Theatrical farewells with a final flourish

Playwright Pam Gems' memorial service reminds Michael Coveney of the value of a celebratory send-off
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Yesterday's memorial service for the playwright Pam Gems in St James's, Piccadilly, was a reminder of the theatrical potency of such occasions. A life's work is celebrated, a character recalled, creative affiliations and debts renewed and repaid.

Pam Gems was 85 when she died in May, and she lived a rich and fulfilled life, so there was no need for too many tears, with performance contributions scheduled from Ian McKellen, Trudie Styler, Frances Barber, Anna Chancellor and Timothy Spall.

There's a unique ritual about these events, too. Part performance, part thanksgiving – someone always says how much the recently charred or interred would have enjoyed it – the memorial is also an excuse for an after-party; or, as in the case of Pete Postlethwaite's earlier this year, one hell of a booze-up.

You can become addicted to them. Odd folk hang around St Paul's in Covent Garden, or St Bride's in Fleet Street, and follow the crowd to the free canapes and wine. I once challenged one such freeloader at the "do" for an old arts and foreign editor, and he muttered something about knowing someone vaguely connected with the dead man, not the dead man himself.

Towards the end of his life, John Gielgud became depressed at the rapidity with which his friends and colleagues were passing. At one memorial, he complained that it was hardly worth his while going home before the next one. He himself, innately modest and shy, specified no memorial after his death, which deprived many people of something they felt they owed him.

Or maybe Gielgud felt there was no way he could top the Westminster Abbey memorial for his friend and rival Laurence Olivier in October 1989. That was the most magnificent memorial of all, held on the very same day that 84 years earlier Sir Henry Irving, first knight of the theatre, had been buried in Poets' Corner.

The Dean of Westminster informed us that Olivier's ashes would be laid alongside those of Irving and David Garrick, beneath the bust of Shakespeare, and within a stone's throw of the graves of Henry V and the Lady Anne, Queen to Richard III, thus invoking two of the titanic actor's greatest performances, both preserved on film.

The whole service had an emblematic significance, bearing out the actor's claim that he was in direct cahoots with Shakespeare, the root of our culture and his fame. But Olivier was a great vulgarian, too, and the entire "production" transferred immediately from the Abbey to the National Theatre, where the toasts and declarations became ever more raucous and affectionate.

I've yet to be at a memorial where someone gets up, as in the Stephen Fry sketch, and says that the dead man was an absolute shit of the first order. But we came close to an agreeably jarring note at the memorial for literary editor and theatre critic John Gross in March.

Barry Humphries read an obscure short poem by Stevie Smith and offered a box of Black Magic to anyone who could explain it to him. He then said that his last show in London had flopped and that the reviews were deservedly dire. "Every critic gave me a stinker," said Humphries. "John, too, gave me a stinker. But in a nice way."

Which reminded me of the traumatic experience of turning up to the actress Susan Fleetwood's memorial just over 15 years ago, armed with a few words but suddenly faced, according to the order of service, with giving the address. I tried to remain calm as I approached the lectern and faced the "audience" – stuffed with actors and top directors.

"As a critic," I said, "if I give my address, you'll all come round and throw bricks through the windows." I took the mild ruffle of a hum spreading through the stalls – sorry, the pews – as a sign of approval. At least if something like that happens at my memorial, I won't be there to be embarrassed by it.