I was very conscious of asking someone of his age to work in those conditions. But he completely embraced it; and, of course, if he does it, everyone else has to.

JOCELYN HERBERT, Theatre designer

I used to live in Chiswick near him and his wife Merula, and we used to take our children for walks in the park together. I remember when he got his first film contract, and Merula told me they'd decided their lives weren't going to change at all. The next time I went to supper, of course, there was champagne, and we all laughed about it. Then they moved to a beautiful house in the country, in Sussex, where they still are.

Alec was always a wonderful host. He has very fastidious tastes in wine and food and used to produce the most wonderful delicacies. He's a strange man, a little bit alarming if you don't know him. He doesn't suffer fools, though he is always very courteous to people he's working with. Many great actors are, it's the lesser ones who aren't.

CHRISTINE EDZARD, Director, 'Little Dorrit' (1987)

Alec and Dorrit were a marriage made in heaven. He did hesitate quite a long time before he said 'Yes', and he quizzed me a lot on the part. But it was a really very nice experience. He's a most extraordinarily economical actor, with a sense of humour akin to the underlying humour in Dickens, and he's so precise in details. It was Alec who introduced Cyril Cusack to me. They'd never worked together before, but they were like brothers. Cyril used to try to steal the limelight with little bits of business, and one day Alec asked him what he was doing. 'I'm thinking,' Cyril answered. 'Well, don't think too loudly,' Alec said.

DEREK GRANGER, Writer and producer, 'A Handful of Dust'

There is, of course, no other actor like him - the essence of what he presents is unique, indelible, inimitable. The quality which has marked his extraordinary life's work is its absolute fastidiousness, its wonderful delicacy and fineness. Yet he achieves this marvellous precision without a hint of fussiness or strain, every effect pared to the minimum.

His fastidiousness of execution is matched by an equal zeal in preparation, with every word of the script weighed, considered, and quickly discarded if found wanting. As Mr Todd in A Handful of Dust he studied the lilting Bajan accent from specially made recordings and his straw hat for everyday jungle-wear was modelled, with every feathery adornment in place, on the headgear of a newspaper seller he'd caught sight of on a Mayfair corner. But he never allows this detailed preparation to be obtrusive, and he obviously relishes, even in the humidity of Venezuela, the concentration and activity of the film set. It was typical of him that, after working in the sweltering jungle heat, on his one free morning before flying home to England, he should have risen at 5.30am to say goodbye to every member of the film crew.

PATRICK GARLAND, Director of Chichester Festival Theatre

Alec has a very selective eye, that picks on things that are unexpected. He invented a wonderful piece of business in Merchant of Venice. When Antonio bares his breast, Alec (as Shylock) lifted his knife. It was a domestic, down-to-earth kitchen knife - typical of him - it wasn't a scimitar. He paused, and a terrible sadistic look came over his face. Then he turned and pressed his ear to Antonio's chest to hear the beating of his heart. It was almost a piece of Victorian melodrama. It was a big gesture for someone who is often considered to be a miniaturist. I don't think that is what he is. He is a man of intimacy, which is why the cinema brings out the best in him.

SIAN PHILLIPS, Actress

He really was Smiley (in Smiley's People). It was an extraordinary realisation of a literary character. I know he's a very private man. But his work is terribly informed by who he is and his interests. There's another dimension with him. Ralph Richardson had it too. A rich interior life. He's so prepared and he's done so much work that it's really very comfortable acting with him. With some people you have endless discussions, which is partly so they can do their homework on the spot. With him, the work has been done.

SIMON CALLOW, Actor

He's the master of transformation. He changes from the inside, mainly by thought. The actual amount of make-up is minimal. He's got really deep and dark depths that are allied to a wit and delicacy. There's the quality of the Pierrot about him: moonstruck, beaming, baggy-clothed. Half in this world, half out. There was a wonderful moment in Alan Bennett's The Old Country (1977). He was playing an English spy living in Russia, and he was alone in his dacha, and he opened the drawer and took out the gun and looked at it, then put the gun back in the drawer. The temperature in the auditorium at that moment sank to freezing. There was this tremendous sense of mortality. You think, is this just me? But a couple of years later I was talking to John Dexter (the director), and he said, 'You know the moment he looked at the gun. Wasn't it incredible?'

(Photograph omitted)

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