John Gielgud: When England hounded a hero

John Gielgud's arrest for cottaging in 1953 sparked public outrage and, for the actor, private agony. A new play tells the story of the scandal

The most terrible moment in John Gielgud's life – on which he maintained a public silence for 50 years – is about to be put on public view. Nicholas de Jongh, theatre critic of the Evening Standard, has written a play in which we will witness Gielgud, played by Jasper Britton, give the glad eye in a public lavatory to a man who then turns out to be an undercover policeman.

But Plague Over England is concerned with much more than Gielgud's arrest in 1953 on the charge of "importuning for immoral purposes". The play shows the milieu Gielgud inhabited and the forces arrayed against him. Its characters include the producer who nearly ended his career, the virulently anti-homosexual Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard (a man, says de Jongh, "by buggery obsessed"), an American fleeing his own country's anti-Communist paranoia, and a doctor who claims to "cure" same-sex attraction with Clockwork Orange-style electric shock therapy.

Homosexuals had long been feared and hated in England as men who, it was believed, preyed on the innocent young, and were thus unfit to lead normal, happy lives. Until 1967, they risked prosecution for what the law called "acts of gross indecency between male persons", even in private, and could be arrested for merely showing – in a police spy's opinion – an intent to commit them.

Police throughout England were alert for any hints of homosexual behaviour. The officer who arrested Gielgud was part of a Metropolitan Police squad established in 1930 that regularly lurked in central London toilets.

The year in which Gielgud came to grief in a Chelsea convenience was a particularly dangerous one for homosexuals, as the increased frankness of the period allowed politicians, the police, and the press to profit by inflaming public hysteria, warning that a "plague" or "epidemic" of sodomy was sweeping the land. The Conservative government's crackdown on men who in previous decades would have been protected by their position began in earnest. The Labour MP William Field merely had to resign and pay a fine, but the popular travel author Rupert Croft-Cooke and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, along with two of his house guests, would be tried and sentenced to between nine and 18 months in prison. The climate of fear was chilling to gay men who paid even the slightest attention to the news.

Gielgud, however, was, in his own words a "silly gubbins" who took in nothing apart from his work. On 21 October, following the rehearsal for NC Hunter's genteel A Day By the Sea, this supremely unworldly man, then 49, had a few drinks at a party and then visited a lavatory popular with cottagers.

Nicked, and aware that he should give a false identity, he said he was a clerk called Arthur (his real name) Gielgud. The next day he appeared before a magistrate who did not know who he was, fined him £10, and ordered him, with the disdain and sexual ignorance of the period, to "see your doctor the moment you leave this court."

Unfortunately, a better-informed Evening Standard reporter was there, too. When that afternoon's paper hit the streets, he was on the front page.

One can imagine the shame and the terror with which Gielgud turned up at rehearsal (he had considered suicide) for the role of a bachelor diplomat whose mother worries that he is lonely and unloved.

But the company, led by his co-star, Dame Sybil Thorndike, in fact welcomed him with open arms. "Oh, John," she said, in one of the most magnificent double entendres of all time, "you have been a silly bugger!"

The producer of A Day By the Sea, however, the immensely powerful Binkie Beaumont, saw the newspaper leaders and the hate mail, and worried that the public would stay away. Yet his thoughts of sacking the star were checked by Gielgud's brother, Val, who applied a little judicious blackmail about Binkie's very own private life.

Although everyone was nervous that Gielgud might be greeted with silence, or even boos, on his first appearance at the Liverpool opening, in the event he was cheered to the rafters, as he was again in London. Five months into the run, however, he began suffering from double vision, had a breakdown, and had to leave the play. He never spoke of the incident publicly, or referred to it in his several volumes of memoirs, and until his death in 2000, other writers respected his wish that it be forgotten.

De Jongh recalls one exception – on Gielgud's 80th birthday, the rather odd and very religious critic Harold Hobson wrote that the "sickening" episode would not have happened if he had only got married.

De Jongh based his depiction of the incident on the report of an actor friend who had the temerity, near the end of Gielgud's life, to ask him what really happened. In Gielgud's version, he had not gone looking for sex, but his account was punctuated by his longtime companion, Martin Hensler, growling, "No, no, John, you always lie!"

Gielgud was known, de Jongh says, as having a penchant for anonymous lavatory sex – "It's one of the reasons his knighthood [just a few months before the arrest] was postponed for years." It was even known he had a "cruising cap" for such forays, an attempt to disguise himself as someone lower down the social scale. But, de Jongh says, "There was no one at the time close enough to him to say, 'John, you mustn't.'"

The arrest had important consequences, and not only for Gielgud, who was told by the British embassy in Washington to forget about a planned American production of The Tempest, as he might prove "an embarrassment". Afterwards, says de Jongh, "the floodgates opened", as the public was confronted by the disturbing fact that an extremely distinguished and beloved artist was one of the people they, in theory, despised. The fuss contributed to the Wolfenden Commission, set up the following year to study prostitution, taking on homosexuality as well. Its recommendations eventually led to decriminalisation.

De Jongh believes that, while the affair broke Gielgud emotionally, he put himself back together in a way that made him better suited to a theatre in a world of greater change and upheaval. He recalls one of Gielgud's greatest performances, which he feels was informed by that consciousness of loss and guilt, in David Storey's Home (1970). "He sat, saying almost nothing, but the tears rolled down his cheeks. He was the picture of shattered, silent despair. Not one of the present generation of so-called great actors could do that now."

'Plague Over England', Finborough Theatre, London SW10 (0844 847 1652), to 22 March; NC Hunter's 'A Day by the Sea' will also run at the theatre during this period

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor