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The night Gielgud's career lay in ruins – and his cry for help was ignored

New biography claims West End producer could have suppressed story of actor's arrest

It was the most controversial incident of Sir John Gielgud's life, when the great actor was caught giving the glad eye to an undercover policeman in a public lavatory. In unenlightened 1950s Britain, the event, splashed across the nation's newspapers, caused a national furore.

The exact details of what transpired in Chelsea on 21 October 1953 have occupied biographers since Gielgud's death 11 years ago. An updated Gielgud biography is to claim that the actor could have avoided public vilification – if only a close friend had not ignored his pleas for help on the night of his arrest.

Jonathan Croall's John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star, to be released in April, cites previously unseen testimony from the late actor Robert Flemyng. He claims Gielgud attempted to contact Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, the West End's most powerful producer, on the night in question. Beaumont, it is suggested, could have suppressed the Evening Standard story that ran on its front page the following day. If this story had been stopped Gielgud's subsequent vilification – including his being refused a visa for the United States, hate mail and a petition demanding his resignation from Equity, the actors' union – may have been quashed.

Flemyng's account has sparked angry debate among Gielgud's friends and biographers. The playwright and former theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, whose 2008 play Plague Over England explored the themes surrounding the arrest, has rejected Flemyng's account. It is also denied by the actor Keith Baxter, a former friend and co-star of Gielgud, who stated that Gielgud was "too nervous" to contact Beaumont. Flemyng's story also contradicts Gielgud's own testimony. In Sheridan Morley's authorised biography of 2001, the actor is quoted as saying he was "thoroughly ashamed" on the night of his arrest and did not try to contact the producer.

De Jongh said: "Flemyng's account is disquieting, one that's been gossiped about in private for a while, but I find it hard to believe."

Gielgud was arrested at around midnight, and taken to a local police station where he gave the name "Arthur Gielgud" and stated his occupation as "self-employed clerk". He was charged with "persistently importuning male persons for immoral purposes" and told to report to Chelsea Magistrates' Court the next day. Gielgud returned home to "consider his options". He later said of his thoughts that night: "Suicide for a start...What I should have done, of course, was to telephone Binkie."

The new book says Gielgud attempted to contact Beaumont but was thwarted by the producer's partner, the actor John Perry, who refused to wake him up. De Jongh added: "Would Perry, who was still very close to Gielgud at that time, continued to have behaved like this? He would surely have appreciated the gravity of Gielgud's situation."

Baxter tells another version: "The story, as it was always told to me, was that when Gielgud was arrested he was too nervous to call anyone but his doctor, who prescribed a sedative. He was too nervous to call Beaumont. Had he telephoned him he would have been able to do something but he wasn't called."

Croall gained access to hundreds of unpublished letters for the book, and interviewed about a hundred of Gielgud's friends and family. He reproduces several conflicting accounts of events surrounding the arrest. He suggests Gielgud may have spent the evening with one of several people, including the actor Alec Guinness. Gielgud was concluding rehearsals for A Day by the Sea, which Beaumont was producing, and was believed to be tired and nervous about his appearance.

According to Gielgud's account in Morley's book, Beaumont was "incredibly well connected and might have known someone high enough in Scotland Yard to help". The actor said that he didn't call him for "all kinds of reasons", adding he was "ashamed of being caught". Gielgud said: "I couldn't bear to hear the anger or disappointment in Binkie's voice."

Flemyng's account contradicts this version of events. He claimed he was minding Beaumont's London property at the time while Beaumont was away. While there, he claimed to have been telephoned by Gielgud. Flemyng "told [Gielgud] to go to bed", stating that "he would phone Beaumont for him". But when Flemyng did so, the telephone was answered by Perry. He, it is claimed, "declined to wake Beaumont", crushing a potential lifeline. Perry's reasons are not given. When Gielgud appeared in court thenext day, he was recognised by a reporter, and the Evening Standard led with the story in its early edition. Gielgud escaped with a fine, but his reputation, at least in the short-term, was damaged.

The character actor Edward Chapman organised a petition calling for Gielgud's resignation from Equity. The British Embassy in Washington advised Gielgud not to apply for a visa "in case of embarrassment" ahead of a proposed appearance in The Tempest in New York. In his diaries Noel Coward described Gielgud as "stupid and selfish". Columnist John Gordon, writing in the Sunday Express, said the actor's actions were a "West End plague", adding: "The rot has flourished behind the protective veil until it is now a widespread disease." The columnist also called for Gielgud to be stripped of his knighthood.

However, the arrest also encouraged a vastly more tolerant national attitude to homosexuality. One of several high- profile people convicted of homosexual offences, it helped to pave the way for the 1957 Wolfenden Report which recommended decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour between two consenting adults.

The new evidence will do little to convince Gielgud experts that the crisis could have been averted. "Gielgud had been caught for cottaging once before," adds de Jongh, who has adapted Plague Over England into a screenplay. "That was also in 1953, but in Hampstead, where a clearly sympathetic police sergeant had pretended that Gielgud had been rehearsing for a production."